Britain’s relationship with Israel has never been simple. Yet it’s come to resemble the special relationship with the United States. It wasn’t always this way.
Now the British view Israel through the prism of counter-terrorism.
The 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre changed the dynamics. Then came the 2005 attacks in London.
Suddenly, the UK found it had more in common with Israel than its leaders thought.
The British right has made unyielding support for Israel a key flank in its foreign policy, whereas the left is overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinians and their national rights.
However, Israel is always talked about in the abstract because it’s usually about something other than the Middle East conflict.
‘Israel’ stands in for a multitude of different issues. Much like Russia and the EU, Israel is a repository of different wants and fears.
If you’re British and anti-Muslim, you’re pro-Israel. If you’re a Catholic living in Belfast, you’re probably anti-Israel. The opposite is true if you’re a Protestant Ulsterman.
There is little detailed discussion of Israeli politics in popular media in the UK. When Israel is covered, it’s only in relation to the Palestinians.
Even the pro-Israeli right prefers not to talk about Benjamin Netanyahu, just as it preferred not to talk about his predecessors, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin.
The Likud Party is often embarrassing for Israel’s British supporters who, want to maintain the pretence that the Likud is a typical centre-right rather than far-right party.
That version of Likud did exist at one point but was always a minority within the party.
The Likud is first and foremost a nationalist platform, which, under Netanyahu, also embraced neoliberal economic policies.
Keeping Things Quiet
“We do not give the Israelis arms because they are pro-Western or because we admire their achievement,” explained Harold McMillan.
“We give them arms because our interest in the Middle East is to keep the place quiet and to prevent war.”
After the Suez Crisis, the newly-formed MacMillan government would expand the British arms trade with Israel, plying it with tanks and small arms and support for its nuclear program.
It would be some time before the UK would become a close ally of Israel though.
Until the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel was primarily supported by France, before becoming a US client state.
Meanwhile, the British government was more concerned about the conflict’s fallout for its alliances in the Arab world and suspended most of its arms sales in its wake.
The British government feared oil-rich Arab countries would take out their hostility on the UK. This fear was later validated when Saudi Arabia led the OPEC price shock in 1973.
Again, the issue was Israel and its occupation of Arab territories.
This was despite a tough reaction from the UK. The Heath government had imposed an arms embargo on Israel (as well as Egypt and Syria) in response to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
It would take until the 1980s for a British prime minister to visit Israel.
Margaret Thatcher was the first British leader to visit in an official capacity. Yet, even with Thatcher, the story is more complicated than just blind support.
The Thatcher government was not as friendly to Israel as people might first assume.
For starters, as premier, Thatcher imposed an arms embargo on Israel after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the UK would maintain this embargo until 1994.
Here Thatcher was following in her predecessors’ footsteps.
Back in 1973, she was a vehement opponent of putting a limit on arms to Israel. But Ted Heath leaned more towards the Arab petro-states that bought British military hardware.
It’s important to remember that Thatcher represented Finchley and Golders Green, where a large Jewish community lives to this day.
Not that this drove Thatcher’s policies on Israel, whether it was the 1967 war or the 1982 embargo.
Margaret Thatcher had visited Israel in 1965 and was infatuated with the country early on.
Unlike a lot of other British politicians, she would go on to support Israel in the 1967 war.
This made Thatcher more pro-Israel than other British politicians at the time, but she was still far more critical than most British leaders since 9/11.
The UK has had a policy of backing Arab monarchies to keep West Asia under control. There was a space for non-Arab powers like Iran when they fit into the broader strategy.
By contrast, the British government viewed Israel as a source of instability for a long time.
This was because the UK had reluctantly given up holding onto Palestine in the midst of an armed Jewish revolt against colonial rule.
Memories of the Jewish insurgency, particularly the Irgun, were still raw in the early 1950s. The King David Hotel bombing remains a sore point between the Israeli right and the Tories.
Nonetheless, the British government got over this in time to team up in 1956. The UK, along with France and Israel, invaded Egypt to try and snatch back control of the Suez Canal.
This was an early sign of things to come.
The Arab Façade
The British Foreign Office was seen as ‘pro-Arab’ or even ‘Arabist’ for a long time, but what did this really mean?
It did not mean supporting the Palestinians and their demands for self-determination. The Office wasn’t pro-Arab as such. It was just pro-oil.
The Foreign Office was very supportive of Arab monarchies and would later flirt with radical Islam and Arab nationalism when it was convenient.
However, there was a limit to this support because Arab nationalists were secular and tended to be left-wing.
Egypt’s nationalist President Nasser showed a new path. The doomed invasion of Egypt in 1956, so often described as the Suez crisis, was a rude wake-up call.
The British could no longer do whatever they wanted. They could be challenged.
The UK government preferred the Arab Gulf regimes and the Saudi dictatorship in particular. These regimes were what the British called ‘the Arab façade’.
Radical Islamic fundamentalism was a much more reliable ally because it was anti-Communist.
Unlike Arab nationalism, Islamism was not a movement eager to promote development and education.
The Arab façade would preside over the oil and gas industry while keeping a lid on the masses.
The Gulf monarchies allowed the British to set up military bases as potential launchpads in regional conflicts. The SAS, for example, made its bones when it went to Oman and Yemen to fight on the side of status quo forces.
Ultimately, the Wilson government would back Sultan Qaboos bin Said in a coup d’état against his own father. British forces played a key role in crushing the Dhofar rebellion.
Nevertheless, the UK government would work with nationalist leaders when it had to do so.
This is despite the bad experience with President Nasser. Access to oil was a key part of this, especially as Britain feared for its energy security.
There is evidence the Foreign Office saw Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi as ‘new blood’ when he seized power in 1969. They may have been cautiously optimistic.
However, the optimism soon evaporated when Gaddafi booted the British army out of Libya and started arming the IRA.
Perhaps the best example of Britain’s collaboration with Arab nationalism was Iraqi Ba’athist leader Saddam Hussein.
The UK lined up with the US to back Iraq in the early 1980s to contain Iran after the fall of the Shah.
Again, the preference was to back the status quo and contain independent forces that might challenge British interests in the region.
Once Saddam became a problem, the UK was all too happy to back the US in Operation Desert Storm, in 1990.
More importantly, Britain’s defence industry wanted to cash in on the opportunities a new regional war would open up.
The Arab façade nations were there to snap up UK kit, partly out for defensive purposes and partly to help recycle the fortunes made from oil.
And the British military, with an increasing number of its forces deployed to the Mideast, would need new equipment and supplies for a good long while.
Given the drawdown that was starting to take place in Europe at the time, as a consequence of the end of the Cold War, it was a relief to the UK’s defence industries.
‘War on Terror’
Skip forward ten years after Desert Storm ended. The US was about to be attacked on its own soil for the first time since 1812.
The 9/11 attacks wouldn’t so much change the world as build on the dynamics already emerging.
The Blair government forged close ties with the Sharon government and found itself, increasingly supporting conservative Israeli security narratives.
Everything from Hamas to Iran became framed as a danger to the West and not just Israel.
The memory of 9/11 soon became blurred with the Al-Aksa Intifada and waves of suicide bombings in the region.
Nevertheless, the British were still eager to seek out strong Arab allies wherever they could.
The death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000 posed an opportunity for a rapprochement with the Syrian regime.
Tony Blair embraced Bashar al-Assad in Syria hoping to forge a new relationship with these regimes.
Early on Bashar al-Assad was portrayed as a ‘moderniser’. He was a young doctor with a pretty British wife.
However, the transition from father to son was seamless and the Syrian Ba’ath Party stayed largely the same. It wasn’t long before Blair was considering knighthood for Assad Jr.
After 9/11, the Blair government hoped Syria might be an ally and even sent Jack Straw to Iran to hear out President Khatami’s ideas for a new settlement.
Everything was on the table. Yet the intransigence of the Bush Administration scuppered the talks.
Around the same time, Blair brought Libya in from the cold after Gaddafi ‘gave up’ weapons of mass destruction he probably didn’t have.
The Libyan regime was cynical enough to play along and payout to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing.
The Blair strategy would bear fruit (in the short-term) with Libya. However, the fruit would sour quickly in the case of Syria.
The Ba’athist regime was mercurial enough to collaborate with the US and the UK on extraordinary renditions. But the very same government was happy to shelter Iraqi insurgents.
Furthermore, Syria was aligned with Hezbollah and Iran. The two posed a new evil for British war advocates.
This would come to a head in the 2006 Lebanon war. Suddenly, Blair found himself at odds with his own cabinet over his support for Israel.
Some Labour politicians, such as Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy, have remained critical of Israeli government policies, but it’s of little political consequence.
To the degree one hears anything like the past, Boris Johnson’s recent warning to the Netanyahu government to not carry out its annexation plan, was deceitfully relieving.
But, for UK foreign policy analysts, it was just more of the same. Boris had to feign concern for some of Britain’s Arab partners. Whether they actually cared, is another question.
In spite of Israel’s withdrawal from the peace process with the Palestinians, the UK has nonetheless upped its defence exports, exporting a record $445m in equipment to the IDF between 2014 and 2018.
The arms trade is not just one way. Though Israel rarely discloses details of its defence exports, Britain is a known customer of Israeli missiles, drones and aerial targeting pods, for its fighter-bombers, too.
Military sales between the two countries never occur in a vacuum. Israel is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and increasingly exercises with British forces, including in the United Kingdom.
It would be wrong, however, to just focus on military relations. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the British government has sought to maximise trade with all of its former colonial territories, including Israel.
A 2017 government White Paper identified it as a “trade priority” for a post-Brexit UK, due to Israel’s high levels of innovation.
That year alone, according to Bicom, the number of Israeli-owned companies setting up in the UK rose by 28 per cent.
Given the fact that Israeli-British relations have historically been limited by security issues, it would be hard to leverage them to promote peace given such deepening economic ties.
That will undoubtedly disappoint British advocates of Palestinian independence. But, given the UK’s turn rightward over the last decade, the change makes political sense.
In that light, Israel is no different than other former colonial territories of the United Kingdom, like Egypt or India. An economic and security partner. But nothing more enlightened than that.
Hence the parallel with the United States, and all that it entails.
Photograph courtesy of Alisdare Hickson. Published under a Creative Commons license.