British – Israel Relations
Chatham House, London
March 30, 2011
A story is being told about Albert Einstein who once gave a test to his students.
After the exam, one of the students approached him saying " Professor Einstein, you gave us the exact same questions as last year. " " Yes, replied Einstein, but the answers this year are different".
I am honored to be included in this panel discussion on British-Israel Relations 60 years later. Obviously some of the questions asked will be the same , but perhaps some of the answers or conclusions that we will reach, may be different from those in past years.
This may be because circumstances, conditions and even some perceptions have changed over the years. Diplomacy, no doubt, is still determined in Chancelleries, but the development and use of mass media have given public diplomacy much more weight. And so the role of Parliaments and of public opinion has dramatically increased.
There is no doubt that the Revolutions which are still shaking the Arab world – and which almost no one predicted , will change the geo-strategic situation of Israel in this area. For the first time these have been popular uprisings, mainly of young people,
( let us no forget that around 60% of the population in the Arab world is under the age of 25) , but these youngsters are not organized, hence no one really knows where
these revolutions will lead. This means that for sometime now , there will be no stability in our area. And this increases Israel's vulnerability. Also, after President
Obama's recent decision that the United States has ended its role , and that further
responsibility for the security in those countries is being now transferred to NATO and to the EU, Britain too will have to re-think some of its policies in our area. This may also create a possibility for the EU in general, Britain in particular, to play a larger role in our area.
My other partners on this panel have, no doubt, a deeper and more intimate understanding of the fabric of our bilateral relations over the years. I have neither served nor have I had the privilege to live in Britain. However I have been in charge of European matters at our Foreign Office. I bring with me the perspective of a former diplomat turned politician. What is more , I might as well confess to those of you who are not fully aware of it – I belong to the left-wing part of the Israeli political spectrum.
Looking at these relations with a bird's eye view, our dialogue is sound, permanent, intensive and frank. Political, economic, scientific and cultural exchanges have grown and flourished over the years, and should be a reason for satisfaction. Our relations have weathered many a crisis over the years, But by and large, since the post Suez years, most Prime Ministers, most governments have had a warm disposition towards Israel, they have shown understanding for its particular circumstances, and have supported its quest for peace and security, even if that was not always made public. We have not seen eye-to-eye on some issues – the Palestinian question has divided us, but it is only natural that our perceptions and interests be different at times.
Israelis still view Britain as a superpower; and London is still the Mecca of many intellectuals who hold British institutions, schools, Universities, the theatre and the arts in high esteem. Writers, musicians, or simple citizens appreciate the institutions that the Mandate has bequeathed us, they admire the language, theBritish culture and civilization. On the other hand, Israeli ingenuity, its high tech, music, the plastic arts – even the movies ,are drawing the admiration and appreciation of many here
And yet – there is reason for worry. More and more members of the civil society in Israel feel that the anti-Israel atmosphere is excessive and that we get more than our fair share of criticism. We are far from being perfect, and my own view of the present Government's policies are critical too. For many years I have fought for the only moral and viable solution to end our conflict with the Palestinians, a Palestinian State alongside Israel, allowing us and the Palestinians to live in peace and human dignity.
I am fully aware that time does not work in our favor and, that what might still be
possible today, may not be achievable any more in the future. But having said that and having followed closely all the negotiations and initiatives , I know that Israel is not the only party responsible for their failure.
One may ask, in all fairness, why worst crimes and atrocities carried out in other parts of the world go unnoticed, why the killings and sufferings of Israeli citizens get not attention or sympathy, how and why have we come to be depicted as the villains of the neighborhood, one of the worst countries in the world. Trade Unions, Universities, and lately cultural organizations, call for the boycott of our institutions, completely ignoring that by doing so they hurt and alienate a public that surely supports peace. This and more : this campaign aimed at delegitimizing Israel can be described only as destructive. Not only is it immoral, its only result can be to hamper any peace effort or initiative, since the large segments of the Israeli public are discouraged by what they perceive as a lack of consideration for the Israeli basic needs and interests.
Equally worrisome is the fact that a whole generation of young people in this country grow with a complete lack of understanding of what Israel stands for – some even with resentment, prejudice and hatred. The leaders of to-morrow, whether in politics, business of the arts, are part of this generation and this does not bode well for our future relations.
When our diplomatic relations were established, no one would have believed that Israel would become a success story , and this in the face of adversity. In past days we were sadly reminded that missiles and rockets, placed around us by Iran, can reach
densly populated areas anywhere in Israel and that our geopolitical situation is still precarious, . It is of this part of the equation that the public in Britain should be informed of before they form an opinion. Stronger expressions of solidarity for Israelis in such moments would go a long way in bringing about a more sober view, a different image of Israel.
As you have noticed, I have chosen not to address the "formal" part of our relations,
since I believe that this is subject is well known by all present; rather my comments refer to the undercurrents , which I believe have the potential to negatively impact
them . Events of the past few weeks in the Arab world teach us that public opinion carries a lot of weight – even in the most unexpected places. And it is this part of our relationship that we should address now.
One last word, however, on our diplomatic relations : for many years I have been following closely French-Israeli relations. After an initial period of love and closeness, these relations turned sour resulting in a deep sense of alienation and mistrust. No wonder that French media were hostile too. A few years ago, the French Government understood that in order to have a greater influence in our area, its policies must change. Deliberate and important efforts were made at all levels, official, commercial, economic, state visits –to bring about this change. And when President Sarkozy spoke at the Knesset, Israelis accepted his criticism because they felt that it came from a friend who cared. The same could happen to our relations, if there is a will for it.