LONDON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flies to London this week as support for Israel in Britain rises to a seven-year high, according to a new poll.
The survey for the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), a UK-based think tank, also shows a drop in backing for the BDS movement, particularly among young people, and suggests Britons view Israel as a key ally in the fight against terrorism.
Netanyahu will be in Britain to participate in a series of events marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
The BICOM research, carried out by the Populus polling company, provided respondents with the text of the 1917 pledge by the British government to support the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.
Thirty-eight percent of voters said the UK government had adopted the right policy, with 17% disagreeing. Nearly half of those surveyed — a representative sample of 2,000 British voters — agreed that “hating Israel and questioning its right to exist” is anti-Semitic. Seventeen percent believed that it was not.
The results were welcomed by the CEO of BICOM, James Sorene, as evidence of “a significant silent majority who support Zionism in Britain today.”
While the vocal anti-Israel lobby in the UK has led some to view London as the BDS capital of the world, public support for the boycott movement is limited to a small minority of voters. Only 11% of those surveyed said they backed the BDS movement with 48% agreeing with the statement that they do not support boycotts of Israel “and find it difficult to understand how others do given everything else that is going on in the world.”
Backing for BDS in Britain has fallen to its lowest level since 2014. Perhaps most significantly, young people appear to be turning away from boycotts. Forty-five percent of those aged 18-24 said they opposed BDS, a figure which has risen by 17% over the past two years.
In a year in which Britain has experienced a series of deadly attacks, Israel is viewed as the UK’s most important Middle Eastern ally in the fight against terrorism. Forty-nine percent agreed it was a key ally against only 18% who disagreed.
But, as Britain prepares to leave the European Union in 2019, Israel ranks only fourth — behind Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — among Middle East states seen by Britons as important post-Brexit trading partners. Earlier this year, UK and Israeli ministers held the first meeting of a newly established UK-Israel Trade Working Group. Trade between the two countries is already worth nearly £5 billion ($6.6 million) per year.
Challenges for pro-Israel activists in the UK remain, though, as underlined by the fact that, while public support for Israel is at its highest level since 2010, just 21% of Britons expressed warm feelings towards the Jewish state, as against 50% who view it negatively. Thirty percent indicated a neutral opinion.
Nonetheless, Britons appear to view Israel more positively than the Palestinian Authority and Russia and have a significantly warmer view of the country than they do of Iran. Israel’s ratings, which are considerably lower than those of the United States, are comparable with Turkey’s.
As hostility towards it appears to be dropping, the political divide between Britain’s two main parties over Israel has rarely been starker.
Last week Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain should mark the Balfour Declaration centenary “with pride,” while her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, wrote that the document was “indispensable to the creation of a great nation.”
However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time anti-Israel campaigner, has snubbed an invitation to a high-profile Balfour gala dinner this week.
His refusal to attend the dinner, at which Netanyahu will be present, was described as “deeply unfortunate” by the Jewish Leadership Council. In Corbyn’s place, Labour will send the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry.
In an interview with the Middle East Eye website published on Monday, she said Israel had “lost its way,” adding: “I don’t think we celebrate the Balfour Declaration but I think we have to mark it because I think it was a turning point in the history of that area and I think probably the most important way of marking it is to recognize Palestine.”
Jennifer Gerber, the director of Labour Friends of Israel, suggested the party’s leadership was out-of-step with public opinion.
“At a time when public support for Israel is growing, and the importance of Britain’s role in bringing about the establishment of a Jewish homeland is rightly recognized, it is a great shame that the Labour leadership had adopted this attitude towards the Balfour centenary,” she said.
“I am at a loss as to understand why Britain furthering the cause of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is not an event to celebrate,” Gerber said.