Largest-ever British House of Lords delegation visits Israel to further tighten ties

Group raises concerns over planned judicial overhaul but focuses on practical measures to further improve trade between allies

A group of members from Britain's House of Lords at the Knesset, May 2023. (Knesset spokesperson)
A group of members from Britain's House of Lords at the Knesset, May 2023. (Knesset spokesperson)

LONDON (JTA) — The largest ever official delegation from the British House of Lords is visiting Israel on a four-day fact-finding mission, in a reflection of increasingly close relations between Jerusalem and London.

The cross-party group of 20 peers, which includes former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard and longtime Labour lawmaker David Watts, arrived in Israel on Sunday. Lord Eric Pickles, the United Kingdom’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from Tel Aviv that the delegation raised concerns in meetings with Israeli officials about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s widely criticized proposals to reform the judiciary.

“But most of the discussions we had had with the Israelis have been less on the philosophical and more on the practical,” Pickles said.

The visit comes at a high point in relations between Israel and the UK. Netanyahu visited London in March, shortly after the signing of a bilateral agreement intended to boost ties until 2030. Britain and Israel have been negotiating since July 2022 to update an existing trade agreement for the post-Brexit era.

“We have moved on from just seeing Israel as a good ally in the battle against terrorism to a partner in innovation,” said Pickles, adding that one in six medicines used by the British National Health Service were based on Israeli patents. “We have moved on from a position of being polite and interested to one in which our economies are increasingly integrated.”

“I doubt that we have had a situation where there is a more pro-Israel government in power,” Pickles added, referring to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s coalition. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has endeavored to steer his party back into favor with Jewish voters who were alienated during the tenure of Jeremy Corbyn, a left-wing former Labour leader plagued by a years-long antisemitism scandal.

Eric Pickles speaks at a Conservative Friends of Israel event. (Conservative Friends of Israel)

The trip, organized by the European Leadership Network and the Britain-Israel All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), ends on Thursday. The delegation has met with Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana and Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, among a set of other Israeli politicians, academics and security officials. The group has also visited areas along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, along with an Iron Dome missile defense system stationed near the border town of Sderot.

On Tuesday, Howard and longtime House of Lords member Leslie Turnberg laid wreaths and lit the flame of remembrance at Yad Vashem during a visit to the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Turnberg, the co-chair of the Britain-Israel APPG, said that he hoped that the visit would help “deepen the bilateral relationship” between Israel and the UK.

The delegation also met with Ziad Abu Amr, the deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, in Ramallah.

“It was a polite discussion, but nevertheless it was a firm discussion,” said Pickles, a longtime backer of Israel. “There was a certain sameness of the same arguments that we had heard over many years.”

Issues raised during the meeting in Ramallah included the state of affairs in the moribund peace process and the increasingly fraught security situation in the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus. The murder of a British-Israeli mother and her two daughters in the West Bank in April was also raised.

Violence in the West Bank and Gaza has spiked in recent months. In mid-May, Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group exchanged fire for five days during the worst bout of fighting with terrorists in the Gaza Strip since 2021. UK leaders in both parties have repeatedly stressed the need to deescalate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.

Pickles added that he hoped to see both Britain and the Palestinians more involved with Abraham Accords negotiations, including in the Negev Forum, the cooperative group formed between Israel and its new partners in the region last year.

Pickles also said that he hoped that King Charles would follow in making a visit to Israel, a possibility that has been rumored in recent weeks.

“I hope so,” he said. “It would be a wonderful thing for him to come.”

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