Life & Culture

Peres the Anglophile: A friend of Britain


In an interview with Benny Morris in 2010, Shimon Peres expressed the belief that "In England there has always been something deeply pro-Arab…and anti-Israeli, in the establishment…. They always worked against us."

This uncharacteristically undiplomatic moment perhaps reflected tensions within the UK-Israeli relationship during the period in which Peres embarked upon his political and diplomatic career.

In the mid-1950s, not only were Ernest Bevin's anti-Zionist excesses still fresh in the memory but suspicions that the Foreign Office was institutionally pro-Arab and anti-Israeli could hardly be said to be entirely without foundation.

One of the most extraordinary diplomatic despatches sent by a British Ambassador was issued from Tel Aviv in 1955 by Jack Nicholls, which diagnosed the Israeli psychological condition as a combination of "unsureness, over-confidence, emotional instability, fierce intolerance, superiority complex, inferiority complex [and] guilt complex," before characterising Israelis as a "sick people" and Israel itself as the "centre of infection" in the Middle East.

In such a climate, it was not surprising that Peres, as Director General at the Israeli Ministry of Defence, looked to France rather than Britain for diplomatic support and, more pointedly, military equipment.

Kinnock visited Israel to try to bolster Peres's position

Yet the notion that he harboured any deep-seated or long-lasting anti-British feeling runs counter to the evidence of an extraordinary political career in which Peres demonstrated a remarkable ability to appeal to British leaders from across the political spectrum.

When the poisonous environment engendered by Ernest Bevin's tenure at the Foreign Office began to dissipate, Peres was at the heart of efforts to improve UK-Israeli relations.

During the revolutionary upheavals of 1958, he actively cultivated the goodwill of Harold Macmillan's government, even proposing, over drinks with the MOD's Intelligence chief, K.W.D. Strong, that Britain and Israel cooperate in "a determined campaign of subversion against those Middle East countries which were our enemies".

Peres's position as a leading member of the Israeli Labour Party naturally facilitated close relations with key figures in the British Labour movement.

Few British Prime Ministers have been more sympathetic to Israel than Harold Wilson, a man who Peres described as a "true friend of Israel" - although, in terms of his personal friendships, Wilson was probably closer to Yigal Allon than he was to Peres.

Peres maintained close working relations with Wilson's successors including, perhaps most interestingly, Michael Foot, to whom he issued a personal invitation to visit Israel.

Foot, in a notable contrast with the present leader of the Labour Party, issued a swift reply stating that he "would like to do this particularly if it was helpful to the Israeli Labour Party".

In September 1981, Peres sent a supportive message to the British Labour Party conference, cherishing the "friendship, solidarity and co-operation that have always existed between our two parties" and adding that "we are both convinced that aggressive free market economy and other monetarist policies are socially damaging."

A delighted Foot replied that that both Labour parties "face the same kind of domestic opposition.

"They seem wedded to a furious anti-socialist market economy which could spread devastating results through the world of the 1980s".

Peres sympathised with the electoral plight of the British Labour Party during the Thatcher years, sending friendly commiserations to Neil Kinnock after the 1987 General Election in which he expressed admiration for the "courageous way in which you have fought for your principles."

If, as a 1983 Foreign Office "personality note" rightly observed, Peres valued his contacts with the Labour Party, his networks were by no means confined to the left.

He was friends with George Weidenfeld, a founding member of the SDP Friends of Israel group and alongside Isaiah Berlin, Teddy Kollek and Michael Sella stood at one of the four corners of the canopy during traditional dances at Weidenfeld's wedding celebrations in Jerusalem in 1992.

He was also capable of reaching out to figures on the right of the Conservative Party and personally hosted Julian Amery during the latter's 1975 visit to Israel.

Peres enjoyed the support of both the Conservative and Labour Party leaderships during the 1980s, an achievement no doubt facilitated by his reputation as being an easier man to deal with than Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, neither of whom, for obvious reasons, enjoyed the friendliest of relationships with British officials.

In 1981, considering the forthcoming Israeli General Election, Margaret Thatcher's foreign policy advisers concluded that "the peace process is most likely to prosper if Peres wins a decisive victory" and, intriguingly, actively flirted with the idea of seeking to influence the result of the election with the intention, as they put it, of "putting a spoke in Begin's wheel".

Internal Labour Party documents reveal that Kinnock's advisers were thinking along similar lines and Kinnock's 1988 visit to Israel was arranged with the explicit hope that the trip would "strengthen the internal position of Shimon Peres".

Kinnock himself wrote to Peres expressing the view that "the only way in which any form of peace settlement can be achieved is through your election as Prime Minister later this year."

In 2008, Peres made an official visit to Britain as President of Israel.

Addressing Parliament, he reminded his audience that: "My family arrived in Israel when it was still under British mandate. In our pockets were British Palestinian passports. In our hearts the Balfour Declaration."

As the 100th anniversary of that Declaration approaches, it is well worth remembering Peres's unique contribution to UK-Israeli relations over the course of a diplomatic career that stretched from the Suez Crisis to the second decade of the 21st century.

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