Observers awaiting British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to Israel’s Knesset, which he delivered earlier today, had been unsure of what to expect. Would the prime minister present a speech similar to the warm pledges of unadulterated support recently offered by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or would it be closer to the barbed lecture Israel received from Martin Shulz, president of the European parliament, who visited in February?
Indeed, given the harsh misrepresentation that Israel’s government suffered from President Obama in his recent Bloomberg interview, the way had certainly been cleared for Cameron to deliver a tough message if he felt so inclined. And Cameron certainly has no shortage of domestic incentives to appear critical of Israel; large parts of the British public are actively hostile to Israel, while the British Foreign Office is also notoriously cold in its attitude to Israel–hence the unfortunate comments made by Cameron about Gaza during his 2010 visit to Turkey.
Given this background, the speech that Cameron delivered today was decidedly more supportive of Israel than might have been expected. The tone was much closer to that given by Harper, and if this attitude comes to be fully borne out in British policy, then it would place the UK in the same camp as the governments of other pro-Israel English speaking democracies such as Canada and Australia. In this sense the sentiments Cameron expressed today are quite at odds with the increasingly thinly veiled threats coming from Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Crucially, Cameron set himself apart from both the Europeans and the Obama administration by announcing that he wouldn’t be giving Israel any “lectures” on how to run the peace process.
Perhaps the most significant remarks made by Cameron in the course of his speech were those concerning the Jewish nature of Israel. There had been much anticipation about whether or not Cameron would utter the words “Jewish state.” Given that the Palestinians have said they will refuse under any circumstances to recognize Israel as being the state of the Jewish people, and that the European Union has expressed ambivalence about this Israeli demand, many were waiting to see which side Britain would come out for on this issue. It is heartening then that, in addition to referencing Israel as a “secure homeland for the Jewish people,” Cameron’s outline of his vision for peace included an endorsement of the formulation: “mutual recognition of the nation state of the Palestinian people and the nation state of the Jewish people.”
Cameron was sure to stress the long and ancient history of the Jews to the land of Israel and spoke of his appreciation of the Jewish people, for their contribution to his country and to the world, as well as of his own distant Jewish ancestry. Naturally, the prime minister spoke at lengths about the history of anti-Semitism and the need to remember the Holocaust, as well as pledging his commitment to defending Jewish practices in Britain today, including kosher slaughtering, which is currently under attack there.
Indeed, Mr. Cameron articulated the all-important connection between remembering the past and acting in the present for Israel’s safety. Touching on the early British role in advancing Zionism, he then went on to declare, “So let me say to you very clearly: with me, you have a British prime minister whose belief in Israel is unbreakable and whose commitment to Israel’s security will always be rock solid.” The prime minister detailed how he had worked to overturn British laws on universal jurisdiction, which were being used by anti-Israel campaigners to keep senior Israelis out of Britain. He claimed credit for acting to create a European consensus for proscribing Hezbollah, for working to try and drive anti-Semitic incitement from British universities, and for keeping anti-Semitic Islamist preachers out of Britain. Equally, Cameron condemned all attempts to boycott Israel, saying, “Israel’s place as a homeland for the Jewish people will never rest on hollow resolutions passed by amateur politicians.”
Having referred to the questioning of Israel’s right to exist as “despicable” and “abhorrent,” Cameron spoke of how Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people is founded in international law and “destiny,” and assured his listeners that “together we will defeat [delegitimization].” Similarly, the prime minister described Israel’s defense of its citizens as “enshrined in international law, natural justice and fundamental morality.” Cameron recognized the concern of territory ceded by Israel becoming a terror base, mentioning the recent interception of a ship carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza and the danger posed by Palestinian incitement, specifically deploring the naming of schools after suicide bombers.
Whereas Obama has threatened Israel that it will become more internationally isolated, Cameron asserted, “No more excuses for the 32 countries who refuse to recognize Israel,” and described as “outrageous” and “ridiculous” the lectures Israel receives at the UN. And Cameron also broke with Obama doctrine, and no doubt the thinking of his own diplomatic service, by refuting the notion that Israel and the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians is causing the problems in the region. Rather, Cameron spoke at considerable length about the “poison” of Islamism. A peace agreement would not stop Iran, noted Cameron, and he stressed that he was not “starry-eyed about the new regime” and shared Israel’s “skepticism” on that front.
If the attitude expressed in this speech were implemented as British policy, then Cameron would rightfully earn himself a place alongside Stephen Harper, Australia’s Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, and the English speaking leaders of the West. Meanwhile Obama is earning himself a place alongside Martin Shulz and the Europeans.