In recent years, a once ambivalent relationship between the world’s oldest political party and one of its younger countries has been comprehensively transformed.
Once suspicion, mistrust and the occasional dose of establishment Arabism and anti-Semitism were the norm when considering British Conservative Party attitudes to the State of Israel. Today, such attitudes have been replaced by an embrace that is so warm it has caused more than once critic of Israel to write disparagingly about it.
In part, this changing state of affairs reflects a more general realignment of political attitudes globally. Parties of the Left which once championed Israel as a kibbutz-dwelling, socialist, fellow traveller have come to consider it in more nuanced terms, particularly when considering Israeli-Palestinian relations and the vexed question of settlements. In its most extreme form, such former friends of Israel can be found giving tacit and active support to the slurs of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement globally. Meanwhile, parties of the Right which used to sneer disparagingly at the Jewish state have, broadly, come to see it as an ally, surviving in a tough neighbourhood that does not have much love for the West, facing shared threats. But the British case has particular factors which warrant examination if we are to explain why the Conservative Party – and in particular the pronouncements of Prime Minister David Cameron – can now be seen as the most pro-Israel in Europe.
It was not always this way. The philo-Semitism and Christian Zionism of Conservative leaders in the early 20th Century such as Arthur Balfour – whose famous 1917 declaration promised British support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine – and Winston Churchill may have been well known, but many of their counterparts held very different views. Future Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan typified Conservative establishment positions with his suggestion to a friend during the Versailles peace talks at the end of the First World War that Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government was not ‘really popular, except with the International Jew.’ Showing that his antipathy – to Jews at least – was lifelong, Macmillan was widely attributed as the source of a quip in 1986 that Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet ‘includes more Old Estonians than it does Old Etonians.’
When Israel faced its darkest hour in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, it was Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath who not only imposed an arms embargo on Israel but denied permission to US planes resupplying Israel to refuel in the UK, even though the Soviet Union was supplying the Arab combatants. It was recognition of how low relations had sunk that led to the formation of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) by the former MP Michael Fidler in 1974, the Labour Party having boasted a similar grouping since 1957. From such inauspicious beginnings, CFI has played a major role in educating Conservative politicians about Israel, first under Fidler and then current Director Stuart Polak, with 80 per cent of Conservative MPs now reckoned to be members of CFI’s parliamentary Group.
It is common to assert that Conservative perceptions of Israel improved dramatically under Margaret Thatcher, but the reality was more complex. Thatcher was certainly well-disposed towards Jews, and referenced this several times in her memoirs. But this did not also transfer into smooth relations with Israel. Yes, Thatcher was the first British Prime Minister to visit Israel, fought with her own Foreign and Commonwealth Office about views on Israel and helped bring about negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein of Jordan. But she was also critical of Israel on key occasions such as the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and insisted that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) should have a role in peace negotiations despite her own hard-line stance on Irish Republican terrorism.
Nor did this pattern shift dramatically under John Major. While Major was often fulsome in his support of Israel, especially in context of the Oslo process, during Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996 when Israel responded to Hezbollah shelling of civilians in northern Israel with cross-border attacks into Lebanon, he said that he found the scale of Israeli attacks ‘disturbing’. The remark presaged the arguments over the use of the term ‘disproportionate’ in relation to Israeli responses to terrorism 10 years later.
By the early years of this century, positive commentary on Israel from Conservatives decisively outweighed the negative. Addressing CFI as leader of the opposition in December 2001, Iain Duncan Smith called Israel ‘a lighthouse of democracy in a troubled region.’ At a similar event in November 2002, he declared, ‘Conservatives have always stood for the values that Israel stands for: freedom, positive achievement and the rule of law.’ Duncan Smith’s successor as Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, continued this theme at a CFI speech in 2004, declaring: ‘We are a strong ally of Israel, a friend in good times and bad. We share Israel’s commitment to the rule of law, democracy and freedom, and its determination not to give in to terrorism.’ Given the strong support for US President George W. Bush’s foreign policy shown by most Conservatives in the context of the War on Terror, the emphasis on the common values shared by Britain and Israel was perhaps not surprising.
But by the time that David Cameron ascended to the Conservative Party leadership in late 2005, these factors had evaporated. The Israel-Palestinian Peace Process was mired in mutual recrimination with no possibility of a breakthrough following the events of the Second Intifada, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ultimately resorting to a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Equally, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and Iraq meant that arguments about shared values seemed less relevant to the conduct of foreign policy than in the heyday of the Bush-Blair alliance. As a consequence, after becoming leader of the opposition, Cameron went to great lengths to stress how he intended to differentiate Conservative foreign policy from that practised by Bush and Blair.
During the Second Lebanon War of 2006, when Hezbollah forces attacked Israel, precipitating a major Israeli military response in Lebanon, David Cameron backed his Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague’s statement that ‘elements of the Israeli response were disproportionate.’ Nor was the situation vastly different by the time of the Gaza Flotilla incident in 2010, where Cameron, as Prime Minister, declared, ‘The Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla was completely unacceptable’ and likened the situation of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to that of a ‘prison camp’.
But if this was the case as late as 2010, a transformation of relations was soon to occur that had critical observers such as Peter Oborne gasping in The Telegraph in December 2012 that ‘The Tories’ shameful reluctance to criticise Tel Aviv is putting any hope of peace at risk.’ Oborne – a noted critic of Israel – was referring to Cameron and Hague’s stance during Operation Pillar of Defence in November 2012, when both had condemned Hamas for starting the conflict with Israel by firing rockets at civilians. But even these comments had been tempered by warnings to Israel not to escalate the conflict. They therefore paled in comparison to what was to follow: a string of speeches from 2013 to 2015 where David Cameron not only reiterated his support for Israel but went much further than any of his recent Conservative predecessors. At the No. 10 Downing Street Hanukkah party in November 2013, Cameron spoke effusively, saying: ‘I am with you and with the Israeli people genuinely. As far as I am concerned an enemy of Israel is an enemy of mine. A threat to Israel is a threat to us all. I have enormous respect for what Israel has achieved as a democracy, as a country that has created wealth and livelihoods out of so little and as such an extraordinary success story.’
He followed this up with a speech to the Knesset in March 2014, one at the CFI Annual Business Lunch in December 2014 and another at the Community Security Trust Dinner in March 2015, repeating much of his messaging and expanding on it. For example, in December 2014 Cameron announced: ‘This Party will always stand behind [Israel], the homeland of the Jewish people … I’ve been a friend of Israel through thick and thin. I believe in Israel – and that belief is rock solid. It is an extraordinary nation – and even more extraordinary when you think where it is.’
The use of the term ‘This Party’ in this context had special significance, as the Prime Minister appeared to be suggesting that a special relationship existed not just between the UK and Israel, but specifically the Conservative Party and Israel. With senior Conservatives like Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Foreign Secretary William Hague and his successor Philip Hammond, Home Secretary Theresa May and Culture Secretary Sajid Javid queuing up to deliver pro-Israel speeches in the same period, it truly appeared that Conservative-Israel relations had entered a golden age.
Part of the reason for the Cameron administration’s change in tack was the realisation of the trade benefits that could flow from an improved relationship between the countries. In his March 2014 Knesset speech, Cameron referred to ‘the world-leading partnerships between our scientists, academics and hi-tech specialists.’ He noted that Israel was ‘a symbol of success supplying Britain with a sixth of our prescription medicines, developing the processors that we all use in our laptops’ in December 2014. The statistics seem to support this idea, with total bilateral trade between the countries increasing in 2014 by seven per cent on already record levels to £3.9 billion.
The Guardian seemed to think that narrower political interests were responsible for Conservative calculations, claiming in an analysis piece in August 2014: ‘With an election looming, the PM risks alienating donors and voters if he comes down too hard on IDF’s actions.’ However this ignored not only the experience of the Gaza Flotilla, but the fact that though a Jewish Chronicle poll showed 69 per cent of British Jews were planning to vote Conservative, few constituencies could be swayed by this demographic compared to other religious minorities.
More likely, the explanation for the transformation of the Conservatives in this period can be linked to the Prime Minister’s own evolving views on foreign policy. Sometimes wrongly characterised as a ‘chairman of the board’ style politician who only makes decisions through consensus, the real David Cameron is strikingly different, as glimpsed through his instinctive and decisive response to foreign policy crises. As early as 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia, Cameron not only – presciently as it turned – argued for strong opposition to Russia’s behaviour, but went as far as to visit Tbilisi in a show of solidarity. When Libya’s monstrous Muammar Gaddafi threatened to annihilate his opponents in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in March 2011, it was Cameron who together with French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed for a military intervention. When Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons to massacre his own people in August 2013, it was once again Cameron who led calls for a military response, although in this case he was stymied by a reluctant House of Commons. His increased support for Israel can be seen as a corollary of this general assertiveness, particularly in the context of the fallout from the Arab Spring, a watershed which caused many to reassess their assessment of the geopolitics of the Middle East and the centrality – or rather, marginality – of Israel to the region’s problems.
Of course, there remain other voices in the Conservative Party today. The party’s old ‘Arabist’ wing remains alive and well, led by MPs such as Sir Nicholas Soames, Sir Alan Duncan and Crispin Blunt. This viewpoint frequently finds expression through the activities of the Conservative Middle East Council, a party grouping seeking ‘to raise awareness and understanding of the Middle East among Conservative MPs, Peers and the wide Conservative Party.’ Blunt’s recent victory in the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s chairmanship election puts him in a powerful position to challenge his party’s leadership on a range of issues in the region. Israel will doubtless be one of them. Equally, the parliamentary vote on unilateral rather than negotiated Palestinian statehood in October 2014 saw 41 Conservative MPs vote in favour of recognising an independent Palestinian state. Dissenting voices are still raised in Middle East debates and over Middle East policy. Yet the striking fact is how few these voices are when compared to the past, and how far removed they are from the position of the party’s leadership. Indeed, Baroness Warsi had to resign in frustration as a Foreign Office Minister over the government’s Gaza policy during Operation Protective Edge in August 2014.
All this does not amount to some illicit ‘neoconservative’ seizure of the Conservative Party, as Peter Oborne has alleged, although some of Mr Cameron’s ideals are distinctly neoconservative in origin, despite his protestations. Rather it reflects a more mature and reasoned viewpoint over the benefits of alliance with Israel. British MPs and leaders do not support Israel on account of activities of lobby groups or parochial voting concerns, but because they have concluded it is in the national interest to do so. There is a changing calculus of the national interest in recent years – from an Arabist-inspired view of Britain as a gateway to the Arab world and of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the most important factor within it, to a measured scepticism about whether ancient hatreds in the Middle East can ever be mastered and an understanding that Israel-Palestine is but one of many conflicts in the region.
Nathaniel Greenwold assisted with research for this article.