Wilson, true friend of Israel

November 24, 2016 23:18

Harold Wilson was a mid-table prime minister, the Stoke or Southampton of the political world. Nonetheless, Wilson is the only occupant of Downing Street to have won four general elections – albeit three by the skin of his teeth. Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the first of those victories.

Although of the television age, Wilson was the last monochrome prime minister. This perhaps helps explain why his two stretches in Downing Street - 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976 - don't rank higher in the national consciousness. To the extent they are remembered at all, it is as a time of sweeping liberalisation and deep economic crisis.

What is now forgotten is Wilson's staunch Zionism - an unfashionable trait today among the Labour left from whose ranks he originally hailed. And Wilson's commitment to Israel was intimately connected to his socialism. As his political secretary, Baroness Falkender, later explained: "Wilson admired Israel's determined development as a socialist state."Alongside his hero, Aneurin Bevan, and perhaps his two closest political allies, Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle, the future prime minister formed close relationships during the 1950s with a number of young Israelis who were later to become leading politicians: Yigal Allon, Chaim Herzog, and Teddy Kollek. For Wilson, these young men were "social democrats who made the desert flower".

Wilson's view of Israel may, as Falkender believes, have been "in many ways a romantic one", but there was nothing whimsical about it. His book, The Chariot of Israel: Britain, America and the State of Israel, was described by Wilson's home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer, Roy Jenkins, as "one of the most strongly Zionist tracts ever written by a non-Jew". Its hero was Arthur Balfour, its villain Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary alongside whom Wilson served in Attlee's cabinet as the creation of the state of Israel was hotly debated.

As prime minister, Wilson was determined, says his biographer, Philip Ziegler, to "expiate Bevin's sins". On appointing him foreign secretary, Wilson told Jim Callaghan he would have a free hand "with the exception of two areas - Israel and South Africa," the latter because of his detestation of apartheid. When the Egyptian president, Colonel Nasser, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in May 1967, Wilson pledged that Britain would "promote and secure free passage".

In cabinet, Wilson angrily slapped down those who suggested such an approach was too financially costly or militarily impractical, before lobbying the leaders of France, Canada, Russia and the United States for joint international action, presciently warning them that Israel would be forced to strike first if such action were unforthcoming.

When Israel faced its next existential threat, in October 1973, Wilson again rushed to its side, lobbying Ted Heath, by then his successor in No. 10, to lift an arms embargo on all combatants in the conflict. Wilson insisted on imposing a three-line whip when the issue was debated in the Commons. To Jenkins's objections, he retorted: "Look, Roy, I've accommodated your f***ing conscience for years. Now you're going to have to take account of mine. I feel as strongly about the Middle East as you do about the Common Market." In the ensuing parliamentary debate, Wilson pleaded for support for "by any test… the only democracy in [the] region".

Away from the public stage, Wilson subtly used his close contacts with the Soviet leadership to try and improve the lot of Russian Jews - refusing on one occasion to join them at the Bolshoi while two of its stars were denied exit visas. After leaving office in 1976, Wilson's first overseas visit was to Israel, where he received an honorary doctorate and inspected a forest near Nazareth that had been named after him.

Wilson's name is now virtually synonymous with a Machiavellian pursuit of power over principle. For the historian Dominic Sandbrook he was "a brilliant opportunist".

But, as one of his sharpest contemporary critics, and fellow Zionist, Ian Mikardo, recalled: "I don't think Harold had any doctrinal beliefs… except for one, which I find utterly incomprehensible, which is his devotion to the cause of Israel." With their numbers seemingly dwindling, it's worth today recalling Harold Wilson, the forgotten friend of Israel.

November 24, 2016 23:18

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