Last week Israel hosted two high-profile visits by major western political figures. The first was Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who carried out his first trip to Israel since becoming prime minister. The second was Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States. Observation of these visits, the circumstances surrounding them and the statements made by both men during their time in Israel offer insight into the depth and solidity of Israel’s alliance and friendship with both the UK and the US.
Prime Minister Brown’s visit
Prime Minister Brown was the first British leader to deliver an address to the Knesset. In his speech, Brown first explained the history of his own personal commitment and involvement with Israel. He noted his father’s ‘deep and lifelong affection’ for the country, and stressed his admiration for the achievements of Israel.[i] Brown also placed particular stress on his abhorrence of the statements made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the destruction of Israel. He went on to note the UK’s leading role in the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and the UK’s readiness to engage in increased sanctions against Iran should this prove necessary. Brown went on to outline the UK’s hopes for a successful conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. His speech also touched on his visit to Yad Vashem, and his staunch opposition to attempts in Britain to institute boycotts against Israel.[ii]
Brown’s speech reflected the general tone of his visit. The trip contained few surprises. The prime minister is a known and veteran friend of Israel, and the UK has extensive and fruitful relations with Israel on commercial, cultural and diplomatic levels.[iii] Yet a closer look at the circumstances of Brown’s visit and the issues upon which it focused offers much insight into the nature of Britain’s relations with Israel.
When Brown became prime minister, it was said that his main advantage was that he was not Tony Blair. Blair had dominated British politics for a decade. At the time that he left office, however, his popularity had declined. The unpopular Iraq war was an important element of this. Strong support and friendship for Israel, in particular during the summer 2006 Israel-Hezbollah fighting in Lebanon, was an additional policy stance that didn’t add to Blair’s popularity among sections of his own Labour Party. There is a strong public reaction in the UK against involvement in further conflict in the Middle East, and a surprising lack of public awareness of the dangers of the Iranian nuclear programme.
Because of all this, it might have been assumed – and in the US it was very much feared – that Brown would have seen it in his interest to avoid associating his own name with support for Israel, and determination to prevent a nuclear Iran. Indeed his stances in this regard are unlikely to offer any significant electoral advantages to Labour.[iv] Yet despite this, unlike his predecessor, Brown chose to accept the invitation to become the first British prime minister to address the Israeli legislative assembly, and he chose to use the occasion to stress his long-standing admiration for Israel, and his staunch opposition to a nuclear Iran. How may this decision be understood?
The British prime minister is responsible for the stewardship of Britain’s key strategic interests. Britain has extensive commercial relations with Israel and with many Arab countries.[v] Some of the states with which the UK maintains close commercial relations – such as the Gulf monarchies – do not have official relations with Israel. Yet all these states have in common a commitment to a stable Middle East in which commerce and development can take place on the basis of close, mutually beneficial relations with the west. Of the group of countries with which Britain is engaged in the region, Israel is by far the most economically dynamic (Israel’s economy is highly diversified and host to a rapidly expanding high-tech sector backed by strong and steady growth), by far the most democratic, and by far the most internally stable. However, an attempt is currently taking place in the region to build an alternative axis of power to the pro-western group of countries. This attempt is being led by Iran and the Iranian nuclear programme is a key part of this. This Iranian effort constitutes a key challenge to regional stability, to Israel and to the regional interests of the UK.
On the basis, therefore, of a shared strategic interest, Brown chose this moment to offer a re-affirmation of Britain’s alliance with Israel, and notably felt that the occasion was befitting of a more personal message stressing the value of loyalty. The fact that the shared strategic interest is embedded in a wider connection based on shared values and historical affinity – which Brown also chose to highlight – adds to its strength.[vi] Support for Britain’s friendship with Israel is an important aspect of the current British prime minister’s own personal and political biography. As such, Brown valued the speech on a personal level, and it is entirely appropriate that he should have been the first British prime minister to have addressed the Knesset, and entirely in keeping with British strategic interests.
Democratic presidential candidate Obama’s visit
The second high-profile visitor of the week was Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Obama is of course in the midst of an election campaign, and hence the circumstances of his visit were very different to Brown’s. In the course of the fight for the Democratic Party nomination, doubts were raised in some quarters regarding Senator Obama’s commitment to the US alliance with Israel. These doubts did not relate to any statement made by Obama himself. Rather, past statements by certain advisors close to the Obama campaign – such as Samantha Power – were recalled. The support of Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, for the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was also noted.[vii]
Obama has since ended his association with both of these individuals. More generally, he is currently engaged in an attempt to demonstrate to the US public as a whole that he is aware of the US’s key strategic interests and alliances. Obama’s trip to Israel was part of this effort. It is worth noting that Obama was not concerned solely or primarily with securing a particular sector of the Jewish vote. Indeed, despite his statement on 4 June 2008 at AIPAC’s Policy Conference that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and must remain undivided,” Obama used his visit to Israel to make clear that “Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties” as part of “an agreement that they both can live with.”[viii] In any case, US Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat based on their support for the Democratic Party’s position on domestic issues such as health and education, rather than along foreign policy lines, let alone single-issue areas such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama’s trip to the Middle East was part of a wider campaign strategy which sought to reaffirm among the broader US public his centrist, pragmatic credentials.[ix]
The US’s friendship and alliance with Israel is again ultimately based on the natural link between the leading country of the democratic world, and the country which best exemplifies democratic values in the Middle East. Israel forms a key strategic lynchpin in the system of alliances headed by the US which defend stability in the region. This core strategic relationship is leavened by the very strong feelings of support and friendship for Israel which exist among the broad American public. Hence, it is quite natural for a candidate such as Obama, who wishes to ensure the US public that he is a suitable candidate for the stewarding of American interests, to do so partly by reaffirming his own friendship for and support for Israel.
Obama was no less firm in making clear his commitment to Israel’s security in the face of the Iranian threat. He made clear that the Iranian nuclear issue was his top priority – clarifying that if talks with Iran fail, then this would legitimise further action. “A nuclear Iran would pose a grave threat and the world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama told reporters after leaving Sderot, a small town near the Gaza border and a frequent target of Palestinian terror groups.[x]
Despite popular thinking, domestic politics in the UK and the US do not shape foreign policy. In the case of Prime Minister Brown, the evidence would suggest that he should be a reluctant supporter of Israel at best. Yet this could not be further from the truth: Brown resolutely stands behind the Britain-Israel relationship. Similarly, whilst there were initial fears that Obama’s vision entails a recalibration of the US-Israel relationship, the Democratic presidential candidate has steadily moved towards the centre ground. This reinforces the oft-made case that when faced with the reality, and when charged with positions of responsibility, people see beyond the rhetoric and fully appreciate the value of Israel’s role as a strategic ally.
The visits by Brown and Obama were different in nature, reflecting the different priorities of a serving prime minister and a presidential hopeful in the midst of a campaign. However, in their separate ways, both visits showed that British and US support for Israel derives from core strategic interests which transcend party political debate. Both visits also showed that these core interests are in turn strengthened by deep ties of cultural and historical affinity.
[i] Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s speech to the Knesset, 21 July 2008. www.number10.gov.uk
[iii] For an overview of Britain’s relations with Israel, see ‘Balfour’s Legacy: Britain and Israel today,” BICOM, 6 November 2007. www.bicom.org.uk
[v] Britain-Israel Relations, British Embassy in Tel Aviv website. www.britemb.org.il
[vii] Tom Baldwin, “Rev Jeremiah Wright lands Obama in trouble again,” Times Online, 28 March 2008. www.timesonline.co.uk
[viii] Barack Obama, ‘Senator Barack Obama AIPAC Policy Conference 2008,’ AIPAC, 4 June 2008. www.aipac.org; Hilary Leila Krieger, ‘Obama clarifies united Jerusalem comment,’ Jerusalem Post, 6 June 2008. www.jpost.com
[ix] Nathan Jeffay, “Obama goes on charm offensive in Israel,” the Forward, 24 July 2008. www.forward.com
[x] Roni Sofer, ‘Obama visits Sderot, warns of a nuclear Iran,’ Ynetnews Online, 23 July 2008. www.ynetnews.com