After Donald Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century in January, which gave a green light to Israeli annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories, the world received a painful reminder of the United States’ partiality in the decades-long conflict. Yet contributing to the delay of a peaceful settlement is Washington’s close ally, the United Kingdom, whose own political paralysis renders it incompetent in addressing Israel’s human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza strip.
On paper, London has voiced support for international law by reiterating its opposition to Israel’s occupation and increasing settlement expansion in the West Bank. Even former British Prime Minister David Cameron, one of London’s most pro-Israel leaders, described the tiny enclave as a “prison camp” in 2010, which Israel has besieged since 2007, creating a vast humanitarian crisis.
Britain has avoided condemning Israel’s wider actions in the West Bank, such as the systematic imprisonment of Palestinians.
Yet aside from these words, Britain has avoided starkly condemning Israel’s wider actions in the West Bank, such as the systematic imprisonment and torture of Palestinians, including children. Moreover, it has provided considerable military equipment to Tel Aviv, selling it roughly £348 million worth (approximately $430 million USD) between 2014 and 2018, despite Israel’s widely condemned offensive on Gaza in the summer of 2014. Many of these weapons could be used in violations against Palestinians, which is likely the reason Britain has largely failed to address Israel’s actions in Gaza, to avoid knowledge of its own complicity.
Furthermore, a study by the London-based Palestine Solidarity campaign indicates a value of £446 million (approximately $513 million USD) worth of investments from British universities into companies complicit in Israel’s occupation. Manchester Metropolitan University has invested £27 million (approximately $31 million USD) in Barclays which has ties to companies selling weapons to Israel including Barclays, Rolls Royce, and Boeing.
Less discussed is London’s political alignment with Israel. A 2004 document from Britain’s international intelligence agency MI6 details its plans for a crackdown on the Gaza-based faction Hamas, in conjunction with its rival West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and Israel. Meanwhile leaked security documents indicate trilateral intelligence cooperation between the US, UK, and Israel on countering Iran.
After all, Britain holds vested interests in maintaining ties with Israel, as its historic role indicates. Notably Israel would not exist today without the British Empire’s support, after British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour “promised” Palestine to the influential Zionist Walter Rothschild, whose family played a central role in supporting Jewish migration to Palestine.
Prior to Israel’s creation in 1948, Britain played a “balancing act” to maintain ties with the Palestinian leadership.
Prior to Israel’s creation in 1948, and while the British Empire maintained strong relations with the Zionists, it also played a “balancing act” to maintain ties with the Palestinian leadership and Arab states which opposed Israel’s foundation.
In 1947, Zionist militia gangs attacked British forces and Palestinian Arabs, while holding grievances towards Britain’s restriction of unfettered Jewish migration to Palestine. As Britain backed both Israel and Arab states during the 1948 war, which may give the impression of an incoherent foreign policy, Britain retained future ties with the state of Israel. Later on, a declassified UK Foreign Office document from 1970 reveals that Britain, torn between sacrificing investments with either Arab states or Israel, sought a “low risk” option and continued appeasing both sides.
In subsequent decades, Britain tried to uphold this apparent stance of neutrality. A letter from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982 expressed criticism of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, particularly over the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila. Thatcher’s words indicate she felt pressure from Britain’s Arab allies to take a more reasonable stance.
Yet despite this public posture, Britain facilitated Israel’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon; in 1958, it sold Israel 20 tonnes of heavy water to boost its Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert. Clearly Israel was a key economic client of Britain, which sought to profit from their strategic relationship.
Today, along with continued profiteering motives, supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia bolsters Britain’s regional foothold.
Today, along with continued profiteering motives, supporting Israel along with Saudi Arabia bolsters Britain’s regional foothold. And after the United States became the regional hegemon following the Soviet Union’s collapse, and more recently with Britain’s Arab allies like Saudi Arabia showing warmth towards Israel, Britain does not feel pressured to pick sides.
On the other hand, pro-Israel lobbyists now operate within the United Kingdom to secure London’s backing. An Al Jazeera documentary called “The Lobby” revealed an envoy of the Israeli embassy in London calling to “take down” British ministers who were unfriendly to Israel. The footage also exposed other groups like the Jewish Labour Movement, Union of Jewish Students, and the Labour Friends of Israel, which have worked to influence public opinion and undermine British politicians supportive of Palestinian rights.
Perhaps the most influential faction is the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), of which around 80 percent of conservative MPs are members. The Conservative politician and historian Robert Rhodes James, writing in the Jerusalem Post in 1995, called it “the largest organization in Western Europe dedicated to the cause of the people of Israel.”
CFI complained after Conservative minister William Hague criticized Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006, which various organizations including Human Rights Watch also condemned, as “disproportionate.” CFI then obtained a promise that this word would never be used again, and there has since been an echoing silence towards Israel’s atrocities in the Gaza strip. If anything, British condemnations largely focus on condemning Hamas’ rocket fire into Israel, though Palestinian casualties are often much higher.
British condemnations focus on condemning Hamas’ rocket fire into Israel, though Palestinian casualties are often higher.
Stephen Polak, CFI’s honorary president, has organized hundreds of trips to Israel for British politicians and journalists, ensuring that they only witness Israel’s whitewashed version of reality. Polak was at the center of a scandal in November 2017 when Priti Patel resigned from her post after being found out to be, with the assistance of Polak, meeting Israeli politicians while claiming to be on a family holiday. Tellingly, Patel is Britain’s current Home Secretary.
Polak has also overseen the writing of speeches for Conservative politicians and used the pro-Israel soundbite of claiming that the United Nations is somehow “singling out Israel” for criticism, a statement which seeks to divert UN attention from Israel’s violations.
Though Christian Zionist groups and influential lobbyists like AIPAC have consolidated almost unconditional US support for Israel, and Christian Zionist narratives have less influence on Britain’s stance, such political factions have still traditionally secured London’s backing of Israel.
Moreover, in the post-Brexit era, as Britain drifts closer to Washington’s stance to compensate for the loss of ties with the European Union, it is simultaneously further boosting economic and political relations with Israel.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has attempted to ban public boycotts of Israel after his electoral victory last December.
Reigning UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has therefore attempted to ban public boycotts of Israel after his convincing electoral victory last December. Meanwhile Britain also designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in January 2019, after the faction has fought multiple wars with Tel Aviv.
However, nearly 130 British MPs recently defied London’s feeble stance, with a letter on May 1 urging Johnson to impose economic sanctions on Israel should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu go ahead with annexation of Palestinian territories. Among the signatures were the former Conservative chairman Lord Chris Patten and former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell.
While the ruling UK government prioritizes its ties with Israel, this latest unprecedented move indicates there may yet be future challenges to this relationship.