It was on May 14, 1948, that David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the birth of the State of Israel. That date on the Jewish calendar was Iyar 5. So Israel’s Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) is celebrated annually on Iyar 5, which rarely coincides with May 14 on the civil calendar. In fact, the two dates have come together only twice since 1948. In 2023, Iyar 5 falls on April 26, and May 14 is nearly three weeks away. So it looks as though Israel is in for an extended period of celebration this year – which will be highly appropriate, since 2023 marks Israel’s 75th birthday.
Speaking at a high-powered luncheon in London on December 12, 2022, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, announced that he intends to visit Israel to join in the celebrations. The luncheon, an annual event sponsored by the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), was attended by three former UK prime ministers – Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss – as well as Israel’s Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely, Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and a host of other eminent figures in the political and Anglo-Jewish worlds.
Sunak took the opportunity to make another announcement of equal significance. The UK, he declared, would be voting against a certain forthcoming resolution in the UN General Assembly. On November 11, a UN Special Committee voted in favor of requesting the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to provide a judicial opinion about whether Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem constitutes de facto annexation.
He was as good as his word when the resolution came before the UN General Assembly on December 30. The UK joined the 25 other nations that voted against it, including the US, Canada, Australia and eight of the 27 EU countries. Although 53 nations abstained and 27 were absent, the resolution passed with the support of 87 nations and will move to the ICJ in The Hague.
Palestinian factions, including Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, condemned Sunak’s position. But his decision to move the UK from abstaining in the vote to positive opposition is entirely in line with his declared position in general regarding Israel and its interests.
In a letter to the CFI on November 30, Sunak reiterated his “dedication to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people…. As a proud friend of Israel,” he continued, “I will fight very hard for the security of people in Israel and to continue the UK’s determined efforts to end the bias against Israel. This includes standing up to Iranian hostility and their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran’s nuclear escalation is threatening international security and undermining the global non-proliferation system. The UK will continue working with Israel and all our allies to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
“I will fight very hard for the security of people in Israel and to continue the UK’s determined efforts to end the bias against Israel. This includes standing up to Iranian hostility and their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran’s nuclear escalation is threatening international security and undermining the global non-proliferation system. The UK will continue working with Israel and all our allies to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.”Rishi Sunak
Regarding the Abraham Accords, which he regards as “one of the greatest achievements in the history of diplomacy in the Middle East,” Sunak made a positive commitment thus far unmatched by any other world statesman. The UK, he said, “will continue to do all it can to leverage our strong ties with other Gulf States to expand the number of signatories to the agreement and enhance the already blossoming opportunities opened up by these ground-breaking agreements.”
A new opportunity-rich UK-Israel Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is also in the offing.
Back in November 2021, when Yair Lapid was Israel’s foreign minister, he went to the UK and met with Liz Truss, then UK foreign secretary. They got along famously and jointly signed a UK-Israel agreement intended to lead the way to a new FTA.
Trade relations between the UK and Israel had been blossoming ever since David Cameron became prime minister in 2010. Under Cameron’s auspices, and with willing cooperation from then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the highly innovative UK-Israel Tech Hub was set up. Based in the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, it was intended to be a proactive partnership, fostering hi-tech cooperation between the two nations. Nothing of the kind had ever been attempted before by the British government.
It has succeeded beyond all expectations. In the year ending June 2022, total trade between the UK and Israel was £6.1 billion ($7.4 billion), an increase of 33.1% or £1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) from the same period in 2021. The rapid expansion of UK-Israel trade over the last decade has closely followed Israel’s emergence on the world scene as a global leader in hi-tech.
Meanwhile, with a new UK-Israel FTA in mind, Britain’s then international trade secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, visited Israel early in 2022 and followed this up by meeting with Israel’s Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely to launch negotiations for the new “innovation-focused” FTA.
To accompany the initiative, the government issued a 40-page document explaining the strategic approach to the proposed new FTA. “The UK is proud of its deep and historic relationship with Israel,” it declares. “As open, innovative and thriving economies, the UK and Israel are close allies and strategic partners... But there is scope to go further.”
It goes on to explain: “Israel’s economy is growing rapidly, with its service sector growing by 45% over the last 10 years. A new FTA will allow us to take advantage of this growth, generating ever more opportunities for UK firms to export their goods and services. Upgrading our trade deal with Israel will help unlock a stronger, more advanced partnership. The new deal will play to our strengths, reflecting the realities of trading in the 21st century and allowing us to take advantage of future innovations.”
The benefits to Israel are equally real. As well as encouraging mutual investments, the new FTA will provide Israeli companies with access to UK government and public projects.
In his letter to the members of the CFI, Rishi Sunak committed himself to seeing the FTA to its conclusion. “I am determined to further strengthen the breadth and depth of our bilateral relationship by championing a UK-Israel Free Trade Agreement,” he wrote, continuing: “This includes my commitment to the 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge to combat Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) policies with legislation. “
He made one final commitment. The proposal to build a major Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center in central London was approved by Parliament in 2015. Several public inquiries later, objections to its proposed location were finally put to rest early in 2021.
Even so, the project continued to languish because of planning delays, and finally members of parliament approached the National Audit Office (NAO) requesting an in-depth examination of how effectively the enterprise would be managed. In its report, delivered in July 2022, the NAO pinpointed certain weaknesses in the proposed management arrangements and indicated how the government department concerned was proposing to deal with them.
In his letter to the CFI, Sunak stood firmly behind seeing the project completed. He wrote: “As Chancellor, I committed to making the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre free to visit in perpetuity, and it is important that the Memorial is built in Victoria Tower Gardens as soon as possible – a fitting memorial that will send a powerful signal of the importance that we attach to remembering the Holocaust and learning the lessons of the past.”
Sunak’s many remarks in support of Israel – and also of the UK’s Jewish community – are so clear and unequivocal that he must be counted as a true friend. There is, though, possibly a cloud on the horizon. Sunak himself, as well as his Conservative predecessors over the past 13 years, base their warm feelings toward Israel on their dealings with the center-right coalition administrations led by Netanyahu and those of the center-left headed by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s incoming coalition administration incorporates elements of the extreme Right. Would the current close UK-Israel relationship survive the introduction of such policies by new ministers?
On December 15, Netanyahu gave a wide-ranging interview to a group of media journalists at Al Arabiya, the Arabic news channel based in Dubai. When queried about the possible impact his coalition partners might have on his government’s policies, he responded: “I will govern and I will lead, and I will navigate this government. The other parties are joining me; I’m not joining them. Remember, Likud is one half of this coalition. The other parties are, some of them, one-quarter, one-fifth the size of Likud. They’re joining us. They will follow my policy.”
If Netanyahu is truly able to restrain his ministers from implementing the sort of extremist policies that some of them espouse, then the close UK-Israeli relationship built up over the years should be safe. ■
The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com