Azriel Bermant, a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University and a former research fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), argues the UK-Israel relationship is more likely to flourish than flounder after Brexit; though without Britain, the EU may be less friendly towards Israel. For more about the bilateral relationship after Brexit, read our interview with Jonathan Rynhold in Fathom.
The momentous decision of the British public in the referendum of 23 June 2016 to withdraw from the European Union received wall-to-wall coverage in Israel as it did elsewhere. The question of the EU’s foreign policy, including its policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was certainly far from British voters’ minds. The issues dominating the referendum were the state of the economy, immigration and wider questions concerning British sovereignty. Yet even if a future British withdrawal from the EU will not have a major impact on the bilateral relationship between the UK and Israel, it could certainly have significant implications for Israel, and the wider region as well.
The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. But the UK is one of Israel’s strongest allies within the EU. Since the government of Tony Blair, the UK and Israel have enjoyed close relations. Britain is now one of Israel’s biggest export markets after the US. The UK accounts for some 15 per cent of all Israel’s exports to Europe. According to the Israeli Export and International Cooperation Institute, the volume of exports from Israel to the UK, including diamonds, rose by 2 per cent totalling £3.5bn in 2015. As of May 2015, Israel was the UK’s fourth largest market in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the fields of education, science and technology, bilateral cooperation has also flourished. This is illustrated, for example, by the establishment of a £10m joint academic exchange partnership involving the use of cutting edge research to tackle degenerative diseases. Even in the more sensitive area of intelligence, there have been positive developments. The UK and Israel are working closely in the field of cyber security, and announced in February 2016 a cooperative venture to fight cyber attacks on national infrastructures.
While deep differences remain over Israel’s settlement policy, the UK has become one of Israel’s leading supporters in the EU and a driving force behind the tougher European economic sanctions that eventually brought Iran to the negotiating table over the nuclear issue. David Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister, Theresa May and her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson are widely considered strong friends of Israel.
In assessing the potential impact of Brexit on Israel’s relations with the UK, one should not lose sight of the fact that this is not uncharted territory: the UK and Israel had almost 25 years of diplomatic relations before the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC — later to become the EU) in January 1973. During this period, the UK often had a chequered relationship with Israel. It was reluctant to be identified publicly as a supporter of Israel in view of concerns over damage to strategic and commercial interests in the Arab world, when cold war tensions were at their height and the UK was overly dependent on Arab oil. Yet in 1967, six years before Britain joined the EEC, Harold Wilson’s Labour government stood out in Europe for its military and political support for Israel during the Six-Day War.
Equally, in the years following the UK’s membership of the EEC, relations with Israel were often fraught. During the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, Prime Minister Edward Heath controversially refused to supply spare parts for Israel’s Centurion tanks or provide landing rights to US military supply planes en route for Israel. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher played a leading role in the landmark EEC Venice Declaration of June 1980 which called for Palestinian self-determination and a role for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in peace negotiations resulting in a full-blown crisis in relations between the UK and Israel. Matters worsened in the summer of 1982 when Britain fiercely condemned Israel for its invasion of Lebanon. Yet, in recent years, the UK has become one of Israel’s strongest allies within the EU.
How will an eventual British withdrawal from the EU affect this relationship? The entire process of leaving the EU could take up to a decade to implement. Britain has not yet taken a decision when to trigger the Brexit process under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (Prime Minister May has said that she will not trigger Article 50 in 2016). The entire Brexit process could be delayed to allow for negotiations over trade deals. Thus, it could be a number of years before the British divorce from the EU takes full effect. Ohad Cohen, head of the Foreign Trade administration at the Israeli Ministry of Economy, has maintained that the referendum result will not make the slightest difference for Israeli exporters at the present time since the UK is still a member of all the relevant European institutions. However, the trade that Israel conducts with the UK is underpinned by agreements that were originally signed in 1975: once the UK has withdrawn from the EU, the two countries will need to thrash out a new trade deal. There is much economic uncertainty ahead.
In the strategic realm, the UK and Israel will continue to have an interest in sharing intelligence when it comes to the ongoing threat from ISIS, Iran and Hezbollah. Britain remains very concerned about the threat posed by jihadists, and Israel has made no secret of its ‘unprecedented’ intelligence cooperation with Egypt and Jordan in combating Islamic State. On the one hand, British defence chiefs have expressed some concern in the past over the risks of sharing intelligence with Israel. On the other hand, there is an argument that Israeli intelligence could possess added value for the UK in the future amid alarm raised by several former intelligence chiefs that a Brexit would mean that the UK is shut out of EU decisions relating to the future sharing of data.
However, it is unrealistic to expect political relations to improve significantly in the wake of a British departure from Europe. The EU decision in November 2015 to introduce mandatory labelling for Israeli agricultural goods and cosmetics produced in West Bank settlements provides an interesting test case regarding the future direction of British policy on Israel. Would a UK outside the EU go along with the EU labelling directive? In view of the fact that the UK has already introduced labelling measures on a voluntary basis since 2009 (along with Belgium and Denmark), there is unlikely to be a departure from EU policy on this controversial issue. The UK has been consistent in its strong opposition to the building of settlements on the West Bank, both before it joined the EU and in the decades since it became a member. As long as the settlement issue is perceived as a fundamental obstacle to the resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the UK will likely go along with European policy.
Nevertheless, the departure of Britain from the EU could deprive Israel of an important source of support. As Dennis MacShane and Jacques Lafitte argued in an Haaretz article in April, an EU without the UK will mean that Israel will lose an important voice in Europe. Cameron used this very argument in the days before the referendum in an appeal to British Jews. In his address to the communal welfare organisation Jewish Care, Cameron stated: ‘When Europe is discussing its attitude to Israel, do you want Britain — Israel’s greatest friend — in there opposing boycotts, opposing the campaign for divestment and sanctions, or do you want us outside the room, powerless to affect the discussion that takes place?’
As well as the British support for sanctions against Iran, London has been an important force behind the EU decision to label Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation. Were Iran to violate the nuclear deal that it signed with the world powers in July 2015, for example, it is uncertain how the EU would respond with the UK out of the EU. While Israel has been able to count on Germany’s political and strategic support within the EU, the UK’s departure will mean that Israel could become over-reliant on Berlin as one of its few dependable allies – hardly a healthy state of affairs.
Prior to the referendum, Britain’s Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, warned that a Brexit would damage the EU’s ability to maintain tough sanctions on Russia, which would have wider implications for Western collective security. Such an outcome will damage the clout of the EU and hinder its ability to exert meaningful influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This will be a major setback for those who have placed their faith in the EU’s ability to pressure Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peace settlement. Equally, it will be welcomed by those on the right who view the EU as an anti-Israeli institution. This is exemplified by the accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ voiced by some members of the Benjamin Netanyahu government in the wake of the EU policy of labelling Israeli goods produced in West Bank settlements. Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, has argued that a weakened EU would be a positive development since the institution as a whole is more hostile towards Israel than its individual members.
Despite the result of the referendum, the EU’s leverage with Israel may start to fall away: its value as a trading partner is likely to decline over time as Israel diversifies its trading arrangements. Israeli exports to Asia tripled between 2004 and 2014, with Israel and China committed to completing a free trade agreement. There are already signs that some in Israel are viewing the UK’s future withdrawal from the EU as an opportunity. In an interview with Globes, Chairman of Israel’s Export and International Cooperation Institute, Ramzi Gabbay maintained that with the EU likely to take an increasingly tough negotiating stance with the UK, it could become easier for Israel to promote trade with London as more trade opportunities open up.
Thus, many in Israel may see a Brexit as an opportunity to strengthen ties with the UK which has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and will remain a member of NATO. A future British exit from the EU could pose difficulties for Israel’s relations with the EU, but the bilateral UK-Israel relationship should remain healthy.