70 years of UK-Israel diplomatic ties


What happened: Today marks the 70th anniversary of the UK opening its embassy in Tel Aviv, beginning Britain’s diplomatic relations with Israel.

  • James Cleverly MP, the UK Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, writing in The Jerusalem Post yesterday to mark the anniversary, said: “I know what an amazing place Israel is to visit having had the chance to do so shortly after becoming an MP in 2015. A country with antiquity and modernity side by side, things that seem familiar to my British eyes and things which are fascinating and unique. A country proud of its modern science and technology sectors and also home to some of the most holy places in the world.”
  • The UK-Israel economic relationship has grown by 25 per cent over the past two years. Today, commercial ties are worth some £9bn annually, creating thousands of jobs.
  • The UK is Israel’s third largest export market, behind the US and China, with goods totalling $4.3bn in 2018, an increase of 21 per cent since 2012. The increase was largely driven by a 52 per cent increase in pharmaceutical products worth $2.8bn in 2018, but other notable Israeli exports are precious stones, plastic products, machinery and mechanical appliances, electrical machinery and equipment, and fruit and vegetables.
  • James Cleverly said that the UK and Israel are working side by side in the fight against coronavirus, “with our top health and scientific advisers sharing information and exchanging valuable insights into how to manage and ultimately beat the pandemic”.
  • He added: “Our respective world-class hospitals and laboratories are working together to support the development of antibody treatments for patients and discussing ground-breaking innovations, from tracing apps to potential vaccines.”

Context: In early 2020 BICOM released an in-depth report on Britain-Israel relations covering the extent of bilateral trade and cooperation in defence, science, tech, business and cybersecurity in what amounts to a new strategic partnership between the two countries.

  • In the report Neil Wigan OBE, the UK’s ambassador to Israel describes how surprised he was at the level co-operation between the two countries as he returned to Israel after leaving in 2006.
  • Mark Regev, Ambassador of Israel to the UK, notes the value of Israeli companies to the British economy, with 26 companies trading on the London Stock Exchange and hundreds having offices here. He said: “British businesses prize Israeli innovation, ploughing record sums into our exciting start-ups and pioneering research and development, in which the Jewish state leads the world.” In early 2019 Israel became the first country to sign a post-Brexit continuity trade agreement with the UK.
  • The UK has been committed to Israel’s security for decades, understanding the value of a pro-Western liberal democracy in the volatile Middle East. Israel views the UK as a significant bridge to wider Europe, with a more supportive foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel than the European Union as well as its own commitment to a strong transatlantic relationship.
  • Speaking about Israel’s prosperity in the wider region, Minister of State Cleverly called for both the new Israeli government-in-waiting and the Palestinian leadership to “continue to build on the constructive collaboration that they have shown during this pandemic and find ways to return to the table … a two-state solution is the best way to secure enduring stability and success”.
  • Cleverly added that he hopes “steps on the road towards lasting peace are taken, and pathways that might lead away from that goal are avoided,” an implicit message to Israel not to proceed with any steps toward applying sovereignty to areas of the West Bank.
  • Last week the acting UK Deputy Permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador James Roscoe, told the UN Security Council that “any unilateral moves towards annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel would be damaging to efforts to restart peace negotiations and would be contrary to international law”.
  • Yesterday, a US State Department spokesperson said the US is prepared to recognise Israeli actions to extend Israeli sovereignty and the application of Israeli law to areas of the West Bank, “in the context of the Government of Israel agreeing to negotiate with the Palestinians along the lines set forth in President Trump’s Vision,” namely a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel.

Looking ahead: The large Conservative victory in the UK’s December 2019 election, combined with Britain’s departure from the EU, could serve to deepen and enhance the Britain-Israel partnership as Britain seeks to redefine its foreign policy and security strategy while strengthening relations with allies outside of Europe.