In early May last year, Britain’s foreign secretary was sent on a mission to Washington. President Donald Trump was about to announce that the United States was withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran, and the British government — as one of the signatories to the JCPOA — was anxious to try to avert Trump’s decision.
But Boris Johnson failed to gain an audience with the president, meeting instead with the vice president and national security adviser. In an attempt to appeal to Trump through other channels, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times and even gave an interview to “Fox & Friends.”
Johnson heaped praise on the president, saying he was right to be angered by Iran’s aggression in the region, but that the Iran deal was necessary to ensure it didn’t acquire nuclear weapons. To no avail. Hours after Johnson arrived in Washington, Trump announced his withdrawal from the deal and new sanctions on Iran.
It was a stark reminder of Britain’s reduced standing in the world and with the superpower it once believed it had a “special relationship” with.
Many see a similarity between Trump and Britain’s new prime minister. Certainly, they both share a buffoonish manner, celebrity-derived popularity, a fondness for racist jokes and comments, an intense sense of privilege and sexual incontinence.
But the comparisons are mainly superficial. Johnson’s buffoonery is a convenient act that conceals both a keen intellect and political professionalism. As Britain’s new premier, he needs to build his own very special relationship with the U.S. president, with care.
Trump has expressed his support for Johnson in tweets, and Britain needs the president’s goodwill, now it may be about to leave the European Union, in reaching a separate trade deal with the United States and building new alliances.
At the same time, Johnson also needs to keep some distance from Trump — who is extremely unpopular in Britain — and conserve Britain’s ties with the main EU members, with whom he hopes to renegotiate the Brexit deal.
When during the last few weeks of the Conservative Party’s leadership race Johnson or his supporters were asked how he differs from Trump, their main example was that he continues to support the Iran deal.
Indeed, even in recent days, while Britain has become embroiled in a crisis over the Iranian capture of a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, the U.K. government has tried to keep its distance from the Trump administration and its policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Tehran.
The British Navy, which once ruled the waves, is now a much-depleted force without nearly enough warships to protect British tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Nevertheless, Britain is not joining the U.S. naval force there but is instead trying to form one comprised of European nations. Johnson hasn’t ruled out new British sanctions on Iran, but for now he’s remaining in the European consensus.
It will be interesting to see whether he continues using British policy in the Middle East as an area in which he demonstrates independence from Trump’s Washington.
Essentially, Johnson has always been a very pro-Israel politician. He will now be the first prime minister to have volunteered as a student on a kibbutz (Kfar Hanassi in 1984). He has also been withering in his criticism of Israel’s opponents: During a visit to Israel in 2015 while still mayor of London, he said he could not “think of anything more foolish” than boycotting Israel, and that those Brits who supported boycotts were “ridiculous, snaggle-toothed, corduroy-wearing, lefty academics.” These remarks led to most of the scheduled meetings with Palestinian groups on his trip to be canceled.
But his support for Israel has often been tempered by criticism of its government’s policies. In the summer of 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, he said in a radio interview he was “a passionate Zionist” but that Israel’s actions in Gaza were “disproportionate.” And as foreign secretary for two years (he resigned last summer over then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan), he didn’t deviate from the official British line critical of settlement building.
Johnson, whose great-grandfather on his mother’s side was a rabbi, was always seen as being very close to the Jewish community in his years as mayor. (Both of Johnson’s parents remarried Jewish partners after their divorce.)
Even if he wasn’t, many British Jews will now see him as the best chance of beating opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has tolerated — some would say encouraged — the rise of anti-Semitism in his Labour Party. Last week, when asked during a leadership debate whether he thought Corbyn was anti-Semitic, Johnson responded: “I think by condoning anti-Semitism the way he does, I’m afraid he’s effectively culpable of that vice.”
But none of this will have much effect on Britain’s Middle East policies.
A century ago, the British prime minister had enough influence to decide the fate of entire nations in the Middle East, drawing lines on a map that determined where countries would be. Today, Britain can’t even protect its own assets in the region from Iran.
Johnson’s attitude to the region will be determined in accordance with his efforts to deliver Brexit and the trade agreements Britain will need to negotiate if and when it leaves the EU. His government’s policies toward Israel, therefore, will be fluid and depend on whether Britain needs more goodwill from the United States or Europe at any given moment.
Brexit was supposed to “bring back control” over Britain’s policies. Instead, it has ended the United Kingdom’s status as a player with any real global influence. Even if Boris Johnson turns out to be the most pro-Israel of British prime ministers, it will be immaterial — as he will certainly be the least influential on the global stage.
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