In Era of Brexit and Tory Power, Israel Sees Shift in Relations With Britain

Prince William's visit to Israel in three weeks will be the first official visit by a member of the royal family, and there are many other signs that relations between the two countries are changing

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May welcomes Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, November 2, 2017
TOBY MELVILLE/ REUTERS

In exactly three weeks, one of the black clouds that has darkened Israel-U.K. relations ever since the end of the British Mandate in Palestine is expected to dissipate as if it never existed: A senior member of the royal family is to make an official visit, initiated by the United Kingdom, to Israel.

Israel’s foreign service considers the upcoming event to be a breakthrough. On numerous occasions in the past, various individuals and organizations sought to invite the queen herself or representatives of the crown to Israel, but the Foreign Office blocked the moves, in accordance with Buckingham Palace’s long-standing policy, according to which no official visit by a senior royal would take place until significant progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement was made.

Symbolic foreign-policy shifts in Israel-Britain relations

The task was originally assigned to Prince Harry, but it was decided that he and the former Meghan Markle would not take a Middle Eastern honeymoon after their well-publicized wedding last month, and the mission fell to Harry’s brother, Prince William. Their father, Prince Charles, did in fact visit Israel to attend the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres – after the latter, he made a secret visit to Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives to pay his respects to the grave of his grandmother, Princess Alice – but because these were not considered official visits, Prince William’s will be the first. He is also expected to visit Ramallah, the seat of government of the Palestinian Authority.

Fittingly for an event involving the Court of St. James, an institution that is the very symbol of symbolism, the visit also represents a more significant movement. Over the past several years, the close but often complicated relations between Israel and the United Kingdom have grown much closer. Experts point to rising trade figures, stronger economic ties, increasingly transparent military cooperation and even the hope of a creeping shift in Britain’s voting patterns in international institutions. Among the factors contributing to the new trends, according to experts, are Britain’s planned withdrawal from the European Union, the shift in international focus in the Middle East from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the global war on terror, and the return to power of the Conservative Party, considered friendlier to Israel than the Labour Party.

On the military front, the visit at the end of November of the HMS Ocean, the fleet flagship of the Royal Navy, heralded Prince William’s upcoming visit to Israel. The enormous helicopter carrier docked in Haifa with hundreds of sailors and officers onboard. It was accompanied by an unusual PR campaign. An official source told Israeli journalists at the time that Israel is an active partner in NATO and the visit was an expression of that partnership.

In the past, Britain avoided or downplayed public demonstrations of its extensive defense cooperation with Israel in general and covert intelligence cooperation in particular. In another departure from convention, a few months before the Ocean arrived, joint exercises between the Israel Air Force and the Royal Air Force were made public. An IAF helicopter squadron hosted a British squadron based in Cyprus. They drilled rescue operations near Palmahim Beach, south of Tel Aviv. The festival of open cooperation reached a peak on Independence Day in April, when the RAF, together with teams from counterparts from Poland, Austria, Greece, Italy and Canada, joined the traditional IAF flyover above the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Foreign Ministry officials say the idea was to use Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations to give a symbolic boost to the country’s relations with Europe. The officials also mention the France-Israel season of culture, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is slated to launch when he visits the continent this week.

When asked about the growing military bonds with Britain, Israeli officials regularly cite the situation in Syria as an engine of change. More generally, they note the shift in the international community’s focus in the region away from the Palestinians and toward the global war on terror, in which Israel is an important partner. Recently they have also mentioned the relationship with Russia as being “part of our [brand] equity now.”

When it comes to trade, for years Britain has been a leading partner to Israel, but Brexit has kicked that into higher gear. In a move that Foreign Ministry officials say “cannot be taken for granted,” the United Kingdom included Israel as one of 10 countries with which it seeks to sign new bilateral free trade agreements. A joint working group has already been established toward that end. Britain must take a strategic view of the region ahead of Brexit, and Israel has been tagged as one of the preferred countries in the first phase, Israeli foreign policy officials told Haaretz last week. “Despite Israel’s small economic size, in global terms, they also looked at the contribution to the European research and development program and the field of innovation,” one official said.

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Haaretz

According to the British Embassy in Israel, bilateral trade of goods reached a record $9.1 billion in 2017 (up from $7.2 billion in 2016). For trade in services, the latest figures available are from 2015 – $1.6 billion. Britain is the second largest market for Israeli exports, after the United States.

Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, there have been signs of increased Israeli business interest in Britain: In the 12 months following the referendum (June 2016 to June 2017), 32 Israeli companies set up shop in the United Kingdom, compared with 25 companies between June 2015 and June 2016. Between July 2017 and March 2018, an additional 20 or so Israeli companies established bases in Britain.

In the year after the referendum, Israeli investment in the United Kingdom rose to 154 million pounds sterling ($205.5 million), from 114 million pounds, an increase of 33 percent. By March of this year, Israeli foreign direct investment since the referendum amounted to 400 million pounds. In addition, Israeli investors have injected over 400 million pounds into infrastructure projects in Britain in the past four years.

In the last two years, a growing number of high-tech partnerships were established, including a program incorporating Israeli digital health technology into Britain’s National Health Service. Last year a project was launched, with an initial budget of 5 million pounds, for joint research into medical conditions affecting the elderly and technologies and precision medicine for older populations.

Israeli foreign policy officials say that in addition to the military and economic interests, Prime Minister Theresa May is friendlier than the former tenants of 10 Downing Street to the Netanyahu government. Britain’s warm ties with the Trump administration – London and Washington have stepped up their military cooperation in Syria – provide a further boost to its relations with Israel. The growing closeness of the London-Jerusalem axis stands in contrast to France, which under President Emmanuel Macron has become opinionated and sometimes even confrontational in regard to the Middle East; and to Germany, which has reduced its involvement in the region during the fourth term of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is sometimes called “the last defender of the liberal West.”

Netanyahu is scheduled to begin a four-day visit to Europe on Monday, meeting with Merkel, Macron and May in Berlin, Paris and London, respectively. The talks are expected to focus on the intentions of Germany, France and Britain to remain in the nuclear agreement with Iran in light of Washington’s withdrawal from the accord. The issue is a bone of contention between Israel and Britain, as is the Palestinian issue. Even under May, London is still at odds with Netanyahu over Jerusalem, the settlements and the Gaza Strip. As mentioned earlier, Prince William is slated to visit Ramallah, and perhaps also Bethlehem, in the PA – “the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” as the Foreign Office calls the West Bank.

The improvement in relations in other areas has not eliminated the disagreements over Iran and the Palestinians. But figures close to the foreign minister – that is, Netanyahu – are willing to settle, for now, for the downgrading of the Palestinian issue in the talks between Jerusalem and London. They hope the symbolic measures will translate into a change in Britain’s voting pattern in international institutions. Britain did vote, in the United Nations Security Council, against the unilateral U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in accordance with London’s long-standing policy of supporting a two-state solution. But it abstained from voting, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in May, for the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the recent events in the Gaza Strip.

The growing official closeness between Jerusalem and London is often disturbed by protests from the opposition and civil society organizations in Britain, particularly in regard to the Palestinian issue. Israel claims that Britain is a stronghold of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, although both Jerusalem and London admit that on the governmental and institutional levels the BDS movement seems to have no real influence on bilateral relations. Another issue that has recently made headlines are the accusations of anti-Semitism in the opposition Labour Party and the stormy public debate around the issue. Left-wing activists in Britain say that both issues often increase the authorities’ need to demonstrate a friendlier attitude toward Israel.

“We are happy about the upcoming royal visit. The relationship with Britain is important to us – it’s one of Israel’s main partners in Europe,” Rodica Radian-Gordon, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Europe desk, told Haaretz last week when asked whether she thought the planned royal visit constituted a shift in relations between the countries. Britain’s ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, answered in a similar vein. He said the relations between Israel and Britain were indeed broader and deeper than in the past, reflecting a trend of many years’ standing in many areas. The appetite for cooperation has grown, he said.