On June 23 Britain mounts only the third nationwide referendum in its history. UK citizens, at home and abroad, will be asked whether they favour the nation remaining in the European Union or leaving it.
Can Israel’s interests be affected at all in such an apparently domestic British issue? The Remain campaigners lay heavy stress on the trading advantages that accrue to the UK from membership of the EU, and the financial disadvantages to the economy as a whole, and to individual households, from leaving. Those advocating “Brexit” (the portmanteau term now in common use to describe Britain’s exit from the EU) are concentrating their arguments on the need to regain control of Britain’s borders and thus manage the current influx of migrants from Europe, uncontrollable under EU rules. Also in their sights is the goal of taking back sovereignty from the unelected European Commission which initiates all EU legislation, thus restoring to the UK Parliament democratic accountability for the governance of the nation.
In the early weeks of the referendum campaign, polls of public opinion showed a small but consistent majority in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. There was, however, also a consistently large body of “don’t knows” – some 20 percent of the electorate – and as the period of “purdah” started (a period of three weeks prior to the election, in which the government is debarred from policy announcements affecting the issue), a sudden reversal in the polls put the Brexiteers in the lead. The best of the campaigning, including a series of TV events, has still to take place, and the effect on the electorate is anyone’s guess.
What of the Israel dimension?
The EU’s relations with Israel reached a particularly parlous state on November 12, 2015. The issue? The labelling of goods “from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967”. The European Commission announcement stated that the EU does not consider the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to be part of sovereign Israel. So it advised that all products originating from those areas and being sold in the EU should be labelled to indicate they are not from Israel proper.
“For products from Palestine that do not originate from settlements,” states the notice, “an indication … could be 'product from the West Bank (Palestinian product)' ‘product from Gaza’ or 'product from Palestine'.
The EU seemed blissfully unaware of the anomaly it was promulgating. Bending over backwards to ensure that certain goods are labelled as not emanating from the Israel that the EU recognizes, it recommends they are labelled as coming from a state of Palestine that does not exist.
What is this “Palestine”? In effect the EU has determined it consists of the territory occupied by Jordanian forces on July 20, 1949 – the date of the armistice in the first Arab-Israel war – together with Gaza, where the de facto rulers, Hamas, are designated a terrorist organization by the EU.
This declaration by the EU provided a huge boost to the burgeoning BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, dedicated to the delegitimization and eventual destruction of the state of Israel. Though the EU seemed unaware of, or indifferent to, the implications, the UK government recognized them. On 17 February 2016 the UK formally announced moves designed to make procurement boycotts by public authorities illegal. The proposed legislation will apply across the board to central and local government, NGOs and the National Health Service.
“Any public body found to be in breach of the regulations,” ran the official statement. ”could be subject to severe penalties.”
The British government’s plan came under heavy fire from some left-wingers and pro-Palestinian activists. A spokesman for Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of restricting local democracy and freedom of expression.
Israel’s supporters characterized the move as “welcome,” with MP Eric Pickles, the head of Conservative Friends of Israel, declaring “the attempt by the irresponsible left to demonize Israel is bad for British business, bad for the local taxpayer, and deeply damaging to community relations.”
The gap between the EU and the UK on the anti-Israel activities of the BDS movement and its adherents was emphasized in April 2016, when the UK government ceased funding the charity War on Want. Founded in 1951, War on Want's initial mandate was to tackle global poverty and inequality. But following a disastrous period in the 1980s, when the charity was forced into insolvency under the management of anti-Israel campaigner George Galloway, it was hijacked by anti-Israel activists to emerge as a leading backer of the anti-Israel BDS movement. It also became a major sponsor of so-called "Israel Apartheid Week", the annual anti-Israel hate-fest.
Reacting to the UK decision to cease funding War on Want, NGO Monitor president, Professor Gerald Steinberg, said: “Other institutional donors, in particular the European Union, should follow suit and immediately end their funding for this anti-human rights organization." According to NGO Monitor, between 2012 and 2015 the British government gave War on Want £500,000 (over $700,000), while the EU gave another £211,000 (over $300,000). There have so far been no signs that the EU intends to follow Steinberg’s advice.
It seems clear that the UK Conservative government under David Cameron is not at one with the EU on anti-semitism or the BDS movement. But the issue is a comparatively minor one when set against the weighty pros and cons of Britain’s membership of the EU. So David Cameron, a true friend of Israel, is the leading advocate of the Remain campaign for reasons far removed from Israel’s interests. Also among the leading figures on the Remain side, however, is Jeremy Corbyn, the hard left leader of Britain’s Labour party which is currently grappling, though not very effectively, with apparently deeply-rooted anti-semitism in its ranks.
The two leading advocates of Brexit are doughty supporters of Israel – Michael Gove, the Justice Minister, and Boris Johnson, ex-Mayor of London and strong contender for next leader of the Conservative party. A UK freed from the shackles of the EU could, depending on the political colour of its government, prove a stronger ally for Israel than one constrained by the generally hostile attitude of majority EU opinion.
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 June 2016: