The true message of the PM's CST speech

David Cameron's speech to the Community Security Trust last week was an important restatement of his support - up to and including Israel's right to search vessels bringing cargo into Gaza.

This was something of a shift from his indignant remarks during his "prison camp" speech in Turkey last summer when he described the boarding of the Gaza flotilla as completely unacceptable.

And yet this should be seen as a sign of the Prime Minister's growing confidence in talking about the Middle East, rather than a complete change of direction on policy. It is now understood that the prison camp reference was an error. David Cameron took his eye off the ball and allowed a phrase to slip into his speech that he should not have used, and will never use again. As one senior pro-Israel Tory told me: "He's learnt a lot since then".

Cynics might say that the messages in the two speeches were tailored to suit the audiences, but the only truly significant difference was that one took place eight months after the other. And in the meantime, the geopolitics of the region has changed beyond recognition.

The point is that David Cameron is a consistent and sometimes passionate supporter of Israel, but it is not written into his political DNA.

As one source close to the Prime Minister's inner circle told me: "Israel does not play a central role in his thinking. He is not driven by a mission in foreign policy like Tony Blair."

There is a foreign policy pragmatism about Mr Cameron that means he does not sign up to the full neo-con package, although he may be sympathetic to the ideology. This partly explains why he has been prepared to take a step back from unconditional support for the Netanyahu government. He has taken the view that the issue of settlement building is a technical block on the peace process and he has therefore permitted William Hague and Middle East minister Alastair Burt to make outspoken statements about Israeli intransigence. This is not to say there are no tensions within the Cabinet. The twin poles of thinking on Israel in the Cameron inner circle are William Hague and Michael Gove. Although Mr Gove is the closer personal friend, Mr Hague clearly has the more relevant job to the issue in hand.

Mr Hague has always seen the non-Islamist regimes of the Arab world as an important bulwark against Iran. He has taken a close interest in Syria for this very reason, hoping the Assad regime can be persuaded to disentangle itself from Tehran. Mr Gove, on the other hand, is a purist neo-con, believing that the best way of tackling the rise of radical Islam is to oppose totalitarian regimes and back democracy in the Middle East, with Israel as its beacon.

Thus far, David Cameron has held these two positions in tension. But the tide of history now appears to be moving against the traditional realpolitik espoused by Mr Hague. The Arab Spring has provided a direct challenge to those who believed in making common cause with dictators, in the fight against a common enemy.

Oddly, considering the various foreign policy fiascos that have taken place in Libya over the past few weeks, Mr Cameron is becoming bolder in his pronouncements: "For decades autocratic Arab regimes have used the Palestinian cause to smother their own peoples' hopes and aspirations."

This is the lasting message of his CST speech.

    Last updated: 12:49pm, March 10 2011