By Douglas Davis
British voters delivered a nightmare result at the May 6 election. After three thumping electoral victories for Labour under free-wheeling Tony Blair, the public decided that his dour, inflexible successor, Gordon Brown, was not the right man to govern. Labour lost. So did the Conservatives, but less badly. The election produced no clear winner.
With a hung parliament, the two major parties set about wooing Nick Clegg’s smaller Liberal Democrats. After days of hectic horse-trading, Conservative leader David Cameron announced that, for the first time in 65 years, Britain would be governed by a coalition. All things being equal, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems will govern in tandem – Prime Minister Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Clegg – for the next five years.
During the relatively brief, but brutal, election campaign, Brown, Cameron and Clegg debated European issues and they paused to praise British troops serving in Afghanistan. Beyond that, however, there was virtually no discussion about foreign policy. One reason was the overwhelming focus on Britain’s economic crisis; another was the lack of substantial difference between the major parties on foreign issues.
On the knotty subject of the Middle East, for example, both the Conservative and Labour parties are committed to Israel’s security, a two-state solution and the peace process, while both oppose settlements, the occupation and Israel’s claim to sovereignty in Jerusalem. But all that apparent accord does not mean it will be business as usual under a Conservative-led administration.
With the Conservatives dominant in the new ruling configuration, there are signs that the relations with Israel might be rebalanced. For although there are no evident differences in policy between the major parties, there are certainly differences in atmospherics. That is what Israeli diplomats are detecting and that is what they are fervently hoping for.
They have reason for optimism. While the Conservatives are reflexively pro-market and pro-America, Gordon Brown allowed his Labour government to drift back to its traditional instincts, with a diminished sense of affinity for Washington and even less for Israel.
In recent months, Israeli diplomats complained bitterly about the hysterical campaigns of demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel they invariably encountered on the stump – at universities, within the media and among the NGO community. They expressed dismay that the British Government was doing so little to help dilute the pervasive hostility. And, privately, some felt the Government might have been actively stoking the fires of hate.
They complain that Britain unilaterally imposed an unofficial embargo on arms sales to Israel; that Britain led the field in demanding explicit labeling of products that originate in Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line; that Britain went the extra mile to denounce alleged Israeli involvement in cloning British passports which were supposedly used by Mossad agents to assassinate a senior Hamas official in Dubai earlier this year (one Israeli diplomat was summarily expelled as a declarative expression of British displeasure).
But Israeli diplomats point with most concern to the Labour government’s failure to amend the application of international jurisdiction, a legal provision which gives ordinary British citizens the right to seek arrest warrants for visiting foreigners on allegations of crimes against humanity, even if the alleged offences were perpetrated against non-British citizens on foreign soil.
Several warrants have, in fact, been successfully sought by pro-Palestinian activists for the arrest of visiting Israeli political and military figures. In one case, an embassy official raced to London’s Heathrow Airport to warn a senior military official to remain on board his El Al plane because he would be arrested if he left the aircraft. In another, former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon was compelled to decline an invitation to join the board of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London because he is likely to be arrested if he steps foot on British soil.
But the most notorious case occurred late last year, when opposition Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni cancelled a visit to Britain after learning that an arrest warrant had been issued for her alleged misdeeds during her tenure as foreign minister during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Britain’s then-Foreign Minister David Miliband promised that the law would be changed to avoid future abuses by politically motivated litigants, while Brown, seeking to mitigate the embarrassment, assured Livni she would receive a warm welcome in London. Nothing happened. The reason for the blockage became clear when Jack Straw, then-Justice Minister, announced that the issue required more time for consideration and that there would be no reform until at least after the election. Neither Brown nor Miliband demurred. Straw, who depends on a large Muslim vote, was rewarded at the polls for his steadfastness.
Labour’s persistence with international jurisdiction is seen as providing a nexus for opposition to Israel, a state-sanctioned legal instrument for permitting anti-Israel activists to pursue their cause. It demonstrated a degree of government complicity in the popular hate campaign, say the Israelis.
Both Cameron and his new Foreign Minister William Hague have spoken out vigorously on the issue and it is likely that there will be a swift revision of universal jurisdiction. Hague described the current situation which prevents senior Israeli officials from visiting Britain as “ridiculous, embarrassing and disappointing”. He pledged that the Government would “act speedily to put it right”.
The new governing coalition might not be able to halt the slide in Israel’s unpopularity, but it is likely to demonstrate a greater understanding of Israel’s existential dilemmas, a greater empathy with Israelis and a friendlier face. Still, there will be no free passes. As opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, Hague was critical of Israel’s 2006 actions against Hezbollah in Lebanon, but he was supportive of the 2009 Gaza campaign. One of the most powerful figures in the new government, Education Secretary Michael Gove, is said to be solidly pro-Israel, while Defence Secretary Liam Fox has stated baldly that, “I consider Israel’s enemies to be our enemies.”
Cameron himself set out his position in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle: “I passionately believe in the right of Israel to exist, to defend itself and to live in peace and security. And I unequivocally support a two-state solution. We need a State of Israel, with her existence recognised by all her Arab neighbours, living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian State… It’s going to take perseverance, dedication, courage, and compromise to bring real, lasting peace to the Middle East. That’s something that William Hague and I both understand and we will work incredibly hard to help bring it about.” But he added a caveat: “Decisions on policy are… taken on the basis of our view of Britain’s national interest.”
Such sentiment does not apply to the Lib Dems, who have traditionally been perceived to be hostile to Israel. They support boycotts against Israeli goods and a further “review” of international jurisdiction before changes are made. Clegg himself has called for a European ban on arms exports to Israel. On the other hand, the Lib Dems would, based on past rhetoric, reluctantly support targeted sanctions against Iran, but they have ruled out any suggestion of military action. None of this was part of the Conservative platform; nor does any of it form part of the new Government’s policy.
An example of the nature of attitudes found within Lib Dem ranks was provided by former health spokesperson Baroness Jenny Tonge, who was reprimanded, though not excluded from the party, when she proposed that an inquiry be held into reports that the Israeli medical aid team may have been harvesting organs from Haitian victims of the earthquake.
There is little concern about the influence of the Lib Dems, who will be kept far from foreign affairs (the Foreign Office Minister responsible for Middle East affairs, Alistair Burt, has been a consistent and staunch friend of Israel). In any event, the sudden and unexpected elevation of the Lib Dems to the responsibility of affairs of state is likely to temper their undergraduate language and views.
In the meantime, Britain will be faced with the Herculean task of dealing with its deep economic crisis over the next five years. As in the election campaign, there is likely to be little time for foreign affairs. And even when foreign affairs do come into focus, Israeli-Arab affairs are unlikely to top the agenda. Taking precedence will be the threat of nuclear-ambitious Iran, the Afghanistan quagmire and Pakistan, the training ground for most British Muslim radicals who seek to hone their jihadist skills for the struggle against the Infidel West.
But that does not mean Britain will regard Israel with benign neglect. Politics abhors a vacuum, and the danger of placing Israel-Arab affairs on the back-burner is that Arabist Foreign Office officials, known as the Camel Corps, will seize the initiative while the attention of their political masters is distracted. That is not a prospect Israeli diplomats would relish.