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Michael Freedman is the Executive Director of Asquith Israel, a merchant banking fund investing in Israeli growth companies.

Vince Cable’s “arms embargo” (in fact merely the potential suspension of a small number of military-related export licences pending investigation) underlines the problematic, schizophrenic nature of the UK government’s relationship with Israel. Once again, there is that creeping feeling that Israel is being singled out for criticism, with the barrier set impossibly high and the judgement already made.

On the one hand, the opening paragraph of the official Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) announcement confirms the Tory Party line that recognises the current conflict as being Israeli self-defence:

“The vast majority of exports currently licensed for Israel are not for items that could be used by Israeli forces in operations in Gaza in response to attacks by Hamas.”

On the other hand, having established whose fault this conflict was, it was necessary to generate an excuse as to why Israel should be punished:

“Currently there is a ceasefire in place… However, in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities, the government is concerned that it would not be able to clarify if the export licence criteria are being met. It would therefore suspend these licences as a precautionary step.”

In other words, when Hamas breaks the ceasefire (on past form they have a perfect six out of six), Israel will be punished by the UK. Not only that, but Israel will be punished for the fact that Cable’s department, which is responsible for issuing these licences, is apparently such a shambles. They have “not been able to clarify if the export licence criteria are being met” – so the trigger point for clearing up this mess is the next time Israel potentially uses these goods.

Now on to the meat of the matter – the UK government is acting as judge, jury and executioner in the case of Israel and accusations of war crimes.

The suspension of these licences, whilst also admitting the lack of sufficient information on any involvement of UK-made goods anyway, amounts to a presumption of Israel’s guilt. Besides, logically speaking if the BIS statement accepts Israel’s right to fight a defensive war, whilst insisting that the maximum is being done to reduce civilian casualties, surely they would want Israel to have the best, most accurate military technology available to it? Cutting back on their ally’s “qualitative military edge”, as the Americans call it, makes it more likely that Israel’s armed forces will have to use antiquated and less discriminate techniques to achieve its defensive goals, and to rid itself and the ordinary Gazans of the proscribed terrorist group Hamas.

Let’s talk business: 115 military licences were issued in 2013, for a total sum of about £7 million. A single deal involving cryptographic technology for Israeli civilian mobile phone networks accounts for another £7 billion of extant Standard Individual Export Licences (SIELs). The Guardian already fell over itself to interpret this whole sum as being part of the UK’s evil and immoral arms-to-Israel regime.

So all this fuss is about the suspension of 12 military licences, worth say £700,000 – ten per cent of the military total, and just 0.01 per cent of the SIELs overall.

If Cable wants to go down the route of moralising over Israel, and what he perceives to be their treatment of the Palestinians in general as well as in this current conflict, he should surely suggest that the whole £7 billion now be reconsidered. Why not just have the gumption to come out and say that the Lib Dems and/or the whole department will now be supporting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement? George Galloway would be thrilled to find that what he started in Bradford is now being taken up at senior ministerial level.

For comparison, other SIELs include: £800 million to Iran, against whom there are supposed to be sanctions; £1.5 billion to China; and another £1.8 billion to Saudi Arabia. Human rights shining stars, one and all. At least Zimbabwe only got £3 million of UK military and strategic electronic goods.

The Business Secretary is jeopardising business relations with Israel at a time when the UK is trying to get out of recession – and considers its technology-driven relationship with Israel as one of its most strategically important – for some vote-mongering. This man and his party have surely made themselves even more un-electable to any thinking voter who weighs up the relative importance to their daily life of Israel-Gaza versus a thriving economy.

The right response is reciprocity. You can be sure that Britain is buying far more Israeli military technology than vice versa, and in fact the UK imports about £2 billion of Israeli goods each year. Perhaps British forces are using Israeli technology right now, as they try to save the Yazidis.

So Israel should immediately suspend licences for 12 products it sells to us, pending a review of whether we is using them ethically. Or how about cutting back on the supply of Israeli-designed wonder drugs being sold to the NHS (with their horrific postcode apartheid on who gets them)?

Of course not. In fact, Israel can be relied upon to remain Britain’s staunch ally in its hour of need – sometimes even when the UK public cannot tell the time – and will share its technology, innovation, military know-how and hardware, vital intelligence and, of course, Yotam Ottolenghi. Israel deserves better than such an ally abandoning fair play and the presumption of innocence. It should also be able to expect its trading partners to behave calmly and rationally, and not kowtow to a public opinion which is based largely on emotions rather than facts.

The sooner this shallow political gesture is condemned and countermanded by more sensible Cabinet members, the better. That’s the right thing to do, and moreover it’s just good business. If Vince Cable feels more strongly about denying Israel effective means of self-defence than doing his job, then he should resign from it.

58 comments for: Michael Freedman: Cable’s ‘arms embargo’ on Israel is unjust and bad business

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