Diplomatic Affairs: Assessing the future of British-Israeli ties

"Johnson presides over Britain’s most pro-Israel British government, as Corbyn rules over the most anti-Israel Labour Party ever."

(FROM LEFT) Lord Stuart Polak, CFI parliamentary chairman Stephen Crabb and CFI director James Gurd (photo credit: HERB KEINON)
(FROM LEFT) Lord Stuart Polak, CFI parliamentary chairman Stephen Crabb and CFI director James Gurd
(photo credit: HERB KEINON)
Dozens of freshman US congressmen from both the Democratic and Republican parties are expected to arrive in Israel next week on separate trips that will attract intensive media scrutiny.
The press will focus on who will be joining the biennial trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). And, perhaps even more so, who will not, since three of the new far-left members of the party – Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – pointedly refused to participate. Tlaib and Omar are expected on their own private trip later in the month, though the details of that visit are still sketchy.
But it is not only American legislators who visit Israel on these types of educational tours to get a firsthand view of a very complicated story; parliamentarians from other countries come on similar trips as well. And it is not only American legislators who have been on these trips and who have then climbed up to positions of significant political influence; that, too, also happens in other countries as well.
Take Boris Johnson, for instance, the new British Conservative prime minister, who came to Israel on a Conservative Friends of Israel trip in 2004, or Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, who made the trip in 2011.
This week, before the arrival of the US representatives, a CFI delegation of six MPs, three members of the House of Lords, and three parliamentary candidates were in the country and – as the US group will do – were visiting strategic sites and meeting government officials.
Stephen Crabb, from the remote southwestern Preseli Pembrokeshire district in Wales, is the parliamentary chairman of CFI. He, Stuart Polak – Lord Polak, a member of the House of Lords since 2015, who served as director of CFI for some 26 years – and CFI executive director James Gurd sat with The Jerusalem Post at the King David Hotel on Thursday and discussed the recent dramatic political developments in the UK, from the election of Johnson as Tory leader and new prime minister, to what Brexit means for Israel, and how Israel-Britain ties might look under a prime minister Jeremy Corbyn.
“BRITAIN, RIGHT now, has the most pro-Israel government it has ever had,” said Crabb, as Polak ticked off the names of Johnson, Javid and the new home secretary, Priti Patel, who was forced to resign as the UK international development secretary two years ago after holding a series of undisclosed meetings – that he (Polak) himself helped set up – with senior officials in Israel.
And while this lineup of Tory ministers has never been better for Israel, Crabb noted, “the Labour Party has the most anti-Israel leadership it has ever had. Never before have the two parties been in such contrast when it comes to Israel.”
As to what impact having the “most pro-Israel government” will now have on British-Israeli ties, Polak said it will certainly mean that defense and security ties between the two countries – which he said are at the highest level ever – will continue.
Last month a squadron from the Royal Air Force trained at the Palmahim air base with the Israel Air Force in marine search and rescue.
This type of exercise, Polak said, was “unheard of” in the past. “If you would have asked me 10 year ago whether this would happen, I would have said, ‘impossible.’”
“Things are changing and shifting,” Crabb said. “Our government is willing to be far more demonstrable in showing support for Israel. We expect and hope that Britain won’t join the rush to symbolically criticize Israel through votes at the UN.”
While he said he does not think that there will be a situation where the UK will “replicate” some of US President Donald Trump’s positions on Israel, “we want to see more realistic thinking, particularly over Iran.”
According to Polak, Brexit will also make it easier now for Britain to chart its own independent policy toward the Mideast, since it will no longer be tethered to the consensus opinion of the other 27 European Union sates.
“I won’t say it is all going to be smooth and perfect, but you may see some changes, and that we are more likely to take positions [on Israel] like Australia, Canada and the United States,” he said.
Polak said that trips such as these have had an impact on Tories who have then moved through the ranks. One such example is Javid, whom Johnson promoted last week from home secretary to chancellor of the exchequer.
Shortly after he returned from a CFI trip in 2011, there was a lunch with the then-prime minister David Cameron. According to Polak, Javid, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan, stood up and said, “If I, as a British-born Muslim, got a knock on the door in the middle of the night and was told I had to leave and go to the Middle East, as a British-born Muslim, I wouldn’t go to Dubai or anywhere else; the only place I would go would be to Israel because of the shared values and rule of law.”
Javid, as the home secretary, was instrumental – along with others such as former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt – for finally getting Britain to proscribe all of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and not maintain the fiction that it has both a political and military wing.
What is happening, Polak said, is that within the Conservative Party there is a move toward looking at the Middle East differently, “not getting stuck in a time warp, where people are fighting the old battles, using old narratives, without understanding what is going on now.”
The successful blacklisting of Hezbollah – something opposed for so long inside the Foreign Office because of a fear of what it might do to relations with Lebanon – is an example, he said, of changing a fossilized way of thinking.
Crabb said that the widely held perception in the Foreign Office and “all across Whitehall,” that we must not be “too overt about supporting Israel, because the way to stay friendly with our Gulf allies in particular is to symbolically bash Israel at the UN with our votes, is changing.”
According to Crabb, there are issues where CFI wants to place pressure on its own government, such as regarding “the issue of whether UK aid money is being abused and going into the hands of convicted Palestinian terrorists and their families.”
He said this is an issue that CFI supporters in parliament have been trying to get an answer to for years, and that on Monday the independent Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham ruled that the government “must provide to the pubic full audit trails to explain how the UK aid money is being used with the PA.”
CRABB IS neither Jewish nor representing a district with many Jews, and said that his support for Israel stems from there being “something very attractive and compelling about the Israel story. Not to romanticize it, but it is a story of heroism and courage, and the fact that Israel – in a very troubled neighborhood – stands out as a beacon of liberty, freedom and prosperity.”
Reminded that this is not the perception most Israelis have of how the UK public views Israel, Crabb is asked whether his support for Israel costs him politically.
“I get criticism from different quarters for my vocal support for Israel, but the kind of people who criticize me are not going to vote for me anyway. So I am not going to be troubled by it,” he said.
Asked who those people are, he responded: “Left-wing activists; we have a real problem in the UK where on the left wing of our politics violent anti-Israel rhetoric merges with poisonous antisemitism.”
Corbyn, Crabb said, has “helped legitimize publicly the fusion of anti-Israel sentiment with downright bloody antisemitism.”
That left-wing activists send angry emails over support for Israel “does not trouble me,” Crabb said, “it doesn’t trouble me that they attack me, but it troubles me that there is this poison in the political culture right now.”
Asked to imagine what Israel-Britain relations would look like if Corbyn became prime minister, Crabb said, “Well, immigration to Israel goes up.”
Polak said that he imagines that Corbyn would begin enacting his policies toward Israel.
“The first thing he will do is impose an arms embargo that will affect – and this is something he hasn’t quite understood – the British Army more than Israel, because it is often the Israeli technology that comes into the UK. Then there will be trade bans and boycotts and a major boon for the BDS movement.”
Crabb argued that even if Corbyn is toppled inside the party, “you don’t get a moderate to replace him, you get another hard-liner, because such is the grip these groups have on the modern Labour Party.”
The good news, both Crabb and Polak said, is that most people don’t think this will happen, and that it seems that the Corbyn bubble peaked following the 2017 elections.
By rights, Polak said, “with all the problems the Conservative Party is facing – with Brexit and just changing leaders – at midterm the opposition should be 25 points ahead in the polls. That would be normal. But they are not; they are 10 points behind us in the polls.”
Still, he said that it is crucial for the Conservatives to “get their act together,” arguing that if they do not, the consequences for Israel-British ties in the form of a Corbyn government would be devastating.