Why must Britain’s national debate about Israel be characterised by intellectually dishonest moralising?
Ever since the horrific events of October 7th, the airwaves have been dominated by pundits who have abandoned nuance in service of sweeping narratives about the righteousness of their chosen side. It is remarkable how little space has been afforded to realpolitik. In all of this, the question of Britain’s strategic interest has been lost.
Much ink has already been spilled about the disproportionate attention and scrutiny afforded to Israel by many on the left. We are right to be suspicious of “anti-colonial” activists, who reserve a unique hatred for the Jewish state, and to be concerned about the growing Islamist presence on our streets. We should, of course, condemn any and all attempts to morally justify the slaughter of innocent Israeli civilians.
However, this moralising tendency is not a uniquely left-wing affliction. In fact, some of the biggest culprits sit firmly on the right. Neoconservatives like Douglas Murray are guilty of making sentimental moral cases in favour of Israel.
On 12 October, he said that it “isn’t for non-Israelis to give [Israel advice]”. In the same article, he shrugged off the idea that Israel might “cut off Gaza and starve Hamas out” — “why,” he lamented, “should the Palestinians forever be Israel’s problem?” His support for the Israeli government’s position appears to be unconditional — does that seem like a position grounded in secure strategic thinking about this country’s best interests?
This is underpinned by a belief that Israeli society is somehow like our own, part of an ill-defined “West”, locked in mortal combat against the two-headed hydra of Islamism and illiberalism.
Examine the reality of the Anglo-Israeli relationship, and the intellectual dishonesty of this argument becomes clear. There is no great historical kinship, nor much substantial cultural or philosophical common ground, between Britain and Israel.
It’s true that British individuals, such as Moses Montefiore and Nathaniel Rothschild, were some of the earliest material supporters of Zionism. It is also true that the Balfour Declaration, issued in 1917, was critical to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
However, this is where the love affair stops. The British Mandate in Palestine created enormous tension between London and the Zionist movement. Those Zionists who worked too closely with the British authorities were attacked and condemned by their peers throughout the 1920s and 30s.
As Britain tried to broker a mutually acceptable solution in the wake of the Second World War, right-wing Zionist groups conducted a campaign of terrorism against British authorities. In July 1946, the Irgun militia carried out a bombing of the King David Hotel, killing 91 people and injuring a further 46, many of whom were civilians. Menachem Begin, who would go on to become Israel’s Prime Minister in 1977, was one of the masterminds behind the attack.
It was only under Thatcher that Britain viewed itself as an Israeli ally
Even after Israeli independence in 1948, relations remained frosty. The two countries nearly came to blows in 1948 when an Israeli raid damaged an RAF base in Amman, Jordan. Anthony Eden took no pleasure in including Israel in the Anglo-French plans to secure the Suez Canal in 1956. Both Alec Douglas-Home and Ted Heath refused to arm Israel during the Yom Kippur War. It was only under Thatcher that Britain began to view itself as a true ally of the Israelis.
The idea that Israel is somehow an outpost of Western values in the Middle East is risible. Despite what we see on social media, Israeli society is quite unlike our own. It operates under a totally different moral, philosophical and political framework, much of which could be disagreeable to Westerners. There is more to being “like us” than democracy and capitalism.
Don’t believe me? Look no further than Israel’s current government.
Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu hit headlines last week when he suggested that Israel might use nuclear weapons against Gaza, despite the country’s long-standing policy of refusing to acknowledge that it has such weapons in the first place. He isn’t the only culprit.
The country’s Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a convicted terrorist sympathiser who has defended spitting at Christian pilgrims as an “ancient Jewish custom”. He once served as the youth coordinator of the banned Kach party, which proposed that “a non-Jew who has a marital relationship with a Jew [should be] liable to 50 years in prison”.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has argued for the racial segregation of hospitals, as recently as 2016. In 2021, he told Arab members of the Knesset that Ben-Gurion should have “finished the job” and ethnically cleansed the region in 1948.
Meanwhile Netanyahu’s Ultra-Orthodox Haredi coalition partners have grown bolder in recent years in their insistence that Israeli law should mirror Jewish religious law. United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni recently proposed legislation which sought to imprison Christian missionaries. His predecessor Yaakov Litzman was recently censured for criminally assisting convicted paedophile Malka Leifer in his attempt to evade extradition to Australia
Of course, there is no moral equivalence to be drawn between Israel and Hamas. On the whole, the country is still much more socially liberal than its neighbours. The radical militarism of many Israelis is, in part, a reaction to the challenging conditions of the region. However, none of this context excuses the fundamental intellectual dishonesty at the heart of the neoconservative moral case for Israel.
Britain’s policy in the Middle East should not be driven by a misplaced sense of fellow-feeling. Israel itself certainly operates under no such illusions. For Israel, cooperation with Britain is, and always has been, driven by overlapping interests.
Britain is best placed to serve as a bridge between Israel and Arab monarchies
Where those interests diverge, Israel has put its own priorities ahead of ours — and rightly so. In 2006, Israeli officials ignored British protests over the celebration of the King David Hotel bombing. In 2010, it halted “special strategic dialogue” with the UK over rules that allowed British courts to issue arrest warrants for international war criminals. In 2017, footage surfaced of Shai Masot, an official at the Israeli Embassy in London, discussing a “take down” of pro-Palestinian politicians in the UK.
Perhaps we could learn something from the Israelis here. It is strange that some in Britain are so sentimental about such a thoroughly unsentimental country. Like the Israelis, our foreign policy should be driven by one simple question: “How can we protect and promote our interests here?”
Principally, British interests in the Middle East are served by stability, the free flow of oil, and the prevention of large, unexpected waves of migration into Europe. Often, this will mean cooperation with Israel — but not always and certainly not unconditionally.
Rishi Sunak was right to stand by Israel in the wake of October 7th, and to reaffirm Britain’s belief in its right to self-defence. He was also right to condemn Hamas, without whom the world would be a much better, safer and happier place. It is possible to believe all of this, whilst also believing that a foreign policy of “unconditional support for Israel” is unwise and unhelpful.
Britain also enjoys close and long-standing relationships with many of the region’s Arab monarchies, a fact highlighted by the 15 October meeting between Rishi Sunak and King Abdullah II of Jordan. The British are regarded as more trustworthy than our American cousins in countries like Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait — we also maintain close investment and security ties with Qatar and the UAE.
Qatari attempts to mediate the release of Israeli hostages are a perfect example of how crucial these Arab partners will be to ensuring long-term regional stability — whatever we may think of their domestic policies. Britain is the Western nation best placed to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Arab monarchies, an enviable strategic position that could see us play an outsized role in securing a stable long-term solution in Gaza.
However, Sunak’s tubthumping support for the Israeli government undermines our ability to act as an honest broker between Tel Aviv and the Gulf, ironically diminishing our contribution to peace in the region. It remains to be seen how our present strategy of blindly parroting the American line has helped to further this objective.
Our foreign-policy thinking must be driven by strategy and self-interest, not by a dogmatic desire to defend the country “most like us”. The UK Government should position itself as a critical partner of Israel, whilst leveraging our relationships in the Gulf to promote peace — and our own interests — in the region. We should be wary of anybody, left or right, who instead relies on moralism and sentimentalism in shaping their foreign policy. As the old saying goes: when in the Middle East, do as the Middle Easterners do.
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