If Cameron Is the Victor

It would be a mistake to assume that the Conservatives will automatically become Israel's new best friends.

LONDON - As Britain prepares to go to the polls next month, the atmosphere here is akin to an attack of indigestion rather than anything approaching election fever. People are fed up, after 13 years of an increasingly moribund Labor government, and it seems that the Conservative Party, despite being led by a bunch of aristocratic adolescents, is likely to scrape into power.

So, say the Tories do win on May 6, and after visiting Washington and Brussels, the no-longer-shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives in Jerusalem. What then?

It's hard to tell. Beyond a deep suspicion of the European Union, no one knows what the Tories' foreign policy will be - least of all the Tories themselves. When it comes to their stance on the Middle East, the situation becomes even murkier. "Pretty hazy," is how one Conservative insider describes it. "It's a case of reacting to events as they happen."

Opportunism might be a less charitable way of putting it. Conservative conduct during the recent Dubai passports scandal is instructive in this regard. The Tories used the affair as an opportunity to weigh in on the government, effectively forcing Gordon Brown into calling in the Israeli ambassador for a scolding.

So it would be a mistake to assume that the Conservatives will automatically become Israel's new best friends, just because they are a right-wing party unfettered by a radical anti-Zionist fringe. In the absence of any clear policy direction - so far as anyone can tell, their most concrete ideas are to get tougher with Iran while getting friendlier with the Gulf states - they are likely to allow their own agenda to be led by personal and internal interests.

Hague wants to be seen as a safe pair of hands. Those who claim to know him say he is friendly toward Israel, despite a headline-grabbing accusation he made regarding the use by the Israel Defense Forces of "disproportionate force" during the 2006 Lebanon War. The attitudes of his close advisers toward Israel are a different matter, however. "Unsympathetic would be a gross understatement," says one insider.

And when it comes to Conservative leader David Cameron, he will want to burst onto the world stage as an international statesman. In that sense, Israel-Palestine is the foreign policy gift that keeps on giving.

While Cameron certainly isn't committed to the Middle East issue in the same way that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or even Margaret Thatcher were, his key concern will be the so-called "special relationship" with Washington. This is a relationship that has languished since Barack Obama took office, and to prove his credentials, Cameron will likely take the president's lead on foreign policy, and in fact already seems to be going in that direction. Tory hostility vis-a-vis Europe means they will turn more toward the United States for guidance on foreign policy. And the Middle East is important to Washington.

In an interview with the Muslim News last month, Cameron qualified his stance as a friend of Israel by pointing out his opposition to the settlements, boasting: "When I was standing in East Jerusalem, I referred to it as 'occupied East Jerusalem.' Not many politicians do so." He reprised the theme in an interview with the Financial Times, adding: "So, yes, I thought I had quite an argument when I was in Israel with Tzipi Livni about settlements and I think Obama is right to take a robust line."

The Conservative Friends of Israel group has long run a thorough lobby operation, especially among Tory back-benchers, with some 80 percent of the party's MPs among its members. But full attendance at CFI dinners doesn't automatically translate into support. "I don't think that anyone in the Conservative party believes that involvement in Israel-Palestine will bring them any votes," says one lobbyist.

One area where this will be tested - and which is likely to be high on the agenda when Hague comes to Jerusalem - is the issue of universal jurisdiction. The Tories have long been committed to changing the British law that allows arrest warrants to be issued against senior Israeli figures visiting London. But they have made clear that it would have been much easier for them to support such a move from the opposition. This is clearly not going to be a priority for them, especially when Labor in opposition is likely to shift further to the left on Israel-Palestine.

Another possible electoral outcome: A hung parliament, with the Liberal Democrats joining a Labor or Conservative-led government, has Israel lobbyists rolling their eyes and clutching their heads at the thought of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg as foreign minister. And the way the polls are wobbling, you still can't rule out a Labor win - which would surprise Brown's party so much that utter confusion is likely to ensue.

Jerusalem will be watching the results closely, but Israelis hoping for some consolation from London are likely to be disappointed. Whatever the result, it seems that the British voter will merely be deciding on who will be Obama's cheerleader.

Daniella Peled is editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.