Cameron came to praise Israel, not to bury it

British PM eschewed ‘lectures,’ delivering a strikingly supportive Knesset speech and mentioning settlements only once, vaguely

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with British Prime Minister David Cameron in the Knesset, March 12, 2014. (Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with British Prime Minister David Cameron in the Knesset, March 12, 2014. (Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash 90)

David Cameron was well prepared. It had taken him four years since winning office before he made his first prime ministerial visit to Israel, but when he finally appeared at the Knesset podium to deliver a thoroughly pro-Israel speech, it was clear that his aides had internalized the lessons learned by previous visiting leaders addressing the Israeli people on their home turf.

These include: Open and close your remarks in Hebrew; avoid excessive criticism of settlement expansion; be especially wary of leveling questionable accusations (for example about the allocation of water resources), and make sure to throw in a few references to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Oh, and do all this without making any concrete policy statements that could get you into trouble back home, or with your colleagues in capitals across Europe.

Britain admires the “start-up nation” and vigorously opposes boycotts against it. Britain will vehemently support Israel’s right to defend itself, and ensure that Iran will never acquire a nuclear weapon. Palestinian incitement and the Iranians’ “despicable” weapons smuggling have to end. Thus David Cameron in the Israeli parliament on Wednesday. Lots of carrot, no stick. He only mentioned the settlements once, in a gently formulated non-condemnation.

Shalom l’kulam” — Hi, everybody — Cameron said at the beginning of his speech, a warm contrast to the stormy Knesset session that had preceded him, during which opposition and coalition MKs shouted insults at each other. The British guest took it in his stride. If he’d been seeking a respite from his regular Prime Minister’s Questions ordeal in the House of Commons, he joked, “evidently I’ve come to the wrong place.” He had been warned that it might be raucous, and that “fights might break out,” Cameron said; his ambassador had told him, “You may learn the meaning of a new Hebrew word, Balagan” — chaos.

Just like US President Barack Obama, during his speech elsewhere in Jerusalem a year ago, Cameron used Hebrew phrases several times. “Anachnu b’yachad” — We are with you — Cameron said at the end. (Obama had signed off with, “Atem lo levad. You are not alone.”)

It’s not easy to please the spectacularly diverse ranks of the Knesset: Arab MKs heckled Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in January, because his speech was too pro-Israel. Jewish right-wing MKs heckled European Parliament President Martin Schulz in February, because he wondered aloud whether Israelis curtail the amount of water Palestinians receive, as he had been told earlier in Ramallah.

But Cameron negotiated fairly smoothly and with rare humility, opting not to offer too much specific advice on best paths forward, empathizing with the challenges facing Israel, applauding its democracy, highlighting its narrow territory and consequent vulnerability.

“My Jewish ancestry is relatively limited but I do feel just some sense of connection,” he also said, mentioning his ancestor Elijah Levita, who is believed to have authored the first ever Yiddish novel. Cameron then spoke at length about the Holocaust and how it must never be forgotten, and hailed the Balfour Declaration for “helping to secure Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.”

Turning his focus to diplomatic-political issues, Cameron mentioned Israel’s seizure last week of the Klos C, referring to “yet another despicable attempt by the Iranians to smuggle more long-range rockets into Gaza.” Palestinians schools were “too often” named for suicide bombers, he added. “So let me say to you very clearly: With me, you have a British prime minister whose belief in Israel is unbreakable and whose commitment to Israel’s security will always be rock solid.”

Israelis’ concerns about territorial withdrawals were understandable, he also said, “and I will always stand up for the right of Israel to defend its citizens.”

Some pundits had anticipated that Cameron would either call for a ban, or at least a European Union-wide labeling regime, on settlement products. Some politicians had hoped he would endorse Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. He did neither, vociferously opposing the boycott movement, tiptoeing around the Jewish recognition issue.

“Britain opposes boycotts,” he said. “Whether it’s trade unions campaigning for the exclusion of Israelis or universities trying to stifle academic exchange, Israel’s place as a homeland for the Jewish people will never rest on hollow resolutions passed by amateur politicians.”

That statement will have pleased Netanyahu. But a clear policy statement in support of Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as Jewish state was not forthcoming.

Indeed, Cameron was careful not to say anything dramatic about the US-brokered peace talks, staying determinedly vague on the Palestinian question: “We back the compromises needed — including the halt to settlement activity and an end to Palestinian incitement too,” he said. That was the only marginally critical point he raised during the entire speech.

People from all over the world come to the Knesset and “talk about maps and population numbers and processes and deadlines,” telling the Israeli people how to run the peace process, Cameron said. “I will not do that. You know I want peace and a two state solution. You don’t need lectures from me about how to get there.”

Rather, the British prime minister preferred to envision what Israel could gain if peace were achieved. “On Israel’s relationships, imagine, as John Kerry put it: ‘mutual recognition of the nation state of the Palestinian people and the nation state of the Jewish people.’… ‪Think of the capitals in the Arab world where Israelis could travel, do business, and build a ‪future.‬‬ ‪Imagine Israel — like any other democratic nation — finally treated fairly and normally by all.‬”

And on security, “imagine a peace deal that would leave Israel more secure, not less secure. Not a temporary deal, broken by Hamas firing rockets at you or Iranian proxies smuggling weapons through the Jordan Valley.”

Soon after Cameron spoke, Islamic Jihad began firing rockets on southern Israel from Gaza, and Israel’s security chiefs met to determine how to respond. The British prime minister’s decision not to offer Israel “lectures” about how to attain peace seemed particularly apposite.

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