Israel’s exports to the United Kingdom doubled since London imposed a voluntary labeling scheme on products from the settlements, rendering hollow concern that labeling is the beginning of a boycott, British Ambassador David Quarrey said on Thursday.
Quarry, interviewed by The Jerusalem Post at his residence in Ramat Gan, said Britain has “had our own national voluntary labeling scheme in place since 2009, and since that time the imports of Israeli goods into the UK has roughly doubled – so I think that shows very clearly that there is nothing about the labeling scheme that is a boycott.”
Prime Minister David Cameron, he said, made clear during his visit to the Knesset in 2014 – and has done so often since opposed to boycotts of any kind.
According to the British Embassy, Israel exports to the UK soared from some $1.6 billion in 2009, to nearly $3.2b. in 2014. Quarrey did not have figures, however, relating to products from the settlements in particular.
The labeling measure was a way to allow British consumers “to have the kind of information they want to have,” Quarrey said.
Asked why the British government did not feel it necessary to inform consumers of products coming from occupied Tibet, Kashmir, the Western Sahara or northern Cyprus, Quarrey replied, “Each of these situations is different.”
In the case of labeling products from the settlements, Quarrey said the government was responding to a “public interest in being able to distinguish between products which are from Israel, and which are from settlements.”
Asked whether applying this only to Israel was not discriminatory, Quarrey said, “Certainly there is nothing intended to be discriminatory in any way.”
Quarrey said despite abundant talk of boycotts and BDS moves in Britain, “the day-to-day reality I see is more connections between Israel and the UK than there probably ever has been.” This is manifest not only in the record trade levels, some $7b. a year, but also in record amounts of investment, scientific and technological cooperation, and security cooperation, the ambassador said.
As far as investment is concerned, he pointed to the recent deal for Rolls- Royce to provide the engines for EL Al’s new fleet of 15 Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, and to the recent announcement that Elbit Systems is the lead member of a consortium that will provide flight training for the Royal Air Force, a deal worth some $700 million.
“These are very significant developments, and I think they show the importance of both countries to each other’s economic developments,” he said.
Beyond economic, scientific and technological cooperation, Quarrey said it is important that the UK and Israel “work together on the big security challenges in the region.”
Asked if they were doing so, he replied, “We have a very good dialogue with Israel on Iran, and that will be important as we move toward implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. We also face common challenges from Daesh [ISIS], which is already a significant threat to the UK, and I’m sure poses challenges to Israel. Countries like the UK and Israel need to stand together to fight the world’s premier terrorist organization.”
On the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, Quarrey said that London has not “seen much in way of details” of the French initiative, which calls for an international peace conference, and if that doesn’t work out, then for France to recognize a Palestinian state.
“We do think it is important to keep trying to move things forward, even at a difficult time,” he said.
Quarrey said the British approach to “moving things forward” rests on three principles. The first is not doing anything that would make the situation even more difficult than it currently is, an obvious reference to settlement construction.
The second is “trying to improve conditions where possible,” such as easing conditions to allow for economic development in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and make possible a legal route for Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank.
And the third pillar is “trying to rebuild toward a political process, toward negotiations.” Asked whether this is realistic at the present time, he replied, “The British government’s strong view is that the only way this conflict will be resolved is through negotiations.”
Regarding the proposed NGO transparency law, which has been criticized publicly by some EU governments, but not London, Quarrey was very diplomatic. Asked what his government’s positions on the bill was, he replied: “Israel has a very strong tradition of a vibrant democracy, including a very strong civil society, and we value that – as do many of Israel’s international partners.”
Quarrey was also very diplomatic when asked whether his job here has been made more difficult by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as head of the opposition Labor Party in the UK, a man whose position on Israel has raised concern both in Jerusalem and among Britain’s Jewish community.
“I won’t get into party politics,” he said. “But what I see at the moment is a relationship between Britain and Israel which is probably stronger and deeper than it ever has been.”
With next year marking the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Quarrey was asked whether his government planned to commemorate that event, or whether there has been pressure on London to ignore it or even apologize.
Cameron, he said, met recently with Jewish community leaders and made clear “he wanted to celebrate the centennial of the Balfour Declaration with the community.”
As to whether he expects his government would come under much heat for such a commemoration, Quarrey replied, “It is part of our history in this region. Britain has a long history in this region and the Balfour Declaration is part of it, and the prime minister has been clear that he wants to celebrate that with the community.”
Quarrey, who previously served as a diplomat in Harare, New Delhi and New York, and also served as then-prime minister Tony Blair’s private secretary, arrived in Israel in July, and said that despite having visited the country some 20 times before, “you just can’t help being struck by the diversity, by the energy, by the creativity. It is a fun, fascinating place to live. I and my partner like that people live intensely in Israel, and I think that is a very attractive thing about the country.”
When asked what “living intensely” means, he explained, “I think people care about life here, they care about good food, about what they do, about the issues the country faces. People engage intensely, and so it is a very stimulating place to live.”