What Does Cameron’s Re-election Mean for Israel?

With the EU referendum poised to suck the energy out of Britain’s foreign policy for the next two years, here’s a look at what we can expect from the U.K.

Daniella Peled
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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron waves as he leaves the Conservative Party headquarters in London, Britain May 8, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Daniella Peled

I asked an Israeli diplomat, following last week’s surprise Conservative victory, what Britain could now do as a European actor to influence Israel.

“Kick it out of the Eurovision,” was the reply.

The reference to the international song contest was facetious, of course, but still revealing. For all the talk that David Cameron is Britain’s most pro-Israel leader ever, the fact is that it has been quite a while since the U.K. was any kind of serious player in Israel-Palestine. The European Union, as the Jewish state’s largest trading partner, is in a position to have an impact on Israeli policy, but Cameron’s re-election last week ensures that Britain will continue to sit discreetly on the diplomatic sidelines.

His administration’s much-vaunted friendliness is actually a general lack of concern. Cameron’s sympathies lie with Israel, but only inasmuch as his typically Tory instincts direct him toward supporting the smooth running of the world order.

Cameron has never led any drastic measures on Israel, whether for or against. At the United Nations in November 2012, Britain chose to abstain on the vote on Palestinian statehood, and this government is certainly not expected to support any unilateral recognition of Palestine in the future. At December’s Security Council vote on a Palestinian resolution setting out a two-year deadline for a peace deal, Britain abstained once again.

As for the labelling of settlement goods, Britain has supported this longstanding EU policy but been happy for other member states to take the lead.

Cameron did support a change in legislation that made it significantly harder for Israeli military and political officials to be arrested on war crimes charges while in the U.K., but even the amended legislation did not go as far as Israel would have liked. On the other hand, he called Gaza a “prison camp” in 2010, but this can be attributed to his tendency to say whatever his audience at that moment would like to hear (let’s remember, he was addressing the Turkish parliament. The following day, he raged against Pakistani terror to an audience in Bangalore).

Israel is also likely happy that U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond looks set to continue in his role. Unlike his predecessor William Hague, Hammond has always seemed quite friendly to the Israeli government position. Nonetheless, trade, rather than muscular international diplomacy, remains Britain’s foreign policy priority.

Above all, the referendum Cameron has promised regarding Britain’s EU membership, due by 2017, will suck all the energy out of Britain’s foreign policy for at least two years.

That issue, combined with the Scottish National Party’s unprecedented surge – it won 56 out of Scotland’s 59 seats – is likely to trigger a surge of nationalism, which has never been good news for minority groups. Nonetheless, the United Kingdom Independence Party only got one seat in parliament, but still won 13 per cent of the vote, reflecting Britain’s ongoing obsession with immigration. This has not leaned much toward anti-Semitism, despite an occasionally nasty edge in areas of public discourse. (And it is worth nothing that when it comes to any downright xenophobia in British voting patterns, eight times more people voted for the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol party last week than for the far-right British National Party.)

Indeed, the only segment of the population that seemed to care about the Jewishness of Labour leader Ed Miliband was the Jewish community. There was a certain amount of hysteria there about Miliband’s supposed anti-Israeliness, but this did not actually extend much beyond criticizing Israel’s actions in the last Gaza war and supporting Britain’s recognition of a Palestinian state.

Some polling of uncertain value indicated that Jews would be turning to the Conservatives over Labour as a consequence, but there is really no way of knowing this. Religion is not one of the questions asked by exit pollsters.

In fact, figures collated this week by the U.K.’s Jewish Public Policy Institute think tank showed that in the 30 constituencies with the largest Jewish populations, it was Labour that took two seats from the Conservatives and one from the Liberal Democrats. In Renfrewshire East, which has the largest Jewish population of any seat in Scotland, the SNP followed the Scottish trend and unseated Labour.
The election of Ed Miliband and a Labour government would have increased pressure on Israel and Cameron’s re-election, especially without the influence of his previous Liberal Democrat coalition partners, means the opposite.

But a binary analysis of whether Cameron will be good or bad for Israel is supremely unhelpful. A lack of outside engagement, when Israel is forming its most right-wing and rejectionist government ever, is far from positive.
If Netanyahu seems immune from downright pressure from the White House, what difference is any genteel influence from our island nation going to have on a bullish Jerusalem? The answer is none. Our government’s score on Israel-Palestine looks to win us “nul points,” as they say on Eurovision.

Daniella Peled is editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and has written widely from across the Middle East and Afghanistan.