Outgoing British envoy: ties with Israel have never been stronger

‘Israel packs a lot of complexity in nine million people,’ said Ambassador David Quarrey in an interview with the Post.

May 9, 2019 22:33
OUTGOING BRITISH Ambassador David Quarrey.

OUTGOING BRITISH Ambassador David Quarrey. . (photo credit: BEN KELMER)

Forget all the noise – the Israel-UK relationship has never been stronger, outgoing British Ambassador David Quarrey asserted in a parting interview this week with The Jerusalem Post.

Ah, yes, but about that noise.

Some London pedestrians were met this week by posters plastered on bus stops reading, “Israel’s killing children again, enjoy your weekend.” Anti-Israel protests where the Israeli flag is trampled or burned have taken place in the city. And the Labour Party has, as many now acknowledge, a leader in Jeremy Corbyn with a deep antisemitism problem.

Though Quarrey carefully steps around any questions having to do with Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour Party, he doesn’t deny that antisemitism and a strain of rabid anti-Zionism pollute Britain’s landscape, as they do in other parts of Europe. But his point is simple – yes, that is there, but that is not all that there is. In fact, it is marginal and not impacting on the real substance of Israel-UK ties.

And the real substance of those ties is that trade between the two countries is at record levels, scientific and academic cooperation is booming, and intelligence and security cooperation between the two countries has never been as tight.

And that is what really matters, he maintains. The rest is, well, noise. Loud, distracting, annoying – but noise nonetheless.

“I completely understand why people in Israel are concerned about boycotts and the BDS movement,” he said. “I completely get that, and the British government has been very clear on its opposition to boycotts. But the reality of the situation... is that the impact has been marginal.

“We have seen fantastic growth in trade figures, in the numbers of Israeli businesses operating in the UK, in big British businesses coming to Israel to do more of their tech and innovation work here,” he said.

“Academic cooperation has expanded in recent years. We have hundreds of British and Israeli scientists together in conferences and symposiums that we have organized. Yes, there is a lot of noise sometimes around boycotts and BDS, but if you look at the practical impact, it really is tiny.”

Indeed, commerce between the two countries has exploded since Britain became a center of BDS activity in the middle of the last decade. In 2008, just as BDS was gaining attention in Britain and elsewhere, trade between Israel and the UK stood at $3.9 billion. Ten years later, in 2018, that number rose by some 170% to $10.5b. And that’s with Roger Waters’s constant rantings, the labeling of settlement products, and various boycotts by various unions.

Israeli-UK ties are “stronger and deeper than they have ever been,” he said. “We have had three consecutive years of record bilateral trade figures. We are Israel’s biggest trade partner in Europe. We are Israel’s biggest investment destination in Europe. We have over 340 Israeli companies operating in the UK that we know of, and probably many more that we don’t know of.”

Regarding academic cooperation, he said there is a “huge appetite from British universities to be doing more” with their Israeli colleagues. Key British universities are “really keen” on increasing the number of Israeli students in the UK, increasing the number of British students, and – on matters such as hi-tech – learning from the Israeli experience.

But cooperation between the two countries, he said, is not focused only on a “prosperity agenda.”

“There is lots of cooperation on security as well. It is less visible, but our two systems are working more closely together than we have previously to keep our people safe.”

Predictably, Quarrey would not give any details of this cooperation, saying only, “I’m talking about coordination between our security people aimed at counterterrorism, counter-extremism, the challenges in the region.... There is a depth to the security coordination that we have not seen in the past.”

But when asked whether this level of ties would last under a Corbyn government, Quarrey sidestepped, saying “I can’t speak about a future government, I can’t get into British domestic politics.”

However, he added, “It does seem to me that there is such momentum behind the trade and investment agenda now that I can’t see any alternative to it continuing to grow. When you see the interest on both ends, when you see the quality of British companies coming here, when you see how many Israelis are finding the UK a great place to do business, a great place from which to operate globally, I’m very confident about the future of the commercial relationship.”

Those words – about a belief in the future of the commercial relationship – were obviously chosen carefully. After all, Israel has a very strong commercial relationship with Turkey, even though diplomatic ties have nosedived and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is virulently anti-Israel.

What, Quarrey is asked, would happen to the Israeli-British political relationship under Corbyn.

Again his response: “I can’t get into British domestic politics,” the same response he also gave when asked how he responds to Israelis with whom he meets who certainly ask questions about Corbyn and antisemitism.

Quarrey was willing, however, to take questions on antisemitism in Britain head-on, saying that “one of the most difficult aspects of my four years in Israel has been witnessing a growth in antisemitism in the UK, and I think it is completely wrong to pretend – if anybody does – that there isn’t a problem.”

“As a British citizen, as well as a British ambassador, this is a terrible thing to see. There is a problem there, and it is a problem the British government is really seriously committed to tackling. You see horrible manifestations of it online, and we have increased funding providing for organizations providing security to the Jewish community.”

Quarrey takes issue with the characterization of the problem as one that has been imported with immigrants coming from Muslim countries.

“It is very hard to understand what is driving much of this [antisemitism], but I really don’t think this is all about things being imported from the Middle East. Unfortunately, as we all know, Europe has its own history of antisemitism, and I think one of the most distressing things, when we look at this, is the ancient antisemitic tropes and images – things from centuries past in Europe – that have resurfaced.

“So I don’t think we can just blame this all on one group, or on something that is outside of Europe – Europe, including the United Kingdom, must take its own responsibility for all of this, and face its own history.”

Asked if pro-Israel Jews can feel safe and secure in Britain, Quarrey said that while there is “enormous concern among the Jewish community about the rise of antisemitism, it is a strong, thriving community that makes an invaluable contribution to British life.”

He also pointed to recently released immigration figures that showed that aliyah from Britain – despite Corbyn, BDS and the rise of reported antisemitic incidents in the country – has actually gone down. According to Jewish Agency figures, only 504 immigrants arrived last year from the UK, the lowest level of aliyah from that country since 2001.

“It is a strong and resilient community,” Quarrey repeated. “The Jewish community shouldn’t have to face these challenges, but they can and they do, and they are proudly supportive of Israel – quite rightly so.”

The support that exists among Jews, however, has – according to various polls – not had much of an impact on the non-Jewish population. A survey last year conducted by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center found that only 20% of the British population feels “warmth” toward Israel, a figure that stands in stark contrast with the situation in the US, where a Pew poll released this month found that 64% of the American public has a “favorable” or “somewhat favorable” opinion of Israel.

There are a number of reasons for that discrepancy, Quarrey said.

“One reason is that the [media] coverage a lot of people see of Israel in the UK, and in Europe generally, is very much centered around the conflict. I don’t think people get to see the broader picture about the extraordinary things going on here in the economy, academia, the arts. So people sometimes have a narrow perspective of Israel, because a lot of what they do see is through the prism of the conflict.”

In addition, he said, “I don’t think there is yet the full infrastructure of connection with the UK that there exists with the US. I constantly encourage people to come and see it for themselves. That is the most important thing – when people come to Israel – and I’ve seen his time and time again over my four years. People take away a different view. It doesn’t mean they will agree with everything that happens here; you wouldn’t expect that. But they take away a much more rounded view of the country and of the people.”

While in 2018 Britain was Israel’s fifth-largest source of tourists, with some 218,000 arrivals, considering Israel’s climate, beaches and tourist sites, those numbers are far less than the potential. Among the reasons, Quarrey said, are both the lack of familiarity in the UK with Israel beyond the conflict, as well as the fact that Israel is “quite an expensive destination for a family holiday at the moment.”

Another issue that Quarrey touched upon during the interview was Brexit and the impact Britain’s planned leaving of the European Union will have on Israeli-British ties.

The Brexit issue has triggered a debate in Israel over the last few years whether a British exit from the EU is good or bad for Israel. Some argued that it would be good, saying that it would weaken the EU’s diplomatic clout, and that a weaker EU, which is often highly critical of Israel on the international stage, is not necessarily bad for Israel. Others, however, argued that Britain has over the years emerged as one of the strongest supporters of Israel inside the EU, and that to lose that voice would be a net loss for Israel.
Quarrey, when asked what he thought about the issue, said that Britain has been a strong friend of Israel as a member of the EU, “and I’m sure, when we leave, we will be a strong friend from the outside.”

“I think in UK-Israel terms there will be some opportunities from Brexit,” he said. “I think it is making some British companies and British universities look harder at the possibilities here, and what new options for them exist with Israel, post Brexit.”

He added that he does not think the ongoing political pandemonium and uncertainty in London over the issue have affected ties, as the trajectory of trade and academic cooperation is continually on the rise.

As to what he found most surprising about Israel, having lived here now for the last four years, he responded without hesitation: the country’s diversity.

Quarrey, for whom Israel was his first ambassadorial appointment, said he had visited the country in various professional capacities – he was former British prime minister Tony Blair’s private secretary – more than 20 times before arriving as ambassador in 2015.
But during those visits, he said, he only really saw Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the highway that links the two.

“What I really take away from my time here is the extraordinary richness and diversity of the place,” he said. “Israel compacts a lot of complexity into nine million people. And that makes it – for a diplomat – an incredibly rich environment in which to work.”•

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