UK policy on Israel: passion needed

This week’s Bicom dinner, one of the set-piece events of the year for UK supporters of Israel, was a reminder, if anyone needed it, of just how stuck things have become. Ehud Barak gave a rather good speech, but his very presence was a reminder of how far we are from that Camp David handshake with Yasir Arafat in 1999. Conservative Party co-chair Grant Shapps was amiable enough, but his job was merely to repeat what David Cameron had said to the UJIA dinner earlier in the month: Iran is a major threat and Britain will always be a friend to Israel.

The most significant news came not from the politicians, but from Bicom itself, with the launch of an impressive journal, Fathom, which aims to promote a deeper understanding of Israel and the region.

It contains a thorough, mid-term analysis of the coalition’s relationship with Israel by Bicom’s director of research, Toby Greene.

Mr Greene concludes that UK-Israel relations have been affected by three phenomena: the global economic crisis, the Arab uprisings and the ongoing inertia in the peace process. The first has led William Hague to yoke UK foreign policy to trade, especially in its relationship to the Gulf states, but also with Israel, where the emphasis has shifted away from traditional diplomacy to a sharing of hi-tech expertise.

The FCO’s view on the state of the peace process was expressed by Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the UK’s ambassador to the United Nations at Chatham House in 2011: “Israel-Palestine remains the main poison in the well between the West and the Islamic world.”

Mr Greene also points out that Mr Cameron has not visited Israel since he became Prime Minister in May 2010, and the Foreign Secretary only once. Most of the heavy lifting in the relationship has been carried out on the UK side by Middle East minister Alistair Burt and the UK’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould. He is not the first analyst to point out that Mr Cameron lacks the passion for Israel shown by his two immediate predecessors in office.

But there remains a strange disconnect between the FCO’s “poisoned well” rhetoric and the apparently half-hearted attitude of senior coalition politicians, which means they have hardly set foot in the country since they have been in government. If this is such a fundamental block on peace in the region, then you might expect the Prime Minister to be on the next plane out there, or at the very least, make it a priority of his next visit to the region.

Last updated: 4:29pm, November 2 2012