It is not unusual for prominent politicians to speak at dinners for prestigious Jewish organisations, although it is always something of a coup when the Prime Minister turns up. Such occasions have a set protocol. The invited politician will pay due tribute to the Jewish community: its contribution to UK business, its philanthropic tradition or its respect for family values and education. The invitee then pledges to fight antisemitism in all its forms.
However, these speeches rarely make it on to the news bulletins. Indeed, they are often carefully crafted to avoid controversy, especially when the subject of Israel arises. This is why David Cameron’s words at the annual dinner of the United Jewish Israel Appeal demand careful attention.
The Downing Street press office made a point of sending out a copy of the speech to lobby correspondents on Monday evening to alert them to its significance. The line they were given was clear — Mr Cameron was urging Israel not to launch a strike on Iran before sanctions had been given a chance to work. This has been the consistent Foreign Office line for some time now and I have heard it from ministers and civil servants alike. The falling value of the Iranian rial, soaring inflation and the establishment of an austerity task force are all evidence that sanctions are biting, they say.
There is nothing particularly newsworthy in this. The reason it was flagged up to the key news outlets was that Mr Cameron wanted to get the following line across in a very public manner to a very particular audience: “I have said to Prime Minister Netanyahu that now is not the time for Israel to resort to military action”. The reasoning (again this is a Foreign Office line) is that the regime would use any attack to unite the Iranian people against a foreign enemy. Quite why this argument was not used in the case of allied attacks on Iraq or Libya is not explained.
David Cameron is no foreign policy expert and thus remains deeply reliant on briefings from the Foreign Office. Much of his speech to the UJIA could have been written by an FCO press officer. That does not make it a bad speech or wrong in its analysis. But it makes Mr Cameron a very different political animal from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who both took a close personal interest in international affairs and felt a visceral connection with Israel.
Cameron relies on Foreign Office briefings
So if Israel is not Mr Cameron’s passion, what exactly was his game on Monday night? I’m sure the Prime Minister was telling the truth when he said he had the greatest respect for the work of the UJIA in Britain and Israel. But the Prime Minister did not just come to Monday’s dinner bearing just the usual platitudes. He made a point of giving British Zionism his personal endorsement: “Yes, you can love this country, take pride in its history, celebrate its Olympics, even cry with its football fans every other year. There is no contradiction between being a proud Jew, a committed Zionist and a loyal British citizen.”
In a sophisticated multicultural democracy, governments make a series of compacts with the various communities that make up society. In general, this involves one side keeping its nose clean while contributing to the economy and the other offering protection from attack or persecution. He didn’t say it in terms, but I believe Mr Cameron meant to take this compact with the Jewish community to another level on Monday. By explicitly recognising the legitimacy of a Jewish-Zionist-British identity, I believe he was attempting to recruit the UK diaspora to his cause of persuading Israel back from the brink.