UK-Israel ties have never been closer - opinion

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be welcomed to Israel as a true friend, says the writer.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at 10 Downing Street, where he is greeted by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, on Friday. The UK-Israel relationship has never been closer, says the writer.  (photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at 10 Downing Street, where he is greeted by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, on Friday. The UK-Israel relationship has never been closer, says the writer.

The UK-Israel relationship has never been closer, and the four days March 21-24 were chosen to consolidate it, culminating with a visit to London by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a meeting with his UK opposite number, Rishi Sunak. Top of the agenda was the Iranian threat.

Just ahead of the visit, the UK announced sanctions on seven senior officials of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – five of them responsible for managing the IRGC’s investments, and two senior commanders. Still hanging fire, however, is Britain’s committed intention to designate the whole IRCG as a terrorist organization.

As far back as January 2023 the BBC reported Whitehall sources as saying it was “broadly correct” to say the government intended to proscribe the IRGC, but that many details remained to be sorted out. Action still hangs in the balance.

Although no joint statement was issued after the two leaders’ meeting, a government spokesperson summarized what they had discussed. Foremost was “the UK and Israel’s significant concern about Iran’s destabilizing activity” and the risks posed by its advanced nuclear program.

Two issues were raised during the meeting

Having discussed the war in Ukraine and developments in the Middle East, the statement noted, two rather more equivocal issues were raised. While Sunak “expressed his solidarity with Israel in the face of terrorist attacks in recent months,” he noted that unspecified actions risked undermining efforts toward a two-state solution. “He encouraged all efforts to de-escalate, particularly ahead of the upcoming religious holidays.”

The elephant in the room also received some attention. Sunak is reported to have “stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms in Israel.”

The meeting was intended to consolidate the earlier meeting between Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. Cohen visited London on March 21, and together with Cleverly signed a document titled “The 2030 Roadmap for Israel-UK Bilateral Relations.”

What is this 2030 Roadmap? According to the British government, it contains “detailed commitments for deepening cooperation across the breadth of the Israel-UK relationship, including on trade, cyber, science and tech, research and development, security, health, climate and gender.” It includes around £20 million (NIS 88 million) of joint funding commitments on technology and innovation.

In short, it binds the two nations together in a tight cooperative arrangement designed to optimize benefits for both. Cleverly called it “a testament to the strength of our close and historic relationship.”

THE FLOURISHING UK-Israel trade relationship has delivered huge benefits to both economies. Now worth around an annual £7 billion (NIS 31 billion), there are more than 400 Israeli tech firms operating in the UK. Over the past eight years, Israeli investment into the UK added around £1 billion (NIS 4.5 billion) gross value to the UK economy and has created about 16,000 jobs in Britain.

The idea of the roadmap was born in November 2021, which saw visits to the UK by President Isaac Herzog, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett, and then-foreign minister Yair Lapid. Lapid’s purpose was to launch a new initiative aimed at even closer trade relations between Israel and Britain.

He found an enthusiastic ally in the UK’s then-foreign secretary Liz Truss, and together they signed a new “UK-Israel Strategic Partnership” agreement. Lapid later described it as “a major moment in the relationship between the United Kingdom and Israel.”

That agreement has since been transformed into full-scale negotiations for a new UK-Israel Free Trade Agreement (FTA) aimed at creating new opportunities for tech firms and professional services in both countries. To accompany the formal launch of negotiations, the UK Department for International Trade 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.”

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.”

A surprising number of UK companies have major operations in Israel, including Unilever, Barclay’s bank, pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline, and Rolls Royce. Rolls-Royce was responsible for the UK’s largest-ever export deal to Israel back in 2016, when it signed a £1 billion agreement to provide Trent 1000 engines for El Al’s new fleet of Dreamliner aircraft.

The benefits to Israel are equally real. In particular, perhaps, the proposed trade agreement for services, as well as encouraging mutual investments, will provide Israeli companies with access to UK government and public projects. The ground-breaking UK-Israel FTA, focusing on tech and innovation, is expected to be ready for signing later this year.

One issue certainly discussed between Netanyahu and Sunak was the British prime minister’s intention to visit Israel to participate in the nation’s 75th-anniversary celebrations. Back in November 2021, he reiterated his “dedication to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people… As a proud friend of Israel 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.”

Regarding the Abraham Accords, which he regards as “one of the greatest achievements in the history of diplomacy in the Middle East,” he made a positive commitment so 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.”

The British prime minister will be welcomed to Israel as a true friend.

The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020. Follow him at: