Declassified: Britain and Israel

01Feb07

by Mark Curtis
Red Pepper, April 2004

Why is Tony Blair still Prime Minister? One major reason is Blair’s promise to push for peace between Israel and Palestine. Many MPs sided with Blair in the crucial parliamentary vote before the invasion of Iraq believing he could and would influence Washington to press Israel. Yet this was self-delusion; Blair leads the most pro-Israel government in recent British history.

Blair said in parliament one year ago that the US ‘should recognise the fundamental overriding importance of restarting the Middle East peace process, which we will hold you to’. The last phrase was the critical bit. But this required accepting not only that Blair could influence Bush but that Britain was at least even-handed in the conflict; some people believed it was even pro-Palestinian.

Over the past year, the occupied territories have descended into greater violence while the much-feted Middle East ‘roadmap’ is effectively dead.

Yet before the invasion of Iraq, Britain was a strong defender of Israel. London has always blamed ‘both sides’ for violence as though both are equally guilty, ignoring the fact that one is illegally occupying the territory of the other and that Israel is responsible for far more deaths. Blair’s personal statements never condemn Israel outright while adopting the Israeli line that Palestinian suicide bombings need to stop first before Israeli ‘reprisals’ will stop. Trade links have increased, and Israel is identified by the Department of Trade and Industry as one of 14 ‘target markets’ to receive preferential trade treatment.

Arms exports doubled from 2000 to 2001, reaching £22.5 million as Israel stepped up aggression in the occupied territories. Supplies included small arms, grenade-making kits and components for equipment such as armoured fighting vehicles, tanks and combat aircraft. In 2002 Britain began to block some items for Israel and was reportedly considering them on a case by case basis. Whitehall still approved, however, the export of spare parts for US aircraft being used to target Palestinians.

This was not an auspicious starting point for accepting that Britain was ‘even-handed’ in the conflict and would seriously press Israel.

Over the past year, the occupied territories have descended into greater violence while the much-feted Middle East ‘roadmap’ is effectively dead. Half of Palestinians are unemployed, two thirds live below the poverty line while a quarter of children endure acute or chronic malnutrition. Israel’s policy of encircling Palestinian cities and frequent military attacks, together with house demolitions and farmland clearances, has basically destroyed the Palestinian economy.

Although the government accepts that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal and calls for a ‘viable’ Palestinian state, it has done nothing serious to press Israel.

Yet British policy continues as before. It has recently supplied Israel with machine guns, rifles, ammunition, components for tanks and helicopters, leg irons, electric shock belts, tear gas and categories covering mortars, rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons and military explosives. A DTI official recently said that ‘there was no question of treating applications for Israel more harshly or rigorously than [other countries]’.

When Israel bombed Syria in October last year, targeting an alleged ‘terrorist training camp’, the illegal action was condemned by France and Germany. But the Foreign Office simply called on ‘all sides to exercise restraint’ and said that Israeli actions to ‘protect itself from terrorist attack…should be within international law’. That was it.

Although the government accepts that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal and calls for a ‘viable’ Palestinian state, it has done nothing serious to press Israel. Currently, Britain is refusing to accept the jurisdiction of the international court of justice in reviewing the legality of Israel’s ‘security barrier’ even though it says it opposes the latter.

Britain is also resisting calls for the EU’s special trade and aid agreement with Israel to be cut off. By contrast, London has been very active in securing EU agreement to ban the political wing of Hamas and place its leaders on a terrorist blacklist. London has reportedly taken the lead in calling for strict European curbs on charities raising funds for Hamas.

What explains British policy? The answers might be found in formerly secret files I discovered recently. A Foreign Office report from 1970 called ‘Future British policy toward the Arab/Israel Dispute’ rejected both an openly pro-Israel and pro-Arab policy. The latter was rejected ‘because of the pressure which the United States government undoubtedly exert on HMG to keep us in line in any public pronouncements or negotiations on the dispute’.

I believe that Britain is publicly trying to position itself as being ‘neutral’ – in line with this report – but has in reality tilted strongly towards Israel. Why is this? Another declassified file can help.

The paper also rejected a strategy of ‘active neutrality’ which would mean being more pro-Arab than the US. One problem is that this would damage ‘our world-wide relationship with the US’. Therefore, the Foreign Office argued for a ‘low risk policy’, involving ‘private pressure upon the US to do all in their power to bring about a settlement’.

I believe that Britain is publicly trying to position itself as being ‘neutral’ – in line with this report – but has in reality tilted strongly towards Israel. Why is this? Another declassified file can help.

The Joint Intelligence Committee noted in 1969 that ‘rapid industrialisation’ was occurring in Israel ‘in fields where British industry can readily supply the necessary capital goods’. It noted that ‘Israel is already a valuable trading partner with a considerable future potential in the industrial areas where we want to develop Britain as a major world-wide manufacturer and supplier’. This contrasted to the Arab world where, despite oil, ‘recent developments appear to confirm that the prospects for profitable economic dealings with the Arab countries are at best static and could, over the long term, decline’.

This priority, together with maintaining special relations with Washington, is more important to Whitehall planners than a few million mere Palestinians. It shows how basic British foreign policy priorities are set against equally basic notions of human rights.



3 Responses to “Declassified: Britain and Israel”

  1. 1 matthew

    thanks for your courage in this particular field. the truth is getting harder to come by which is why your work is so essential.
    thanks again

  2. 2 Heath Marshall

    I agree with every point that you make. The truth is essential. You are one of the very few experts in middle eastern politics/history who is publishing work that addresses the grave injustices of the Palestinian people and the collusion and hypocrisy of the UK government in this regard. The US and UK’s failure to publically condemn Israel’s multifarious violations of international law (let alone sanction Israel) is wrong and reeks of hypocricy and is internecine.

  3. 3 Lynn Ashford

    I wonder why people like Mr Curtis are rarely or never invited on TV news programs! I think People like yourself, Mr Curtis, MUST make more noise. Truth must be told.


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