British Prime Minister David Cameron is to make a short visit to Israel on Wednesday, the first in nearly four years in office, although Foreign Secretary William Hague has been here twice.
A number of issues will be on Cameron’s agenda, including the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Britain has been critical of Jewish settlement expansion. Just last month, Hague warned that failure to forge a peace agreement would lead to “terrible consequences” for both sides, and significant international pressure on Israel. And in May 2013, he said Israel had lost support in Britain and other European countries because of settlement activity.
But Cameron is not coming here to lecture to Israel. If anything, he will emphasize the benefit to Israel and Israelis of moving forward toward a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, a position many Israelis share.
Admittedly, there is a worrying trend of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment in Britain. Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz pointed out in an interview with the Daily Telegraph last May that Britain’s stance on Israel seems out of step with other countries in the Anglosphere such as the US, Canada and Australia.
“[They have] the same language, very similar cultures.
And still in America, Canada, in Australia in opinion polls, most citizens support Israel with a very warm feeling.
In Britain it is much less,” Steinitz said.
Cameron’s predominantly Conservative constituency is, however, less affected by this trend that singles out the Jewish state for special and uncalled-for condemnation.
As a result, he is under no political pressure back home to appease Israel-bashers.
Another area of potential tension is Iran. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was highly critical of the interim deal signed between Tehran and the P5+1 in November.
The British strongly supported it. At the time, Hague referred to it as a “significant step towards enhancing the security of the Middle East and preventing nuclear proliferation.”
He issued a warning: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.”
Nevertheless, cooperation between Israel and Britain on other aspects of the Iranian threat continues to be strong.
According to Dr. Toby Greene, director of research at BICOM (the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre), “Though there are clear differences over the interim deal, generally in recent years Britain has had a good record from Israel’s perspective on promoting sanctions against Iran, and there has been a close strategic dialogue on this issue. David Cameron will no doubt want to reassure Netanyahu that Britain remains committed to preventing Iran from getting the bomb.”
Controversies aside, Cameron would really like to focus on more positive matters, especially British-Israeli cooperation in science, education and hi-tech. After all, partnering with Israeli innovators to improve the world is an eminently more satisfying endeavor than dealing with the Iranian nuclear weapons threat or with the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bilateral trade and services totaled £5.1 billion in 2013 and both countries see tremendous potential for growth.
In October 2011, Ambassador Matthew Gould launched the UK-Israel Tech Hub at the British Embassy. The goal of the hub is synergy: British companies can help Israeli innovations go global; Israeli innovation can give British companies a competitive edge.
This month, for instance, a delegation from 15 Israeli start-ups that develop technologies for the retail industry will visit Britain to present their products. Another delegation from water-tech firms will be in Britain this month to share technologies that help provide clean water in a world increasingly threatened by pollution.
Inevitably, during Cameron’s visit here, headlines will focus on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But there is another, more positive, aspect of his visit that is no less worthy of recognition: the close technological and business cooperation between the mighty Britain and the Start-up nation in a land it once ruled.