Soldiers of Hamas’s military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades hold a Palestinian flag after destroying an Israeli tank in Gaza City on 7 October 2023

Time for realpolitik in Israel

Britain’s foreign policy in the Middle East should put British interests first


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

April 7 marked sixth months since Hamas’s blood-curdling attack on Israel and its people, a shocking act of violence which served as a sobering reminder of how brutal life can still be in the 21st century. Since then, six months of intense fighting in Gaza has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths, with thousands more unaccounted for. Despite some early cooperation on hostage releases, signs of a realistic diplomatic conclusion have been few and far between.

Such a grave situation deserves a reasoned, mature response from policymakers here in Britain. Unfortunately, our national debate on the situation in the Middle East has been characterised by petulant moralising on both sides. Too many pundits have abandoned realpolitik altogether, preferring to retreat into sweeping narratives about the ethical righteousness of their respective positions.

Much ink has already been spilled about the swivel-eyed mobs that take to the streets of the capital every Saturday to decry the Jewish state, variously calling for a ceasefire, sanctions or the destruction of the Zionist project. For many comfortable, middle-class liberals, these demonstrations have been the first tangible sign of Britain’s failure to integrate millions of people into the fabric of polite society. Rightly so — these marches have too often played host to Islamists and their sympathisers.

The pro-Israel camp, including right-of-centre commentators such as Douglas Murray, has been quick to condemn the pontification of pro-Palestinian activists. We are told the obtuse moral generalisations of the BDS movement are naive and misplaced; that levying ideological sanctions against an important regional partner is simply not a serious way to conduct ourselves on the international stage.

As it happens, I believe these voices are right; British foreign policy should not be made on the basis of Instagram infographics. Most of the protestors at those marches have only a faint understanding of the historical and political context that led us to the current situation in Gaza. Similarly, we are right to be suspicious of “anti-colonial” activists who manipulate the complex reality of the situation in Israel to advance a subversive, anti-Western agenda.

Yet ironically, given the tendency of Murray et al to accuse the Left of putting their moral convictions ahead of reality, the pro-Israel camp is just as susceptible to grandstanding. Listen to these hawkish neoconservatives, and you’d believe that we were morally duty-bound to sign a blank cheque of endorsement to the Israeli government. At times, their excitement at the notion of Tel Aviv finally ridding itself of the “Arab problem” verges on the ghoulish. You can almost hear them salivating behind their keyboards as they share footage of Israeli drones levelling tower blocks full of Gazans.

This might sound like hyperbole: if only it were. Just days after the attack, Murray took to the Spectator to insist it “isn’t for non-Israelis to give [Israel advice]”. In the same article, he shrugged at the idea that Israel might “cut off Gaza and starve Hamas out”. “Why,” he lamented, “should the Palestinians forever be Israel’s problem?” This position of unwavering, unconditional support for the Israeli government hardly reflects the hard-nosed cynicism many of Murray’s fans celebrate him for.

Where does this instinct come from? For many Western conservatives, support for Israel is grounded in a “West versus the rest” narrative which sees the democratic Judeo-Christian world as locked into existential conflict with oriental despotism, encapsulated by Islamist terrorism. Israel, we are told, is an outpost of Western culture in the barbarous Middle East, the first line of defence against an ideology ready to land on Europe’s shores. Should this plucky liberal outpost fall to the Mohammedan tide, our own countries will surely be next.

So are Britain and Israel really links in a civilisational chain? Examine the narrative, and it becomes clear the reality is much less cut and dried. There’s certainly no great historical love affair between the two nations, nor many profound cultural touchstones.

In fact, despite Britain’s instrumental role in the founding of modern Israel, the relationship has been noticeably rocky since its inception. It is true individual British subjects such as Moses Montefiore and Nathaniel Rothschild were some of the earliest important supporters of the Zionist movement. It was Montefiore who funded the first Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine outside the old walled city of Jerusalem. Built in 1860, it was one of the major forerunners of the mass Jewish migration to the region at the beginning of the 20th century.

Likewise, British occupation of Ottoman Palestine and the subsequent Balfour Declaration were critical steps in the eventual emergence of the Jewish state. This is where the love affair stops. The British Mandate in Palestine created enormous tensions between London and the Zionist movement. Those Zionists who worked too closely with the British authorities were condemned by their ideological peers well into the 1920s and 30s.

As Britain tried to broker a 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.

All in all, 141 British servicemen were killed by Jewish insurgents in Palestine between August 1945 and August 1947, with a further 475 wounded. Those who pride themselves on unconditional condemnation of the Irish Republican Army should think twice before dismissing these attacks by Zionist militias as mere historical trivia.

Post-1948, relations remained frosty. Britain’s closest ally in the region was always the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, partly due to the influence of the Preston-born Lt. Gen. Sir John Bagot Glubb, who led Jordan’s Arab Legion until 1956. The two countries nearly came to blows in 1948 when an Israeli raid damaged an RAF base in Amman. 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.

Even Margaret Thatcher, often hailed as the Tories’ first properly pro-Israel prime minister, was not an uncritical friend of the Jewish state. In 1980, she endorsed the Venice Declaration, which called for an end to Israeli “territorial occupation” and expressed support for Palestinian self-determination. In 1982, she suspended arms sales after Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against Lebanon, a move many Conservatives now insist would be unconscionable. Despite the insistence of Nile Gardiner and others, the Iron Lady was not, in fact, the Zion Lady.

In 2006, Israeli officials ignored British protests over state-sanctioned celebrations of the King David Hotel bombing. In 2010, it halted “special strategic dialogue” with the UK, over rules which allowed British courts to issue arrest warrants for international war criminals. In 2017, footage emerged of Shai Masot, an official at the Israeli Embassy in London, discussing a “takedown” of pro-Palestinian politicians in the UK, including outspoken former Conservative Foreign Minister Alan Duncan.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Britain and Israel share much of an ethical, philosophical or political framework. Despite the images of bikini-clad IDF conscripts at the beach in Tel Aviv which abound on social media, Israeli society is quite unlike our own. It operates under a totally different ruleset, much of which would be unconscionable to the vast majority of Westerners. There is far 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 in November when he suggested Israel might use nuclear weapons against Gaza, despite Israel’s long-standing refusal to acknowledge it has such weapons.

Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir

“Scandals” such as these are ten-a-penny. The country’s Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a convicted terrorist sympathiser, 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 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” by ethnically cleansing the region in 1948. Meanwhile Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox Haredi coalition partners have grown bolder in their insistence that Israeli law should mirror Jewish religious law. Former United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni recently proposed a law which sought to imprison Christian missionaries. His predecessor Yaakov Litzman has been censured for criminally assisting convicted paedophile Malka Leifer in her attempt to evade extradition to Australia.

Clearly there is no moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel, which 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 excuses the intellectual dishonesty at the heart of the neoconservative moral case for Israel.

Even if Britain and Israel did share close philosophical and historical ties, the only operative question should be that of British self-interest. The purpose of foreign policy is not to determine a moral victor through normative reasoning, but to advance the interests of the nation. Strip back the bluster: what intervention, or lack of it, is best for Britain?

Rishi Sunak was right to stand by Israel in the wake of 7 October 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 better, safer and happier place. But it is possible to believe this whilst also believing that a foreign policy of “unconditional support for Israel” is unwise and unhelpful — even if not quite as unhelpful as past Israeli support for Hamas has turned out to be for her.

Britain also enjoys long-standing close relationships with many Arab monarchies, a fact highlighted by communication between Rishi Sunak and King Abdullah II of Jordan. The British are regarded as more trustworthy than America in countries such as 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 ties 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 its Arab neighbours, an enviable strategic position that could see us play an outsize role in securing a stable solution in Gaza.

On the other hand, the Anglo-Israeli relationship is not particularly close. According to the latest government figures, Israel was the UK’s 41st-largest trading partner in 2023, accounting for about 0.4 per cent of total UK trade. 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.

Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to see how tub-thumping support for Israel serves Britain’s interests. Despite neoconservative pretences to reason, theirs is a position grounded firmly in misplaced sentimentality, partisanship and ill-advised machismo.

Perhaps we could learn something from the Israelis. It’s strange we should be so sentimental towards such an unsentimental state: when international partnerships work in Israel’s favour, Tel Aviv will extol the virtues of its allies; when partnerships are inconvenient, they’re dropped in a heartbeat. For Israel, cooperation with Britain has always been driven by overlapping interests. If only our commentariat could conduct itself with the same sense of sober self-interest.

In the meantime, we ought to separate our response to homegrown Islamist extremism from our foreign policy posturing. Despite superficial similarities, the two are unconnected. Israel’s fight is with clear, identifiable militant groups operating as quasi-political actors — the barbarians at the gates. Britain’s challenge is different; 30 years of mass immigration and failed integration means Islamist radicalism is interwoven into communities. We should be uncompromising in our efforts to tackle this poisonous ideology whilst also recognising that doing so does not require us to adopt a particular position on an ethnonationalist conflict thousands of miles away.

At risk of going full Alan Duncan (one ought never to go full Alan Duncan), we should also be deeply suspicious of politicians and commentators who insist that support for a foreign state is a moral imperative. In foreign policy, there is no such thing. If the crusade to prevent Emirati ownership of the Telegraph teaches us anything, it’s that Britons are instinctively wary of foreign influence on our politics. Let’s be consistent in applying that standard.

It’s time to stop conducting foreign policy on a foundation of moral grandstanding. The Foreign Office 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. Britain should stand up for Britain because, like it or not, nobody else is going to.

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