Wednesday last week, Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Neil Wigan, hosted a celebration at his Ramat Gan residence to mark Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee. Although in the seven decades since the beginning of her reign there have been both ups and downs in Israel-UK ties, the overall trend is unmistakably positive.
When Queen Elizabeth assumed the throne in February 1952, relations were not in a particularly good place. Israel had declared its independence in May 1948, but the UK refused to extend diplomatic recognition for some two years, lagging behind the United States and the Soviet Union in doing so.
This early period was strongly influenced by the enmity felt on both sides from the final years of the Mandate. For the British, the Jewish underground was guilty of terrorism, most pointedly the July 1946 bombing of the seat of British civil and military authority at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
In London’s eyes, the attack was emblematic of a Zionist movement that was insufficiently grateful for past British help and grossly unappreciative of the UK’s vital role in defeating Nazi Germany.
For their part, the Jews were more than happy to see the lowering of the Union Jack at the end of the Mandate. Although Britain had initially been favorable toward Zionism, exemplified in the November 1917 Balfour Declaration’s commitment to “a national home for the Jewish people,” by the late 1930s British policy had U-turned.
At the Jews’ hour of greatest need, London’s May 1939 White Paper blocked the gates of Mandatory Palestine to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi genocide and condemned the Jews to being a permanent minority in an Arab Palestinian state.
In the historic November 1947 UN partition vote, Britain refused to back the creation of a Jewish state. During the War of Independence, the UK armed the invading Arab militaries; in the case of Transjordan’s Arab Legion, British officers were in command. And in January 1949, the British scrambled Spitfires to help the Egyptians defend el-Arish, resulting in an RAF-IAF dogfight over Sinai (Israel won that engagement but withdrew to avoid an escalating confrontation with the UK).
The Suez crisis of 1956 brought about an abrupt change, with Israel, the UK and France cooperating surreptitiously in a coordinated military attack on Egypt. Yet, unlike the warmth and empathy of the Israel-France partnership, Israel’s ties with Britain were still characterized by mutual suspicion.
By the 1967 Six Day War, the relationship with London had moved on. Britain was led by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, renown for being a staunch Zionist; his positive position on Israel echoing the wide public support felt across the UK.
Six years later, during the Yom Kippur War, the British government was less supportive. Conservative prime minister Edward Heath did not allow the United States’ airlift to Israel – carrying desperately needed equipment and munitions – to refuel at American bases in Britain.
Undoubtedly, like many other Western countries, the UK feared the Arab oil embargo. Nonetheless, Labour’s Wilson, then opposition leader, castigated the Conservatives in parliament for their failure to support a democratic ally defending itself against aggression.
In the post-war diplomacy, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger was frustrated with Britain and the other Europeans who, like the Soviet Union, favored a dead-end comprehensive approach, while he persevered on a step-by-step course that produced groundbreaking disengagement agreements.
If Wilson was famous for being partial to Israel, so too was Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose instinctive pro-Israel disposition was augmented by the fact that she represented the North London constituency of Finchley and Golders Green with its many Jewish voters.
Yet even during her 11-year rule, the Israel-UK relationship was not without its clashes. Tensions came to a head in 1982 when London was critical of Israel’s war in Lebanon and angry over Israel’s sale of military equipment to Argentina in the run-up to the Falklands conflict.
Israelis would often explain away problems in the relationship by pointing to the undue influence of the “Arabist” Foreign Office. Yet, the preferences of Her Majesty’s diplomatic corps could often be balanced by the elected leadership, with contemporary British prime ministers – from Tony Blair through to today’s Boris Johnson – demonstrating an empathy for the Jewish state that could trump residual bias within the Whitehall machine.
This political phenomenon found artistic expression in the lauded 1980s BBC television comedy series Yes, Prime Minister. The episode “A Victory for Democracy” is a fictional tale of how a prime minister, with the help of a prudent Israeli ambassador, succeeds in outmaneuvering the machinations of anti-Israel Foreign Office officials (well worth watching).
The 2017 Balfour Declaration centenary provided a real-world example of how ideas emanating from the bureaucracy can be amended.
London faced a dilemma. On one hand, Israelis, British Jews and Israel’s many UK friends advocated celebrating the 100th anniversary. On the other hand, Britain’s diplomats were concerned about the lingering sensitivity of the declaration in the Arab world, and desirous not to offend the Palestinians, who were vehemently demanding a public apology.
The original Foreign Office advice was a fudge; to “neither apologize nor celebrate.” Yet ultimately the occasion was marked by the two sitting prime ministers, Theresa May and Benjamin Netanyahu, meeting for lunch at 10 Downing Street and later attending a festive dinner at Lancaster House under the auspices of Lord Jacob Rothschild. Limited space at the gala demanded turning away many hopeful attendees; then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declined his invitation, making room for another guest.
Seventy years since assuming the throne, Elizabeth II has reigned over a revolution in UK-Israel relations. From all the hurt surrounding Israel’s struggle for independence, today the two countries share a friendship that encompasses multiple areas of tangible cooperation.
In September 2019, I visited an RAF base in Lincolnshire to witness firsthand one example of this collaboration. The air forces of both countries were together involved in a training exercise, with the Israeli and British pilots agreeing that they were learning valuable lessons from each other that enhanced their professional skills.
Perhaps herein lies one reason for the current good relationship: Britannia no longer rules the waves, and Israel is far from the poor and struggling newly independent state it once was, even surpassing the UK in various fields – including in GDP per capita.
So as Britain celebrates the platinum jubilee, both countries meet as relative coequals, and a genuine partnership can flourish.
God save the Queen!
The writer, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the UK, is the incoming chair of the Abba Eban Institute. Follow him @MarkRegev on Twitter.