New UK government does not mean new Israel policy, experts say

During her term as prime minister, Liz Truss, who heads the Conservative Party, is unlikely to break away from long-standing policies when it comes to Iran and other issues.

 Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid exchange documents after signing a memorandum of understanding at Britain's Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office in London, Britain, November 29, 2021.  (photo credit: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY)
Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid exchange documents after signing a memorandum of understanding at Britain's Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office in London, Britain, November 29, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY)

Amid the grief and grace surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s death and the accession to the throne of her son King Charles III, one may be forgiven for forgetting that the United Kingdom last week also inaugurated a new prime minister, whose invitation to form a government was the late monarch’s final official duty.

After less than a week on the job, Prime Minister Liz Truss found herself under the world’s steady gaze following the death of the queen. But even during this period of mourning and ceremony, the new premier must handle matters of state and actually govern the country.

This includes relations with foreign allies and enemies, with Israel firmly in the former camp. The Conservative prime minister showed her intentions toward Britain’s relationship with Israel during her previous tenure as foreign secretary, and that does not seem likely to change, experts say.

Truss has made clear that she sees Israel as a friend and ally of the UK, twice highlighting Israel as a partner in a December 2021 speech, shortly after taking office as foreign secretary.

Truss and Lapid establish rapport

Her appointment as premier was welcomed by Israel, with Prime Minister Yair Lapid quickly offering congratulations to his “good friend and a great friend of Israel.”

Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss leaves after attending the presentation of addresses by both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, inside the Palace of Westminster, following the death of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, in central London, Britain, September 12, 2022. (credit: MARKUS SCHREIBER/POOL VIA REUTERS)Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss leaves after attending the presentation of addresses by both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, inside the Palace of Westminster, following the death of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, in central London, Britain, September 12, 2022. (credit: MARKUS SCHREIBER/POOL VIA REUTERS)

“I look forward to continuing our work together to take that alliance to new heights.”

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid

“Our nations are allies united by our commitment to freedom and a shared vision for the future,” Lapid said in a statement, adding: “I look forward to continuing our work together to take that alliance to new heights.”

The two leaders built a strong relationship during their previous roles as their respective countries’ top diplomat.

In November, Truss and Lapid published a joint opinion piece in the British newspaper The Telegraph, affirming solid bilateral ties and “transforming our close friendship into an even closer partnership by formally agreeing to a new strategic plan for the next decade, spanning cyber, tech, trade and defense.”

In the same month, as foreign secretary, Truss announced that Hamas, the extremist Palestinian group that has ruled Gaza since 2006, would be proscribed by Britain as a terrorist organization, a move that she said would also “help tackle the scourge” of antisemitism.

(In an apparently pointed political dig, the article from The Times of London that she included in her statement on Twitter showed a photo of former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn with Hamas officials in Jerusalem in 2010. Corbyn has long been accused of antisemitism and of associating with terrorist groups.)

While the view from the prime minister’s office can often look very different than one expects, analysts say it is unlikely that there will be much actual change in bilateral ties from a leader who has closely allied herself to many of the policies of her predecessor, Boris Johnson.   

“Broadly speaking, the Conservative Party as a whole, and both former prime minister Johnson and the new prime minister Truss, will stay broadly supportive and engaged and see Israel as a strategic partner and one of their closest allies,” Richard Pater, director of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), told The Media Line.

Dr. Toby Greene, a lecturer in the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University, also believes the good relationship between the countries will continue. 

“We can expect to see a continuation of the very positive government-to-government relations, building on the bilateral roadmap for UK-Israel relations that Truss signed as foreign minister with Yair Lapid in November,” Greene told The Media Line.

“There is a shared goal of an expanded bilateral trade agreement and furthering cooperation in a host of other fields including cyber, defense and climate change-related innovation,” he added.

Yet, given the upheaval that Britain is currently experiencing, coming alongside a cost-of-living crisis that has left most households facing crippling energy bills, the new prime minister will not be prioritizing foreign affairs, with the exception of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pater says.

“The clear, overwhelming priority and focus will be domestic orientation and I don’t expect Israel and other [countries] apart from Ukraine to be dominating foreign policy issues. I think other foreign policies, including Israel, will go further down the list of priorities,” he said.

Israel should expect a similar response when it comes to the peace process, according to the experts.

“Truss, and her government, is weighed down with an exceptionally challenging set of issues at home and abroad, and so a significant UK engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic arena is not in the cards,” Greene said.

Pater says that London is happy to let Washington set the tone on such matters.

“I think the default position of the UK for quite some time now has been in tandem with the US and to let the US, when it has been relevant, to do the heavy lifting and just give a kind of back up to that process. So, I don’t think we are really anticipating any kind of unilateral or even UK-led agenda on that issue,” Pater said.

This willingness to take a secondary role extends to the ongoing American efforts to revive the Iran nuclear agreement, Greene adds.

“Truss has talked tough on Iran, in common with other Western leaders, but is unlikely to stand in the way of the Biden administration’s determination to return to the JCPOA if possible,” he said, referring to the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Pater cautions that this could be a sticking point in Israeli-British relations.

“When it comes to Israel, the top priority is as you know Iran, Iran, Iran. And I think there is concern that, although Truss and the Conservatives generally talk a good game in terms of backing Israeli interests and share concerns about the aggressive and nasty nature of the Iranian regime, I think there is concern that again apropos the peace process as well, that the UK ultimately will fall into line with the US and with the E3 [Britain, Germany and France] and is unlikely to object and really go all the way doing Israel’s bidding when it comes to nuclear talks,” he said.

There are other issues that involve Israel, including draft legislation in the UK outlawing public bodies from boycotting investment in Israel, and the potential move of the British Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital.

While both Pater and Greene are sanguine on the former, they are more circumspect about the prospects of Downing Street following the lead of the White House on the issue of where to locate their embassy.

“Hopefully within the next few months we should be looking forward to some development on that legislative front,” said Pater of the legislation that targets the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel.

“The UK government committed to bring forward legislation to prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts when it announced its legislative program back in May,” according to Greene.

“Though there will not be any principled change in this policy as a result of the change of party leader, the question is how much of a priority this will be for a government facing far more pressing issues in both domestic and foreign policy,” he added.

Greene says the new prime minister has not made any commitment to relocate the embassy. 

“Truss told pro-Israel Conservative activists during the campaign that she would ‘review a move’ of the embassy to Jerusalem. This was a signal of the strength of her support for Israel but it was not a policy commitment and will not be a priority for her government,” Greene warned.

Pater describes such a move as “wishful thinking.”

“I can’t see that being made a top priority, but even the fact that she raised it as a possibility is kind of encouraging, based on the trajectory of where British foreign policy has been in the longer term over the last few decades. So, we welcome the debate among the UK foreign policy establishment but we’re not holding our breath over whether it will really happen anytime soon,” he said.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in June that Truss as foreign secretary had been expected to visit the country within the month, but two weeks later Boris Johnson resigned as premier and her ultimately successful campaign to replace him began in earnest.

Israeli leaders are no doubt hoping that the new British prime minister will honor that commitment sooner rather than later.