A Rubicon has been crossed with this embargo

By Alex Brummer, August 14, 2014

Critics of Israel's policy in Gaza have scored a significant victory with the decision to block a dozen licences to British companies that sell weapons parts to the IDF. The £42 million sum involved is trifling but the symbolism will be exploited.

What is deeply disturbing are misleading sums bandied about at Westminster and in parts of the media that have suggested Israel has a military relationship that dwarfs others in the region, with licences worth £7 billion.

The £7 billion figure is nonsense. It is a number that almost exceeds the whole of Israel's domestic budget and is far larger than all of the fast expanding £3.2 billion two-way commerce between the UK and Israel.

Britain's arms exports to Israel are a tiny fraction of those going to the rest of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is currently the UK's biggest arms customer, through the supply of Typhoon Eurofighter jets valued at £4.4 billion. It is also committed to spending £1.6 billion on the purchase of Hawk trainer jets.

At any one time there are an estimated 270 UK military technicians on the ground in Saudi Arabia. In addition Britain's biggest military contractor, BAE Systems, keeps an army of mechanics and instructors in Saudi with the task of keeping its fleet of military aircraft operational.

Much of the UK's defence industry is based around supplies to Gulf states and countries with questionable human rights records. The Commons Select Committee on Arms Export Controls noted in 2013 that Britain was supplying £12 billion of arms exports to 27 countries - from China to Egypt and Sri Lanka - which have been criticised over human rights.

The actual figures for export licences to Israel range from £42 million to £78 million. Among the 131 licences granted since 2010 are components for drones and military radars, targeting systems and equipment for electronic warfare.

British-Israel trade has grown exponentially. In 2009 Israel-British trade was valued at $2.7 billion, a figure that had soared by 100.3 per cent to £5.5 billion in 2013.

In 2009 Israel ran a physical trade deficit with Britain and by 2013 this had been turned into a substantial surplus of £1.4 billion. So while an arms embargo would cause little harm to Jerusalem, a broader trade embargo could be enormously harmful to the UK.

Inevitably, Operation Protective Edge will cause some British policymakers to question whether the deepening relationship is worth the trouble. But this is not a standard that has been applied to other export markets. In China UK companies have been subjected to harassment over alleged bribery or Nigeria where Shell lives constantly in fear of attacks by rebel and criminal groups.

Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 3:12pm, August 14 2014