Sir Eric Pickles is a former Communities and Local Government Secretary, and is MP for Brentwood. He is Chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel.
I first visited Israel back in 1980, and have returned many times over the years, with Israel looking that bit different each time. Throughout, the country had held on to its central ethics while embracing modernity. Israel is a country that boasts the history of Jerusalem’s Old City alongside its title as a world leader in biotech and cyber-security. This tiny spit of land along the Mediterranean is not just one of modern history’s most unlikely success stories, but a vital partner and ally to the United Kingdom.
I recently led a delegation of Conservative MPs to the country whose membership were the newly announced Parliamentary Officers of Conservative Friends of Israel. With Israel seemingly the most oft-discussed foreign affairs issue in Parliament, it is crucial that Members of Parliament visit the country to see it with their own eyes and make their own informed judgments.
A visit to the Knesset provided a timely reminder of Israel’s extraordinary democratic credentials. The group benefited from meetings with the Labor MK Hilik Bar; with Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, and with senior Government figures from Likud, including Tzipi Hotovely, the Deputy Foreign Minister. An emotional belief in Israel was expressed strongly by Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s President, who spoke movingly of his family’s roots in Jerusalem going back to the early nineteenth century.
Israel’s unenviable security challenges were starkly highlighted during a visit to the country’s south. In Sderot, we saw the remains of Hamas rockets that have pounded the town in recent decades. Littered with rocket shelters doubling-up as bus stops and ‘benefitting’ from a rocket-proof school and train station, life in this beleaguered town goes on – but residents know they are only ever 15 seconds away from a life-threatening rocket attack.
Meanwhile, amidst the beauty of the Netiv Ha’Asara moshav we saw the entrance to a Hamas cross-border terror tunnel, and a beach in Zikim kibbutz where Hamas terrorists attempted to launch a terror attack from the sea last summer. With reports that Hamas is rearming and reconstructing tunnels, residents in this area live with the all too real fear of another round of violence.
To the north, Hezbollah has established its own terror state within Lebanon. Its estimated arsenal of 100,000 rockets dwarfs the one it had at the time of the 2006 war. ISIS has shattered the states formerly known as Iraq and Syria. To the south, ISIS and Salafist groups have established a foothold in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula, and have their eyes on Gaza and Jordan. Israel is unquestionably at the coalface of the fight against Islamist extremism.
There’s also the not insignificant matter of Iran – whose fundamentalist regime remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish State, the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and liberally hands out advanced weapons and millions of pounds to its genocidal friends in Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran’s ominous shadow sends a palpable alarm throughout Israeli society.
Given that these are the predicaments that Israeli’s contend with each day, it’s little surprise that Israelis approach life with such passion and urgency. And yet, despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Israel has emerged as one of the world’s greatest innovators and economic success stories. Israel has fulfilled the great dream of the country’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, that its people use science and academia for the betterment of their country and the world.
At the Weizmann Institute, we heard of the extraordinary research into nano-technology and the search for cancer treatment breakthroughs. Israeli ingenuity has even ensured the country has tackled one of its greatest challenges – water shortage. Israel boasts one of the world’s largest desalination plants, which transforms seawater into purified drinking water in as little as 30 minutes. It is a tragedy that Hamas has rebuffed Israeli offers to share this extraordinary technology with the people of Gaza.
Her Majesty’s new Ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, informed us that last year Israel had the highest number of IPOs listed on the London Stock Exchange outside of the UK. It’s little surprise that the Prime Minister has placed such an emphasis on boosting the already-record levels of bilateral trade between the countries.
The country’s humanitarian heart also beats strong. At Save A Child’s Heart, we met with Palestinian children from Gaza and the West Bank receiving life-saving heart surgery. The organisation, and its volunteer surgeons, has gifted a new lease of life to as many as 4,000 children. This is a side of the country too easily lost in the quagmire of political discourse.
The whole CFI Parliamentary team returned to the UK with a renewed energy to tell stories of these oft-overlooked aspects of Israel. It’s high-time that discourse in the UK involving Israel ventured beyond the conflict.