With the appointment of Boris Johnson as Britain’s foreign secretary, Jerusalem will be getting a “very outspoken friend of Israel,” former ambassador to London Daniel Taub said on Thursday.
“He is a very enthusiastic supporter, and his relationship with Israel goes back a long way,” said Taub, who returned to Israel six months ago following a four-year tenure in Britain. He termed Johnson’s enthusiasm for Israel “infectious,” and said that “he jumped on our idea of an Israeli cultural festival in London, and thanks to his backing it will be happening next year.”
The flamboyant Johnson, a former mayor of London, last visited Israel in November 2015. Some Palestinian groups refused to meet him during his time in the Palestinian Authority, after he called British supporters of BDS “corduroy-jacketed, snaggletoothed, lefty academics.”
He added, “I cannot think of anything more foolish” than to boycott Israel. Israel, he said, is a “country that when all is said and done is the only democracy in the region, the only place that has in my view a pluralist open society.”
Taub also had warm words to say about Johnson’s new boss, Prime Minister Theresa May.
“She was home secretary, and I had the opportunity to work closely with her,” Taub said. “She was always receptive to the concerns of the Jewish community, and the areas where we cooperated closely were in homeland security and confronting extremist violence.”
As home secretary, May was in charge of the MI5 domestic security agency, and Taub said that during David Cameron’s tenure as prime minister, Israeli-British security and intelligence cooperation was “more deep and transparent” than ever.
Though May’s public persona is one of being formal, the former ambassador said that he found her accessible, and that in private she was warm and supportive of Israel.
When Taub – who is taking a year’s leave from the Foreign Ministry to become director of strategy and planning at Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild family’s philanthropic trust, in Jerusalem – parted from May last year to return to Israel, he said he asked a personal favor: the restoration of his British citizenship, which he forfeited when he became ambassador.
“This is something that is at her discretion,” said Taub, who explained that he was interested in getting his citizenship back because of the closeness he feels to the country of his birth, which is also the country where his great-grandparents found refuge and opportunity. He said that May did not realize at first that she had the discretionary power to restore citizenship, but then did so willingly.
Taub noted that May’s only visit to Israel was in the summer of 2014, when the bodies of the three teenagers kidnapped by Hamas operatives in Gush Etzion were found. “She was here during a very moving time,” he said, adding that she was always very supportive of Britain’s cooperation with Israel.
Taub declined to speculate whether her friendship for Israel would reach the level enjoyed with Cameron, which he said was “remarkable in a number of ways.”
For instance, Taub said, during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Cameron was “almost alone among the leaders of Europe in insisting that Israel has the right and obligation to defend Israel, and he would not use words like ‘disproportionate’ or ‘indiscriminate’ use of force.”
Cameron “also had a historic sense of the importance of Israel, and has done more than any other British prime minister in ensuring the remembrance of the Holocaust.”
Furthermore, said Taub, Cameron saw in Israel a model of many of the things he hoped for British society: a can-do spirit, volunteerism and social cohesion.
Cameron’s decision to step down, Taub said, was from Israel’s perspective an early negative result of the recent British referendum to pull out of the EU. In the immediate future, Taub said, there is no doubt that Britain will be going through a period of instability, and “we have no interest in that.”
In the long term, Israel is interested in a Britain that is “strong, prosperous and influential,” he said.
The United Kingdom remains an important Israeli trade partner and ally, is a member of the UN Security Council and NATO, and has a very important role in supporting American policy, Taub said. In addition, it wields significant soft power through such institutions as the BBC.
“It is a significant and sympathetic player,” he said. “We want them to be as strong and influential as possible.”
The country now is in a transition period, and it will take time to see if Brexit strengthened, or weakened, Britain and its world standing.
Taub agreed with the assessment that there exists in Britain a disconnect between a government that under Cameron was very supportive, and a sense – at least among many Israelis – that the mood among the British public toward Israel is shifting negatively.
In Britain, “the good is getting better, and the bad is getting worse,” he said.
The relationship Israel enjoyed with Cameron and his government was an example of the good getting better, but regarding the other half of the equation, hostility toward Israel is making its way into the mainstream, and there are dangerous “winds of hostility” on campuses, in the unions and in parts of the media.
Even if the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activists have not succeeded in their declared goals, “they have created a chill factor in the public space,” he said.
Another area where things are getting worse is in the Labour Party, where he said there are trends – including manifestations of anti-Semitism – that are “genuinely worrying.”
“What has happened is that positions that previously existed there, but were relegated to the periphery, have now been making their way to the mainstream and legitimized,” he said.
While the previous Labour leadership was willing to broaden the agenda with Israel, and did not only deal with political issues but also core values of the party – such as trade, employment and education – the current leadership threatens to take the dialogue “back to a very narrow, problematic agenda.”
Taub said that this was particularly frustrating, since Israel is a rare or even unique model in the Middle East of the traditional Labour Party values of freedom of expression, women’s rights and trade union representation.