Britain and Israel share a history of profound friendship driven by shared values and common interests. Israel, unlike any other country in the Middle East, is a vibrant parliamentary democracy and our governing tradition was inspired by Britain. British values such as freedom of speech and the rule of law have shaped our legal and political institutions, in a region where respect for democracy and human rights is unfortunately the exception and not the norm.
Our friendship goes back far further than the 60 years of formal diplomatic ties or the 62 years since the Establishment of the State of Israel. The British writer, George Eliot wrote in 1879 of ‘the conditions present or approaching for the restoration of a Jewish state planted on the old ground.’ British thinkers long understood that despite 2,000 years of exile, the Jewish people maintained a constant presence in Jerusalem and Israel and an unbroken connection to their homeland.
Britain, through the Balfour Declaration in 1917, became the first great power to recognise that the Jewish People had national rights, helping to facilitate the creation of a Jewish state.
It is true, however, that the path of true friendship does not always run smoothly. Britain obstructed Jewish emigration to Palestine during the Second World War, at a time when the lives of hundreds of thousands of European Jews could have been saved. After the war, Britain continued to restrict emigration when it was the only hope of a new life for survivors.
Yet Israelis will never forget that Britain stood alone among the nations of Western Europe in confronting the evil of Nazism. Uniquely, three Israeli Presidents served the British crown during the world wars. Chaim Weizmann, our first President, served as a chemist at the Admiralty under Churchill during World War One. In World War Two, Ezer Weizman was a pilot in the RAF while Chaim Herzog fought with distinction in the British Army. They, along with some 30,000 Jews from the Land of Israel signed up to fight in the King’s uniform against the common enemy of Nazism.
During 60 years of official diplomatic relations, Israel has enjoyed warm ties with successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative. Margaret Thatcher in 1986 became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Israel. Subsequently, John Major and Tony Blair were warmly welcomed in Jerusalem. In Israel’s 60th anniversary year, Gordon Brown became the first British Prime Minister to address the Knesset. That same year President Shimon Peres received an honorary Knighthood from Her Majesty the Queen. Although the Queen is yet to visit Israel, we look forward to one day having the opportunity to host Her Majesty.
On a governmental level our relations remain close. Through economic ties, cultural links and strategic dialogue Israel and Britain continue to cooperate in a spirit of understanding and mutual respect capable of withstanding occasional differences of opinion.
Yet within some sections of British society, Israel has faced a campaign of demonisation and delegitimisation which seeks to undermine the foundations of our friendship. Academic unions have attempted to boycott their Israeli counterparts, in stark contrast to values of academic freedom. Recently, some of Israel’s fiercest critics have attempted to use British courts as a battleground in their attacks on Israel’s reputation.
In the face of this trend, it is crucial that Britain and Israel stand firm in protecting and strengthening our mutually beneficial relations. The challenges currently facing the world are so intense that it is vital to work together to defend our democratic values and freedoms from those who would take them away. Our friendship is as crucial today as it has ever been.
Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons threatens all who seek stability, progress and peace in the Middle East and beyond. Britain has so far played a leading role in coordinating an international response to Iran’s aggressive ambitions. I am confident that the new government under Prime Minister Cameron will continue to seek out effective measures.
Now more than ever before, Britain and Israel must strive to strengthen our friendship and defend our values as we seek a secure and stable future.