OpinionIsrael at War

Is Britain going wobbly on Israel?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been outmaneuvered by the poisonously anti-Israel liberal establishment.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog meets with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 7, 2022. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog meets with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 7, 2022. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir, Guardian Angel, has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy, in 2018. To access her work, go to: melaniephillips.substack.com.

After the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak came out in emotional support of Israel, stating that it had “an absolute right to defend itself.”

He promptly dispatched to Israel’s aid spy planes, two Royal Navy support ships and about 100 Royal Marines. Visiting a Jewish school in London, he said, “We will stand with Israel and the Jewish community in the U.K. not just today, not just tomorrow, but always.”

That was then. Suddenly, a colder wind is blowing in Israel’s direction.

This week, British politics has been convulsed by Sunak’s firing of Home Secretary Suella Braverman over her outspoken and politically incorrect rhetoric.

Braverman, a passionate defender of Israel and the Jewish people, caused an uproar last week with an article she wrote in The Times of London. In it, she excoriated the police for not taking action against the “hate marches” that have drawn hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets to support Gaza against Israel.

These marches, she wrote, were mostly an assertion of primacy by Islamists in which terrorists were valorized, Israelis were demonized as “Nazis” and Jews were threatened with further massacres.

Her bluntness was the last straw for Sunak, who had long been irritated by what he assumed to be her grandstanding tactics to grab his own job.

Braverman’s sacking, however, has sparked threats of insurrection by furious Conservative MPs who believe that she speaks for the interests of ordinary people against a political elite with its head in the “multicultural” sand.

Even more incendiary, however, was Sunak’s decision in the ensuing cabinet reshuffle to appoint as foreign secretary the former Prime Minister David Cameron. Since Cameron is no longer even an MP, he had to be given a seat in Parliament’s second chamber, the House of Lords, to allow him to serve in the government.

With the Tories widely derided as a bunch of useless incompetents, lightweights and clowns, Sunak appears to believe that the patrician Cameron will lend the government a badly-needed aura of gravitas, heft and statesmanship.

Instead, the appointment has caused widespread incredulity and derision. Cameron departed Downing Street in ignominy after his calamitous misjudgment in backing the U.K.’s membership of the E.U. against the wish of a majority of the British people to regain their powers of independent national government.

In foreign policy, Cameron’s record was a litany of failures, disasters and execrable judgment. A House of Commons committee savaged him for helping overthrow Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, bringing chaos and the rise of ISIS to North Africa.

More ominously, when he was prime minister, Cameron cozied up to China and since leaving office has led a $1 billion U.K.-China investment fund.

Sunak, whose own instincts are ironically not so far removed from Braverman’s, is a smart technocrat who seems more suited to Silicon Valley than the political world, in which he displays a tin ear and a conspicuous absence of courage or vision.

He appears to think that shifting his government to the supposed liberal “center” will dissipate the impression left by his predecessors, the mavericks Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, that the government is run by “right-wing populists” who frighten the horses.

He seems not to have grasped that “right-wing populism,” the term of abuse used by the liberal establishment to demonize all who dissent from left-wing orthodoxies, is the political center for millions of voters.

As a result, Sunak now risks alienating the Tories’ core voters, who will either sit on their hands in disgust at the general election due next year or will vote for fringe parties on the right. 

This means that the election of a Labour government looks like a racing certainty. Although Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has got rid of the most egregious antisemites who infested the party under its previous leader, the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, the party is still in thrall to the progressive narrative that demonizes Israel and sanitizes the exterminatory Palestinian agenda.

In a Commons vote this week on a motion demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, 10 Labour front-benchers were sacked or resigned after they joined almost one-third of Labour MPs in defying Starmer’s (itself weaselly) compromise position of calling for “longer humanitarian pauses.”

Cameron, who is due to visit Israel next week, is taking pains to stress that Britain’s foreign policy positions remain unchanged. Yet there is alarm that his appointment signifies a hardening of attitude towards Israel.

On a visit to Turkey in 2010, for example, Cameron notoriously remarked: “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.”

Even before his return, there were signs that the government was increasing pressure on Israel and weaponizing Hamas propaganda. In a speech on Monday, Sunak stated that “too many civilians” had died in Gaza and that Israel “must take all possible measures to protect innocent civilians, including at hospitals.”

But there is no way of knowing how many Gazan civilians have died since Hamas makes the incredible claim that the numbers it says have been killed were all civilians with no acknowledgment of any terrorists among them.

More ominously still, Cameron’s second-in-command Andrew Mitchell, who is now the Foreign Office spokesman in the Commons, has a history of hostility towards Israel.

On Tuesday, he lurched into one-sided sympathy for Gaza and sniping at Israel. Making no mention of the evidence that Hamas has been blocking fuel and other essential supplies to Gaza’s hospitals, he said, “Hospitals should be places of safety. … It is impossible to comprehend the pain and loss that innocent Palestinians are enduring.”

Worse, Mitchell quoted Robert Mardini, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, saying that Gaza hospitals cannot be targeted under any circumstances. The ICRC, said Mitchell, was the guardian of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions.

But Mardini’s strictures misrepresent Israel’s position and ignore the misuse by Hamas of Gaza’s hospitals. International law stipulates that if hospitals are used as weapons or rocket bases from which attacks are planned and delivered, as Hamas uses them, they lose all protections and are considered a legitimate military target provided they’re given advance warnings. Israel has followed these legal conditions to the letter.

More ominously still, Mitchell—who is also from the liberal establishment wing of the Tory party—indicated that the British government is no longer supporting Israel over the attempt by the Palestinian Authority to arraign it for “war crimes” before the International Criminal Court. 

When Boris Johnson was prime minister, he said the ICC had no jurisdiction in Israel, that Palestine was not a sovereign state and that such an inquiry was a prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the United Kingdom.

This week, however, Mitchell said: “It is not for ministers to seek to state where the ICC has jurisdiction; that is for the chief prosecutor,” who has said his office has “jurisdiction over all crimes committed within the territory of the state of Palestine by either party, including events currently taking place in Gaza and the West Bank.”

Sunak’s support for Israel and the Jewish people is doubtless genuine; but without a proper understanding of what that involves, such support can only be shallow.

He has been outmaneuvered, it would seem, by the poisonously anti-Israel Foreign Office with its deep connections to that very same liberal establishment that Sunak hopes will deliver him political victory—and which, it is now feared, will once again hang Israel out to dry.

Sunak may not have just delivered the final blow to the Tories’ electoral prospects. He may also have shown, at this seismic moment, that he doesn’t have what it takes to defend civilization against barbarism.

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