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War on Gaza: Labour or Tories, the UK will always back Israel

London remains a firm ally of Tel Aviv, even as it pays lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state
Protesters in central London call for a Gaza ceasefire on 13 April 2024 (Justin Tallis/AFP)
Protesters in central London call for a Gaza ceasefire on 13 April 2024 (Justin Tallis/AFP)

The UK is not a major international player in the Gaza war. Despite calls for London to halt arms sales to Israel, it supplies less than one percent of the weapons being used. It plays no major mediating role, with Qatar, Egypt, France and the US taking the lead. 

Nor, despite its repeated statements about aid, is the UK a dominant voice on humanitarian issues. The UK is not irrelevant, but it is peripheral.

Yet, after more than six months of war, one thing is clear: London remains a firm ally of Israel, and if anything, that closeness is growing. At times, Foreign Secretary David Cameron has been a “critical friend”, even suggesting the UK might recognise a Palestinian state to pressure Israel. But at all the key moments, British support has been steadfast. 

This was seen most recently when the Royal Air Force was deployed to help intercept Iranian drones launched towards Israel. It was also seen when the UK repeatedly insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak repeatedly refused calls for an immediate ceasefire. 

London doesn’t view the issue as dichotomous, believing it can support both Israelis and Palestinians - but the war has exposed just how much it values ties with the former. This, however, has less to do with events in the Middle East than with developments elsewhere, both globally and domestically.

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Before exploring these causes, it is worth recalling the context. Historically, the UK was initially ambivalent about Israel. While it recognised the nascent state on independence, the violent campaign waged by some Zionists during the British mandate in Palestine left a bitter taste for some London policymakers. 

While the UK briefly conspired with Israel during the disastrous 1956 Suez Crisis, for much of the 1950s and ‘60s, London’s Conservative-led government was standoffish. 

Geopolitical reality

In fact, it was the opposition Labour Party that was most enthusiastically pro-Israel, then led by its own socialist government, while the Tories were more aligned with conservative Arab monarchies. It was only in the later stages of the Cold War, especially under Margaret Thatcher, that the UK came to more decisively embrace Israel. 

Both major UK parties contained pro- and anti-Israel elements, and both embraced the peace process, with Labour’s Tony Blair especially enthusiastic. But beyond persuading former US President George W Bush to revive the flagging peace process, a “roadmap” that ultimately led nowhere, Blair achieved little. 

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Today’s British government has gone further than its predecessors in aligning with Israel. In 2020, they concluded a military cooperation agreement, the details of which remain secret, followed in 2021 by a defence and trade pact. Another tech, trade and security deal was agreed in March 2023, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government facing widespread criticism for its plans to weaken Israel’s judiciary

Supporting Israel is thus likely to continue as an important component of UK global strategy for years to come, whomever is in government

Britain’s broad support of Netanyahu since the Gaza war began is a continuation of this trend: a desire to show Israel that London can be among its firmest western allies, alongside traditional backers like the US and Germany.

This courting of Israel stems partly from Britain’s new geopolitical reality. After Brexit, the UK is weaker globally, now lacking the security and amplified voice that came with EU membership. 

The UK is attempting two approaches to help counter this, drawing it to Israel. The first is to seek new “middle power” partners beyond its European neighbourhood, of which Israel is one. 

Arguably more significant, the second approach is to ensure even tighter ties with the US, which under President Joe Biden, has been somewhat cool on Britain. Becoming an even more vociferous supporter of Israel may help to curry favour in Washington.  

Internal pressure

But there are also domestic reasons pushing the UK closer to Israel. The ruling Conservative Party, at least among its elected MPs, is more overtly pro-Israel than in the past. While the Conservatives historically had a powerful and vocal Arabist wing, mostly advocating closer ties with Gulf states, the cohort elected in 2019 is more ideologically in favour of Israel. 

Many sympathise with the populist right of former US President Donald Trump’s Republicans, who tend to unquestioningly support Israel. An estimated two-thirds of Conservative MPs are members of the Conservative Friends of Israel group. 

Moreover, as the Spectator’s Katy Balls notes, among the most vocal supporters of Israel during the Gaza war have been those angling to replace Sunak after the next election should he be defeated, as is expected. As such, the Conservatives could shift even more behind Israel in the future.

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This, of course, raises the question of whether the likely incoming Labour government will toe the same line on Israel. Far more than with the Conservatives, the Gaza war has exposed deep fissures in the Labour Party. Leader Keir Starmer has echoed much of the government’s line, refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire for months, provoking widespread opposition and resignations from MPs. 

Starmer has been determined to move the party away from accusations of antisemitism that dogged the leadership of his predecessor (and pro-Palestinian activist) Jeremy Corbyn. But he is not immune to such pressure, and has softened his stance somewhat, especially after signs it could cost him votes in areas with large Muslim or other pro-Palestinian electorates. 

While this might suggest that a change at the top of British politics could ease the UK’s embrace of Israel, this appears unlikely.

Firstly, Starmer remains instinctively sympathetic to Israel while, similar to the Tories, simultaneously hoping to support the creation of a Palestinian state. While a Starmer-led government might encourage Israel to show more respect for international law and place greater emphasis on the humanitarian situation, the Labour leader has shown a remarkable capacity to withstand internal pressure to seriously alter his approach. 

Secondly, the UK under Labour would still face the same post-Brexit geopolitical constraints as the current government. While it might seek a closer security relationship with the EU, this could take years to agree and, even then, London would still likely seek to woo middle powers and hug the US close. Supporting Israel is thus likely to continue as an important component of UK global strategy for years to come, whomever is in government. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Christopher Phillips is a professor of international relations at Queen Mary, University of London, where he is also a deputy dean. He is the author of The Battle for Syria, available from Yale University Press, and co-editor of What Next for Britain in the Middle East, available from IB Tauris.
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