Israel must fight for the British centre

By Matthew Gould, September 14, 2012
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Rosh Hashanah is a chance to reflect on the past year and look ahead to the year coming. As we pause on the threshold of the new year, I find myself deeply concerned about what the future will bring for Israel.

Every day, Israelis wake up to headlines about Iranian threats to destroy their country, stockpiles of Hizbollah rockets, actual rocket attacks from Gaza, and violent terrorist incursions from Sinai. Gas masks are handed out to families and car parks are being converted into bomb shelters. This new reality is coming on the back of 18 months of enormous upheaval in the Middle East - upheaval that has left Israelis deeply nervous for the future.

Alongside these, and just as worrying for Israel's future, is a slow but steady decline in international support for Israel. The annual BBC Globescan survey revealed for the second successive year that 50 per cent of respondents had a negative view of Israel - the same as North Korea and only marginally better than Iran. This slow decline in support is happening across the Western world, including in the UK.

In Parliament, there has been a shift. There have always been some MPs who will always criticise Israel, no matter what it does. Others - still a good number - are staunch friends. But, in the centre, there has been a shift. Some MPs who used to stand up and support Israel now stay silent. Some MPs who used to remain silent are now critical. The Early Day Motions hostile to Israel that used to be ignored or signed by a few of the "usual characters" now garner significant cross-party support.

There are some people for whom Israel will always be wrong, whatever it does

As someone who cares deeply for Israel's future, this changing reality scares me. I worry that we will wake up in a few years to find Israel has lost most of its friends.

I represent a government that believes in the state of Israel. Our Prime Minister has said that his belief in Israel is unbreakable. Our Foreign Secretary has declared Israel to be a strategic partner and said that we will never compromise on Israel's security and legitimacy. My mission is to do all I can to make a reality out of their vision of Britain and Israel joined in partnership.

The slow decline in warmth towards Israel is a deep threat to that vision. So I ask myself, as Israel's friend, what can the British government do to reverse this? First, we should build the best bilateral relationship we can between our countries. An unbreakable and growing partnership, clearly to the benefit of the British, will always be the strongest answer to those who oppose links with Israel. And we are building that partnership in trade and tech, in our universities and in our laboratories, in security, and in the fight against terrorism.

The total value of trade and services between Britain and Israel is now well over $8 billion a year. Britain is now Israel's biggest export market after the US. These fantastic figures show an economic relationship that is in excellent shape - the best possible answer to those calling for boycotts. My focus has been on developing our hi-tech links, and both David Cameron and Benjamin Netanyahu are committed to this, too. To support this, we launched the UK/Israel Tech Hub at the British Embassy in Israel. The Hub is the first of its kind in the world - a team drawn from the tech sectors, tasked not with increasing exports to Israel but with promoting partnership between our companies. There is a huge opportunity here for both Israeli entrepreneurs and for British businesses - Israeli tech can go global using Britain's business strengths and reach; British companies can get a global edge using Israeli innovation.

When William Hague visited, he described Britain and Israel as "scientific superpowers", and announced the creation of the UK Israel Life Sciences Council. This body contains the top life scientists on both sides - including four Nobel Prize winners and three members of the House of Lords. The Council has given rise to an ambitious programme of joint research in regenerative medicine, which will fund £10 million of research, fellowships and conferences in the next five years.

All this demonstrates the level of enthusiasm at British universities for collaboration with Israel. Last year, Ben Gurion University hosted the first UK-Israel conference on regenerative medicine, attracting 60 British scientists. Links are being forged between the universities themselves. Manchester is doing exciting work with the Weizmann Institute; Oxford is working with Ben Gurion; Tel Aviv and Cambridge have signed an agreement to co-operate in theology. There is a growing amount of collaboration between our universities to look forward to in the New Year, and it should give us real pride.

Our partnership is based on shared values, an understanding that those values are challenged by common threats, and a determination to tackle those threats together, not least Iran's nuclear ambitions. Israel rightly sees this as a threat of the highest order. But it is not just a threat to Israel - the region, and the wider world, would be seriously destabilised by a nuclear-armed Iran. So we need to tackle the threat together, and make clear - to Iran, and to Israel - that this problem is not for Israel alone to resolve. Britain has led the way in imposing stringent sanctions on the Iranian economy and will continue to work closely with Israel, and with the US, France and others, in tackling the threat.

The second way to push back against the decline in international support for Israel is by drawing clear lines between legitimate criticism and delegitimisation. There are some people for whom Israel will always be wrong, whatever it does. They exist in the UK - and in many other countries - and are determined to assault Israel's very legitimacy.

A few weeks ago, we got a powerful reminder of the determination of this group, when they tried to disrupt the Batsheva dance company in Edinburgh. The protesters represent a small minority but they are active, loud and hugely dedicated. They try, and sometimes succeed, to marshal civil society organisations to their cause; these people are on the margin of political life but have made occasional inroads into mainstream politics.

The British government takes a clear stand against an approach that seeks to build barriers rather than bridges. As Alistair Burt, Middle East Minister, said after the Batsheva protests, "such action shows disdain for the fundamental principles of cultural freedom and tolerance which we cherish in the UK." But I worry that we give these people more credit and attention than they deserve. While their efforts do need to be addressed, they also need to be set in context. The wider economic impact of what they do has been miniscule, and their impact is through the noise they make; that noise has been magnified many times over by the attention they have been given by Israel's friends, which in itself risks making them mainstream. I fear that, for friends of Israel, this destructive agenda by Israel's enemies - and their desire to counter it - will come to define their connection with the state. And perhaps that is the most profound victory that the delegitimisers could achieve.

One example where arguments around delegitimisation are distorting the reality is on campus. The view is widely held in Israel, and in the Anglo-Jewish community, that all British universities have become cauldrons of anti-Israel sentiment. To be sure, there is a real issue of intimidation on some campuses, and this needs to be tackled hard - there can be no place for this. But, of the more than 120 UK universities, only a handful of student unions have passed anti-Israel motions; not a single university has an officially sanctioned boycott of Israel.

I speak to dozens of Israelis who have studied in the UK. Most have had a fantastic time. A few months ago, I spent Shabbat with Manchester JSoc. The students wanted me to know that the university was a great place for Jewish and Israeli students, and they were sick of being told the opposite by people who were in no position to know.

We have handed an unwarranted victory to those who would delegitimise Israel, by letting them exaggerate the impact they have had on campus. But this is not just a PR victory we have given them - it has also had a serious negative impact on the numbers of Israelis coming to study in the UK. And this is a genuine tragedy, because the best advocates for Israel are Israeli students, and if they abandon our universities the impact will be felt for many years to come.

The battle for public opinion is still to be fought, but the crucial fight will not be at the fringes. The fight that matters is the one for the centre ground, where the public worry about the lack of progress towards peace, continued settlement building and the occupation.

Some say it does not matter what Israel does, as its enemies will always condemn it. That is certainly true of the hard-core Israel-haters. But I do not believe it is true of the vast majority of Britons, who are not intrinsically opposed to Israel. Poll after poll shows they support Israel's existence and understand its right to security. But they also want to see the conflict over, and a Palestinian state created. They do not understand why, 30 years after the peace process started, we are still so far away. And they certainly don't understand why Israel needs to carry on building in settlements.

I spend too much of my life arguing over the apportionment of blame. William Hague has made clear that Britain believes there is fault on both sides. But regardless of where blame lies, I am certain that the following propositions are empirically, measurably true.

One, that the British public used to see Israel as David, against the Goliath of its neighbours; now Israel is seen as Goliath, militarily strong, technologically advanced and vastly more powerful than the Palestinians.

Two, that, for as long the occupation continues, the restrictions on Gaza remain and there is still a steady stream of announcements of settlement construction, Israel's support in the centre ground of British opinion will continue to ebb. As ambassador, I see the impact that announcements of building in settlements has on the public, on MPs, on our own ministers. Little is more corrosive of faith in Israel's intentions towards peace.

Three, that, until there is progress toward peace, we fight a losing battle to win back hearts and minds. But, conversely, progress toward peace will win back the centre ground, undermine the delegitimisers, and allow Israel's supporters to avoid constant skirmishes with boycotters and begin embracing Israel positively.

This is why the British government's first priority is to continue in the search for peace. After three decades, we know that, if it was easy, we would have got there by now. It will require what Ariel Sharon termed painful compromises, along with visionary leadership. And it will require us to help find sufficient answers for Israel's security, despite the shifting regional sands.

We realise that the Israelis will move towards peace only when they believe that this will make them more secure, not less. The creation of a Palestinian state must not lead to rockets raining down on Israel from the West Bank. It must not be a repeat of Gaza, when withdrawal was followed by the Hamas takeover and years of rocket attacks. But the majority of Israelis and Palestinians believe the future lies in the creation of a Palestinian state. That is the basis for some hope that peace can be achieved.

Becoming ambassador in Israel was a dream. It is a huge privilege to represent - to Israel, the homeland for the Jewish people - the country that gave my grandfather refuge. My wife and I love living in Israel and want the very best for it. In my new year reflections, I wish I did not have to address the threats to Israel or reaffirm that Britain believes in Israel's existence and legitimacy - the British envoy to Sweden never has to say that we support Sweden's right to exist. When I got this job, friends queued up to tell me that I would never be bored. I pray that, one day, they will be wrong.

But, for now, Israel will continue to face regional turmoil and an acute threat from Iran's nuclear ambitions. And Israel will continue to face the slow, steady erosion of its support. We will not stand passively by and watch it happen. By building our bilateral relationship, by facing the vitriol of the delegitimisers and boycotters head on, and by focusing our energies on the search for peace, I hope that we can see the start of a renaissance in the way Britain looks at Israel. Shana tova umetuka.

Matthew Gould is the British ambassador to Israel

Last updated: 12:36pm, September 14 2012