It is impossible to understand the modern Conservative Party without a grasp of the scale and profundity of its links to the state of Israel. The connection dates back at least as far the historic meeting between the great Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and the Conservative prime minister A J Balfour in 1905, during which Weizmann convinced Balfour of the case for a Jewish national state.
The warmth forged 107 years ago is today sustained by the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). Some 80 per cent of all Tory MPs are members, including most Cabinet ministers. No other lobbying organisation – and certainly not one that acts in the interests of a foreign country – carries as much weight at Westminster. Every year, it takes a significant number of parliamentarians to Israel. Meanwhile, its sponsors play an important role in financing both the Tories nationally, and MPs at the local level.
There is no doubt that the CFI has exercised a powerful influence over policy. The Conservative politician and historian Robert Rhodes James, writing in the Jerusalem Post in 1995, called it “the largest organisation in Western Europe dedicated to the cause of the people of Israel”. Its power has not waned since. On Tuesday, it hosted approximately 100 Tory MPs, including six Cabinet ministers, and a further 40 peers, at a lunch in central London. The speaker was David Cameron, who pronounced himself a “passionate friend” of Israel, making clear (as he has done in the past) that nothing could break that friendship.
This speech can be seen as part of a pattern. The CFI can call almost at will upon the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer or Foreign Secretary. The Palestinians enjoy no such access. They would be lucky to get a single Conservative MP in the audience for their events, and perhaps some moribund peer to make an address. There is no such organisation as the Conservative Friends of Palestinians.
This lack of even-handedness reflects itself in policy. When William Hague denounced Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon as “disproportionate”, the CFI (as I revealed in a film on the pro-Israeli lobby for Channel 4’s Dispatches) complained in person to David Cameron. It obtained a promise that the word would never be used again – one that was kept when Israel bombarded Gaza last month, even though the number of Palestinian deaths vastly exceeded those on the Israeli side.
As Foreign Secretary, Hague repeated without demur controversial Israeli claims that Hamas started the conflict (there was provocation on both sides, but the critical moment of escalation strikes me as Israel’s extra-judicial killing of the Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari). Britain has since bowed to Israeli pressure and refused to back the Palestinian bid for enhanced recognition at the United Nations. Recently, we summoned the Israeli ambassador for a richly deserved rollicking about the settlement programme, but this was part of a joint effort with a large number of other European countries, and has not been followed up.
To be fair to the Government, Tony Blair was worse, appearing at times to regard the interests of Britain and Israel as identical, and refusing even to call for a ceasefire for some time after the start of the appalling Lebanon war. William Hague and David Cameron have tried to be more robust. Unfortunately, they have largely failed. It is hard to be certain to what extent this reluctance to criticise Tel Aviv is due to the influence of the Israeli lobby in Britain, or fear of offending Israel’s international patron, the United States.
The formal position of the Government is excellent. Britain supports the two-state solution, which has been the basis of all serious peace discussions since the Oslo Accords 20 years ago. The trouble is that ministers refuse to take any concrete steps to bring it about. For example, they condemn the settlements, but only in a half-hearted way (the Prime Minister devoted 64 words to the issue on Tuesday, and almost 300 to the Iranian threat).
This is cowardice. There are times in personal as well as political life when friendship involves a great deal more than the kind of genial back-slapping with which the Prime Minister treated the Israel lobby on Tuesday. The brutal truth is that Benjamin Netanyahu is leading his country down the path to self-destruction. If he is allowed to go ahead with the latest plans for settlement construction, all hopes of Middle East peace will vanish and die.
Mark Simmonds, a junior Foreign Office minister, formally acknowledged this in a revealing but unreported Commons debate just a few hours after Tuesday CFI lunch, saying: “I think that the door is beginning to close on the realistic possibility of a two-state solution.” William Hague now believes that settlement construction will render it completely impossible within two years at most.
We will then be left with a greater Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river. Of course, this is a tidier geographical unit than the complicated mess which an attempt to return Israel to its 1967 boundaries would produce. But the Palestinians would suddenly find themselves in a majority. Israel would then face a choice between retaining its democracy, but ceasing to be a Jewish state, or embracing a form of apartheid in which Palestinians were refused basic rights. Judging from the rhetoric emanating from Mr Netanyahu and his unpleasant coalition allies, this is probably the choice today’s Israeli leadership would make.
On Monday night, one former British ambassador to Israel, the Hebrew-speaking Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, made an eloquent speech from which it is important to quote at some length: “I believe passionately that Israel on its present course is embarked on a pathway to assisted suicide. Suicide assisted by the Congress of the United States. The idea that the problem can be solved by walling up the Palestinians in the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Bantustans, which the South African government embarked on in the 1940s, is not only offensive morally, it is deeply out of keeping with everything we know of human history. It will not work, it cannot work, it should not work. And anyone who has a real affection for the Jewish people will want to help them to avoid this looming disaster.”
All leaders of the Conservative Party stand in the line of succession of A J Balfour, who (as foreign secretary in 1917) signed the declaration which recognised the Jews’ right to their own homeland. I believe this inheritance gives Mr Cameron a special link to Israel – and a distinct responsibility. It means he is within his rights to spell out to the present Israeli leadership that it is embarking on a dark, ugly and futile course. Given the cowed inertia of President Obama, it is all the more important that the British Prime Minister steps forward.
I cannot speak for Britain’s Jewish community, but I have a strong impression that many of them would be delighted if Mr Cameron spoke out far more strongly than he has done so far. Indeed, it is essential that he should do so. Mr Cameron does not want to go down in history as the man upon whose watch all hope of a two-state solution died, and with it all hope of a secure and peaceful future for the country a Conservative prime minister helped to bring into existence.