For all his upper-class upbringing, British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to have momentarily forgot his manners last week.
For all his upper-class upbringing, British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to have momentarily forgot his manners last week. It's just not cricket to publicly and gratuitously lambaste long-time allies, even if it happens to please the world leader who's hosting you.
And yet Cameron seemed to dedicate his first international tour as premier to projecting an object lesson in how to play to your audience, confirming fears that his foreign policy will be guided by opportunism - plain and simple. And his Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition doesn't seem to have any clear strategy to back up his rather eccentric behavior beyond a burning desire to build up business ties to help edge Britain away from financial doom.
Cameron's comments in Ankara, where he described Gaza as "a prison camp," clearly enchanted Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose relationship with Israel has been in something worse than a free fall since the 2009 Gaza war. He neatly managed to combine cozying up to the Turks with earning credit with Washington, by pushing Turkey to take action on Iran, while scoring a few points against Germany and France, when he implied their opposition to Turkish membership of the European Union was a result of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. This anti-EU dig will have played well with his Euroskeptic party back home; they support Turkish membership, simply because they would like to see the EU expanded to the point where it's no longer viable.
But at least Cameron is an equal-opportunity opportunist. The very next day in India, he unleashed a broadside against the Pakistanis for their links to terror, once again to the delight of his hosts, their implacable foes.
At issue is not whether his concerns are justified or not. Cameron is quite right to be worried that Pakistan may be exporting terror, what with British troops in Afghanistan and concerns about extremism at home. But was it appropriate to have raised these issues in Bangalore, amid negotiations for business contracts and agreements on increased military cooperation with India? Similarly, does anyone believe that Cameron has sleepless nights over the plight of the Palestinians, racking his brain for creative ways to solve this most intractable of conflicts? Not for a minute.
The odd commentator has tried to link Cameron's Gaza comments to something more ominous, trotting out the usual accusations of Britain as a hotbed of anti-Zionism and Israel delegitimization. But the fuss has been limited almost exclusively to the sphere of punditry. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem was, as we say here in London, not bothered.
That's because Jerusalem's relations with London are ticking along quite unremarkably. Israel noted with gratitude that, within Europe, Britain was among the most sympathetic to Israel's position on the Gaza flotilla disaster, and its reaction relatively mild. Even more important, the Tories are serious about tackling an issue long on the top of Israel's diplomatic wish list: amending the universal jurisdiction laws that allow arrest warrants against visiting Israelis suspected of war crimes. Their commitment to changing the law is real, even though passage of the (much watered-down ) amendment is far from guaranteed, with the Labor opposition expected to fight it and Democrat leader Nick Clegg unlikely to take on the rank-and-file of his party on this when he has to make them swallow so many other unpalatable domestic issues.
One Conservative Party insider hotly denied this week that Cameron had turned against the Jewish state. "Oh God, no," he exclaimed. "He's personally quite pro-Israel." But one of Cameron's talents, he went on to explain, is adapting himself to the audience he is speaking to. "He doesn't seem to realize that in foreign policy you have 150 different audiences - and that they can all hear each other."
Cameron is remarkably self-confident for a youngish politician with no previous experience in government. But foreign policy is his weak spot, partly due to inexperience, and partly due to lack of interest. He is quite content to leave all that to Foreign Secretary William Hague, but however capable Hague is, it can't compensate for the fact that the party did little serious foreign-policy planning while in opposition. The new government may be hyperactive in every field of domestic policy, but it has yet to decide what Britain's position in the world should be.
Hague, for his part, wants to be friends with all the up-and-coming nations, announcing in June that he intended to focus on "elevating our relationships with emerging powers across the world." That, of course, includes Turkey and India, particularly as Britain right now sees them as major business partners.
But there isn't that much to be gained in the Israel-Palestine quagmire. "They just don't care very much about it, to be honest," said one Israeli official cheerfully. The current thinking in Jerusalem is that a British government that stays on the sidelines will do quite nicely, thanks.
But preserving the status quo is bad news as far as any peace process is concerned. Both Israel and the Palestinians can be helped by a British prime minister who is engaged, consistent and actually cares about finding an equitable solution. To be an effective mediator you need to have good relations with both sides. That is precisely why Turkey is rapidly losing its previous role as an interlocutor between Israel and Syria, or the West and Iran.
A prime minister who travels the world looking for opportunities to score a few quick points is likely to do more harm than good. Cameron should perhaps take some lessons from his distant relative, the Queen of England, and next time concentrate on smiling and waving, rather than talking.
Daniella Peled is a journalist living in London.
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