Analysis: New UK gov't likely to be more of the same on ME

A summary of my initial thoughts on what this all might mean for Britain’s policy on Israel and the Middle East.

By ROBIN SHEPHERD
May 12, 2010 14:02
4 minute read.
Queen asks Conservative leader David Cameron to fo

Cameron & Queen. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

So, with Conservative leader David Cameron having been appointed as prime minister on Tuesday evening and with the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg having agreed to join the Conservatives in a coalition government, here, in bullet point form, is a summary of my initial thoughts on what this all might mean for Britain’s policy on Israel and the Middle East. This is an instant reaction. I will flesh it out when the government program is released later. Here goes:

- Foreign policy generally will take a distant second place to the economy. The European Commission last week forecast Britain’s budget deficit would grow to 12 percent of gross domestic product by the end of the year, exceeding even Greece’s to represent the largest deficit in the entire 27-member European Union. That will occupy the business of this government for as long as it lasts. Only foreign policy matters involving Britain’s armed forces engaged in combat (Afghanistan, mainly) will ever likely rise to the top of the political agenda in any meaningful way.

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- With that in mind, consider that the word “Israel” did not appear once in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto. The Tories pledged only to “support a two-state solution to the Middle East Peace Process”. Not what you’d call a mind-blowingly original contribution to the debate!

- Given that both parties in the coalition will be preoccupied with the economy and that the Conservative Party, the leading party in the coalition, has shown no real interest in the Middle East anyway, the British Foreign office will find itself in an immensely powerful position to influence the direction of policy. In other words, the (Arabist-oriented) bureaucracy is likely to inherit a lot of power by default as top politicians attend to other matters.

- The new Foreign Secretary will be William Hague (Conservative). Hague is a good man, and he is highly intelligent. But it is not clear how much depth there is to his knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs. His best known attitudes to foreign policy are his views on the European Union, (which are skeptical). This would also suggest that he will rely heavily on the traditionally anti-Israeli Foreign Office for guidance on Israel.

- In terms of Hague’s gut opinions on Israel, he described the Jewish state’s actions in the 2006 Lebanon war as “disproportionate”. In March this year, however, he contrasted his views on Lebanon with his response to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza:

“During Cast Lead Israel was under rocket attack and I was careful to not condemn what was happening but to call for a ceasefire on both sides,” he said. “I was more critical of the Lebanon war, because I did not think it was wise from Israel’s point of view.” And, he added: “I do have my differences with Israel sometimes. We will be a candid friend. If we are critical, it will be after we have thought about it carefully.”

- The Liberal-Democrats, led by the new Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, are probably the most anti-Israeli party among Britain’s big three. Their attitude to foreign affairs generally often appears to draw its inspiration from the NGO community and the likes of the UN Human Rights Council.

Clegg has warned of “sabre rattling” over Iran’s nuclear program and of Britain “sleepwalking” its way into a military conflict on the matter. His party is in favor of the universal jurisdiction laws. It also contains people such as the infamous peer Baroness Jenny Tonge who has gone on record as saying that if she had to live like the Palestinians she might even become a suicide bomber herself. Recently, she suggested that allegations that Israeli medical teams in Haiti were harvesting the bodily organs of Haitian earthquake victims were sufficiently credible as to merit investigation. Clegg reprimanded her for that, but did not kick her out of the party many of whose members support her views.

- The Liberal Democrat Party’s election manifesto pledged on the Middle East to: “Remain committed to the search for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A sustainable solution can be reached in the context of two separate Israeli and Palestinian states, mutually recognized and internationally accepted within borders which are secure and based on the situation before the 1967 conflict. We condemn disproportionate force used by all sides. We believe Britain and the EU must put pressure on Israel and Egypt to end the blockade of Gaza.”

- My initial conclusion, therefore, is that there will be no real change in the substance of British policy towards Israel, although the Liberal Democrats may negatively influence the tone. The Foreign Office will face no significant new dynamics from this government forcing it to change its long-standing approach to the MidEast. That approach is based on the belief that good relations with the Arab and Muslim world are essential to maintaining energy security, and to getting things done in international institutions such as the United Nations where they represent a large and influential bloc of nations. Israel will continue to be a casualty of that calculation.

The writer is director of international affairs at the Henry Jackson Society in London. He has held senior fellowships at some of the world's most prestigious public policy institutes since leaving international journalism in 2003, when his last position was Moscow bureau chief for The Times of London.

 This article is edited and republished with permission from his blog at www.robinshepherdonline.com


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