LONDON — When Israel marked the 70th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 1987, it invited Margaret Thatcher to join its Knesset celebrations.
Despite her staunch support for the Jewish state, the Iron Lady chose to stay away. Fear of upsetting Arab states — who continued to hold Britain responsible for its seeming endorsement of the Zionist project in 1917 and all that subsequently flowed from it — had long gripped the Foreign Office and warped the UK’s relationship with Israel.
Thirty years on, Theresa May’s government has adopted an altogether more positive approach.
“Britain was more attentive [in the 1980s] to Arab sensitivities over Balfour and the threat of Arab retaliation than she is now,” argued Dr. Azriel Bermant, author of “Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East.”
On Thursday night, May joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a glittering gala dinner hosted by Lord Rothschild in central London, where she delivered an unequivocal message about Britain’s close ties with Israel, saying she was proud of Britain’s “pioneering role in the creation of the State of Israel.”
She attacked the BDS movement and the “new and pernicious form of anti-Semitism which uses criticism of the actions of the Israeli government as a despicable justification for questioning the very right of Israel to exist.”
As James Sorene, chief executive of the British Israel Communications and Research Center think tank, argued, the success of Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit can best be measured by Theresa May’s words at the Balfour Centenary dinner.
“This speech was full of pride and support for Israel and an intention to expand the bilateral relationship at every level with zero tolerance of boycotts,” he said. “Even though the visit was commemorating the history of Balfour’s great promise, the British government is clearly looking ahead to a stronger, deeper relationship far into the future.”
Typically, May’s Foreign Secretary, the staunchly pro-Israel Boris Johnson, used even more exuberant language than his boss when he addressed a parliamentary reception earlier in the week staged by the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
The Balfour Declaration, he suggested, “paved the way for one of the greatest political triumphs of the 20th century, the creation of the State of Israel.”
Praising Israel’s democracy and liberal society as “a beacon of hope which shares the values in which I passionately believe,” Johnson labeled the establishment of the Jewish state “an amazing achievement by humanity.”
Johnson’s words may have met with approval on the Tory backbenches – 100 Conservative MPs signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph on the day of the anniversary organized by Conservative Friends of Israel – but they will have caused raised eyebrows back at the Foreign Office.
As the diplomatic editor of The Guardian, Patrick Wintour, has suggested, the Foreign Office has long regarded the centenary as a “diplomatic minefield.”
Thus Sir Simon McDonald, a former UK ambassador to Israel who now serves as head of the Foreign Office, told a conference this week on Balfour that Britain’s relationship with Israel was both “excellent” and “complex.”
While the anti-Israel lobby in Britain is stronger and more vociferous than it was 30 years ago – when Netanyahu visited London in 2015, over 100,000 Britons signed a petition calling for his arrest for “war crimes” supposedly committed during Operation Protective Edge – changes in the political, diplomatic and economic landscape in recent years have transformed the dynamics of the relationship between Britain and Israel.
On Friday morning, the Prime Minister was at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, where he expressed optimism about President Trump’s Middle East peace push.
“He’s coming with a sort of refreshing ‘can-do’ … they’re trying to think out of the box,” Netanyahu said of the American initiative.
That confidence is not widely shared in Britain, but both the UK, and Europe more widely, are, at best, bit players in US peacemaking efforts.
Indeed, May has none of the international heft of Thatcher, whose close relationship with Ronald Reagan, Shimon Peres, King Hussein and the Saudis gave her greater clout in the region.
If Britain’s diplomatic power has declined, its economic importance to Israel has risen sharply. Netanyahu’s visit to the London Stock Exchange on Friday, where he opened the morning’s trading, underlined the fact that the UK is now Israel’s largest export market in Europe, with trade between the two countries now surging to more than £5 billion ($7.5 billion) annually.
As May scrambles for new post-Brexit deals, she will be keen to bolster British-Israel economic ties further and boost inward investment into the UK. She faces a challenge, however, with Israeli firms operating in Britain concerned that she may not be able to strike a deal with the EU to guarantee crucial access to the European single market.
Of course, London and Jerusalem have their differences. May and Netanyahu’s meeting in Downing Street yesterday focused on two of them: the Iran nuclear deal and the stalled peace process.
May repeated the UK government’s “grave concerns” about what it regards as illegal West Bank settlement construction. Unlike many of Netanyahu’s international critics, however, Britain recognizes the critical role played by incitement and terrorism in hampering the prospects of any breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Both May and her ministers have been careful this week to temper rhetorical praise for Israel with statements underlining Britain’s belief that Balfour is “unfinished business.” On Thursday night, May urged “renewed resolve” in brokering a lasting peace “based on a two-state solution, with a secure and prosperous Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.”
At the same time, Britain has firmly declined the Palestinian Authority’s repeated demands that it apologize for Balfour (“absolutely not,” May bluntly stated Thursday night) and immediately recognize a Palestinian state. Three years ago, the UK parliament voted for unilateral recognition of Palestine, but both the Cameron and May governments have insisted they will only do so “when the time is right.”
During her meeting with Netanyahu, May also once again defended the Iran nuclear deal. The Israeli prime minister’s shift of emphasis from outright opposition to suggesting ways flaws in the six-power agreement could be fixed will have earned him a closer hearing.
His concerns about the dangers posed by Iranian expansionism and its support for Hezbollah are also not lost on London. May is reported to have expressed the UK’s willingness to support Israel in curbing the Iranian threat, although, as both sides know, the practical effect of any such pledge is limited. Netanyahu is also more focused on developing ties with regional actors which share his concerns than currying favor with Britain.
Even so, the slow thaw in the relationship between Israel and some Arab states means that Britain is less concerned than ever that a closer rapport with the Jewish state will irritate its traditional close Middle Eastern allies such as Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, whatever his own domestic difficulties, Netanyahu knows that May’s standing at home has been fatally weakened by June’s general election which robbed the Conservatives of their parliamentary majority. In recent days, her government has been further buffeted by a slew of allegations about sexual harassment in Britain’s parliament. On the eve of Netanyahu’s visit, May’s close ally, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, was forced to resign.
Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Mark Regev, suggested last month that it had “no better friend in Europe” than the UK. But relations could swiftly sour if Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn were to come to power. Once unthinkable, June’s inconclusive general election has made the prospect of a Corbyn premiership a real possibility.
Despite the implausible claims yesterday of his Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, that the Labour leader is himself a Zionist, this week the party has done little to assuage the fears of both Israelis and British Jews.
Corbyn boycotted last night’s Balfour gala, sending Thornberry in his place.
“Mr. Corbyn had an opportunity to transcend claims of hard-left anti-Semitism in the Labour party and publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to exist,” suggested The Times in an editorial. “He failed to do so.”
Thornberry’s own participation, moreover, was somewhat marred by the fact that she had declared just three days earlier that she did not believe the Balfour centenary was a cause for celebration.
Corbyn himself chose the night before Netanyahu flew into London to appear at a meeting of a controversial Muslim group which has been accused of regularly hosting “illiberal, intolerant and extremist Islamist speakers at public events” and which the Board of Deputies has said it will not work with.
The ironies of Corbyn’s decision to snub the Balfour dinner – no doubt sealed by Netanyahu’s attendance at it – abound.
Two years ago, he defended his decision to meet with representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah and greet them as “friends” by arguing: “I think to bring about a peace process, you have to talk to people with whom you may profoundly disagree.”
In Corbyn’s mind, that principle applies to terrorists, but not to the prime minister of Israel.