London Mayor Boris Johnson who arrived Sunday night in Israel for a three-day visit is already on the campaign trail. With less than six months to go before his second and final term as elected leader of Britain’s capital is up, his eye is already firmly on the next target – Downing Street. The trip to Israel is officially billed as a “trade visit.” The schedule will of course include the requisite meetings with local business leaders and entrepreneurs. But under the bonhomie and light-hearted nature of much of his itinerary, which includes a bike ride with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai down Rothschild Boulevard and a soccer match with Jewish and Arab children in Jerusalem (where it is hoped he will not take down a kid like he did last month in a rugby tackle in Japan), this is about politics.
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Johnson will soon have to make what for him could be the decision which will determine how high he climbs up the greasy political pole. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised not to serve more than two terms and is expected to step down in 2019 in order to give his successor as leader of the Conservative Party a decent run-in before the general election in mid-2020. Cameron’s favored successor is his closest political ally, Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Johnson, who is also expected to run for the party leadership, has the key advantage of being a wildly popular figure, a rare political leader with favorable ratings in the polls, thanks to his image as a lovable buffoon and teflon exterior which has allowed him to survive innumerable scandals and gaffes which would have ended the careers of most other politicians. But he is not seen by as many as a serious contender for national leadership. Despite winning two terms as mayor, in Labour-majority London, his role has been more of an ambassador and showman than city-manager. With the exception of a short period as a shadow-minister, from which he was fired by the previous party leader for being less than truthful over an affair, he has no experience in front-bench politics, though he is better-known to the public than just about all other serving ministers. In the coming months, he will have to decide how to spend the three years until the Conservative leadership election.
He has two options. The relatively safe bet would be to take the open offer from Cameron for a senior ministerial position, once he leaves the Mayor’s office. That would give Johnson the requisite experience but it would also force him to be a team-player and to toe the party-line, a position in which he’s never been very comfortable, or particularly good. His other course would be to remain on the backbenches but assume a new role which would delight many members of his party, and be the figurehead of the “out” camp – those calling for Britain to leave the European Union. Cameron, who is in favor of remaining in, is committed to holding a referendum on Britain’s EU membership sometime in the next two years. If a majority of voters choose to leave, Johnson would be in an overwhelming position to become next party leader. If not, his chances will be hugely diminished. That he has yet to nail his colors to either mast over Europe, shows just how much of a cold and calculating political animal he is under the bluff exterior. And it says something about his decision to visit Israel just now.
The mayor and future candidate isn’t about to embark on any journey which will harm his popularity. Despite the perception of many Israelis that London is a seething hub of anti-Israel agitation, the circles which matter to Johnson, The City’s business community and the broader right-wing ideological community are anything but. Just as the financial sector in Britain is eager to do business with China and Russia, and to hell with human-rights sensitivities, so with Israel there is a fascination with technology and the local start-up culture, which is only belatedly kicking off in Britain. There is another political consideration. The rival Labour Party is now led by the anti-Israel Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives are happy to contrast themselves in any possible way with the “unelectable” Corbyn.
Despite the political situation in Israel and the deadlock in the peace process, Israel is currently in vogue among the Conservatives. Osborne has visited here twice in recent years, the last time to spend his Christmas holiday (and have a private meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu). Another possible leadership candidate, Business Secretary Sajid Javid, is a fixture at pro-Israel and Jewish community events, as is Johnson who describes himself in interviews as a “passionate Zionist.” Johnson who will be giving the annual Balfour lecture in Tel Aviv on Monday and the inaugural Winston Churchill (of whom he found time last year to write a whimsical biography) lecture in Jerusalem on Tuesday, is also competing with Osborne, and Javid, for the support of Jewish donors who are increasingly influential in the party. At least for now, in similar ways to the Republican party in the United States, Israel is a compulsory stop on the campaign trail for prospective candidates.