Watching Britain, thinking Turkey - analysis

“I won’t meddle in internal elections, but I personally hope that he won’t be elected,” Yisrael Katz said.

Conservative leader Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are seen during a televised debate ahead of general election in London, Britain, November 19, 2019 (photo credit: JONATHAN HORDLE/ITV/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Conservative leader Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are seen during a televised debate ahead of general election in London, Britain, November 19, 2019
In November 2002, the Turkish people voted into power an antisemitic, Hamas supporting politician named Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It took a few years, but bilateral ties between Israel and Turkey, which had been flourishing at the time of the election, tanked.
On Thursday there is the possibility – though the polls show it is remote – that the British people will vote into power an antisemitic, Hamas and Hezbollah supporting politician named Jeremy Corbyn. And if that happens, in all likelihood bilateral relations between Israel and the United Kingdom will collapse as well, even though they are presently excellent.
This explains why last week, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, and on Monday, Yair Lapid, each did something unusual: They expressed an opinion regarding the outcome they would like to see in another country’s election.
“I won’t meddle in internal elections, but I personally hope that he won’t be elected,” Katz said.
Lapid was more direct. “Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite,” he stated. “Everyone should take this into account going into the voting booth, because racists are racists and Jeremy Corbyn is a racist.”
Typically, as Lapid acknowledged before making his comment, politicians do not interfere in other countries’ elections.
Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – who, it is fair to say, would like to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replaced – has never come out publicly to endorse Netanyahu’s rival. Why not? Because what if the candidate you are rooting against ends up winning?
The fact that both Katz, the country’s current foreign minister, and Lapid, a man who would like to be foreign minister, have spoken publicly against Corbyn, shows that they are not worried about what will happen to UK-Israel ties if Corbyn is elected. Seemingly, that’s because it is a given that if Corbyn wins, the ties will be severely damaged, regardless of what they say beforehand. Just look at what happened with Turkey.
Prior to Erdogan’s election, and even for a couple of years after, Jerusalem and Ankara enjoyed an intimate security and intelligence relationship. Israel sold the Turks billions of dollars worth of weaponry. The two countries’ security services worked hand in glove. Further, the IAF trained in Turkish airspace. The 1990s and early 2000s have been referred to as the “Golden Era” in Israeli-Turkish ties.
However, once it became clear where Erdogan was pulling the country, and certainly after the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, that era came to an abrupt end, and all that intimate intelligence cooperation, all those arms sales and military training, stopped dead.
Something similar can be expected to happen to the deep security and intelligence ties between Jerusalem and London, if Corbyn wins. Israel will not be willing to share sensitive intelligence secrets with a British government if it is headed by a man like Corbyn, who, in the past, has expressed sympathy for terrorists.
Likewise, the Labour party spelled out last month in its election manifesto under Corbyn that it would want to downgrade security relations with a country it views as oppressing Palestinians. If elected, that manifesto declared, “We will immediately suspend the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen and to Israel for arms used in violation of the human rights of Palestinian civilians.”
And what else will a Corbyn-led government do? “A Labour government will immediately recognize the state of Palestine,” the document read. It will also “reform the international rules-based order to secure justice and accountability for breaches of human rights and international law, such as … the illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip.”
In other words, it will put the two countries on a collision course over major issues, an approach that will inevitably harm the bilateral ties. Erdogan also wanted to end the “illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip,” something that led to the Mavi Marmara.
If Turkey is seen as a prototype of where ties are headed with Britain under Corbyn, one element that is unlikely to be hammered is non-security related trade, because this benefits both sides. For example, trade between Israel and Turkey on the eve of the Mavi Marmara incident was $2.8 billion, and rose to $4.8b last year. Seemingly, despite all of Erdogan’s hateful rhetoric, business is business.
UK-Israel trade is currently thriving at record levels, reaching $10.5b last year. Corbyn and his allies might want to boycott and divest from Israel, but with Brexit around the corner, London is going to be looking for more trade partners, not fewer.
When Turkey turned on Israel, the Jewish state lost an extremely important and valuable asset. However, it did not have the luxury to hang its head and mourn. It had to compensate. As the ties with Turkey went sour, ties with Turkey’s numerous historic enemies took off. Relations with Greece and Cyprus, as well as Romania and Bulgaria, flourished. The tension with Turkey also created something new in common between Israel and the neighboring Arab states which were equally wary of Erdogan, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Potentially losing a close relationship with Britain, a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and vast political, economic, cultural and military influence, would be a tremendous diplomatic loss for Israel, many times greater than what was lost with Turkey.
However, the Turkish example shows that if Israel loses strategic ground in one area, it is possible to pick it up somewhere else. It just takes creativity. The hope is that this country’s strategic planners are busy trying to locate where that “somewhere else” might be if, when it comes to Israel, Britain under Corbyn goes Turkey.