Magazine article The Spectator

Israel and Britain

Magazine article The Spectator

Israel and Britain

Article excerpt

Anglo-Zionist relations are usually written up as only having started with the 1917 Balfour Declaration. On Israel's 50th anniversary, someone should point out that they are a lot deeper than that; deeper in time, but also deeper in feeling.

Of that same Declaration, it is also said that it was just British realpolitik. Britain just wanted American Jews to get America into the war against Germany.

But who is to say? In so much of politics, and human affairs, how do we know which actions are self-interested, which interested? Often, when politicians act cynically, they do so in order to win the support or approval of the idealistic. Idealism is therefore as much to do with the act as cynicism.

Far from dating only from the Balfour Declaration, British approval of a Jewish homeland in Palestine goes back to the Protestant Reformation and the translation of the Bible into English. The Jewish return to the Biblical homeland was seen as one of the Biblical prophecies. Early in the first world war, the early Zionist Chaim Weizmann discussed places in Palestine with Lloyd George, then minister of munitions, later prime minister at the time of the Balfour Declaration. Weizmann said they sounded more familiar to Lloyd George than places on the western front.

Mid-Victorian evangelicanism favoured a Jewish national home in Palestine. Also, Palmerston, as foreign secretary, urged it on the Ottomans. He told his ambassador in Constantinople: `There exists at present among the Jews dispersed over Europe a strong notion that the time is approaching when their nation is to return to Palestine. . . . ' Since then, Anglo-Zionist relations have had their ups and downs. British foreign secretaries have tended to be less sympathetic to Zionist and Israeli feelings; Mr Cook being but the latest. In this, however, they have not much differed from the American State Department.

But British prime ministers, like American presidents (though not all), have tended to be more sympathetic. This is unsurprising. Foreign ministers are concerned with their countries' narrower self-interest. Heads of government must take account of their countries' sentiment. British sentiment is sympathetic to Israel because Israel is recognisable as a state sharing British values of freedom and the rule of law. We may become angry with Mr Netanyahu's apparent authoritarianism. But we, too, have had prime ministers whom the world's liberals have considered authoritarian. Few Britons believe that Israel is an authoritarian state, since Mr Netanyahu's authority can, and is, questioned in press and Parliament. …

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