Israel-UK relations are better than ever, UK Ambassador Neil Wigan said on Wednesday.
Wigan spoke to The Jerusalem Post before he leaves Israel at the end of the month, after four years in his post.
Looking back at his time in Israel and comparing it to his posting as a diplomat in the Jewish state nearly 20 years ago, Wigan said the proportion of time spent on Palestinian-related matters versus other matters has been reversed. Now, his work is 80% unrelated to the conflict.
“It’s not the dominant thing in the way it used to be,” he said.
Rather, Israel’s thriving tech sector “shapes the way Israel feels about itself, changed Israel’s economy – I can see the 20-year economic boom and how Tel Aviv and the coastal strip changed because of that – and changed the way Israel is perceived internationally.”
“When prime ministers [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Rishi] Sunak met in March, they said the relationship is the strongest it’s ever been,” he added. “Tech, science, the free trade agreement, commercial deals, Iran and security cooperation – there is real depth in a lot of those areas.”
In addition, Wigan said the members of the British government are “strongly interested in Israel.”
UK-Israel close cooperation on Iran
Cooperation between Israel and the UK on countering the Iranian threat is “really close,” he said. “We’re not under any illusions when it comes to Iran. They directly threatened attacks on British soil... We are taking it very seriously.”
Asked why the Foreign Office has not completed the process of proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Wigan responded that the UK “sanctioned 350 Iranian groups and individuals, the whole of the IRGC and many of its leaders.”
Wigan said the UK is “vividly aware of the sunset clauses” in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, to which London is a signatory. In accordance with those clauses, UN sanctions on Iranian ballistic missiles are set to be lifted in October of this year.
That deal includes “snapback sanctions,” which state that, if Iran violates the agreement, any of the signatories can individually trigger the return of all pre-2015 UN sanctions on Iran’s nuclear and other weapons programs, without it being vetoed by the others.
“If Iran goes too far then we would look at snapback. We looked at it pretty hard in the past,” Wigan stated.
Concern about Israeli settlements
Wigan said the UK is “very concerned” about Israeli construction in the West Bank.
“We have always viewed settlements as illegal under international law and have always been against settlement expansion,” he said.
Wigan also said it is unlikely that the UK will move its embassy to Jerusalem in the near future, and that Sunak said as much.
“We always said we would do it when we thought it would have the maximum positive effect on the peace process, and I don’t think that moment is now,” he stated.
Wigan noted that there was enthusiasm in Jerusalem about the UK leaving the EU and that Brexit, as it is known, has helped advance a better free trade agreement with Israel.
“The EU agreement was from 1995, so the word ‘Internet’ doesn’t appear in it, while there is a lot about European olive oil exports to Israel,” he quipped. “Now, we’re negotiating a free trade agreement with a focus on innovation, technology and digital services.”
Wigan commented on a bill targeting the anti-Israel BDS movement that passed a vote in Parliament earlier this week.
“Some public bodies encouraged BDS, or boycotts particularly, and the British government has made clear that foreign policy is the job of the British government and individual entities should not be engaged in it,” he said. “Boycotts, in some cases, inflamed community tensions in ways the government disagrees with and wants to put an end to it.”
Asked about the free speech ramifications of preventing local governments from boycotting, Wigan said “the government is deeply committed to free speech, including on campuses. People should be free to speak about Israel on campuses. There was huge support of the British government for [Israeli Ambassador to the UK Tzipi] Hotovely’s right and anybody else’s to speak on campus.”
However, the BDS bill “is about measures taken, not speech. The principle that individual bodies should not have their own foreign policy is very key.”
In addition, Wigan said “criticism of Israel is legitimate, but when it moves to antisemitism, it is a problem.”
Amid reports that King Charles may visit Israel soon, Wigan expressed hope that it would happen.
“I am sure he would like to come back [to Israel], but when that will happen, I don’t know,” he said.
“The king came here in February 2020 when he was still the prince,” Wigan said. He took part in a major Holocaust memorial ceremony at Yad Vashem.
King Charles has “a strong personal connection with the Holy Land. His grandmother is buried on the Mount of Olives and in the coronation in London, he was anointed with oil from the Mount of Olives,” he added.