Israel will be defended in Parliament by a group of “tough-minded Conservative MPs who won’t flinch under attack”, according to the new leader of one of Westminster’s key campaign groups.
Stephen Crabb, the former Tory minister, was this week announced as the new chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel in the House of Commons. He takes over from Sir Eric Pickles, who retired as an MP before June’s general election.
Mr Crabb said he would reiterate Israel’s “impressive economic achievements and record on innovation and technology” but did not intend to “tear things up and reinvent the wheel”.
He explained: “I’ve served in cabinet, I understand how Whitehall works, and I connect very well with the younger generation of MPs. The opportunity under my chairmanship is to give CFI more visibility with new MPs and I’m looking forward to picking up the mantle.”
Mr Crabb said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sir Eric and other past CFI chairs by steering the group “quietly, consistently. It’s a brilliant example of an organisation that communicates a consistent message in a very positive way”.
The 44-year-old was once seen as a rising star of the Conservative Party. The former Welsh Secretary and ex-Work and Pensions Minister briefly stood for the leadership last year after David Cameron’s resignation, but pulled out following revelations about his private life.
He told the JC he was fortunate to come to the CFI role under a period of sustained support for Israel from a government “looking to deepen the relationship, cultivate it across many fronts, cultural, economic, political and in other ways”.
But Mr Crabb added: “The case for Israel needs to keep being restated — year in, year out, generation after generation. We have a very different Parliament now from a few years ago with lots of new MPs.
“There’s a clear and needed role for CFI to keep doing what it did with me when I was first elected in 2005, in educating MPs about Israel and giving them opportunities to learn and make up their own minds about the complicated picture of the Middle East.
“For such a small country it gets mentioned probably more often than any other country in foreign questions in the Commons. Very often it is raised by MPs who don’t support the case for Israel, who actually see it as their duty to chip away at the legitimacy of Israel. The role of CFI therefore is to counter some of the negative distortions that are put forward all too regularly.”
Despite his positivity about UK-Israel relations, Mr Crabb is concerned about the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
“From my last visit to Israel earlier this year I did not come back with an overwhelming sense of optimism. Having spent a week talking to Israeli politicians, journalists, academics and people in the West Bank, the most depressing day of the visit was when we met one of the Palestinian ministers in Ramallah.
“Just the sheer obstinacy, the stubborn refusal to even countenance that there is a desire for peace on the Israeli side left us all very pessimistic about the long-term prospects for peace, but we keep trying. We will do whatever we can as parliamentarians to foster that climate.
“But in the meantime we will also focus on the really important issues like trade, cultural exchange, educational exchange, countering the lies and negativity of the BDS movement. And yes we will celebrate the centenary of Balfour with pride.”
The MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire said there was “quite a strong affinity between the nation of Wales and the nation of Israel.
“The land area is almost identical to that of Israel. It’s a nation which has rediscovered ancient roots and tried to put it in a modern context of nationhood — for example the revival of the Hebrew language; in Wales we’ve seen something of a revival of ancient Welsh language.”
Speaking from his home in the constituency, Mr Crabb said one of his proudest moments as Welsh Secretary had been unveiling £3 million of Israeli investment in the Principality.
“We put on an event welcoming the investors, in partnership with the Welsh Labour government and it was a really good example of different tiers of government working across party lines, publicly backing the state of Israel and Israeli investment in the UK.”
The former cabinet minister grabbed the community’s attention last year after making the keynote speech at Bnei Akiva’s annual Yom Ha’atzmaut service.
Addressing more than 1,000 people at Finchley United Synagogue, he described how his own background as a Christian had inspired him to take an interest in Israel.
“From a historical perspective, as a Christian, when you go to modern-day Israel there is that fascination with seeing some of the sites mentioned in the scripture you grew up reading as a child,” Mr Crabb told the JC.
“But for me, my interest in supporting Israel through CFI is less to do with faith and much more to do with basic values about liberalism, tolerance, democracy and freedom.
“When you put yourself on the side of Israel you are putting yourself on the side of those values, which as a Conservative I believe are the essential underpinnings of prosperity in the modern world.
“You cannot fail to be impressed by Israel as a beacon of freedom and liberalism in a region characterised unfortunately by too much strife and oppression.”
CFI also unveiled three new vice-chairs this week. Theresa Villiers, the Chipping Barnet MP, will be joined by Andrew Percy, who represents Brigg and Goole, and veteran John Howell, the Henley MP. The group’s officers include Tories from across the country, with new additions such as Paul Masterton, who won the East Renfrewshire seat in June, and Brecon’s Chris Davies.
Mr Crabb said: “You’ve got some really tough-minded MPs there who won’t flinch under attack. People like Andrew Percy and Maria Caulfield.”
He said the Jewish community should be “encouraged that there is very strong and deep support for Israel among MPs from every single corner of the country”.