On Wednesday 12 March 2014, David Cameron made his first trip to Israel as British Prime Minister. The trip was relatively smooth despite a strike in the Israeli foreign ministry, and Cameron avoided any obvious damning faux pas. (Nothing beats German Chancellor Shröder’s mistake in 2000 when he accidentally extinguished the eternal flame at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial). What’s interesting, however, is that even though Cameron is only the fifth UK premier to make this trip while in office, British prime ministerial visits to Israel are following a remarkably similar pattern.
Cameron arrived at the Israeli Knesset on a tempestuous day (they had just passed a controversial bill drafting Haredi men into the military and were gearing up for another that increases the vote threshold for Knesset representation, an act that may exclude the small Arab parties in future). But apart from having to sit through the battling speeches of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, as well as a cacophony of hot-tempered heckling in Hebrew, “just call me Dave” stayed relatively aloof from regional politics.
Cameron simply recounted his “limited” Jewish heritage, expressed sympathy and outrage over the Holocaust and told the Knesset that Britain’s relationship with Israel is “rock solid”. He had to squeeze in something about the settlements, so he opposed them in the same breath as “Palestinian incitement” before turning to the crowd-pleasing topics – Iran and terrorism. The British PM also enjoyed a brief visit to the West Bank; though Palestinian President Abbas issued a bit of a complaint that Dave’s outing to Bethlehem was little more than a politically correct afterthought, and he was probably pretty accurate. Basically, this has been a polite trip, one aimed at fostering business ties and cooperation in the high-tech sector. And to be honest, that’s literally business as usual.
Back in May 1986, Margaret Thatcher was the first sitting UK prime minister to make this pilgrimage. It didn’t really matter what she said – there was no public address, only brief remarks at a state dinner – it was her presence that seemed really important at the time. Thatcher had already received Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres (is there an era or event in Israeli history without him?) in London that January, and the Iron Lady was pushing peace talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization pretty hard. Before boarding her flight to Tel Aviv, Thatcher told British press that if Israel wanted to champion its own human rights, “you also have to stand up for the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. If you demand self-determination for yourself you cannot deny it for others.” And she hammered this point home during the trip. But the crucial common ground between Thatcher and Peres was an international fight against terrorism – a preoccupation reflected in all subsequent Anglo-Israeli rhetoric.
While John Major’s Levantine travels were somewhat more public and, therefore, a little braver, his addresses in Jerusalem marked the beginning of a real cookie-cutter approach to Anglo-Israeli oratory. Major’s visit in March 1995 included several public appearances and interviews as well as a full press conference where he addressed questions from British and Israeli journalists. Major referenced the Jews’ thousands of years of history, condemned the Holocaust, urged further breakthroughs in the peace process, noted how “the scourge of terrorism” was Britain and Israel’s “common enemy” and expressed concern over the threat from…ahem….Iraq. Then he added some praise for Anglo-Israeli economic ties. Stop me if this is starting to sound familiar.
It should. Tony Blair made his first official visit to Israel in April 1998 and didn’t hit it off with then Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu (Blair believed the Israelis had bugged his car). But of course their joint press conference was all sweetness and light. Blair urged a continuation of the peace process and spoke more as the European president than as a British prime minister – while avoiding stepping on Clinton or Madeline Albright’s toes regarding the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Later, when Blair visited Israel in 2006, he did so as a chief architect of the Iraq war, after a million and one statements condemning Palestinian terrorism during the Second Intifada, and immediately following Israel’s Second Lebanon War – highlighting that mutual preoccupation with security from “extremists” who “believe in fundamentalist states” once more. And then there was the new buzzword to consider – Iran.
So when Tony Blair stepped aside into his new life as a multi-millionaire and elder statesman, Gordon Brown continued the rhetorical trend. Brown, of course, was the first British Prime Minister to actually address the Knesset in 2008. Under slightly calmer circumstances than those Blair had faced two years earlier, Brown started with his own connections to Judaism through the passions of his pastor father and praised the Jewish State for realising “the age-long dream” of finding “your way home to the fields and shorelines where your ancestors walked”. Assuring his audience that “Britain is your true friend” and “Britain will always stand firmly by Israel’s side”, Brown condemned boycotts on Israel as well as the Holocaust (an interesting structure), stressed Britain’s “determination to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons programme” and called for an end to terrorism – all delivered with a sprinkling of educational and business cooperation between the two states.
So what do we take from this? Well, obviously there is an easy formula for prime ministers delivering an address in Israel. Step One: Share a personal anecdote about your (often tenuous) connection to the state of Israel. Step Two: Acknowledge the Jews’ millennia of ties to Jerusalem. Step Three: Urge a solution to the ongoing peace process. Step Four: Condemn terrorism and stress your commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran (or insert name of future threatening state). Step Five: Adjourn the public appearance so your business delegation can get down to work.
While Cameron, therefore, stressed on Thursday that he’s not the “heir to Blair” (since the current British prime minister lacks Blair’s penchant for interventionism), Anglo-Israeli rhetoric hasn’t really changed since the Thatcher-to-Major days or even the Blair-to-Brown era. Cameron may be distancing himself from Blair’s legacy in the region, but he’s not exactly disagreeing. I’m not sure what this says about the nature of British foreign policy in the Middle East, about the ongoing cycle of threats to British security from that region, about the sudden institutionalisation of British prime ministerial jaunts to the Holy Land, but Israel advocacy groups in the UK can hardly call for much closer ties between our two nations. Staunch support for Israeli security combined with polite requests for an end to settlement activity, a criticism offset by growing economic links, really is just business as usual.