Matthew Gould is right. We do need to talk about Israel

By Shimon Cohen, August 16, 2012

The British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, recently expressed the view that those who care about Israel's standing in the world "should be concerned by the erosion of popular support" for it in the UK. The problem, he suggested, is not confined to fringe groups who call for boycotts "and the rest of it." Instead, he said that among the mainstream British public, in and out of parliament, there has been a shift away from positions sympathetic to Israel.

"On the face of it", wrote Martin Bright in his analysis, Mr Gould's comments are "a straightforward statement of the obvious." My feelings exactly. Within political circles, my experience is that opinion on Israel varies but the trends could not be characterised as overwhelmingly positive. Among Conservatives, Israel seems to have become an irritation, while for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the ambassador's description of a perception of Israel as a "Goliath" style aggressor, rings true.

Indeed, it would not have been entirely surprising if it had been an Israeli official rather than a British diplomat who had articulated similar concerns regarding shifting attitudes to Israel within the British mainstream. Yet, rather than engage directly with the points, a number of figures from across the community have lined up to disparage the ambassador's concerns.

The Conservative Friends of Israel trot out the ubiquitous line, never really questioned, that Tory MPs "regularly" make their voices heard on Israel, using the example of "raising the matter of Palestinian incitement". I hope MPs on all sides take a strong line on incitement. But is that really the best example we have of support for Israel in Parliament? Bicom argue that their polling clearly shows that Israel and Britain's relationship has "never been stronger" and so, they argue, the ambassador must be mistaken. If you believe what they tell you, when it comes to Israel's standing in the UK, we've never had it so good.

It is worth recalling that Gould has, throughout his mission to Israel and previously, never done anything to suggest that he is anything but a committed friend of Israel. Instead of putting our fingers in our collective ears and shouting about how brilliantly we're doing, perhaps we could try something new. We might, for example, entertain the idea that the concerns have been expressed from a position of friendship and should not be so roundly rejected.

Are we not capable of a more honest appraisal?

We cannot tackle a problem if we do not accept that we have one. Are we not capable as a community of a more honest appraisal of Israel's challenges in the UK and a revaluation of the strategies being employed? Anglo-Jewry has placed an overbearing emphasis on building relationships with party leaders, which is important but should not come at the expense of building grass-roots support. The notion that a prime minister will be substantively influenced as a result of cordial relationships with a few wealthy members of the community leadership is sadly flawed.

He is far more likely to be influenced by the prevailing mood of his backbenchers, who in turn are influenced by the concerns of constituents. Those relationships are all too often undervalued, if not ignored altogether. If that continues to be the case, then the relatively warm attitudes to Israel seen within this and previous governments will simply not last.

To a future party leader growing up in the 1970s, Israel was brave and honourable. To a future leader growing up in the '90s and beyond, Israel is controversial and a political nightmare.

There have been enormous triumphs in British-Israel relations outside the political sphere, including figures showing a near 40 per cent increase in bilateral trade. But economic and cultural ties will break easily if we fail to make the political arguments more widely. We must spread our efforts to the grass-roots, both within Parliament and beyond, then perhaps by the time the next generation of British leaders reach their positions, they will not already be lost to us.

With the greatest of respect to CFI, Bicom and others, can we really say that in the last decades, Israel's standing has improved in the UK? Can we even say it has got no worse? Would it be so wrong to suggest it might be time for say, a bipartisan lobby, more concerned with influencing public opinion than securing the ineffectual favour of a few? Or will this article be greeted with yet more furious insistence that all is well and that somebody somewhere has everything in hand?

Shimon Cohen is chairman of The PR Office, a public relations and public affairs agency

Last updated: 4:34pm, August 16 2012