The very real prospect of David Cameron’s Conservative Party losing Britain’s general election on May 7 is causing a shudder of dread to pass through Israeli diplomats and lobbyists in London. Officially, of course, they are not involved in the United Kingdom’s internal politics. But the consensus is that “we have never had such a pro-Israel prime minister.”
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This isn’t an empty accolade, especially when considering the fact that the two previous occupants of 10 Downing Street were Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who were considered ardent supporters of the Jewish State. And despite the British Foreign Office’s traditional Arabist policy, many other former prime ministers – such as Margaret Thatcher (the first to visit Israel while in office), Harold Wilson (who wrote a laudatory book on Israel) and, of course, Winston Churchill – were all unabashed admirers of the Zionist endeavor.
What makes Cameron stand above them is the way he translated his personal support into consistent policy that, among other things, led him to not to just promise – as Brown and Blair did – to amend the universal jurisdiction legislation that allowed arrest warrants to be issued against Israelis suspected of alleged war crimes, but actually passed the changes in parliament.
Quietly, Cameron – together with his closest political ally, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (who spent his last Christmas holiday with his family in Israel, including a private visit to the prime minister’s residence) – has done more than any other head of state to push sanctions on Iran.
Israeli diplomats emphasize that he has done more on this than U.S. President Barack Obama. Cameron has taken advantage of London’s status as a global financial center to cut off Iran’s banking system from the world, and made it extremely difficult for the country’s oil industry to arrange insurance for its tankers. Banning Iran from the international money transfer system, SWIFT, which is based in Belgium, was also achieved to a large degree thanks to Cameron and Osborne.
Most of these sanctions were applied with a low profile, without drawing much media attention. Often, they were achieved through a quiet word with the chief executives of banks and insurance companies, rather than through direct instructions. Britain’s senior professional diplomats weren’t always on board. As a result, Britain was well ahead of the European Union and the United Nations on Iran sanctions, sometimes also ahead of the United States. This was helped by the fact that nearly the entire Conservative front bench share similar positions – especially Chief Whip Michael Gove, seen by many as the Tories’ leading ideologue and whose Mideast policy would easily match that of Likud’s right wing.
Another expression of this closeness was on display during last summer’s Gaza conflict, when for weeks the Conservatives withstood the pressure from their coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, to condemn Israel’s bombardment of targets in Gaza. When the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills finally issued a warning during one of the cease-fires that, should the fighting resume, Britain would reexamine export licenses for British arms to Israel, it came only after severe infighting in the coalition and was signed by Liberal Democrat minister Vince Cable, while the Conservatives promised their Israeli counterparts that the document was meaningless. Two days later, fighting in Gaza renewed but there was no reexamination.
Sayeeda Warsi, a relatively junior minister and the sole Muslim representative in the Conservative leadership, resigned over what she called her party’s “morally indefensible” policy on Gaza. But the resignation failed to cause much of a stir in the party and the Conservatives continued to refuse to condemn Israel’s behavior, despite political and media pressure.
The Conservatives are well aware of the limitations of an overtly pro-Israel policy in a relatively hostile political and international environment toward Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and with the general decline of Britain’s standing on the global stage in recent years. That’s one of the reasons why the depth of the ties under Cameron – in particular, the intensified coordination on defense and intelligence matters – largely remain beneath the radar.
Netanyahu hoped that during the Iran talks he would get more support from the British for driving a tough nuclear deal. But while French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was the “bad guy” demanding stronger terms from the Iranians, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (who is also seen by many as very pro-Israel) played a minor part in the P5+1 negotiations. Sources close to Cameron blame Obama and the weakened position Britain currently has in the European Union for their lack of clout in this and other areas.
There have been nasty slurs against Cameron and his party that their pro-Israel policy is due to the influence of Jewish donors. This is ridiculous for two reasons. First, Cameron would still have been the preferred candidate of pro-Israel voters and donors, even if he had been much less energetic in his support. He would certainly have seemed more friendly than Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who, while repeatedly supporting Israel’s right to exist and opposing any form of anti-Israel boycotts, has also been much more vocal in his criticisms over the settlements and Gaza policies; he also supported his party’s parliamentary measure last October calling for the recognition of a Palestinian state. Actually, Miliband’s positions are not that different from those of many British Jews – though many unjustifiably regard him with suspicion.
Second, Cameron’s policies on Israel have been consistent since the start of his parliamentary career. Even those who are far less supportive of Israel’s current government and who have spoken to him in private on the issue, including senior British diplomats, have all come away with the clear impression that, in many ways, “he sees the Middle East very similarly to Netanyahu.”