Analysis |

Cameron Visiting to Shore Up Base, Not Press Israel on Peace

Despite the deadlocked diplomatic process, Britain-Israel relations have rarely been better.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Cameron would be the fifth U.K. PM to visit Israel while in office. Thatcher was the first.
Cameron would be the fifth U.K. PM to visit Israel while in office. Thatcher was the first. Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Twenty eight years ago, Margaret Thatcher defied opposition by the Foreign Office to become the first British prime minister to visit Israel while in office.

Since then, every occupant of 10 Downing Street has made the trip and David Cameron who will arrive Wednesday is the fifth in line to do so. While many in the Conservative Party have grumbled over the years that he certainly is no Thatcher (but the fact that his visit is breaking the strike of Israel's union of Foreign Ministry employee would have done Thatcher proud), he does share with her ther skepticism of the Foreign Office line that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to everything in the Middle East.

Of course, in his appearances during the short 24-hour visit he will say all the requisite things about the importance of the two-state solution and do his bit in giving Britain's support to the flailing negotiations spearheaded by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, including spending a couple of hours with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. But no one is expecting Cameron to achieve a breakthrough or put any undue pressure on either side.

As one Conservative Party advisor said Tuesday, "he's no Tony Blair, he's not going to be sitting there in the negotiating room and has not interest in it. He's more interested in Israel's technological success and trying to drum up business with Britain than anything else."

A diplomat involved in preparations for the visit was even more cynical. "Cameron is coming for a photo-op, to tick the visiting Israel box and make the Jewish community happy by showing the flag." As things stand, Cameron's foreign policy credentials, especially in this region, are not that high following his humiliating defeat in parliament last year in the vote over a missile strike against Syria. He won't be embarking on any new foreign adventures right now.

With the general election approaching in just more than a year, Cameron is busy shoring up his base. While the relatively small Jewish community probably won't have much of an influence - if at all - on any of the crucial swing seats he needs in order to secure a majority, or at least in order to have the chance to form another coalition, a significant portion of his party is made up of ardent supporters of Israel, especially those those suspicious of his ideological commitment.

Coming to Israel in his first term (he hopes not the last) is one of the easier things he can do to try and ensure their support. That being the case, he will try very hard not to stumble and say anything that may be perceived as "unfriendly." He is unlikely to make more than a cursory remark about the settlements being an obstacle to peace, certainly not something that will give right-wing MKs a reason to storm out of the plenum.

In many ways, the visit is less about Israel and more about the very close relations Cameron has had throughout his premiership with the British Jewish community. Many have observed that he feels much more comfortable at Jewish events, whether as a guest speaker at such venues as the JNF annual dinner or at the annual Downing Street Hanukkah party than does the by opposition leader Ed Miliband, who is Jewish. Cameron has a significant number of Jewish figures within his closest circle, chief among them Conservative Party co-chairman and main fundraiser Andrew Feldman who is extremely close.

Feldman has gone out of his way to court the community in such initiatives as the recently announced national commission on commemorating the Holocaust in Britain, which he regards his personal brainchild. By visiting Israel, Cameron is fulfilling a promise he made in just about every meeting he had with the community. It was particularly important he arrive before Miliband who is planning to visit in a month.

Despite the deadlocked diplomatic process, Britain-Israel relations have rarely been better. Trade is at an all-time high. There is unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation (one Israeli official said "we show our British colleagues the crown jewels of intelligence). Longstanding issues such as the Universal Jurisdiction legislation which made it difficult for senior Israeli officers and politicians to visit Britain have been largely solved by this government and while London is still a center of BDS agitation against Israel, it has had negligible effect on commercial or cultural ties. Cameron's visit won't do much to boost the Israel-Britain relationship mainly because it is not in need of one.

Perhaps the best barometer of the two countries' alliance is that for three decades, every British prime minister felt she or he had to visit Israel. The only sour note from the British side has been the fact that Downing Street hasn't gone out of its way to interest the news organizations in sending their reporters or put out an official schedule in advance. It's almost as if Cameron's office isn't that interested in the visit being noticed back at home. There is a warning here – Cameron certainly sees Israel as a friend but he's also aware that not everyone in Britain feels the same.

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