Where does new British PM Liz Truss stand on ties with Israel and UK Jewry?
As foreign secretary she has firmly supported Israel, hailing a ‘unique partnership,’ and been admiring of local Jews, but some are wary of her opportunism, lack of political depth
LONDON — Liz Truss, named as Britain’s new prime minister on Monday, is a strong supporter of Israel and a self-proclaimed ally of the Jewish community.
But Truss, who was elected leader of the governing Conservative party and will succeed Boris Johnson when formally invited to form a government by Queen Elizabeth II, is said by critics to carry her principles lightly.
Beyond her alleged opportunism, the summer’s acrimonious battle between Truss and former chancellor Rishi Sunak for the Tory leadership has also raised questions about her apparent lack of political depth and maturity.
Truss’s effort to show her support for Britain’s Jews, set out in a series of pledges last month, for instance, was attacked by some sections of the community and described by one veteran opposition Jewish MP as “divisive culture war nonsense.”
Her rise to the top tier of British politics and as a potential contender to succeed Johnson was cemented last September when Truss was appointed as foreign secretary. That promotion was warmly greeted at the time by supporters of Israel in Britain.
“Anyone who believes in strengthening the relationship between Britain and Israel should be delighted by the appointment of Liz Truss as the new foreign secretary,” suggested Ian Austin, a former Labour MP who now serves as an independent member of the House of Lords and the prime ministerial trade envoy to Israel. “There is no doubt about her support for Israel and its right to defend itself.”
In her first speech to the Conservative party’s annual conference after becoming foreign secretary, Truss underlined her pro-Israel credentials by name-checking the Jewish state alongside a small group of liberal democracies, such as Australia, NATO, and the G7, when she described a new “network of liberty” to counter authoritarian states and “malign actors.” Days later, she raised Israel’s status further by claiming that Britain had “no closer friend and ally.”
While her period at the Foreign Office has lasted barely a year, Truss has rarely put a foot wrong in terms of Britain’s ties with Israel.
Last October, for instance, she signed a “memorandum of understanding” with then-foreign minister and future Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid, which committed Britain and Israel to closer cooperation on cybersecurity, technology, defense, trade and science. Truss has subsequently spoken of Britain and Israel having a “unique partnership.”
“Both the UK and Israel are outward-looking, patriotic nations, who are natural like-minded partners,” she suggested in a UK Jewish News opinion piece earlier this summer, in which she also said she was “looking forward to working closer with my friend Yair as prime minister.”
Lapid and Truss also said last autumn that they would work “night and day” to stop Iran’s nuclear program – a commitment that Israel may soon call upon the UK to honor as negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement reach a climax.
Truss has, though, been coy about how far she would go to stop Tehran’s ambitions, confining herself to telling the Jewish Chronicle last month that, as prime minister, she would “do what it takes” with the UK’s global and regional allies to stop that from happening.
Truss’s claim that “as a senior government minister, I have always sought to enhance the relationship between the UK and Israel” is not simply rhetorical flim-flam. Before being appointed to the Foreign Office, Truss led the UK’s Department for International Trade — a post-Brexit creation reflecting the UK’s newly won ability to negotiate its own trade deals — and pushed hard for a free trade agreement with Israel.
Truss’s visit to the Jewish state last year to promote the continuing negotiations was her first to Israel and came soon after British ministers began international travel again after the pandemic. She certainly pulled out all of Britain’s diplomatic stops, traveling on the Royal Navy Yacht to Haifa where she hosted an event for UK companies currently operating in Israel or seeking to break into its markets. Truss has recently said that, as prime minister, she’ll seek to bring down trade barriers between Israel and Britain and work towards an “advanced free trade agreement that supports jobs and drives growth.”
Truss has also used the leadership campaign to float a break with current UK government policy, saying that she will review whether Britain should follow the US in moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
When president Donald Trump ordered Washington to relocate its embassy in 2017, the UK’s then prime minister Theresa May criticized the move. Truss, however, told the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) last month that, while recognizing the “importance and sensitivity” of the issue, she would have the UK’s decision to stay put in Tel Aviv looked at again. Her announcement brought predictable criticism from former UK diplomats, 10 of whom wrote to The Times saying that it should await the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In a letter to CFI, Truss also backed Lapid’s attacks on the UN’s controversial Special Committee probing Israeli actions in Gaza, labeling it “institutionally biased and a waste of money.”
“UN representatives with a history of antisemitic remarks,” Truss said, “should have no role in reviewing the activities of Israel.”
Truss has also spoken of her efforts to ensure that Britain lines up at Israel’s side in tackling “antisemitism at the international level,” singling out for criticism the UN’s Human Rights Council.
“Bodies like the Human Rights Council have been used to peddle a particular agenda which frankly have strong elements of antisemitism,” she told the JC. Truss also noted that, in pursuing her stance, she had had to “overrule” officials at the Foreign Office who cautioned her against leaving the UK internationally isolated.
Truss also vowed that she would toughen the UK’s already-tight anti-BDS rules, saying that she would ensure that a planned crackdown on local authorities who target Israel would reach the statute books. “Public bodies should not be engaging in such discriminatory policies which go against the stance of this government and sow needless division,” she told CFI. “I will ensure that this is put to a stop.”
Truss says that her links to the Jewish community stem back to her youth. She grew up for a time in Leeds, a city in the north of the UK with a sizeable Jewish population, and claims to have had “lots” of Jewish school friends.
“The strength of the Jewish community is a shining light in Britain,” Truss suggested last month, “but for too long the Jewish community has been the victim of persecution.” She added that, if she made it to Downing Street, she would seek to address concerns in the community that antisemites too often fail to end up being convicted.
“As prime minister,” Truss wrote, “I will do everything in my power to ensure that those spewing clear Jew hatred will be prosecuted quickly within the full force of the law.” Truss buttressed that pledge with a commitment to improve education about antisemitism in schools and stamp out Jew-hate on Britain’s campuses.
However, Truss’s language when praising the Jewish community — and a cack-handed attempt to equate Jewish values with those of the Conservative party — suggest the new prime minister’s awkwardness on the public stage is not confined to past bizarre remarks about British cheese, apples, and pork markets which, for a time, made her an object of ridicule.
“So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too, for example seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the values of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business,” she said in a statement in August laying out her vision for the community.
As the Jewish Council for Racial Equality pointed out, Truss painted a somewhat monochrome portrait of the community, and also — with her reference to Jews starting businesses — evoked Jewish stereotypes.
A similar lack of deftness was evident in her statement’s reference to tackling the “woke civil service culture that strays into antisemitism.” The First Division Association, a moderate trade union representing senior civil servants, accused Truss of “throwing around unfounded inflammatory accusations” that illustrated “a lack of leadership” and would be viewed as “insulting and abhorrent” by its members.
Dame Margaret Hodge, a highly respected Jewish Labour MP and former minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, similarly suggested that using antisemitism to “peddle the right’s ‘anti-woke agenda’ is below the belt.” Hodge added: “The oldest form of racism is not a tool to use in the divisive culture war nonsense.”
But perhaps the most damning comments came from The Times journalist Hugo Rifkind, the son of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a Jewish former Conservative foreign secretary. “Equating Jews with right wing reactionary politics is what left wing antisemites do,” he tweeted. “Am pretty colossally unkeen on Tories doing it, too.”
A rushed-out press statement from Truss’s campaign seeking to clarify her remarks showed a recognition of the dangers of being seen to play politics with such a sensitive topic.
Indeed, in a sign of how much the UK political scene has shifted since the Tories’ triumphant election victory in December 2019, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has displayed a surer touch in discussing antisemitism than Truss’s recent interventions.
This shift, moreover, indicates that, with Labour shedding the antisemitic baggage that clung to it throughout the hard-left leadership of Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, the support of Jewish voters will be up for grabs at the next general election, expected in 2024.
While some viewed the incident accusing the civil service of straying into “woke antisemitism” as an indication of Truss’s political naivety and immaturity — traits which, given she is the longest continuously serving minister in the current government, are somewhat peculiar — it also highlighted the criticisms which have been leveled at the new prime minister throughout the campaign.
Truss’s critics claim that her addiction to publicity leads her to deliberately provoke controversy. She has also been repeatedly portrayed as a political opportunist.
From Remain to Brexit
Growing up in a left-wing household, Truss joined the center-left Liberal Democrats as a student, rising rapidly within the ranks of the party’s youth wing. With little apparent explanation, however, Truss switched to the Conservatives in the late 1990s (admittedly, giving Blair’s landslide election victory in 1997, this was not the most opportune moment to join the Tories). The Liberal Democrats have also traditionally been the least pro-Israel of the UK’s three main parties.
Perhaps more seriously and recently, Truss campaigned vigorously in the 2016 referendum for Britain to remain in the European Union. While hardly unique within the Tory party for then executing a swift volte-face after the result, Truss’s embrace of the most hardline Brexit positions is striking. Indeed, in the leadership contest she was backed by Brexiteer “ultras,” while Sunak, who actually campaigned for the UK to leave the EU, ended up being attacked as if he had voted “remain.”
Even during a summer when many voters switch off from politics, Truss’s alleged lack of principles appears to have been noted in the country. Polling last weekend showed that less than one in five who voted Tory in 2019 view her as principled.
While the notion that Truss is a political weather vane may not affect her stance towards Israel, given the Tory party’s solidity on the issue, the Jewish state’s politicians and diplomats should perhaps beware of a related criticism the new prime minister has faced. As Britain faces a tsunami of challenges — most notably an ailing economy, spiraling energy prices and a cost-of-living crisis — Truss’s propensity to speak in sunny, optimistic bromides has, at times, led her to appear somewhat untethered to reality.
Calls to look on the bright side and hope for the best are not, of course, the kind of counsel much appreciated in Jerusalem.
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