Sir Eric Pickles is CFI Parliamentary Chairman, a former Communites Secretary, and is MP for Brentwood.
Theresa May’s recent hectic schedule of meeting world leaders is set to continue today as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flies in to visit 10 Downing Street. The meeting, the first between the two, comes at an important moment – and there’s no shortage of issues for the two leaders to discuss.
Firstly, the meeting will act as an unofficial reset in Government relations following the controversial UN Resolution 2334 just before Christmas, which was wrongly interpreted by some as a change in the UK’s support for Israel.
What’s unambiguous is the UK’s unmistakable actions since that vote in New York. In the days following the vote, the Government issued an unprecedented rebuke of John Kerry for his comments on the make-up of an ally’s government, as well as his claim that settlements are the biggest threat to peace.
Shortly after, the UK was alone among 73 other countries in its refusal to sign a communique at the conclusion of the Paris Peace Conference. The message from Theresa May’s Government was clear : the UK believes that the only way to secure a lasting two state solution is for the two parties to sit together for direct peace talks, and not through diversionary international fora which would simply harden Palestinian negotiating positions.
There will certainly be no shortage of symbolism behind this visit. The democratically-elected leader of the Jewish state visits London in the centenary year of the Balfour Declaration. This historic letter, penned in 1917 by Conservative Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, was the first official support for the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Palestine. The Prime Minister has already spoken of the UK’s “pride” in “creating a homeland for the Jewish people” at the Conservative Friends of Israel’s Annual Business Lunch last December, and the UK’s historic role will undoubtedly form part of the discussions.
Beyond this, the visit will highlight the deep bilateral relationship between Britain and Israel. A relationship based on shared values; democracy, equality, and the rule of law. An incredible one-in-six generic prescription drugs provided by the NHS comes from Israel. Not to speak of the wealth of advanced medical equipment and procedures we have acquired from Israel. The British Army has for years used Israeli supplied drone technology, saving untold numbers of British lives on battlefields around the world.
The cyber and intelligence relationship is stronger than ever. Just last week the outgoing Director-General of GCHQ, Richard Hannigan, spoke about Britain’s “strong” partnership with Israeli Intelligence Services and said the relationship protects people from terrorism “not only in the UK and Israel but in many other countries”. As Home Secretary, May introduced measures to tackle modern slavery. Israel has enacted similar measures and is a firm international partner dealing with this modern evil.
Trade between the UK and Israel is also at a record high, with total bilateral trade amounting to £4 billion in 2015. More than 300 Israeli companies are currently operating in the UK employing thousands of Brits, with an ever-increasing number raising capital on the London Stock Exchange. These record figures are set to jump significantly after Israeli airline El Al signed a landmark £1 billion agreement with Rolls-Royce in 2016.
Israel was one of the first countries to grasp that, post-Brexit, the UK will be stepping out into the world, and it would be fitting were the UK to sign its first free trade deal with the Middle East’s only true democracy. The building bricks are there, and Mark Garnier, the International Trade Minister, has already visited to set wheels in motion.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions and support for international terrorism will also feature high on the agenda. In an apparent test of the new Trump administration, the Islamic Republic recently test fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Not only was the test a direct contravention of a UN resolution, but it also further calls into question Tehran’s commitment to the nuclear deal. In such an uncertain world, the UK would do well to heed Netanyahu’s call for a “common stand” against Iranian aggression and the many risks it poses.
This isn’t to say that there won’t be some frank exchanges. Recent announcements of settlement expansions have elicited criticism from the international community, including the Foreign Office. The Prime Minister has stated her own belief that settlements are counterproductive.
While settlements are unhelpful, it’s important not to lose sight of the broader context. Israel has a long history of evacuating settlements in the interest in peace, and remains committed to this principle despite the painful experience of Hamas exploiting Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza to wage terror. The long-agreed framework for peace sees Israel absorbing the largest settlement blocs in exchange for equivalent land swaps; a principle Yasser Arafat realistically ascribed to.
It should also be recognised that Israel’s Supreme Court has recently ordered the evacuation and demolition of the controversial Amona settlement deep in the West Bank. An outpost such as this is distinctly different from those larger towns along the Green Line which will become part of Israel proper in any future peace settlement, and it should be welcomed that the rule of law has been successfully upheld.
At a time of violence and unrest throughout the region, Israel has been an invaluable source of stability. Its economy continues to prosper, its people remain resilient and its Government remains committed to securing the ultimate goal of a lasting peace deal with its Palestinian neighbours.
Our relationship with Israel makes Brits safer, healthier, and more prosperous. The visit affords an opportunity to look ahead to a golden era in Anglo-Israeli relations.