An event that received scant attention in the world’s media was Queen Elizabeth II’s opening of the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London on April 16, 2018. Inadequate global coverage has been the fate of the Commonwealth for many years.
The Commonwealth is a facet of contemporary life that most people know or care little about. The Commonwealth Games, interposed every four years between the Olympics, might arouse a flicker of interest – in fact, the 21st Games kicked off in Australia on April 4 − but as for the background or purposes of the organization itself there is little general knowledge or concern. And yet the Commonwealth has the potential to exert an enormous power for good on global politics.
When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952, the Commonwealth consisted of just seven nations. Today it is a voluntary association of 53 independent sovereign states with a combined population of some 2.4 billion people, almost a third of the world’s inhabitants. Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire, which explains why the Queen is head of the organization. But what unites this diverse group of nations, beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, are strong trade links and the association’s 16 core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter.
These “Commonwealth values” commit the organization to promoting world peace, democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, equality in terms of race and gender, free trade, and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth stands for all that is good in this wicked world.
It was in 1884 that Lord Roseberry, later a British prime minister, first dubbed the British Empire “a Commonwealth of Nations”, but the designation “Commonwealth” remained in the background until 1947, when India achieved independence. Although the new state became a republic, the Indian government was very keen to remain in the Commonwealth – and the Commonwealth, unwilling to lose the jewel in its crown, found no difficulty in changing the rules of the club. Henceforth membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British crown. Members were to be “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.”
Since then, fully independent countries from all parts of the globe have flocked to join the Commonwealth. At first all were required to have some historic connection to the old British Empire – until two nations, with absolutely no such ties, applied to join. Once again the Commonwealth demonstrated a flexibility remarkable in bureaucracies and, by sleight of hand, further amended the rules to allow first Mozambique, and a few years later Rwanda, to join. Applications and expressions of interest in joining the Commonwealth continue to arrive from a wide diversity of states.
Back in 2012 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee considered the “Role and Future of the Commonwealth”, and in general welcomed the idea of the organization extending its membership – always provided a stringent selection procedure was maintained.
“We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members,” reads the final paragraph of their report, “and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous, and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth 'family', closely adhering at all times to its principles and values.”
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – or a sovereign Palestine, if or when this comes to pass – would, if they applied to join the Commonwealth, certainly meet the original criterion of “historic ties with the British Empire”. In point of fact, both the Palestinians and Israel have, in the past, toyed with the possibility.
In February 1997 the UK’s Independent newspaper carried a story under the headline “Palestine looks at membership of the Commonwealth”. It reported that the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization to Britain, Afif Saleh, had suggested that the PLO might seek associate membership of the Commonwealth as a temporary measure, while awaiting the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. “Once the Palestinians achieve self-determination,” ran the story, “the Commonwealth secretary general, Emeka Anyaoku, sees no obstacle to Palestine becoming the 54th member of the organisation.”
Ten years later, in December 2007, the Jewish Journal reported:
“As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations… Those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”
The idea of full membership still seems politically unrealistic, but the prospect of forging some sort of link between Israel and the Commonwealth family of nations has recently gained some substance.
The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) is a voluntary organization distinct from, but highly supportive of, the Commonwealth itself. Founded as far back as 1868 , it is committed to improving the lives and prospects of Commonwealth citizens across the world. The RCS boasts the Queen as its patron, and numbers among its vice presidents the UK Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, the Commonwealth secretary-general, and all the Commonwealth High Commissioners in London.
The RCS, under its chief executive officer, Michael Lake, recently embarked on an ambitious program aimed at raising the profile and relevance of the modern Commonwealth. The Commonwealth, he said, “has been very introspective, it needs to be more extrovert." In pursuit of that objective, “we have adopted a policy of getting branches of the Commonwealth in non-Commonwealth countries." The idea, he said, was to promote mutually advantageous links with reliable friends around the world on everything from business to defence.
A new branch of the RCS had already opened in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, when in 2017 the RCS opened a chapter in Dublin, as part of a campaign to help persuade the Irish Republic to rejoin the organization. The most recent development was the opening in February 2018, with the blessing of President Donald Trump. of a US branch in Mississippi, with a view to eventually bringing America into the Commonwealth fold as an "associate member" – a concept not yet accepted by the Commonwealth, but being promoted by the RCS. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, an ally of Trump, is serving as the branch’s chairman of the board of governance.
A major driving force behind the RCS’s expansion program has been Brexit – the decision of the British people to leave the European Union (EU). Brexit will free the UK from many of the trade constraints imposed by membership of the EU, and allow it to pursue trading opportunities across the globe. Israel has long been regarded by the UK as a prime future trading partner, and a UK-Israel free trade deal is already in negotiation. In the circumstances Israel would seem an obvious future location for an RCS branch office.
It is not generally known that Israel boasts an “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the Commonwealth. The IBCA would seem the appropriate broker to seek a Royal Commonwealth Society connection leading, as in the US, to “associate membership”.
How would this benefit Israel?
Although the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc, trade between members is rising strongly, and is projected to surpass $1 trillion by 2020. Among the drivers of increased intra-Commonwealth trade is the so-called ‘Commonwealth effect’. Trade between Commonwealth members is on average 20 percent higher, and trade costs 19 percent lower, compared with in-trading between other partners. Enormous potential exists to increase intra-Commonwealth trade even further.
Israel’s trading ties with India could serve as a template. The Indian-Israeli trading relationship has recently been greatly strengthened, while some of the fields in which Israeli expertise is being deployed would be highly relevant to other developing Commonwealth countries. For example, in 2013 Israel introduced a scheme to help India diversify and raise the yield of its fruit and vegetable crops. By March 2014, 10 Centers of Excellence were operating throughout India, offering free training sessions for farmers in efficient agricultural techniques using Israeli technology and know-how, including vertical farming, drip irrigation and soil solarisation. A year later, no less than 29 such Centers were in operation. Now 25 more are being set up across the sub-continent. One outcome among very many is a ‘Made in India’ version of high quality Israeli oranges, which are about to hit the Indian market, grown from disease-free plants nurtured through Israeli scientific techniques.
An RCS branch office in Israel, followed perhaps by associate membership of the Commonwealth, would give Israel access to dozens of developing countries that would benefit immensely from Israeli expertise in cutting-edge agricultural technologies. Politically, given the spread of Commonwealth countries across the globe, strengthened trading bonds could help develop warmer relations and foster greater understanding between Israel and the rest of the world.
Published in the Jerusalem Report, 23 July 2018: