British morality takes a back seat in Israel ties

British morality takes a back seat in Israel ties

Later this month, a symbolically important occasion for the ever-closer relations between the UK and Israel will take place. The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, is to visit Israel in the first official tour of the country by a member of the royal family on behalf of the British government. Prince William will visit the occupied Palestinian territories and Jordan too, but in Israel it is regarded as a diplomatic coup to host a future British king for an official visit.

This will follow last week’s visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to London to meet his British counterpart Theresa May. Generally, Netanyahu these days is more comfortable spending his time visiting foreign capitals than in Israel. Touring capitals and playing the statesman has become an essential pressure valve for him; a refuge from a domestic political scene that is always on the verge of crisis, and from serial police investigations, accompanied by embarrassing media coverage, of his and his family’s alleged corrupt abuses of power. In recent years, London has become the bolthole where he seems most comfortable — after Washington of course. Successive friendly British prime ministers and a growing commonality of interests has led to relations between the UK and Israel reaching an all-time high, despite deep disagreements over the latter’s approach to the Palestinians and differences on how best to contain Iran.
In a blitz tour of Europe’s three most prominent capitals, Berlin, Paris and London, Netanyahu was a man on a mission to persuade EU leaders of the merits of following US President Donald Trump in abandoning the nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Moreover, he continued his theme that Iran is the single most dangerous threat to peace and security in the Middle East, and well beyond.  

Netanyahu is an astute enough politician to grasp that — while Europe is deeply concerned with Iran’s dangerously aggressive policies in the region, its development of long-range, accurate missile delivery systems and its toying with enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels — there is no appetite among any of the P5+1 to reopen the agreement or to impose sanctions on Iran. There is a consensus in Europe that, for now, adhering to the agreement as long as Tehran is complying with the terms of the deal, at least according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, even if not the spirit of it, is the best option.

This was the message Netanyahu heard at 10 Downing Street. May also expressed her concerns regarding the excessive use of force by Israel’s security forces against Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza, clashes which have already claimed at least 120 Palestinian lives and caused thousands more injuries, many of them life-changing. The Israeli leader responded in front of the clicking cameras in his customary style, lecturing May as if she was a first-year student in a counter-terrorism class on the existential threat that Hamas poses to his country, the strongest military power in the Middle East.

How does he get away with this? Because he knows that the British government’s sincerity when it comes to the Palestinian suffering is dubious, no more than lip service for public consumption. What really matters is the security, intelligence, trade and high-tech cooperation between the two countries, which outweighs by miles any British readiness to clash with Israel on not only engaging in a genuine peace process in order to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians, but even on alleviating the daily suffering of the blockaded Gazan people and those who live under occupation in the West Bank.

Furthermore, Israel knows full well and accordingly expects that, in the post-Brexit era, it could become an even closer trade and security partner with the UK. Cooperation on counter-terrorism and containing extremism are areas in which the intelligence services of both countries are already sharing information, analysis and methods of combating such threats. Israel’s proximity to several centers of instability in the Middle East, and its intelligence collection network, is invaluable for the UK as it is for other European countries. Despite constant protests from human rights organizations, this year’s arms sales to Israel by British defense contractors are set to reach a record high. Israel is currently the UK’s eighth-largest market for weapons manufacturers and is growing larger year by year.

Israel knows full well and accordingly expects that, in the post-Brexit era, it could become an even closer trade and security partner with the UK

Yossi Mekelberg

Bilateral trade between the two countries is increasing steadily and reached £6.9 billion ($9.24 billion) in 2017, compared to £5.5 billion in 2016. It makes Israel the UK’s 33rd-largest market worldwide and Britain’s fourth-largest market in the Middle East and North Africa region. Moreover, the UK is Israel’s No. 1 destination for foreign direct investment in Europe, with 28 Israeli companies listed on the London Stock Exchange with a total combined market capitalization of over £11.5bn. This provides an insight that, despite being a small country, when it comes to trade, both military and civilian, Israel is punching above its weight. For instance, the high proportion of Israeli-made drugs sold to the UK’s National Health Service is staggering, providing one in seven of all drugs prescribed by the NHS to its patients.

For Israel, even in the post-Brexit era, close relations with the UK will remain extremely significant. After all, the UK will continue to be an important and proactive member of some of the most influential international forums: It has permanent membership of the UN Security Council, is one of the leading members of NATO, and it plays its part as a member of the G7 and the G20. From the evidence we saw last week, following the meeting between the two prime ministers, the level of cooperation — which is also linked to the special relations London and Tel Aviv have with Washington — is going to continue uninterrupted. The UK seems unwilling to allow differences of opinion, especially over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, to spoil close economic and security relations. 

In the friendship between the UK and Israel, morality has been relegated to the back seat and realpolitik rules supreme.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg 
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