On his last trip to Israel David Cameron addressed the Knesset. Even by the usual standards of Israel’s parliament it was an unusually raucous day, with no less than three votes of no confidence in the government. Cameron joked that on that particular Wednesday afternoon he had probably come to the only place less quiet than his usual commitment at that time — Prime Minister’s question time in the House of Commons.
Today Cameron will face PMQs for the last time, before heading to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation to the Queen. So will come to an end his tumultuous tenure as Prime Minister.
Throughout that period though, there has been one remarkable constant: the genuine friendship and support he has consistently shown towards the State and people of Israel.
In part this evident sympathy came from his close relationship with the Jewish community. With many Jews among his closest friends and in the leadership of the Conservative party (he once joked: “We’re not the Tory party, we’re the Torah party!”), he had a natural affinity for Jews and sensitivity to their concerns. Indeed he was proud of the fact that one of his great grandparents was Jewish, saying: “I’m one sixty-fourth Jewish – and wish I was more!”
His support for the Jewish state also derived from a historic consciousness and a commitment to learning the lessons of the previous century. Cameron entered Number 10 on the heels of four prime ministers (Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown), all of whom had an instinctive sympathy for the Jewish story. Yet Cameron’s commitment to ensuring that the lessons of the Shoah would be learned by future generations was unprecedented. He promoted Holocaust education in the British school system, visited Auschwitz himself, took his own children to see the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, and established a Holocaust Memorial Commission to which his government committed 50 million pounds.
But his friendship was also rooted in the reality of the modern state of Israel, and genuine admiration for its spirit and values, which echoed many of his own hopes for Britain. In the startup nation he saw a mirror of the can-do entrepreneurship that he sought to foster in the UK. He was fully supportive of the joint efforts by his ambassador in Israel, Matthew Gould, and myself in London to advance bilateral trade between the two countries. He wrote to me to express his pride at the fact that our joint efforts led bilateral trade to double in a decade, noting: “We have reaped the rewards of our shared commitment to driving the growth of hi-tech start-ups”. In Israelis’ commitment to democratic values and volunteerism also he saw a model for “the Big Society” he sought to encourage in Britain.
His friendship was not uncritical and he shared his concerns frankly, for example about settlement expansion in the West Bank. Yet he made it clear that these comments did nothing to dampen his enthusiastic support for the state, and came from his sincere desire to see what he hoped was in Israel’s best interests.
Cameron’s commitment to Israel was most evident in times of conflict. During Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 201 he was resolute in his insistence that Israel had both the right and obligation to protect its citizens. Almost alone among leaders in Europe he resisted pressures to label Israel’s actions indiscriminate or disproportionate. Attacked in parliament for his support for Israel he was unapologetic: “When we look across the region and at the indexes of freedom, we see that Israel is one of the few countries that tick the boxes for freedom”.
It is unusual for ambassadors to have direct access to prime ministers, but here too Cameron demonstrated unusual friendship and sympathy to Israel. In our private conversations he displayed a depth of knowledge about our issues and a concern for the welfare of Israel that were genuinely moving, as well as giving me thoughtful and frank advice about how to advocate effectively for Israel in the UK arena.
Witnessing the rowdy situation when he visited the Knesset, Cameron said that he had learned a new word: “balagan” [chaos]. But in a true spirit of friendship he saw beyond the balagan to a reality which represented so much of what he admired and stood for.
Daniel Taub is Israel’s former Ambassador to the United Kingdom.