My Lords, Ladies & Gentlemen,
It’s a great honour to be invited to address you, especially on this the 60th anniversary of AIA, and I’d like to take the opportunity of this anniversary to look at the overall story of the relationship between Britain and Israel, and to try to strip away some of the myths.
Because it seems to me that for all the undoubted statesmanship implicit in Arthur Balfour’s Declaration of November 1917, promising ‘a National Home for the Jewish People’, it doesn’t mean that Britain has ever been much more than a fair-weather friend to Jewish national aspirations. The Declaration itself was at least in part conceived to keep Eastern European and Russian Jews supporting the Great War after the Bolshevik Revolution, and Chaim Weizmann’s preferred wording of ‘a Jewish State’ was turned down by the British Foreign Office. As David Ben-Gurion wrote at the time: ‘Britain has made a magnificent gesture - But only the Hebrew people can transform this right into tangible fact: only they, with body and soul, with their strength and capital, must build their National Home and bring about their national redemption.’
Sure enough, at the Versailles Conference and its ancillary meetings up to 1922, although Britain was given the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, the Jewish National Home was not established. During the Mandate period there was an observable tension between the CO, which was responsible for administering Palestine and wanted to do so within the terms of the (admittedly self-contradictory) Balfour Declaration, and the FO, which feared that allowing the de facto creation of a Jewish State would alienate Arabs. In 1937 the Peel Commission recommended ending the Mandate and partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, with population transfers of 225,000 Arabs from Galilee, an outcome Ben-Gurion said [quote] ‘could give us something which we have never had, even when we stood on our own during the days of the First and Second Temples’. Nonetheless, both the Arabs and the 20th Zionist Congress rejected Peel’s recommendations, to the palpable relief of the Foreign Office, which concentrated its own opposition to it on the basis of its supposed impracticality.
Instead there was the notorious 1939 White Paper, which severely limited Jewish immigration into Palestine at precisely the period of their greatest need, during the Final Solution. A total upper limit of 75,000 Jewish immigrants was set for the fateful years 1940-44, a figure that was also intended to cover refugee emergencies. The White Paper was published on 9 November 1938 - the very same day as the Kristallnacht atrocities in Germany - and was approved by Parliament in May 1939, a full two months after Hitler’s occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia. The Manchester Guardian described it as ‘a death sentence on tens of thousands of Central European Jews’, which in sheer numerical terms was probably an underestimation. Although the Labour Party Conference voted to repeal the White Paper in 1945, the Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin -- a bitter enemy of Israel - persisted in it, and it was not to be repealed until the day after the State of Israel was proclaimed.
In late April 1948, Bevin ordered that Arab positions in Jaffa needed to be protected from the Jews [quote] ‘at all costs’, and when Israeli independence came the next month, the departing British sometimes handed over vital military and strategic strongpoints to the five invading Arab armies, the most efficient of which, Transjordan’s Arab Legion, was actually commanded by a Briton, Sir John Glubb. And then on New Year’s Eve 1948 the British Government actually issued an ultimatum to Israel threatening war if Israel did not halt its counter-attacks on Egyptian forces in the Gaza Strip and Sinai. Britain was the only country in the UN that came to Egypt’s aid in this regard.
One can easily see, therefore, why when Brig-Gen Sir Wyndham Deedes set up the Anglo-Israeli Association only weeks after Israel was finally recognized by Britain in 1949 - months after America, Russia and several other states had already done so -- it was much-needed. There was still massive resentment over the War of Independence; Israel was considered at best a headache by the FO; and worst of all, unlike her neighbours, she had no oil. Nor did the Suez Crisis much help matters seven years later: the way in which Israel fitted in neatly with British plans to crush Nasser ought to have endeared her to the Foreign Office, but of course it didn’t.
When in May 1967 Nasser announced the blockading of the Straits of Tiran, closing Israel’s commercial lifeline to the east, the guarantors of this international waterway - including Britain - failed to act quickly or decisively, and although Harold Wilson was proud of his pro-Israeli sentiments, his foreign secretary George Brown and the FO certainly did not reciprocate them. Britain compounded its generally lukewarm attitude during the Six Day War by sponsoring Resolution 242 at the end of it, which called on Israel to withdraw [quote] ‘from territories occupied’, in a resolution that was so badly worded by the FO that Arabs and Israelis have been able to argue over its proper meaning ever since.
The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 saw even worse bias by the FO in favour of the Arabs and against the Jews. Announcing an arms embargo ‘equally’ between the belligerents, the Heath Government effectively stopped Israel buying spare parts for the IDF’s Centurion tanks, whilst allowing them to be bought by Jordan, the only other country affected, because it was not (officially at least) a belligerent. Egyptian helicopter pilots continued to be trained in Britain, with the foreign secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home lamely telling the Israeli Ambassador that it was better for the pilots to be training in Britain than fighting at the front. Heath even refused to allow American cargo planes taking supplies to Israel to land and refuel at our bases on Cyprus.
In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher seemed to offer a new warmth to Anglo-Israeli relations. She sat for Finchley, her Methodism chimed well with Jewish values, and she was the most philo-Semitic PM since Churchill, yet even she was stymied by the FO, especially over Intelligence cooperation with Mossad. It’s true that John Major sent a special SAS unit to seek and destroy Iraqi Scud missile batteries targeting Israel during the First Gulf War, but that was largely to remove the danger of Israel retaliating, and thereby perhaps destroying the Arab coalition against Saddam.
After 9/11 Tony Blair seemed to appreciate how Israel was in the very front line in the War against Terror, and he thus bravely refused to condemn Israel’s acts of self-defence in Lebanon, but since then Britain’s contribution to the EU’s strand of negotiating over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been, frankly, pathetic.
One area of policy over which the FO has traditionally held great sway is in the question of Royal Visits. It is no therefore coincidence that although HMQ has made over 250 official overseas visits to 129 different countries during her reign, neither she nor one single member of the British royal family has ever been to Israel on an official visit. Even though Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Greece, who was recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" for sheltering a Jewish family in her Athens home during the Holocaust, was buried on the Mount of Olives, the Duke of Edinburgh was not allowed by the FO to visit her grave until 1994, and then only on a private visit.
"Official visits are organized and taken on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth office," a press officer for the royal family explained when Prince Edward visited Israel recently privately - and a spokesman for the Foreign Office replied that [quote] ‘Israel is not unique" in not having received an official royal visit, because [quote] ‘Many countries have not had an official visit.’ That might be true for Burkino Faso and Chad, but the FO has somehow managed to find the time over the years to send the Queen on State visits to Libya, Iran, Sudan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan & Turkey. So it can’t have been that she wasn’t in the area.
Perhaps Her Majesty hasn’t been on the throne long enough, at 57 years, for the Foreign Office to get round to allowing her to visit one of the only democracies in the Middle East. At least she could be certain of a warm welcome in Israel, unlike in Morocco where she was kept waiting by the King for three hours in 90 degree heat, or at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda the time before last, where they hadn’t even finished building her hotel.
The true reason of course, is that the Foreign Office has a ban on official Royal visits to Israel, which is even more powerful for its being unwritten and unacknowledged. As an act of delegitimization of Israel, this effective boycott is quite as serious as other similar acts, such as the academic boycott, and is the direct fault of the FO Arabists. Which brings us on to Mr Oliver Miles.
One of the reasons I’m proud to be an historian is that there are scholars of the integrity and erudition of Prof Sir Martin Gilbert and Prof Sir Lawrence Freedman who also write history. If people as intelligent, wise and incorruptible as they choose to be historians, then it must be an honourable profession. Let me quote to you, therefore, word-for-word, what a former British Ambassador to Libya and Greece, Mr Oliver Miles, wrote in The Independent newspaper less than a fortnight ago, commenting on the composition of the present Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War:
‘Both Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish, and Gilbert at least has a record of active support for Zionism. Such facts are not usually mentioned in the mainstream British and American media. -- All five members have outstanding reputations and records, but it is a pity that, if and when the inquiry is accused of a whitewash, such handy ammunition will be available. Membership should not only be balanced; it should be seen to be balanced.’
Ladies and gentlemen, if that’s the way that FO Arabists are prepared to express themselves in public, can you imagine the way that they refer to such people as Professors Gilbert and Freedman in private? For the balance that Mr Miles is talking about here is clearly a racial balance, that only a certain quota of Jews should have been allowed on to the Inquiry.
Of course there’s a reason why ‘Such facts are not usually mentioned in the mainstream media’, of course, and that is because it is a disgraceful and disgusting concept even to notice the racial background of such distinguished public servants, and one that wouldn’t have even occurred to most people had not Mr Miles made such a point of it.
Because there are 22 ambassadors to Arab countries, and only one to Israel, it is perhaps natural that the FO should tend to be more pro-Arab than pro-Israeli. On occasion there are remarkably good British Ambassadors to Israel -- your president, Sir Andrew Burns, was one such in the early 1990s -- just as there are on occasion remarkably good Israeli Ambassadors to Britain, indeed we are fortunate to have one at the Embassy today in Ron Prosor. Overall, however, such men are swimming against the tide of an FO assumption that Britain’s relations with Israel ought constantly to be subordinated to her relations with other Middle Eastern states, especially the oil-rich ones, however badly those states behave in terms of human rights abuses, the persecution of Christians, the oppression of women, medieval practices of punishment, and so on.
It seems to me that there is an implicit racism going on here. Jews are expected to behave better, goes the FO thinking, because they are like us. Arabs must not be chastised because they are not. So in warfare, we constantly expect Israel to behave far better than her neighbours, and chastise her quite hypocritically when occasionally under the exigencies of national struggle, she cannot. The problem crosses political parties today, just as it always has. William Hague called for Israel to adopt a proportionate response in its struggle with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2007, as though proportionate responses ever won any victories against fascists. In the Second World War, the Luftwaffe killed 50,000 Britons in the Blitz, and the Allied response was to kill 600,000 Germans -- twelve times the number and hardly a proportionate response, but one that contributed mightily to victory. Who are we therefore to lecture the Israelis on how proportionate their responses should be?
Very often in Britain, especially when faced with the overwhelmingly anti-Israeli bias that is endemic in our liberal media and the BBC, we fail to ask ourselves what we would not do placed in the same position? The population of the United Kingdom of 63 millions is nine times that of Israel. In July 2006, to take one example entirely at random, Hezbollah crossed the border of Lebanon into Israel and killed 8 patrolmen and kidnapped 2 others, and that summer fired 4,000 Katyusha rockets into Israel which killed a further 43 civilians. Now, if we multiply those numbers by nine to get the British equivalent, just imagine what we would not do if a terrorist organization based as close as Calais were to fire 36,000 rockets into Sussex and Kent, killing 387 British civilians, after killing 72 British servicemen in an ambush and capturing a further eighteen? I put it to you that there is absolutely no lengths to which our Government would not go to protect British subjects under those circumstances, and quite right too. So why should Israel be expected to behave any differently?
There has hardly been a single year since Brigadier-General Deedes established AIA in 1949 when a speaker has not been able to say that Israel faced a crisis, and on some occasions -- in 1956, 1967, 1973 and especially in the face of the present Iranian nuclear programme today -- these were existential. At a time when Barrack Obama appears to be least pro-Israeli president since Eisenhower, the dangers are even more obvious. For there is simply no way that Obama will prevent Ahmadinejad, perhaps Jewry’s most viciously outspoken and dangerous foe since the death of Adolf Hitler, to acquire a nuclear Bomb.
None of us can pretend to know what lies ahead for Israel, but if she decides pre-emptively to strike against such a threat -- in the same way that Nelson pre-emptively sank the Danish Fleet at Copenhagen and Churchill pre-emptively sank the Vichy Fleet at Oran -- then she can expect nothing but condemnation from the British Foreign Office. She should ignore such criticism, because for all the fine work done by this Association over the past six decades - work that’s clearly needed as much now as ever before -- Britain has only ever really been at best a fairweather friend to Israel.
Although History does not repeat itself, it’s cadences do occasionally rhyme, and if the witness of History is testament to anything it is testament to this:
That in her hopes of averting the threat of a Second Holocaust, only Israel can be relied upon to act decisively in the best interests of the Jews.
This speech was written up in the Jerusalem Post entitled "QUEEN BLASTED FOR NOT VISITING ISRAEL"