Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Ron Prosor, is one of the country’s most seasoned and professional diplomats. During the two years of his tenure so far, he has become a prominent public figure, appearing frequently in the media and at events organized by the local Jewish community. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he has raised Israel’s PR profile and public response to the numerous events which have taken place during this period.
But, to use a British understatement, he hasn’t had it easy. Boycott proposals, responses to the war in Gaza and, now, the expulsion of a diplomat held responsible for the illegal forging of British passports, have brought UK-Israel relations to a low point, the likes of which cannot be recalled over the past decade.
Britain and Israel have had an ambivalent relationship. The end of the Mandate in 1948 was a very sour ending to a 30-year relationship between Britain and the Zionist leadership. The immediate post-World War II period was accompanied by policies initially aimed at preventing the establishment of a Jewish State, with the lowest point being what followed after the hanging of British army sergeants by the Irgun organization. No one was more despised in the Yishuv at this time than the British foreign minister, Ernest Bevin.
By contrast, a high point in relations between the two countries was during the Sinai Campaign in 1956, when Israel, Britain and France colluded to invade the Sinai Peninsula and temporarily take over control of the Suez Canal, until being forced out by the Eisenhower administration.
While Britain’s Foreign Ministry has long been considered to have adopted a pro-Arab position with regard to the Mideast, Britain’s prime ministers, from the 1960s onwards, have – with few exceptions – displayed very warm attitudes towards Israel. Labor PMs such as Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, along with Conservative leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and John Major (and, it would appear, the current leader-in-waiting, David Cameron) have had good relationships with their Israeli counterparts, although this has not been reflected in many official visits to this country – no doubt because this would create tensions with many of Britain’s Arab allies.
This situation is well reflected in one of the classic episodes of the BBC Comedy Series, Yes Prime Minister, when, to the prime minister’s (Jim Hacker) amazement, the British representative at the UN votes against Israel, contrary to Hacker’s wishes. His senior civil servant explains the realities of British foreign policy and diplomacy, namely that the country’s wider regional interests, as determined by the Foreign Office, make it impossible for Britain to vote in favor of Israel. “Diplomacy” he explains, “is about oil and economic interests,” not about allies and friendships.
The fact that it was often suggested that the former Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban (whose nephew Jonathan Lynn was one of the writers of the comedy series), had a certain input into the content of the program, probably reflects a very real feeling on the part of Israeli leaders at that time (the 1970s) concerning British foreign policy.
DESPITE THIS long-term Foreign Office leaning, Britain has sent top-rate ambassadors to this country over the past 15 years in an attempt to improve diplomatic relations. Unfortunately, this was not – until the past two years – reciprocated. The three previous Israeli ambassadors to the UK, all of them political rather than professional appointees, have fallen short of the quality of ambassadors sent in the opposite direction. This probably reflects the fact that Israel does not place great value on the political importance of Britain, viewing the legations in the EU and Germany as having greater clout in the changing global and international scene.
Nor have political events of the past year helped. The fact that Israel now has a foreign minister who seems hell bent on promoting provocation rather than diplomacy has not been very useful to the country’s international posture.
At the same time, we should not be so naive as to explain away the expulsion of the Israeli diplomat, assumed to be the head of the Mossad desk in the UK, as simply coming down to the general criticism of Israel. In an era when the fight against global terror has become the number one priority for most Western democracies, the forging of 12 British passports is perceived as being a major slap in the face, especially when it is undertaken by a country which is supposed to be an ally in this joint effort.
Neither did it help when Britain sent out an investigation team to Israel, but only succeeded in interviewing the people whose passports had allegedly been forged, while the government refused to cooperate.
Our foreign policy and our alleged acts of espionage have not changed since the 1950s and 60s, when Israel could get away with a lot more. Not only was there greater sympathy for besieged and isolated Israel at the time, but it was also a period in which Cold War espionage was conducted along similar lines by most major Western countries.
The world has since changed, as has the way in which such activity is carried out. And while Israel will always remain independent in its conduct, we cannot expect the world to have much sympathy for us if and when we are caught with our trousers down.
Israel is never going to officially deny or admit its role in such activities – just as it is highly unlikely that either the British MI6 or the American CIA would admit its engagement in overseas espionage. But equally, some of the responses heard last week in Israel, especially from some right-wing MKs using such terms as “dogs” and “a nation of anti-Semites” to describe the British reaction, only served to further worsen an already bad situation.
At the end of the day, Israel-UK relations are very strong in economic,
cultural and other spheres. The current leaders of both major political
parties – Gordon Brown and David Cameron – express warm feelings
towards Israel, feelings which need to be nurtured and strengthened. It
was an unfortunate coincidence that at exactly the moment when Foreign
Secretary David Miliband was announcing the expulsion of the Israeli
diplomat in an unprecedented speech to the House of Commons, he was
scheduled to appear as the main guest (along with the British Chief
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks) at the re-opening of the refurbished Israeli
embassy in London.
It is to be hoped that the passport issue is now behind us, that our
espionage services will also learn some lessons from the event, and
that the two countries will be able to repair their political ties to
the mutual interests of all parties.The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University, and Editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.