Last Thursday morning, British Foreign Secretary William Hague sat down with Science Minister Yaacov Peri to sign a memorandum of understanding on science cooperation, with new funding for British and Israeli researchers to work together in fields including regenerative medicine. This came on the same day that a British delegation of leading retailers, led by a senior aide to Prime Minister David Cameron, concluded a three day tour of potential Israeli hi-tech business partners. These will have been demoralizing sights for the small but vocal movement in the UK promoting boycotts and divestment towards Israel.
It was unfortunate therefore, that just as Hague was about to cross the Allenby bridge into Israel, the Daily Telegraph published an interview with minister Yuval Steinitz which questioned whether Britain was a friend of Israel, pointing to the ‘disguised anti-Semitism’ of the boycott movement, and suggesting that greater hostility to Israel in Britain than other Western countries might be affecting UK policy.
It goes without saying that this was not the most diplomatic of welcomes for the British foreign secretary. Steinitz subsequently apologised, saying that his comments were taken out of context. But whatever he meant, his reported remarks reflected a growing impression in Israel, also conveyed by a recent Channel 2 documentary, that Britain is seeing a surge of anti-Semitism.
This impression is fueled by the small but high profile movement to boycott Israel, which recently persuaded Stephen Hawking to cancel a visit, and which has seen boycott motions in trade unions and a small number of student bodies, the disruption of Israeli cultural performances, and attempts to have Israelis arrested for war crimes.
This movement, driven by marginal groups on the far left, has had some success in Britain, where anti-Zionism has come to be seen in significant sections of the left as a liberal cause. As a series of recent essays published in BICOM’s Fathom journal explores, this campaign is to some extent antisemitic in its effects, and sometimes in its motivations and expression. It also feeds on widespread misinformation circulating about Israel, including in sections of the British media.
But this campaign does not have mainstream political support, and is not a key driver behind UK government policy. As in any country, Britain’s foreign policy is determined by complex factors, with the perceived national interest playing a central role, and worldviews of individual leaders, as well as the wider political culture, shaping how leaders calculate those interests.
Britain and Israel share many interests, including containing threats from anti-Western radicalism, and impressive growth in bilateral trade. The relationship remains underpinned by a shared attachment to democratic and liberal values. Support for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, alongside support for a Palestinian state, remains the mainstream view in Britain.
When Liberal Democrat Baroness Jenny Tonge questioned Israel’s future existence last year she was kicked out of her party. Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted, “No place in politics for those who question existence of the state of Israel.” Prime Minister David Cameron told an audience last year “I am a passionate friend of Israel – and that is how it will always stay.”
In policy terms, when the Palestinians unilaterally sought recognition of statehood at the UN last November, Britain abstained, in contrast to France, Italy, New Zealand and Spain who were among those voting in favor. When Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense in November, Britain was among the first to blame Hamas for the conflict and back Israel’s right to self-defense. Britain has taken the lead in promoting sanctions against Iran and only last week proposed an EU wide proscription of Hezbollah, a move that has been resisted by France among others.
There are without doubt, however, real disagreements between Britain and Israel. This was illustrated by Britain’s furious reaction to Israel’s decision to advance planning for construction in E1 last December. This response reflected increasing frustration among British political classes over settlement construction, particularly in sensitive areas and parts of the West Bank that Israel cannot expect to keep in a future agreement. New construction in such areas allows Israel’s critics to call into question its good faith in the peace process.
The fate of the peace process plays into Britain’s calculation of its own interests. There is a widespread belief, rightly or wrongly, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sours relations between the West and the Islamic world, and helps those promoting radicalization among Muslims at home and abroad. This belief, however, is not held uniquely in Britain. Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren acknowledged in a 2011 article that, “an increasingly vocal group of foreign-policy analysts insists that [American] support for the Jewish state, including more than $3 billion in annual military aid, is a liability,” which was “the primary source of Muslim anger at the United States.”
The doubt about Israel’s intentions in the West Bank created by settlement activity, alongside the confrontational approach taken by some Israeli politicians towards Israel’s Arab minority, also allows critics to question Israel’s credentials as a liberal democracy. This has the potential to erode the perception of Israel as a country which shares Britain’s values.
When it comes to public opinion, surveys show that the most significant determinant of how people in the UK feel about Israel is whether they perceive Israel to be committed to peace. When people in the UK see Israel making the first move for peace, those demonizing Israel and promoting boycotts have little opportunity to gain political traction in the mainstream.
There are therefore several priorities for those who care about improving Britain-Israel relations, and consigning anti-Zionists to the dustbin of political irrelevance where they belong. First, and central to the work of BICOM, is promoting an accurate representation of Israel in the UK, and overcoming the wave of misinformation which too often crowds out serious debate.
Second, the UK government must continue to distance itself from the boycott movement in word and deed, as it did last week, and brand it for what it is: a campaign which is antithetical to the cause of peace. The perception of Britain as anti-Semitic or hostile to Israel, which the boycott campaign fuels, has the potential to damage bilateral relations and Britain’s influence in the peace process.
And third, Israel’s actions also matter. Israel cannot end the conflict on its own. The Palestinians and wider Arab world share that responsibility. But Israel needs to make a consistent case that its policies, in particular settlement activity in the West Bank, are commensurate with the goal of a viable two-state resolution to the conflict. Israel also needs to act with ongoing determination and visibility to protect the democratic and liberal character of the state which has a major impact on how it is seen in the West. This includes working to better integrate non-Jewish minority sectors. The Israeli government-backed scheme to provide university scholarships for Arab-Israeli students, announced by Manuel Trajtenberg in London this month, is an excellent example.
Israeli politicians and media should also avoid exaggerating the impact of those challenging Israel’s legitimacy, which only helps their cause, and instead should highlight the real cooperation that exists. Let joint scientific breakthroughs be the symbol of the Britain-Israel relationship, not Stephen Hawking.