Why does the UK give Israel unqualified backing?

by Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 21 November 2023

The two key reasons are the need for Whitehall to demonstrate British subservience and usefulness to the US, and the power of the Israel lobby, argues Declassified’s editor.

Rishi Sunak’s government has shown extraordinary levels of backing for Israeli military operations in Gaza over the past six weeks.

As the Palestinian death toll has mounted, neither Sunak nor any other minister has condemned Israel for any of its policies. 

Rather, ministers have explicitly supported Israel’s illegal collective punishment of Gaza and its evacuation order to over a million people in the north of the territory. This was, it turns out, the precursor for attacks further down the Gaza Strip.

Throughout the atrocities, British ministers have stuck to a patently absurd line claiming Israel’s “right to self-defence” as it destroys whole residential districts and as Israel’s own ministers use overtly genocidal language.

UK Conservative and Labour officials have been lining up to “stand by Israel” but almost none even dare to say they “stand with Palestine”. 

What explains the British political elite’s categorical support for Israel as it violates international law, kills thousands of civilians and is accused of “crimes against humanity” and preparing “a genocide in the making”?

Two key reasons.

Special relationship

The first is the need for Whitehall to demonstrate subservience to Washington and specifically its role as America’s key military ally. 

The US plies Israel with billions in military aid and acts as its chief global defender. Whitehall shapes its foreign policy largely around acting as the US lieutenant – or lapdog. Going up against Washington over Israel would be seen in Whitehall as impossible while maintaining this relationship.

The US has delivered dozens of cargo flights full of military equipment to Israel during its bombardment of Gaza. As we at Declassified have revealed, Britain has enabled much of this movement of arms by allowing the US military to use its vast air base on Cyprus, RAF Akrotiri. 

Former defence secretary Michael Portillo has said Labour leader Keir Starmer has done “exactly the right thing” to oppose a Gaza ceasefire “because the United States would want to know whether a Labour government was going to deviate from the alliance with the United States”.

That lack of deviation was on show when defence secretary Grant Shapps visited Washington in late October to meet his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin. A readout of the meeting said “our two countries have led the response to prevent escalation in the Middle East, and support Israel’s right to defend itself”. 

The UK needs to be seen as Washington’s most dependable ally. A week into Israel’s bombing campaign defence minister James Heappey visited the US “to reaffirm the UK’s deep defence and security relationship with the US”. 

The UK’s military relationship with the US is “uniquely close”, he added, “and the sight of British and American aircraft landing on a British aircraft carrier stationed off America’s coastline is the perfect demonstration of the depth of that alliance.”

Nato also plays a key disciplining role at these times. Other European countries’ deference to the US is likely the major reason they haven’t publicly supported the Palestinians in the face of Israel’s onslaught. 

It is no surprise that it has been French president Emmanuel Macron – whose country is less enamoured with US military “leadership” than others in Europe – who has been the most prominent Western leader criticising (within limits) Israel’s bombing.

‘Keep us in line’

UK deference to Washington over Israel is shown in declassified files. In 1970, Percy Cradock, of Foreign and Commonwealth Office planning staff, wrote of “the need for association with the United States over Middle East issues”. 

He added: “We cannot afford to distance ourselves too far from the United States position without risk of injury to the general Anglo-US relationship”. 

This was the case even though Cradock recognised that UK commercial interests – then as now – were much greater in the Arab world than in Israel.

Also in 1970, the Foreign Office Planning Committee put it in even stronger terms. It noted that the UK should not adopt an overtly pro-Arab position in the Arab-Israel conflict. 

This was “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”.

The UK is a much weaker power in the Middle East than it was 50 years ago. For British planners, steeped in centuries of ruling the world by force and still determined to uphold their global power status at all costs, an obsequious dependency on Washington is now even more important.

The Israel lobby

The second reason is the Israel lobby, which is inordinately strong in the UK, with both main political parties embedded in pro-Israel parliamentary groups. 

Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) has claimed 80% of Conservative MPs are members. Declassified has found that the group has funded over a third of the current British cabinet.

OpenDemocracy previously revealed that CFI is the biggest donor of free overseas trips to MPs of any organisation.

CFI often takes MPs on paid-for trips to Israel early in their careers, to cultivate the British political establishment into a pro-Israel position. It paid, for example, £4,000 to take James Cleverly and Suella Braverman – until recently the foreign and home secretaries – to Israel in August 2015. 

Cleverly said in a video during his 2015 trip that was posted by the CFI: “It’s been a real eye-opener. Israel is an amazing country, there’s no doubt about that.” He added: “Definitely recommend you come and visit.”

Cleverly has consistently backed Israel’s bombing of Gaza throughout its mass killing of civilians, including its collective punishment of Palestinians, involving halting water, electricity and food from going into the Gaza Strip. 

Then there is Labour. Declassified has found that two-fifths of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet have been funded by pro-Israel lobbyists Labour Friends of Israel and pro-Israel funder Sir Trevor Chinn.

Labour Friends of Israel does not disclose its funders, even as over 75 Labour MPs and over 30 members of the House of Lords are members. 

A 2017 undercover documentary by Al-Jazeera showed LFI is close to the Israeli embassy in London. In one piece of undercover footage taken at the Labour conference in 2016, then LFI chairperson and Labour MP Joan Ryan is seen talking to Shai Masot, an Israeli diplomat from the embassy. She asks him, “What happened with the names we put into the [Israeli] embassy, Shai?” Masot replies: “Just now we’ve got the money, it’s more than one million pounds, it’s a lot of money.” 

In another conversation, this time filmed outside a London pub, Michael Rubin, then parliamentary officer for LFI, admits that LFI and the Israeli embassy “work really closely together, but a lot of it is behind the scenes”. 

He adds that “the [Israeli] embassy helps us quite a lot. When bad stories come out about Israel, the embassy sends us information so that we can counter it.”

The known extent of the Israel lobby’s funding of MPs dwarfs that of any other foreign power though funding from the dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is also significant. 

Russia’s influence in the UK appears small in comparison, which presumably explains why there have been parliamentary probes into Russia’s influence but not Israel’s.

Other reasons

There are other reasons in the mix as to why the UK elite is so strong in its backing of Israel at the expense of Palestinians. 

Far from Israel being seen as a rogue state by the UK, Whitehall sees it as a strategic partner. Israel is a significant buyer of UK arms, acquiring over £470m worth in the past eight years. 

Israel also acts, at least sometimes, as a significant intelligence partner to Britain. For example, documents revealed by US whistleblower Edward Snowden show that Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, fed the Israelis selected communications data it collected in 2009, during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza that left nearly 1,400 people dead.

The UK military also gains from Israel by collaborating with it across all three military services. Military chiefs of the two states signed a cooperation agreement in 2020 “to formalise and enhance our defence relationship, and support the growing Israel-UK partnership”, according to the Israeli military.

What is in that agreement is secret and the UK government has refused to publish it. 

But Israel lobby group Bicom (the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) has written that the two militaries are “integrating their multi-domain capabilities in maritime, land, air, space, and cyber and electromagnetic”.

Strategic asset?

Does Israel act as a strategic asset for the UK in the Middle East? Israel’s military regularly bombs official Western enemies such as Syria with no international repercussions at all. Maybe Israel will be the West’s attack dog for strikes on Iran, ostensibly to stop its nuclear programme.

The UK continues to help Israel internationally by pretending it doesn’t possess nuclear arms – weapons the UK helped Israel acquire from the 1950s onwards. 

One of Britain’s long standing priorities in the Middle East has been to keep the Arab world divided so as to exercise control over it better. 

British official T.E. Lawrence – so-called “Lawrence of Arabia” – wrote in an intelligence memo during the Arab revolt against the Turkish Ottoman empire in 1916 that the Arabs should be kept “in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion.”

In Arabia, Lawrence noted, the UK should create “a ring of client states” to keep the Muslim world divided. These concerns long outlasted the Arab revolt as Britain and the US were confronted in the post-second world world with Arab nationalist movements – their principal threat to control of the oil-rich Middle East.

All UK governments say they support “stability” in the Middle East, but at the same time regularly go to war. Conflicts are by no means obstructive to the UK promoting its core aims. 

In 2023, unlike in previous decades, none of Britain’s Arab allies is prepared to come to the aid of the Palestinians in Gaza, so the UK can back Israel in slaughtering them with little fear of reprisal.

One thing is clear: the Palestinians are no strategic asset to Whitehall. In contrast to Israel, they offer nothing to the British political elite. They are not geopolitical assets. They are simply human beings and therefore irrelevant to UK planners.