In London, FM Cohen signs agreement laying out future of UK-Israel ties

2030 Roadmap plan completed after years of preparation; foreign minister heads to Warsaw to complete pact on returning Israeli youth Holocaust tours

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, left, meets with his British counterpart James Cleverly in London on March 21, 2023. (Keith Eccles/Keefikus Entertainment)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, left, meets with his British counterpart James Cleverly in London on March 21, 2023. (Keith Eccles/Keefikus Entertainment)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly signed an agreement in London on Tuesday setting the agenda for bilateral economic, security and technology ties.

According to the UK’s Foreign Office, the 2030 Roadmap for UK-Israeli Bilateral Relations “contains detailed commitments for deepening cooperation across the breadth of the Israel-UK relationship, including on trade, cyber, science and tech, research and development, security, health, climate and gender.”

Per the roadmap, a particular focus will be placed on technological innovation, with around 20 million British pounds ($24.5 million) of joint funding committed in the agreement.

London, which will chair the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2024, also committed in the agreement to work closely with Israel to fight antisemitism.

“On trade, tech and security, our two countries are taking full advantage of these opportunities,” Cleverly said on Twitter after the meeting.

The process of laying out the nature of the bilateral relationship began in November 2021, almost two years after the UK left the European Union. Then-foreign minister Yair Lapid signed a memorandum of understanding with his British counterpart at the time, Liz Truss, saying the agreement would lead to a free trade deal, increased security cooperation and joint development of high-tech projects.

The agreement was meant to be signed during Cleverly’s planned trip to Israel last month, but that visit was postponed indefinitely because of scheduling issues. Since then, the British have been looking for the earliest opportunity to get the pact signed. Cohen’s one-day visit fit the bill.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) signs the 2030 Roadmap Agreement with UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in London, March 21, 2023. (Stuart MItchell)

Also last month, Cleverly wrote in a letter that the British government has no intention of working with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. But he also wrote that the UK was looking forward to working with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to “strengthen our excellent bilateral ties.”

According to the Israeli readout of their meeting, Cohen and Cleverly spoke at length about the Iranian threat and agreed that if Iran continues to enrich uranium to levels forbidden by its tattered agreement with world powers, the international community must ensure that there are severe consequences. Tehran is allowed to enrich only to 3.67%, but uranium enriched to almost 84%, near weapons-grade, was recently discovered.

“Israel and the UK agree that Iran cannot be allowed to attain a nuclear weapon,” Cohen said after the meeting.

On Monday, the UK announced sanctions on five members of the Board of Directors of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps foundation responsible for managing the IRGC’s investments. It also imposed sanctions on two senior IRGC commanders.

The UK — a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council — is part of the so-called E3, the European powers who are party to the 2015 nuclear deal, along with the US, Russia, and China. The agreement fell apart after the US withdrew in 2018 under former president Donald Trump, and negotiations to revive it have since stalled.

Netanyahu will fly to London on Thursday for a weekend visit that will include a meeting with British premier Rishi Sunak.

During his visit, Cohen also sought to create new ties between Israeli financial technology companies and the British banking sector.

He visited Visa’s European headquarters and spoke about opportunities in the Israeli market. He also held an event with British banking executives and Israeli financial technology leaders from OurCrowd, Data Harbour, Next Dim, Surf Security, Jifity, and Open Finance.

Warsaw pact

Cohen is set to fly to Warsaw on Tuesday night, and will meet with Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau on Wednesday to finalize a deal to end disagreements over the content and security protocol for the youth Holocaust study trips to Poland for Israeli students.

Participants in the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site in Poland, as Israel marks its annual Holocaust Memorial Day, on May 1, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The countries have been locked in conflict over the trips for several years. The Foreign Ministry previously said the Polish government was trying to control the Holocaust studies curriculum taught to the Israeli students.

The agreement was finalized last Thursday after a delegation led by Foreign Ministry Director General Ronen Levi flew to Warsaw to meet with its Polish counterparts. The group included officials from the foreign and education ministries, and the Shin Bet security agency.

News of the agreement emerged in early March. Netanyahu hailed the deal, saying that “the lessons of the Holocaust can be learned in many ways, but there is nothing better than seeing for yourself.”

Poland’s government has been engaged in ongoing efforts to minimize Polish responsibility for the persecution of Jews on its territory during the Holocaust, while scholars say there was significant cooperation by Poles with the Nazi regime.

Polish President Andrzej Duda listens through an earpiece to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a joint news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko, File)

Young Jewish Israelis traditionally travel to Poland in the summer between 11th and 12th grade, touring former Nazi camps in order to learn about the Holocaust and memorialize those murdered. The trip has long been considered a rite of passage in Israeli education and, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some 40,000 Israeli students participated each year.

The two erstwhile allies have also been in a diplomatic spat since July 2021 over Poland’s legislature passing a law effectively cutting off any future restitution to the heirs of property seized by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Israel recalled its envoy to Warsaw for consultations the following month. Lapid advised Poland’s ambassador to Israel to remain on vacation in his homeland, and instructed Israel’s new ambassador to Poland, Ya’acov Livne, to remain in Israel.

Since then, the two sides have slowly de-escalated tensions over the issue. Livne took up his post in Warsaw in February 2022 to coordinate Israeli efforts to extract citizens from Ukraine and to provide aid to Kyiv. Two Polish lawmakers visited the Knesset in June, the first to do so since 2017.

Despite promises in July from Poland’s President Andrzej Duda to return its envoy to Israel, he has yet to do so.

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