Sir Eric Pickles is a former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
Theresa May will be reminded today that there are few issues that animate Benjamin Netanyahu as much as Iran, as he visits Downing Street today. For those who haven’t visited Israel, it is hard to emphasise enough the extent to which everything is seen through the prism of security and national survival. Recognising this is the first step to understanding Israel’s national psyche.
Israeli fears over Iran are deeply-seated. Just this week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei clarified his position this week when he tweeted: “#Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor [sic] in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated: it is possible and it will happen”.
The extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme was laid bare recently, with Israel’s extraordinary interception of 100,000 highly-sensitive documents from a Tehran-based storage unit in the dead of night. While the operation is befitting of a Hollywood blockbuster, the threat posed by Iran is real and immediate.
It goes without saying that security cooperation is an integral part of the UK-Israel relationship. Through necessity, Israel is a world-leader in counter-terrorism and works closely with the UK in the fight against ISIS. British soldiers in Afghanistan were protected by Israeli-made drones. Symbolically, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have been involved in joint exercises and several recent high-profile ceremonial events in Israel.
But the U.K.-Israel relationship extends far beyond the security realm to the benefit of each and every one of us in Britain.
Consider, for example, that as many as one-in-eight generic prescription drugs used on the NHS come from Israel. As well as technology that we use without thinking in our everyday lives, such as the USB flash drive, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). We drive with the assistance of Waze and build websites using Wix. On our TVs, we watch Homeland (originally Hatufim in Israel’s original) and some of London’s most celebrated restaurants revolve around Israeli cuisine (Palomar and Barbary). You get the picture.
While we hear much about the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, by any measure it has failed. Bilateral trade has surged beyond £7 billion, and the UK is Israel’s second largest trading partner outside of the USA. More than 300 Israeli companies now operate in the UK, creating hundreds of new jobs in the UK each year.
All this is a success story that a group of eight Conservative parliamentarians went to celebrate last week as part of a Conservative Friends of Israel delegation. They saw first-hand the incredible advancements made in Israel’s world-renowned tech-sector, and explored the possibilities that a post-Brexit free trade deal will bring. Colleagues on the trip tell me there is a tangible excitement in Israel about future trading opportunities with the UK.
And the relationship goes yet further still. It is one of shared values. Israel is a liberal parliamentary democracy in a region where that sort of thing really can’t be taken for granted. At every dinner table, workplace and stretch of beach, you will hear Israelis engaged in boisterous political debate. Israel’s world-respected legal system in based on our common law system. Israel’s constitution protects equal rights for all Israeli citizens, regardless of faith, gender or sexuality.
While there is much to celebrate about the UK-Israel relationship, it is important to acknowledge that there are growing concerns within Israel about the rise of antisemitism in Britain. Antisemitic ideas and conspiracy theories have become more prevalent than I can ever remember. True, it is a problem within today’s Labour Party, but this is a problem that goes much deeper in society. It is a very modern form of Antisemitism – rooted in a sinister obsession with the Jewish State.
It is for this reason that the British Government are at the forefront of tackling this most pernicious cancer head-on. It should be of enormous pride to us all that the UK was the first country to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s modern definition of antisemitism. We must not cede ground to those bigots in our society that wish to express vile racist views.
It is also time that we joined our Western allies and the Arab League in banning the Hezbollah terror group in its entirety. Symbolism and decisiveness are important currency in a region like the Middle East, and the current separation of so-called ‘military’ and ‘political’ wings is a false distinction that Hezbollah itself openly mocks.
The current loophole enables Hezbollah to undertake fundraising activities in the U.K. and their grotesque flags emblazoned with an AK47 rifle to be displayed on the streets on the U.K. – as they will be done again this Sunday for the annual Al Quds Day hate-fest. Enough is enough.
In a few short weeks, the Duke of Cambridge will be visiting Israel for himself. Remarkably, it will be the first ever official visit to Israel by a member of the Royal Family, and it is only right and proper that a future king visits such an important ally. He will find a young, vibrant multi-ethnic society confident of its place in the world and with a clear vision for the future. It is hard not to be impressed by such dynamism.
The Duke will learn how a region is changing at a pace hitherto unknown. Israel’s traditional arch-enemies in the Gulf and Arab world now view Israel as a trusted ally to counter Iran’s destabilising actions. Israel is seen not as an obstacle to peace in the region but a key player in the region. It offers enormous possibilities for the future, not least of which is the injection of new life into the faltering peace process