British Prime Minister David Cameron is arriving for his first official visit to Israel. He is surely aware that Europe may not be flavor of the month in Israel these days, as alarm grows in Jerusalem over the prospect of European boycotts and sanctions against Israel.
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Cameron’s Britain is one of Israel’s strongest allies in Europe, but that is not necessarily the message you get from Israel’s media. An increasing number of Israelis view Britain as a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment, because of the growing prominence of British personalities and organizations in BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns against the Jewish state. In recent years, leading Israeli officials cancelled plans to visit Britain, for fear of facing arrest under the UK’s Universal Jurisdiction law. In 2010, Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, suggested in an interview that Britain’s establishment was “deeply pro-Arab…and anti-Israeli.”
The reality is rather different. According to the Community Security Trust, which monitors attacks on Jews in Britain, anti-Semitic incidents in the UK have fallen to an eight-year low. Amidst all the noise over boycotts and sanctions, bilateral relations between Britain and Israel are actually prospering. Britain is now one of Israel’s biggest export markets after the United States. In the fields of education, technology and science, bilateral cooperation is flourishing as never before.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views Cameron as a friend of Israel. The British government took action in 2011 to amend the Universal Jurisdiction legislation, which effectively removed the threat of politically motivated arrest warrants against Israeli officials. Netanyahu will have noted that Britain has long shared Israel’s concerns over the Iranian nuclear program, and has supported a tough approach against Iran. Cameron has taken a robust stand over the Assad regime’s atrocities, and has called to maintain pressure on Damascus to remove its chemical weapons which pose a threat to Israel. In the summer of 2013, Cameron sought parliamentary approval for possible military action against Syria, but lost the vote.
Of course, this does not mean that there are no political disagreements. Cameron ruffled feathers in Israel back in 2010 when he described Gaza as “a prison camp” during a visit to Turkey. The British leader will be visiting Israel at a time of great uncertainty over the future of the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Cameron will want to speak candidly with Netanyahu over the dangers of continued settlement expansion that could fatally damage the chances of a two-state solution, just as Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics revealed that settlement building in the West Bank more than doubled during 2013. At a time when there are growing calls on Israel’s right (including within the coalition government) to annex the West Bank, it would be useful to know where Netanyahu really stands on this issue.
Cameron fully sympathizes with Israel’s need to act in self-defense against the terrorist threats on its borders. He can be expected to express his understanding for the difficult security challenges facing Israel, as the situation on its borders grows ever more precarious, during his address to the Knesset on Wednesday (he will become only the second British prime minister to address Israel’s parliament after Gordon Brown in July 2008).
Yet, in addressing the Israeli public, Cameron might wish to emulate the late Margaret Thatcher who was the first British prime minister to visit Israel while in office. Thatcher had arrived in Israel in May 1986 not long after her support for the U.S. bombing of Libya, which had been accused of perpetrating terrorist attacks against Western targets. Thatcher received a rapturous reception both because of her support for Israel and her strong stand against terrorism. Since she was perceived as a friend, Thatcher had no difficulty in telling her Israeli audience that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was untenable.
Thatcher has served as a political inspiration for Cameron, and their perspective on Israel is almost identical. Thatcher regularly condemned Israel’s settlement building in her conversations with Israel’s leaders. This position was consistent with Conservative government policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict going back to the then-Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home’s controversial speech of November 1970, when he angered Israelis by calling for a withdrawal from occupied land in return for peace.
During her visit to Yad Vashem, Thatcher stated: “Who better than you, with the experience of the fate of a persecuted minority, can understand the Palestinians?” Following her frank remarks, Haaretz later commented that “Thatcher made it clear that she didn’t come to Israel to win the hearts of the Jews of Finchley [her London constituency] but to express the European consensus.” Britain’s Ambassador in Israel at that time, William Squire, later wrote that Thatcher’s visit was a “personal triumph” in its impact on Israeli public opinion. Cameron should therefore have no fear of speaking his mind on the tough choices that Israel has to make.
However, 2014 is not 1986. Thatcher’s remarks in Israel back then were directed not just at Israeli and Jewish audiences but at a Reagan administration that was deeply reluctant to take a diplomatic initiative in the Middle East or exert pressure on Israel during its second term. The same cannot be said of the Obama Administration. While Thatcher and Reagan had a very close relationship, they had strong differences on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In contrast, the Cameron-Obama relationship is hardly a ‘special’ one, but there is close agreement, among other things, on the urgency of a two-state solution.
Anything that Cameron can do to reinforce Obama’s message that time is running out for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would clearly go down well in Washington.
Dr Azriel Bermant is a Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. He is writing a book on Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East.