Uk-Israel: A Special Relationship in times of political changes


- Special Feature -



By Ivan Lewis​​ | January, 2023


Ivan Lewis was Uk Member of Parliament for Bury South between 1997 and 2019. Serving as a Government Minister and Shadow Cabinet Member between 2001 and 2015 including a period as Minister for the Middle East.

Photos: remix - 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay 


As I stood in the Museum of Underground Prisoners during a recent visit to Israel where the British Authorities imprisoned Jewish fighters during the mandate I reflected on the complex historical relationship between the Uk and Israel.


Chaim Weizmans declaration of a Zionist project in my home city of Manchester, the Balfour Declaration and in stark contrast the shameful restrictions placed on Jewish immigration to Palestine by the post war Attlee Government. It is a special relationship, albeit one riddled with contradictions.


It is only right to place on record the appreciation I and tens of thousands of British Jews feel about never being asked to choose between our Jewish and British identities. It is worth reflecting on the special efforts made by the late Queen, Elizabeth11 and her wider family to celebrate the contribution of British Jews to British society.


I will never forget the words of the Holocaust survivor who greeted me in floods of tears at a remarkable reception hosted by the late Queen specifically for survivors at St James Palace in 2005. When I tried to comfort him he explained that the first act of kindness he had experienced in his entire life was when arriving in the Uk as an eight year old boy and here he was now being honoured by Her Majesty.



So how is Israel perceived in contemporary Britain?


Firstly, the majority of British people do not have strong views either way. It is a mistake to believe the strong passions of a vocal minority of activists reflect a national consensus or consciousness. It is true that when Israel is involved in high profile conflicts presented through the prism of the media public engagement grows. The visual imagery on TV screens of women and children injured or killed in Gaza or Lebanon stirs the sensibilities of the usually disinterested and neutral. Imagery accompanied sometimes by a journalistic and Editorial David and Goliath narrative which omits the starting point for the conflict, the use of civilians as human shields by Hamas and Hizbollah terrorists, or the DNA of terrorists organisations who are funded by Iran and do not believe Israel has a legitimate right to exist. Many British Jews and supporters of Israel believe the BBC in their general coverage of Israel and most specifically in their reporting of conflicts have consistently fuelled anti Israeli sentiment and bias. This suspicion has been reeenforced by the BBCs long standing refusal to publish their independently commissioned report into the Corporations coverage of Israel. The truth is the Director General of the BBC does not sit at his desk directing coverage inherently hostile to Israel. But too many news journalists and Editors have failed in their basic duty of impartiality and through political bias or emotional attachment to the plight of the Palestinians have fanned the flames of anti Zionism, the major source of contemporary anti semitism.


UK Government Policy while adopting European orthodoxy in relation to support for a two state solution and hostility to settlement expansion has been largely benign. This has been significantly due to a succession of Prime Ministers including Wilson, Thatcher, Blair, Brown, Cameron and Johnson who have been positive in their support for Israel. This support has neutralised the influence of some Arabist specialists in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who are instinctively hostile to Israel. However, it is only right to point out that based on my experience as a Foreign Office Minister the widely held assumption that the Foreign Office is institutionally anti Israel is unfair.


Successive Uk and Israeli Governments have substantially boosted bilateral trade between the two countries and the importance of security cooperation between Uk and Israeli intelligence agencies in the fight against global terrorism cannot be overstated. The current Uk Government has acted to address the the appalling intimidation of Jewish students and Israeli speakers on University Campuses which had been for too long tolerated using the bogus prospectus of free speech.


This political consensus was shaken by the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Uk Labour Party in 2015. For decades Corbyn had been a fringe figure vociferously criticising Israel in Parliament, and a leading figure in far left campaigns which demonise the West, despise the US and view Israel as a proxy of the US in a region where they don’t belong. Whatever their platitudes about support for two states, they don’t believe Israel has a right to exist. Suddenly, there seemed a real prospect that one of the Worlds leading liberal democracies could be led by someone who abhors the West and gave succour to anti Semites and anti semitism. Thankfully, Corbyns leadership ultimately failed due to the inherent good sense of the Uk electorate who ensured he was soundly defeated in the 2019 General Election.


However, this shameful chapter in the Uk Labour Partys history exposed the harsh reality that contemporary anti semitism is predominantly propagated through the prism of anti Zionism and significant sections of the liberal left are blind to anti Jewish racism. On the plus side it galvanised the Uk Jewish community to unite, speak loudly and visibly with one voice and reminded us that Jewish history teaches that complacency and false comfort are silent enemies.



So what of the future?


In 2022 the Uk experienced political turmoil which made Israel’s political landscape seem stable! Our third Prime Minister in twelve months Rishi Sunak looks here to stay until the next election, likely to be in December 2024. He is a self proclaimed friend of Israel, but it is worth noting he quickly recanted on his predecessor’s openness to relocating the Uk Embassy to Jerusalem and the Uk continues to abstain on crucial votes affecting Israel at the UN. I expect Prime Minister Sunaks Government to be pragmatic in its dealings with Israel’s new right wing Government, expressing concerns about Ben-Gvir and Smotrich but maintaining warm relations. An important litmus test will be the Uks stance on Irans nuclear ambitions now that the current nuclear deal is almost certainly dead in the water and post Brexit the Uk is no longer bound by EU Foreign policy.


Recent political turmoil, current polls and historic precedents suggest the Uk will have new political leadership in 2024/25.


So attention will focus on the likely policies of an incoming Labour Government led by Sir Keir Starmer. He has demonstrated a strong commitment to ridding his party of the anti Semitism of the Corbyn era and hostility towards Israel including unequivocal opposition to BDS. He knows this is an essential part of detoxifying the Labour brand, having a credible foreign policy and demonstrating a seriousness about governing from the centreground.


It will be interesting to see how he and his senior colleagues deal with the pressure from those on the left who insist being pro Palestinian means constant hostility to Israel, or wrong headedly believe peace would be well served by unilateral Uk recognition of a Palestinian state.


As the world focuses on Putins war against Ukraine, the serious global cost of living crisis and concerns about Chinas intentions towards Taiwan it would be easy to dismiss Uk/ Israeli relations as a sideshow. Yet, security cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries has never been more important for global security. The Uk also has the deep rooted regional relationships and diplomatic credentials to play a leading role in expanding the number of countries aligned to the Abraham Accords, and giving practical effect to these new relationships by supporting joint investment and innovation projects between Israeli, Gulf State and Uk companies in the developing world. Perhaps most importantly In the short term, the Uk can be an important voice in developing a new hard headed, unyielding strategy to deal with the threat posed by Irans nuclear ambitions. An existential threat to Israel and the Gulf States but also to the peace and stability of the free world.


Israeli President Isaac Herzog has spoken of his “special affinity and respect for Britain and its history, not least its heroic role in the defeat of Nazism in World War Two.”


It is to be hoped the Uk replicates the very best of its history in facing up to the serious challenges which lie ahead.



Ivan Lewis was Uk Member of Parliament for Bury South between 1997 and 2019. Serving as a Government Minister and Shadow Cabinet Member between 2001 and 2015 including a period as Minister for the Middle East.



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