UK Labour Party gets closer to its Israeli counterpart

As the year draws to a close, there is really only one event in the forthcoming few weeks. The Israeli elections on January 22 have the capacity to define the geopolitics of the region. They will also define the relationship between Israel and the British political class. The performance of Likud will either provide Benjamin Netanyahu with the confidence he needs to continue to defy international opinion, or throw Israel into further uncertainty.

For Britain, and William Hague in particular, frustration has turned to exasperation. Relations hit a low point after Mr Netanyahu announced a new round of settlement-building in apparent retribution for the Palestinian decision to take its demands for enhanced status to the United Nations.

The Byzantine detail of Israeli politics — the apparent lurch of Likud to the right, the role of Yisrael Beitenu, the potential for Tzipi Livni’s new party, the future of Shas in any coalition — will barely register on the radar of most UK politicians. But that is not to say Israel itself doesn’t register. The UK’s ambassador, Matthew Gould, drew criticism last year for voicing the view that sympathy for Israel is waning on the centre ground of British politics. There is a real possibility that this tendency will continue in 2013.

One fascinating outcome of the elections could be the strengthening of the Labour Party under the leadership of Shelly Yachimovich. Polling suggests that the party could rise from the ashes of the 2009 election and the split that followed, and poll as many as 20 Knesset seats.

Though these are early days to suggest that Labour will once again be a force in the land, a sharp piece of analysis from Bicom’s Toby Greene suggests that Ms Yachimovich is focusing on the socio-economic situation to attract support from the social justice movement that saw thousands take to the streets in 2011.

The fragile and tentative revival of the Israeli Labour Party provides an opportunity for its British counterpart. For many supporters of Israel, Ed Miliband has not had the most auspicious of starts as Labour leader. His direct criticism of Israel in his conference speech of 2010 has been followed by a consistent position of support for the Palestinians’ unilateral bid for statehood. Ed Miliband would do well to forge a strong relationship with Ms Yachimovich in the year ahead, although his solidarity will be challenged should she enter into coalition talks with Likud after January 22.

But there are increasing signs that the British Labour Party is taking seriously its relations with Israel on a more grass-roots level. The hi-tech fact-finding mission organised by Labour Friends of Israeli is known to have had a profound effect on the senior trio of Liam Byrne, Chuka Umunna and David Lammy when they visited in October. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is due to make a follow-up trip and the Labour economic team is taking a strong interest in the relationship between hi-tech start-ups and the universities sector as a model for the UK.

The continuing after-shocks of the Arab Spring, the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, the worsening situation in Syria, Iran and the toxic stagnation of the peace process — these giant, geo-political issues will all play their part in the politics of the year ahead for UK-Israel relations. If there is any optimism to be found, then it will be in new bilateral ties between the political class in Britain and Israel, such as those being developed by the Labour Party.

Last updated: 11:26am, December 27 2012