The Special Relationship: Same tree, many branches.

Article first published by Friends of Al Aqsa, 2nd May 2013:


Relations between Britain and Israel have not seemed comparatively as significant as Israel – US relations in recent decades.  Historically however, the term ‘special relationship’ held greater implications for understanding the relationship between Britain and Israel. It seems quite fitting that as we are approaching the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, Britain’s policies towards Israel appear to be moving full circle. 1917 drew a firm line marking Britain’s official political involvement in Palestine, which initiated the legitimisation of the state of Israel at the end of the British Mandate period, and has since been the crux of a conflict that is seemingly, and allegorically, infinite.


Abraham’s family tree, according to followers of the British Israel movement, who believe the Anglo-Saxon people to be one of the lost tribes. Note the importance of 1917.

British politics of today remains comparable with historic policies which have provided unwieldy support for Israel.  Both Conservative and Labour party leaders have affirmed directly their stand with Zionism through the potent platforms that are the Conservative and Labour Friends of Israel respectively. Both have also stated that the deligitimisation of Israel will not be tolerated. Nick Clegg has also experienced an allegiance to Zionism, although that has been somewhat more wavering. His focus on human rights for Palestinians and his controversial statement on Israeli settlements caused a contentious relationship between the Lib Dems and the British and international Jewish community. He soon backed down on realisation that he was not winning any friends, and the looming influence of the Israeli lobby came to the fore. Ever since, his policies, or at least his rhetoric on Israel has backpedalled.  Clegg apologetically announced to a luncheon of the Liberal Democrat friends of Israel in 2010 that he was engaged in ‘clarifying misunderstandings’.[1] But these ‘misunderstandings’ resurfaced their ugly head when in 2012 Clegg was quoted as calling Israeli settlements ‘deliberate vandalism’.[2]

Along similar lines, the British government has on the one hand frequently spoken out against Israel’s human rights violations, while on the other astutely performing a delicate rhetorical balancing act ensuring it did not denounce the state of Israel itself. The current emphatic support for Israel echoes Balfour’s words that created the state. The only difference is that, in the present day there is some consideration, rhetorical at least if not political, for the rights of Palestinians.  Whereas in 1917 the cabinet decided to issue a declaration, that favoured the hopes of the European Jewish community, over the rights of the Palestinians already in situ.  Perhaps the patches of human rights rhetoric that have filtered out of Westminster in recent times are words of remorse.  Ultimately however, it is clear that the legacy of the Balfour Declaration cannot be undone, and in the eyes of the British Government the legitimacy of the state of Israel will remain intact.

Theories of Political Science argue that in order to understand a country’s foreign policy you have to look at its internal politics[3]. In the UK, as with most democratic political systems, the Left/Right divide appears to be the chief divisor in terms of foreign policy.  On observation of Britain’s policy towards Israel however, this is not the case. Historically the three main parties across the left-right spectrum have all comparatively fluctuated in their support for Israel.  The Late Margaret Thatcher went some way in her Conservative leadership to solidifying this relationship, by being the first serving Prime Minister to visit Israel in 1986.[4]  Her other strategy at a local level involved securing votes within the Jewish community in London.  

Today’s parties do not differ greatly in their overall support. The divergence in opinion between parties is now closed, which may be the result of intense pro-Israeli lobbying.  Channel 4’s Dispatches[5] concluded that pro-Israel influencers have been bankrolling MP’s in all three major political parties. Even without taking on in-depth research, the uniformity of opinion across the parties is ironically reflected in the names of the more influential groups; the Conservative Friends of Israel, The Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, and last but not least, the Labour Friends of Israel. Comparatively, Labour has a ‘Friends of Palestine and the Middle East’, while the Conservatives have no such party.

So is this century-old relationship a circle of policy, or a disbandment of policy circles? Some would suggest precisely the latter, and that Britain’s input in the Palestine-Israel conflict is, and has always been, party partisan.  I would strongly disagree and use a comparison between David Lloyd George’s Liberal Party and Nick’s Clegg’s Liberal Democrats as a direct example of how policies of the same party evolve to suit the political landscape by which they are surrounded. What has been clear, throughout this century of change and much that has stayed the same, is that Britain has kept up a great appearance of power and influence in its policy towards Israel, but in reality has floundered in its capability to convince and coerce internally.

[1] The Jewish Chronicle ‘Nick Clegg: we got it wrong on Israel’.

[3] James D Fearon. ‘Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy and Theories of International Relations’. Annual Review of Political ScienceVol. 1: 289-313

[4] Haaretz. Margaret Thatcher, the British PM who praised Israel’s ‘pioneer spirit’.

[5] Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby – Dispatches


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