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British PM David Cameron moved into 10 Downing Street last month. His government has supported U.S. efforts in the U.N. Security Council to sanction Iran.
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Lee Petar is a founding partner of Tetra Strategy and the founding director of the British Israel Communications Centre.

Britain’s New Government: Questions
and Answers

Last month, British citizens went to the polls to elect a new government. For insight into what the results mean for the U.K.-Israel relationship, Near East Report asked Lee Petar, a founding partner of Tetra Strategy and the founding director of the British Israel Communications Centre, for his thoughts.

Near East Report: Newly elected British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague are both members of Conservative Friends of Israel. In fact, shortly after taking office, Hague said, “I’m a natural friend of Israel.” What will U.K.-Israel relations look like under a Cameron government?

Lee Petar: I do not believe that there will be a significant British policy shift toward Israel. However, there will be a change in the government’s nuanced tone regarding the U.K.-Israel relationship. We saw this when David Cameron described Israel’s actions toward the recent Gaza flotilla as “unacceptable.” Such a reaction implies that relations between both countries will certainly be on a rocky road for the next few months.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has said U.K.-U.S. ties would be “solid, not slavish.” When pressed what he meant by this, he answered, “Israel.” Clearly, this does not make supporters of Israel comfortable.

Relations between Britain and Israel were at a low level before the new government took office, following anger over the alleged use of faked British passports in the assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai earlier this year. So, the real test is not what the Foreign Office and Secretary Hague say, but whether the new prime minister changes his public stance.

NER: Since the Conservatives did not win a majority of seats in parliament, they were forced to form a coalition government with the left-wing Liberal Democrats. As part of the deal, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, Nick Clegg, was appointed deputy prime minister. Many members of the British Jewish community have voiced concerns about Clegg’s attitude toward Israel. Are these worries well founded?

Petar: The Liberal Democrats have what could be charitably described as a “complex” relationship with Britain’s Jewish community. The coalition agreement states that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will “push for peace in the Middle East with a secure and universally recognized Israel, living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state.” This is no change from the previous administration.

However, the center of gravity of the Liberal Democrats’ core political belief is much further to the left. They were the only party to campaign against the war in Iraq and have, as a party, been significantly more critical of Israel than either the Labour or Conservative parties. The question is whether being in government for the first time and being forced to take responsibility for decisions—rather than merely oppose them—will curb some of their more instinctive anti-Israel sentiment. Taking responsibility could be the making of the Liberal Democrats.

Middle East policy is a potential flashpoint of conflict for the new coalition government—one where Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could be pulled in two different directions. The Conservatives have a right-wing base to keep satisfied, and the Liberal Democrats have a left-wing activist core—so tensions could surface.

The truth is that there is a Liberal Democrat presence in every department of the Foreign Office, and their views will now be heard. They have a real influence on policy now in a way that has never previously been experienced. As much as the Jewish community in the United Kingdom may have a tense relationship with the party, the reality is that the Liberal Democrats’ leader is officially the new deputy prime minister—they are now in government, and as such, they need to be taken seriously.

NER: Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown had said that he would change current English legislation enabling Palestinian organizations to obtain arrest warrants against Israeli political leaders on suspicion of war crimes. Because of the election, Brown didn’t follow through with this pledge. Why is the issue of universal jurisdiction of concern to Israel, and is this something that the Cameron government is likely to take up?

Petar: This “loophole” in British law has prevented Israeli politicians from being able to visit the United Kingdom on a number of occasions and clearly has had a real impact on Israel’s ability to conduct normal diplomatic relations with Britain. Communal organizations have been forced to cancel events as Israeli political leaders are unable to visit for fear of being arrested for war crimes on British soil.

The issue of universal jurisdiction was a classic case of political gamesmanship among the Labour political elite. I don’t think it is fair to say that Brown didn’t follow through with his pledge. Rather, I would suggest that other members of the Labour government acted to block progress.

New Foreign Secretary Hague told The Jerusalem Post that he would act “speedily” to change the way arrests are ordered under the issue of universal jurisdiction.

He said, “The current situation is as unsatisfactory as it is indefensible. We cannot have a position where Israeli politicians feel they cannot visit this country….And, indeed, this would apply to other nations as well.”

Given that we now have a coalition government, a resolution to this problem will need agreement from the Liberal Democrats, too, as it requires primary legislation to amend the loophole. As we know, anything that requires agreement with the new coalition is fraught with difficulties.

NER: Cameron has appointed a Middle East envoy, Alistair Burt—a Conservative member of parliament who is known for his pro-Israel stance. Cameron’s government has also outlined a campaign aimed at fostering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Will Arab-Israeli peace be a priority for the Cameron government?

Petar: David Cameron has stated that his primary objective will be tackling Britain’s economic situation. I believe that this, plus the efforts to keep his new coalition government together and functioning, will prove to be an all-consuming mission for the next 18 months. With one forced resignation of a senior member of the Cabinet after just two weeks of taking office, there is no guarantee that they will last a full five-year term.

Looking specifically at the Middle East, I believe that finding a way to exit Afghanistan will rank higher in terms of priority than pressing for any discussion on a general Middle East peace process.

ER: During his first days in office, Cameron said that he supported new U.N. sanctions against Tehran and would not rule out military action against the regime. Does this rhetoric foreshadow a more aggressive British position on Iran? What is Cameron willing to do with Iran?

Petar: My reading of the situation is that Cameron will very deliberately follow the previous government’s strategy of reflecting the U.S., E.U. and U.N. stance on Iran. I do think it is worth noting that the new defense secretary, Liam Fox, has been much more strident when discussing Iran. “You’ve had Ahmadinejad talking about wiping Israel off the map,” Fox said. “People may think that’s hyperbole, but there are people in Israel who remember the last time someone said, ‘We’re going to wipe you off the map’ and had a damn good try at it.” Fox has consistently said that he would rule nothing out.

NER: Regarding the European Union’s stance on Iran, will the new British government be able to lobby member countries to take a harder line in their dealings with Tehran?

Petar: The new government has a tricky line to walk in its dealings with the European Union. This is an area that was highlighted by Cameron’s first foreign visit to Germany and to France last month. Right now, Cameron has a job to do in rebuilding relations between his European neighbors. I don’t believe he has any leverage to be able to exert influence over other E.U. states on issues such as Iran at the moment. The issue of Europe is one where extreme caution will be taken, as it is also one of those key dividing lines between the Liberal Democrats (traditionally more pro-Europe) and the Conservatives (traditionally more skeptical).

Tensions between Germany and France of late do suggest, perhaps, that if and when Cameron has a clearer sense of how solid his governing coalition is in a year’s time, there could be a role for Cameron to play in dealing with Europe over Iran. BACK TO TOP