With Brexit, Is a Golden Era in Israel-Britain Relations Coming to an End?

Candidates for British PM are generally regarded as being pro-Israel and have good relationships with the Jewish community, but it's hard to imagine one as engaged as David Cameron.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks after Britain voted to leave the European Union, as his wife Samantha watches outside Number 10 Downing Street in London, on June 24, 2016.
Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The British establishment over the last century or so was not always particularly friendly to Jews or the Zionist enterprise. Particularly, the mandarins of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other wings of the civil service and military were well-known “Arabists” who saw Zionists at best as a nuisance, and occasionally, as in the last years of the Mandate in Palestine, as a threat. So it is something of a historical anomaly that for large parts of this period, the men (and woman) sitting in No. 10 Downing Street held quite opposite views.

Some of Britain’s most influential prime ministers were both philosemites and pro-Zionist – going all the way back, of course, to Benjamin Disraeli, a convert to Christianity who did not forget or reject his Jewish roots. In the early part of the 20th century there were David Lloyd-George and Winston Churchill, among others, and more recently Harold Wilson (who wrote an entire book in support of Israel), Margaret Thatcher (representing London’s most Jewish constituency, Finchley, and disregarding the FCO’s advice, becoming the first serving PM to visit Israel), Tony Blair (accused by the Palestinians of constantly favoring the Israeli side) and Gordon Brown (who never tired of telling how he learned Zionism from his father, an Israel-loving vicar). However, these leaders were often incapable of making any major changes to the less Israel-friendly policy emanating from Whitehall.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in his six years in power, David Cameron exceeded them all. His close circle of friends and advisers include Jews, mainly business and media people, some of whom go back to his days in Eton and Oxford. They have been part of late-night strategy sessions upstairs in the family residence, where Cameron often uses his vocabulary of Yiddish swearwords to describe political rivals.

Most prominent among this group is Lord Andrew Feldman, who met Cameron at Brasenose College in Oxford and has been his closest political confidante ever since, serving as campaign manager in 2005 when Cameron ran for the Conservative Party leadership and then as party chairman.

Cameron is a regular guest at fund-raising events held by the main Jewish organizations in Britain; barely a month passes without him meeting community members, and he always seems very comfortable in their company. This was especially noticeable in the first five years of premiership when he was a complete contrast to Labour Party leader, Ed Milliband, who constantly seemed out of place at community do’s, despite being himself Jewish. Jewish leaders regard Cameron as “one of us” – without a hint of irony.

His support of Israel has been likewise. Cameron’s predecessors, Blair and Brown, both repeatedly promised their Israeli counterparts that they would change the “universal jurisdiction” law that allowed local magistrates to issue arrest warrants against senior Israeli officials, at the request of pro-Palestinian groups, on the basis of allegations of war crimes. Shortly after his election, Cameron put the wheels in motion and amended the law so only the head of the central prosecution could authorize such a warrant. Cameron’s government also drafted regulations prohibiting local authorities from boycotting foreign countries – a step which was expressly targeted at the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Bilateral military and intelligence cooperation reached unprecedented levels under Cameron, though little of that can be disclosed. Together with Chancellor of Exchequer George Osborne, the premier acted behind the scenes to cut Iran off from the global banking and insurance markets. According to Israeli diplomats, during some periods, Britain was even stricter when it came to sanctions against Iran than the United States.

However, close diplomatic ties don’t necessarily mean a warm personal relationship between heads of state. The U.S. and Germany are, of course, prime examples. But unlike Angela Merkel – who is known to have conducted testy conversations with Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama alike, and wouldn’t call last year to congratulate the Israeli premier for his election victory because of the anti-Arab statement he made on Election Day – phone calls between Cameron and Netanyahu are, according to officials in both countries, frequent and friendly.

After the election in Israel, a senior member of Netanyahu’s campaign team, strategist Aron Shaviv, flew to London to brief Conservative campaigners, who were then facing their own elections in a few weeks. There were striking similarities in Cameron’s propaganda, which propelled him to victory. According to various polls, an unprecedented two-thirds of British Jews voted Conservative in those elections.

For their part, British diplomats view Cameron as “too pro-Bibi.” “On many issues they are on the same wavelength,” says one senior British diplomat, who is not a fan of Netanyahu. “Cameron accepts Netanyahu’s line, on the need to confront radical Islam, almost completely.” On the eve of Cameron’s visit to Israel in 2014, his Jewish advisers managed to convince him to erase an entire paragraph dedicated to condemning Israel’s settlement policy, from the speech he was set to give in the Knesset. Instead, just one short sentence remained.

While leaders of Britain's Jewish community remained neutral over the Euro referendum, the one poll commissioned by The Jewish Chronicle last month, indicated that a majority of the country's Jews were in favor of remaining in the European Union. Whatever they voted, British Jews are overwhelmingly sorry that Cameron is now to resign, after losing the referendum.

The next prime minister will also be a member of the Conservative Party, and while the candidates being mentioned now – chiefly former London Mayor Boris Johnson – are all generally regarded as being pro-Israel and have good relationships with the community, it is hard to imagine a prime minister who will be as engaged as Cameron.

The vote in favor of leaving Europe has both emboldened far-right parties on the Continent and triggered a wave of ugly incidents on the streets of Britain, where members of minorities and immigrants are being taunted with comments like “it’s time for you to leave.” So far there are no reports of such slurs being directed at Jews, but when racism and xenophobia are on the rise, Jews rarely avoid becoming targets. Added to that are the fears that as it negotiates a difficult and costly divorce from the EU, Britain will lose much of its influence on the international scene, and be preoccupied with protracted infighting. Israel will have lost one of its key allies in the EU and other major global forums.

It may be too early to predict an end to the golden era for British Jews and U.K.-Israel relations, but David Cameron’s government may have been the best it could ever get.