Scottish Conservatives in Israel, in bid to flip the narrative back home

Senior MP sees Brexit as opportunity to build closer ties, says anti-Israel activism comes from ‘small but very vocal minority’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A delegation of Conservative Scottish lawmakers during an IDF strategic briefing at Mount Bental, overlooking the Syrian border, August 2016 (Elkie Myers/CFI)
A delegation of Conservative Scottish lawmakers during an IDF strategic briefing at Mount Bental, overlooking the Syrian border, August 2016 (Elkie Myers/CFI)

A first-ever delegation from the Scottish Conservative party is visiting Israel this week in a bid to promote bilateral trade and to bolster what it says is a growing pro-Israel advocacy movement in Scotland.

Hosted by the Conservative Friends of Israel, nine Conservative MSPs, including several shadow cabinet ministers, the chief whip and the party’s director, met with Israeli MKs, local businessmen and security officials and received briefings by the IDF at the Syrian border.

“We’re keen to ensure that people know that Scotland and the United Kingdom are still looking for business,” said John Lamont, the Scottish parliament’s chief whip, referring to widespread insecurity about the future of trade with the United Kingdom following its June 24 decision to leave the European Union. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. “We’re keen to use the Brexit result as an opportunity to build closer ties with Israel.”

Scotland, together with Ireland and Sweden, is considered one of the places in Europe most hostile to Israel. The center-left Scottish National Party, which in the May elections received 46 percent of the vote — compared to 22% for the Tories — is viewed as very pro-Palestinian. The Scottish parliament has considerable legislative competences in the area of its jurisdiction.

John Lamont (Courtesy)
John Lamont (Courtesy)

In recent years, many debates over the Middle East in the Scottish parliament have been “very unbalanced or biased toward the Palestinian perspective,” Lamont said.

Conservatives tend to be more sympathetic to Israel than members of the SNP or the Labour party, he said, adding, however, that “there is a job to be done to ensure that [Conservatives] are as well informed as they possibly can be about the issues that face this region.”

Anti-Israel sentiment is being spread in Scotland mainly by church groups and marginal organizations advocating for a boycott of Israel, Lamont told The Times of Israel Wednesday in his Jerusalem hotel.

“These people are telling the [Scottish public] that Israelis are bad and Palestinians are good and then sign up to some boycott. That’s not based on any properly informed position, because nobody’s given them the alternative views,” he said. “So part of this exercise [taking lawmakers to Israel] is making sure that more and more people are getting at least a balanced position and a positive view of Israel.”

There is a “small but very vocal minority” in Scotland that is hostile toward Israel, he continued. “But the vast majority of Scots are relatively passive on issues, but are influenced by that very vocal minority.”

Those few activists succeeded in airing their views in the Scottish Parliament, which then influenced public opinion, he posited. “It’s not because people have very strong views on either side of the debate, but because they only hear one perspective and that influences their thought process about Israel, about Gaza and the West Bank.”

Yet slowly but surely, that situation is changing, according to James Gurd, the executive director of Conservative Friends of Israel.

“For many years, Scotland was almost a forgotten area for pro-Israel advocacy. There was a very vocal minority of individuals that kept on churning out these anti-Israel positions. And with time we’re starting to see this now change,” Gurd said.

“We’re getting these pro-Israel groups that are springing up across Scotland, many of which are Christian groups, but also ordinary Scots who have finally felt that ‘enough is enough, I want to speak out.’ The key thing is that they’re getting better information as well, so they feel empowered to speak up and make their voices heard,” he said.

In February, the Scottish parliament held its first-ever pro-Israel debate and passed several motions favoring the advancement of bilateral ties. Last year, a Centre for Scotland-Israel Relations was created in coordination with the Israeli embassy in London. Furthermore, Gurd said, a “cross-party pro-Israel friendship group is currently being formed” in the Scottish parliament.

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