That Theresa May faced the most unenviable task in recent British politics won’t erase her place in the history books for the wrong reasons: losing the Tory’s majority from 20 points up in the polls and suffering the worst ever Commons defeat being the most glaring of those.
Watching the prime minister announce her resignation, returning to some of the themes with which she started the job, you couldn’t help but wonder what could have been if Brexit had not been the albatross she just couldn’t shake off.
Justin Cohen It is a sign of the all-encompassing nature of Britain’s ‘mission impossible’ that she will not be following every British premier since Margaret Thatcher to not visit Israel in office — yet she will go down as perhaps the greatest ally the Jewish state and Anglo-Jewry have ever had at Number 10.
It didn’t get off to a promising start when, less than a year into her tenure, Britain backed — and helped draft — a United Nations security council motion describing the West Bank and East Jerusalem as “occupied” and settlements as having “no legal validity”. Mike Freer, the MP for Finchley and Golders Green, suggested at the time that the PM had been ‘blindsided by the foreign office’ over the vote and suggested it would force a change.
Within hours of the vote, Downing Street also issued an unprecedented rebuke of then US Secretary of State John Kerry over a speech following the vote that focused on the role of settlements in the absence of a two-state solution and attacked the make-up of Israel’s coalition government.
It was at another UN forum – this time the disgraced Human Rights Council – that the UK made good on its promise to vote against all motions under Article 7 – the agenda item criticising Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza – in protest at the body’s bias. Nevertheless, the UK continued to plough a different path to Donald Trump’s administration by remaining a member of the UNHRC, recognising its broader value and continuing to make clear its opposition to settlement building.
While she never got to visit the country as PM, May never forgot going as Home Secretary in 2014 when Israelis were reeling from the discovery of the bodies of three teenagers kidnapped by Hamas. “Like all civilised nations, we stand absolutely against any attempt to achieve political goals by way of murder and bloodshed. It never is, and never was, justified,” she told a Conservative Friends of Israel lunch. “We will always support Israel’s right to defend itself, today and in the future”. It was in this vein that Hezbollah was finally banned in full by Sajid Javid this year, closing a legal loophole that had allowed the rifle-emblazoned flag of the Lebanese terror group to be paraded through London, including throughout May’s years at the home office.
May’s time at the top saw record UK-Israel trade, and coincided with a huge moment in bilateral ties: the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Though the government sought a balance between celebrating its role in the creation of Israel and acknowledging some of the famous document’s goals are yet to be fully realised, the PM invited Benjamin Netanyahu to London and both addressed a dinner in recognition of what spoke of as “one of the most important letters in history”.
On the domestic scene, the politician who held a placard proclaiming ‘Je Suis Juif’ after the French hypercache attack continued to lead from the front in the fight against antisemitism. In 2017, her government become one of the first in the world to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
But perhaps nothing better illustrated the PM’s commitment on this issue than her decision to go ahead with an appearance at a conference on Jew-hate and misogyny straight after a punishing afternoon in the Commons taking questions on her Brexit deal. Meanwhile, she continued in David Cameron’s footsteps towards a Holocaust memorial and learning mission in Westminster, describing it as a “sacred national mission”.
It wasn’t for nothing that May received a standing ovation both before and after a barnstorming speech last year to UJIA’s dinner. At a time when the vast majority of Jews are fearful at the prospect of a Corbyn government, the prime minister was, at least when it came to her support for the Jewish community and Israel, strong and stable.