Thursday, 22 September 2022

The Truss era begins: Britain and Israel seek an ever-closer relationship

 This article appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 3 October 2022

            On September 5 Liz Truss emerged as the winner of the bruising contest she had been engaged in for leadership of the Conservative party, and thus became Britain’s new prime minister.  Liz Truss it was, as UK foreign secretary, who met Yair Lapid back in November 2021 to sign the UK-Israel agreement that heralded the negotiations for a new Free Trade Agreement.  She is on record as saying: “Israel and the UK are already closely intertwined with deep relationships in trade, security, culture and tourism. If I am elected as the next prime minister I will set about ensuring that alliance grows even closer.”

On August 6, just after Israel had responded to the rocket strike on Ashkelon by targeting launch sites in Gaza, Truss issued a statement: “The UK stands by Israel and its right to defend itself. We condemn terrorist groups firing at civilians, and violence which has resulted in casualties on both sides.  We call for a swift end to the violence.”

The deep UK-Israeli trade relationship seems to stem from Britain’s general election in 2010, which resulted in a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government headed by David Cameron.  Within a year of his taking office as prime minister, UK-Israel bilateral trade witnessed a hitherto unprecedented growth of 34 percent, and in 2011 it amounted to £3.75 billion ($6 billion).

One key component behind this explosion of business activity was the little-known UK Israel Tech Hub – a highly innovative concept born out of an agreement between Cameron and Israel’s then prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  Launched in 2011, it was to be a proactive UK-Israel hi-tech partnership, based in the British Embassy in Tel Aviv. Nothing of the kind had ever been attempted before by the British government. 

The UK-Israel Tech Hub aimed at a win-win partnership – to provide Israel with the benefits of a close working relationship with the UK in developing its rapidly expanding technology and start-up sectors, but also to ensure that the UK market could benefit from the breadth and quality of Israeli R&D and innovation.  

Announcing the appointment of its head a little later, Cameron said: “We want to work much more closely with Israel on innovation and technology.  That’s why a year ago we launched the UK-Israel Tech Hub at our Embassy to link up with UK Israel Business, the Israeli Embassy here in London and countless talented young people in both our countries.”

What followed was years of slog, determination and entrepreneurship by scores of British and Israeli business executives and officials, and the result has been the flourishing bilateral UK-Israeli trade figures that show no sign of having peaked, or how high any peak might reach.

            The UK has been under Conservative administration for the past twelve years.  Despite some difficult trading conditions, the mushrooming of UK-Israel bilateral trade has continued.  In the year ending March 31, 2022 total trade in goods and services between the UK and Israel stood at £5.4 billion ($6.5 billion), an increase on 2021 of 19%.

   These ever-expanding trade figures reflect a UK-Israeli trade relationship in excellent shape.  In January 2019, anticipating Britain’s departure from the EU, Israel was among the first countries to sign a free trade agreement in principle with the UK (a full-scale agreement was impossible until Britain had actually left the EU).  Now the UK-Israel trade relationship covers all Britain’s major industries, but with a natural focus on the technology and services of the future.

Some 500 Israeli companies are currently operating in the UK, employing thousands of people, while a surprising number of UK companies have major operations in Israel, including Unilever, Barclays bank, pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline, and Rolls Royce. Rolls-Royce was responsible for the UK’s largest ever export deal to Israel back in 2016, when it signed a £1 billion agreement to provide Trent 1000 engines for El Al’s new fleet of Dreamliner aircraft.

The rapid expansion of UK-Israel trade over the last decade has closely followed Israel’s emergence on the world scene as a global leader in high tech. Israel is now home to the highest density of start-ups anywhere in the world.  It also houses the hubs of some of the world’s major technology powerhouses, including Google, Microsoft, Intel and Motorola.  Meanwhile Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from the UK in Israel in 2020 was £1bn, most in financial and professional services, electronics, and Information and Communications technology.

The term “tech unicorns” is not yet in common usage, but these business entities are a real measure of the extent of hi-tech activity in any nation.  Tech unicorns are privately owned technology-based startup companies with a valuation of over $1 billion. As of August 2021, there were more than 800 unicorn companies globally, and the number was growing.  The UK boasts some 115, while Israel’s 53 secured £18.5 billion of new funding in 2021.

Israel’s coalition government was keen to build on the UK-Israel success story.  November 2021 saw visits to the UK by President Isaac Herzog, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett, and then-foreign minister Yair Lapid.  Lapid’s purpose was to launch a new initiative aimed at even closer trade relations between Israel and Britain.  He found an enthusiastic ally in the UK’s new foreign secretary, Liz Truss.

On the day after Lapid arrived, November 29, the Daily Telegraph achieved a journalistic coup – an article written jointly by the British and Israeli foreign ministers, Liz Truss and Yair Lapid.  Headed: “Together we can propel both our nations to safety and prosperity”, the piece heralded a new UK-Israel agreement, to be signed later that day, which they described as “a major step forward, transforming our close friendship into an even closer partnership by formally agreeing a new strategic plan for the next decade spanning cyber, tech, trade and defense.”  Lapid later described this UK-Israel Strategic Partnership as “a major moment in the relationship between the United Kingdom and Israel.”

That declaration has recently been transformed into full scale negotiations for a new UK-Israel Free Trade Agreement (FTA).  On July 20 Britain’s then-International Trade Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan – she visited Israel early in 2022 – met with Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, to launch negotiations for a new “innovation focused” FTA aimed at creating new opportunities for tech firms and professional services in both countries. 

“It will seek,” states the official UK government release, “to establish a modern, revamped trading relationship between two of the world’s services superpowers.”

To accompany the formal launch of negotiations, the UK Department for International Trade issued a 40-page document explaining the strategic approach to the proposed new Free Trade Agreement.

“The UK is proud of its deep and historic relationship with Israel,” it declares.  “As open, innovative and thriving economies, the UK and Israel are close allies and strategic partners. Israel is one of the largest, most vibrant economies in the region, with which we already enjoy a strong trading relationship. But there is scope to go further, and we have a golden opportunity to do just that through a new FTA.”

It goes on to explain: “Israel’s economy is growing rapidly, with its service sector growing by 45% over the last 10 years. A new FTA will allow us to take advantage of this growth, generating ever more opportunities for UK firms to export their goods and services. Upgrading our trade deal with Israel will help unlock a stronger, more advanced partnership. The new deal will play to our strengths, reflecting the realities of trading in the 21st century and allowing us to take advantage of future innovations.”

The benefits to Israel are equally real, paralleling those outlined in the UK document.  In particular, perhaps, the proposed trade agreement for services, as well as encouraging mutual investments, will provide Israeli companies with access to UK government and public projects.

One of the major problems facing Liz Truss as she takes up the reins of the UK premiership is how to ensure continuity of gas supplies over the coming winter.  Most of Britain’s needs are met by pipeline from Norway, direct from the North Sea, and liquid natural gas (LNG) imports from Qatar.  Given the global energy crisis, experts estimate the UK could be facing a shortfall during the winter of 2022-23.  In June 2022 the EU, Israel and Egypt signed an agreement that would see Israel exporting LNG to Europe via Egyptian facilities. In view of the close relationship between Truss and Lapid, and the ever-tighter trade bonds to which both the UK and Israel are committed, perhaps Britain’s new prime minister might turn to her Israeli friend to help close the UK’s looming energy gap – and perhaps Israel might find a way to do so.

A commitment to ever-closer ties between the UK and Israel, both in trade and more generally, was common ground between both candidates competing as the UK’s new prime minister – a post Truss is likely to hold until the next general election, scheduled for 2024.  The future beyond that is shrouded in mystery, but the ties binding the UK and Israel are particularly strong. They are not only likely to stand the test of time but, given a fair wind, to become even stronger to the benefit of both nations.


Thursday, 15 September 2022

A world without the Queen

 This article is published in the Jerusalem Post Weekend Magazine, 16 September 2022

Born and raised in England, I am one of the rapidly reducing number of people who remember the world before the second Elizabethan age.  Unlike the vast majority of fellow Brits, the sound of “God Save the King” is no novelty in my ears.  In fact in my 91 years I have witnessed five monarchs on the British throne, four of them kings.  The most recent, of course, is Charles III.

   I was four years old in 1935 when my parents took me to join the crowds to see King George V and Queen Mary drive through the East End of London to celebrate their Silver Jubilee, and I remember to this day seeing them sweep by us – a full 15 seconds-worth of contact with royalty.  Then followed the disastrous year of 1936, which witnessed not only the death of King George, but the brief reign of his son as Edward VIII which ended in abdication.  Before 1936 ended, however, we had witnessed the accession of King George VI, the late Queen’s father.

   When I joined the British Army in 1950 to undertake my National Service, which was compulsory in the post-war UK, I pledged my loyalty to His Majesty, the King.  By the time I left  in 1952 the new Elizabethan age had started.  As the Queen began her reign, many remembered the extraordinary broadcast she had made back in 1947, the year she became 21.  As Princess Elizabeth, heir to the throne, she spoke to everyone in the UK and what was still the British empire but also a developing Commonwealth – a vast agglomeration of peoples spread across the globe.

   Broadcasting from Cape Town in South Africa, she spoke long and feelingly especially to “all the young men and women who were born about the same time as myself and have grown up like me in the terrible and glorious years of the Second World War.”  She asked for their support in carrying the burden she was preparing herself to bear.  

Reiterating the motto borne by many of her ancestors, “I serve”, she said: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong….God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”

Never was an intention more completely fulfilled.  The world witnessed a life dedicated to the service of the peoples under her rule, and to the wider world.  As decade followed decade. she was increasingly a steady, permanent presence in turbulent times.  It was her inner strength of purpose that assured people of her unshakable determination to continue serving them, no matter what.

She made no secret of the fact that the rock on which her strength of purpose was based – however out of tune with the times this may have been – was her profound religious belief as a practising Christian.  Throughout her reign, with only one exception, the Queen broadcast to the nation and the world on Christmas Day, and each and every such talk made reference to the religious significance of the occasion.  And this is why, back in 1947, she had asked God to “help me make good my vow.”

            Queen Elizabeth’s life can truly be described as one of duty done – duty as a monarch, certainly, but also, as we learned thanks to the media spotlight increasingly focused on her and the royal family over the years, duty as a mother, grandmother and great grandmother.  She died fulfilling her duty to the very end.  Two days earlier she was pictured in the media appointing a new UK prime minister.  In her death, she exemplified her life.

            I began on a personal note.  Let me conclude on one, for it chances that I came a good deal closer to the late Queen than I had done to her grandfather as a four-year-old.  One morning in 2006 I received a letter with the ominous “On Her Majesty’s Service” emblazoned across the envelope.  Certain that I had a nasty surprise awaiting me from the tax authorities, I opened it only to discover, to my utter astonishment, that the prime minister was minded to recommend me for an honour in the Queen’s forthcoming Birthday Honours List, and was I minded to accept?

             I was. So some months later my wife and I, accompanied by my son and daughter-in-law, found ourselves inside Buckingham Palace.  While they disposed themselves in the audience, I joined the queue of some hundred people also receiving an honor that day, and eventually found myself face to face with the Queen. After she had pinned the medal on my lapel, we exchanged a few words.  I discovered that she knew about and was interested in the broadcasting career that had brought me before her.  We shook hands and, stepping backwards so as not to turn my back on her, as is the etiquette, I left her, but of course those few minutes in the presence of the sovereign remain with me, and always will.

            That is precisely the feeling shared by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people the world over who have had some sort of contact, personal or not, with the Queen. She had a unique ability to engage with individuals and enthuse multitudes.  People like this are rare indeed.  Those of us who mourn her passing do not believe we shall see her like again.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, and in the Jerusalem Post online under the title "What does a world without Queen Elizabeth look like?", 16 September 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-717248

Published in the International Jerusalem Post, 16-22 September 2022.

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Morocco-Israel friendship flourishes

 This article appears in the Jerusalem Post, 13 September 2022

Beach Sambo is a little-known martial art that engenders huge enthusiasm among its adherents.  This year the World Beach Sambo Championships, incorporating contests in eight weight categories, took place over August 26 to 29 on the sands of Bat Yam in Israel.  And this year Morocco’s Beach Sambo team, led by Dalil Skalli, who also heads the African Sambo Federation, travelled to Israel for the first time to compete – a situation that would have been impossible two short years ago, for Morocco had severed diplomatic relations with Israel back in 2000.

The visit of Morocco’s Sambo team, an apparently minor event in the great scheme of things, in fact symbolizes the extent to which relations between Morocco and Israel have warmed since December 2020, when Morocco signed the Abraham Accords and began the process of normalization.


This past year has seen an acceleration of the normalization process, marked by a succession of visits to Morocco by leading Israeli figures. The first ever official visit to an Arab state by Israel’s top soldier in uniform occurred on July 19.  IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi arrived for a three-day stay, during which he met with Morocco’s senior military and security officials.

Three days after he departed, Israel’s Minister for Regional Cooperation, Esawi Frej, arrived in Morocco on a mission to expand cooperation in the field of higher education.   He was accompanied by a group of seven Israeli Jewish and Arab journalists. During his time in Morocco Frej gave a number of interviews in Arabic to leading media outlets.

That same week Israel’s Justice Minister, Gideon Saar, visited Rabat. On July 26, he signed a judicial memorandum of understanding with his Moroccan opposite number, Abdellatif Ouahbi, aimed at promoting mutual understanding on judicial issues, including cooperation between the Sharia courts in both countries.  On July 27 Saar and the president of the Moroccan Football Federation, Fouzi Lekjaa, agreed to hold a friendly game between the national youth teams.  Later that day the Israeli and Moroccan national volleyball federations signed a cooperation agreement.

No sooner had Saar left than Israel’s top cop, Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai arrived for a first official visit to Morocco.  He was received in Rabat on August 2 by his Moroccan counterpart, Abdellatif Hammouchi. 

According to the Moroccans, the goal of the meeting was to strengthen bilateral cooperation and "lay the foundations for a partnership in the security field, serving the common interests of Morocco and Israel." Media reports claimed that the parties had agreed in principle on significant steps never been formalized between the two countries, including on extraditing criminals and the exchange of professional knowledge on security technologies and fighting crime and terrorism.

This blossoming of the Moroccan-Israeli relationship has not occurred without some negative consequences.  Relations between Morocco and its neighbor, Algeria, have historically been strained over Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. Algeria has long supported the Sahrawis of Western Sahara who, backed by their militant body the Polisario Front, are seeking independence from Moroccan rule.

The price the US paid to secure Morocco’s signature under the Abraham Accords, announced by US President Donald Trump in December 2020, was to recognize Morocco’s claim. In doing so America was defying the UN, the African Union and most world opinion, which holds that Western Sahara’s future should be settled by a UN-supervised referendum of the Sahrawi people.  

After the normalization deal, violently opposed by the Algerian regime, its relationship with Morocco deteriorated badly.  Since mid-2021 the two countries have severed diplomatic relations, recalled their ambassadors, closed their borders, and blocked their airspaces.  Recent  Moroccan-Israeli military agreements have especially infuriated Algeria.  Its violent condemnation of them incorporated a strong antisemitic element – the same spirit that moved the Algerian government to demand that the Chief Rabbi of France, Haïm Korsia, be excluded from the delegation accompanying French President Emmanuel Macron in his recent visit to Algiers.

Algeria’s intelligence services have proved largely ineffective in their denunciations of Morocco and its sovereign, King Mohammed VI.  Mohammed, extremely popular with Moroccans both at home and abroad, has shown himself to be a progressive ruler, open to new ideas. He cherishes the historic Jewish connection to his country. In a speech on August 20 he said: “Morocco, by the grace of the Almighty, has an expatriate community of about five million people, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Moroccan Jews around the world.  Moroccans abroad are quite special in that they are deeply attached to the homeland,” and he called upon Moroccans the world over, including Jews with their roots in Morocco, to support their country of origin in whatever way they can.

Meanwhile trade between Israel and Morocco is booming. The various economic and trade cooperation agreements since normalization resulted in a 200 percent increase in Israel’s exports to Morocco in 2021 compared with 2020. Overall, trade between the two countries reached $117 million in 2021, and the target for 2022 is $250 million.

However the implications of Morooco-Israel normalization go far wider, and embrace the possibility of enhancing security and countering terrorism in the whole of north-west Africa and across the Sahal.  An important element has been the groundbreaking air defense deal in February 2020, when Morocco agreed to pay $500 million to acquire Israel Aerospace industries’ Barak air and missile defense system.

The authoritative Defense News points out that Morocco has long distinguished itself among the Islamic and African nations as a leader in counterterrorism. Properly paired with Israeli counterterrorism expertise and backed by US financial support, it believes that Morocco is uniquely positioned to oppose, and if necessary act against, terrorism in the Sahal and Francophone Africa.  Meanwhile, acting together Israel and Morocco can lead the way for a partner-led security strategy for the region as a whole.

It is regrettable that such a promising environment has been soured by several allegations of misconduct – including the sexual harassment of Moroccan women – at Israel’s Liaison office in Rabat, leading to the recall on September 6 of Israel’s ambassador, David Govrin.  Whether the allegations are sustained or disproved, this episode should surely not be allowed to disrupt the solid foundations laid in the past two years of genuine Moroccan-Israeli friendship and cooperation. 

            The visit to Israel of Morocco's chief of the Royal Armed Forces in early September confirmed the continuing strength of the Israeli-Moroccan friendship.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 13 September 2022, and in the Jerusalem Post on-line titled: "Morocco and Israel: The highs and lows of a blossoming friendship"
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-716991

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Iraq faces a Shia-Shia civil conflict

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post, 8 September 2022            

When Western politicians announce they are retiring, their supporters normally express regret and wish them well.  Iraq (to misquote the well-known aphorism) is a foreign country – they do things differently there.  

 When the powerful Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced his "final retirement" from politics on August 29, his supporters took to the streets and subjected Baghdad to its worst bout of violence in years.  Many of his followers had been holding a sit-in inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, where government offices and diplomatic missions are located.  On hearing of their leader’s decision, they scaled the gates of the Republican Palace that used to be Sadam Hussein’s powerhouse, and paraded through it, sharing the scenes on social media.

Soon afterward, sounds of live ammunition echoed round the streets as Iran-backed opponents of al-Sadr, including the security forces, descended on the protesters.  The two sides traded gunfire all night and well into the next morning, and at least 47 people were killed. 

What is not entirely clear is what was motivating al-Sadr’s supporters.  In protesting against their leader’s decision, were they trying to get him to change his mind?  After all, he had threatened to retire from politics on eight previous occasions, and relented.  Were they simply letting off steam, frustrated at the possibility of losing their leader?  Or were they expressing their resentment at the establishment that had forced al-Sadr to this extremity? 

One explanation is as follows.  Many of al-Sadr’s followers were adherents of Iraq’s Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri.  Suddenly and surprisingly, on Sunday August 28, Al-Haeri had announced his resignation, and in doing so appealed to his followers to support Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  But al-Sadr’s political message, Shia though he is, is to oppose the excessive influence on Iraq’s internal affairs of both Iran and the US.  Their erstwhile spiritual leader’s defection to the pro-Iranian sector may have left al-Sadr’s supporters feeling betrayed.

The violence that ensued led influential Iraqi voices to express fears that a Shia-Shia civil conflict was about to erupt, but the pessimists had reckoned without the extraordinary influence al-Sadr exercises over his followers, even though it has been demonstrated more than once.  In the event, on August 30 al-Sadr went on television and called on his supporters to withdraw “within an hour” from the Green Zone.  “I apologize to the Iraqi people,” he said.

The armed group backing him, Saray al-Salam, made no use of the hour’s grace their leader had allowed them. They left the Green Zone within minutes, bringing calm to what had turned into a battlefield. If the whole episode illustrated anything, it is the enormous power that al-Sadr exercises over the thousands who support him. 

Iraq has been in political stalemate ever since a general election was announced in July 2021.  To start with, al-Sadr decided not to participate, but he was persuaded to change his mind. In the event his party won the largest number of seats, but the rival Iran-backed Coordination Framework prevented him from forming a government of his choice with Kurdish and Sunni allies. In a conciliatory gesture he offered the Coordination Framework some government seats. They refused to be conciliated.  Al-Sadr reacted by requiring all 74 of his bloc to resign their parliamentary seats, and his supporters staged protests and sit-ins in the Green Zone.

Under Iraqi law if an MP resigns, the second-placed candidate in the election takes the empty seat. The process of filling the Sadrists’ vacated seats led to a new wave of intense controversy, but finally the pro-Iran Coordination Framework became the majority group in parliament.  It then nominated Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as prime minister.

Iran-backed groups and militias welcomed the nomination; al-Sadr and his followers rejected it out of hand. On July 27, the country’s political crisis reached boiling point and al-Sadr supporters stormed the Iraqi parliament protesting against al-Sudani’s nomination.  Once again, a tweet from al-Sadr quelled the riot instantly.

In his latest televised address al-Sadr, despite taking some responsibility for the recent flare-up, condemned the violence by his supporters but refused any compromise. He declared that he would block any attempt by the Coordination Framework to impose their nominated prime minister on the nation, or set up a functioning government without his input.

On September 3 the Coordination Framework responded. It reiterated its determination to nominate al-Sudani as Iraq’s prime minister.  Moreover according to media reports, the Framework is planning to resume parliamentary sessions following the Shia religious commemoration of Arba’een, on September 17. 

Iraq’s political stalemate stems ultimately from the constitutional arrangements put in place by the US following the overthrow of Sadam Hussein.  It is a sectarian system, loosely akin to Lebanon’s, intended to ensure that the various minority groups that make up Iraqi society are given a share in government and the administration.  The end result – as in Lebanon – has been endless political instability and dysfunction.  Which is why al-Sadr has been calling for constitutional reform.

A dedicated user of social media, in recent tweets he has called on Iraqis “to rise up to demand reform.”  The protests mounted by his supporters, even though he has himself brought them to an end, he has characterized as “a major opportunity to radically change the political regime, constitution and elections.”

          The problem is that the stage seems set for yet another armed civil conflict, with no assurance that this time it can be switched off with a click of al-Sadr’s fingers.  The disputing sides refuse negotiation and compromise.  Moreover the violence is not confined to Baghdad.  During the last uprising al-Sadr’s supporters were blocking roads and government buildings elsewhere in Iraq, including Basra in the south where general lawlessness, organized crime and tribal conflicts are a prime breeding ground for uncontrollable armed struggle.  Iraq is facing the real danger of a Shia-Shia civil war.

Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 September 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-716582

Published in Eurasia Review, 17 September 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/17092022-iraq-faces-a-shia-shia-civil-conflict-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 September 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/iraq-faces-a-shia-shia-civil-conflict/

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Jordan and Israel's November elections

Various media reports are suggesting that the Jordanian government is intent on urging Israeli Arabs to vote in the November elections, the aim being to keep Benjamin Netanyahu from returning to power.  In particular, Jordan is said to have held unofficial talks with Muslim Brotherhood leaders recently, in an attempt to dissuade Raed Salah from boycotting the elections, as the northern branch of the Islamic Movement has historically done.

Raed Salah, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and former head of the northern Islamic Movement, is a prominent religious and political figure who was arrested first in 2017 and then again in 2020.  Although charged with *incitement to terror”, eight of the original twelve charges against him were dropped, and his sentence of 28 months imprisonment took into account the 11 months he had been detained awaiting trial.  He was released from Megiddo prison in December 2021.

   A former mayor of Umm al-Fahm, the popular 64-year-old Salah is known as “Sheikh al-Aqsa” – a title acquired when he was arrested during a demonstration protesting at the installation of metal detectors at the outer gates of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, following an attack there.

    On August 18 the controversial Middle East Eye, the London-based online news outlet, reported a well-placed, but anonymous, source claiming that Jordanian authorities had been trying to engage with Raed Salah through the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping to persuade him to urge his supporters to participate in the November Israeli elections, or at least not encourage them to boycott them.

This story was partially confirmed by Jordanian journalist Bassam Badarin, who reported some weeks ago in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper that he had been asked by Jordanian officials about the best way to make contact with Salah.  Recently, virtually confirming that the parties had been in touch, Badarin wrote that the main focus of the unofficial talks had been to find ways to increase voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel in the November vote.

 "Jordan's interest,” Badarin is reported as saying, “is similar to that of Lapid and Washington, who do not want to see Netanyahu back in power, since he represents a return to Trump's 'deal of the century,' which was rejected by Jordan.”

However Raed Salah’s media office moved quickly to quash the story. "There is no truth to the media reports that talk about communication between Jordan and Sheikh Raed Salah,” it announced. ”Our position is clear in support of the boycott of the Israeli Knesset elections."

There is a certain logic in assuming that Jordan’s King Abdullah would prefer to see Yair Lapid returned to government as Israel’s next prime minister, heading a coalition supported by Raam (the United Arab List) but also by other Israeli-Arab parties. 

However, the idea that Abdullah would seek to manipulate the Arab vote by an appeal to Raed Salah does stretch credulity.  Raam, which is associated with the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, broke from Salah’s northern branch over the very issue of political participation in the Knesset and the Oslo Accords.

The Joint List was formed shortly before the 2015 elections, combining candidates from three Arab parties and the veteran Israeli party, Hadash. The list won 13 seats on that occasion, 13 in the 2019 election, and 15 in 2020.  It was prior to the 2021 elections that Raam left the alliance, secured four seats and became part of the coalition government.  The Joint List won six and joined the opposition.  Jordan may consider its interests are best served by disengaging what remains of the Joint List from its association with Israel’s right-wing coalition.

Few would object if the Jordanians simply choose to encourage Israeli Arabs to vote in the forthcoming elections.  However anything which smacked of urging them to vote for a particular party would certainly be deemed unacceptable interference in Israel’s democratic process.  It is this aspect of the media reports about Jordan’s recent involvement that is most disturbing.

Yet scraps of evidence in the media do seem to point in that direction.  Zaki Bani Irsheed, the former general secretary of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, is quoted as saying recent Jordanian actions stem from the desire to "stop Netanyahu from returning to power."   He was referring to a recent visit to Jordan by Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas's diaspora office.  Jordanian officials and Muslim Brotherhood representatives insisted that Meshaal's rare visit was purely personal.  However, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson said this visit was different from previous personal ones in that he "was allowed to meet with Jordanian political and media personalities".

There are also reports that Jordan has sought to communicate with Mansour Abbas, leader of Raam and deputy head of the southern chapter of the Islamic movement.  One commentator asserted "Mansour was recently a guest of King Abdullah twice. One was an official visit, but the other meeting was not announced." 

In short, Amman seems engaged in an effort to reconcile the remaining Joint List with Raam and the southern Islamic branch.  Bringing Raed Salah on side seems a lost cause, but regardless of that Jordan may be hoping to ensure that a joint Arab political effort in the forthcoming elections is directed towards tilting the political balance away from Netanyahu, Likud and the Israeli right, and in favour of Yair Lapid and whatever coalition he can muster. If a united Joint List supporting Lapid managed to achieve 15 Knesset seats as in 2020, anything might be possible.


Published in the Jerusalem Post, 30 August 2022, and in the Jerusalem Post on-line under the title "What does Jordan have to do with Israel's November elections?":
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-715870

Published in Eurasia Review, 10 September 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/10092022-jordan-and-israels-november-elections-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 11 September 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/jordan-and-israels-november-elections/




Monday, 29 August 2022

Nudging Jordan toward the Abraham Accords

            As Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid is generally accounted a notable success.  Proactive by temperament, he seemed tireless in his efforts to improve Israel’s standing on the world stage.  He had been in office only a month before the UK’s prestigious Financial Times headlined a story: “Lapid’s whirlwind tour shows a different Israel to the world.”  The FT continued: “In just four weeks in office, Yair Lapid…has spent much of his time overseas, signaling a determination to set a new tone in foreign relations…”

            Lapid certainly hit the ground running.  In those first weeks he opened the first Israeli embassy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), flew to Rome for a meeting with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, took a quick trip to Turkey, addressed the 26 EU foreign ministers in Brussels in an effort, which proved successful, to improve Israel’s relations with Europe, and met with his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi, at a crossing point over the Jordan River.

To restore trust and strengthen relations with Jordan was a high priority of the coalition government from the start.  Over 2021 all Israel’s senior leadership, including President Isaac Herzog, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett, then-foreign minister Yair Lapid, and defense minister Benny Gantz had meetings with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Following Lapid’s meeting with Safadi, the government announced it was to double Israel’s committed allocation of water to Jordan under the 1994 peace treaty. It also set a target to increase Jordan’s export potential to the West Bank from $160m to $700m a year. The two foreign ministers also agreed to raise a cap on Jordanian exports to the West Bank from $160 million to $700 million.

This first foray into strengthened Israeli-Jordanian collaboration was dramatically augmented in Dubai on November 22, 2021.  On that day ministers from Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates signed a landmark energy-for-water deal. They agreed that Jordan will build a large solar power plant in the desert, financed by the UAE, which will be used to generate electricity for the Israeli market. In return, Israel will develop another desalination plant and supply even more water to Jordan.

Under the deal, the solar plant will produce 600 megawatts of solar energy to be exported to Israel at a price of $180 million, the proceeds to be shared between the UAE and Jordan. The deal calls for the Jordanian solar farm to be operational by 2026 and produce two percent of Israel’s energy by 2030.  In exchange Israel will send 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water to Jordan. Other issues on the bilateral agenda included joint tourism in the Gulf of Eilat-Aqaba, food security, agriculture and transportation links.

As Israel’s foreign minister, Lapid maintained a punishing pace throughout 2021.  In August he was in Morocco, consolidating the kingdom’s signing of the Abraham Accords by reopening the Israeli Liaison Office in Rabat.  In September he was inaugurating the Israeli embassy in Bahrain and signing a list of new bilateral agreements.  In November he was in London meeting Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, and its foreign minister Liz Truss, signing an agreement binding Israel and the UK in an ever-closer trade relationship.  He flew on to Paris to meet France’s President Emmanuel Macron to ensure that banking sanctions against Iran remained in place.

            In January 2022 he joined with Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, in ensuring the adoption by the UN of the Resolution against Holocaust Denial and Distortion.  In March he was in Romania, inaugurating an expedited Aliyah process for Ukranian refugees.  Later that month he hosted a visit to Israel by Singapore’s foreign minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who announced that after 53 years of ties with Israel, Singapore would open an embassy in Tel Aviv.  Only a few days before the coalition government collapsed, Lapid was in Turkey, consolidating the improved relationship with Israel fostered by Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

One could only hope that the impetus Lapid had given to improving Israel’s foreign relations in general, and relations with Jordan in particular, would be maintained once he assumed the role of interim prime minster for the period leading to the general election, scheduled for November 2022.  And so it has proved. At the weekly Cabinet meeting on July 31, Prime Minister Lapid announced that Israel and Jordan are to revitalize, expand and accelerate the implementation of the 'Jordan Gateway' project – the joint industrial zone between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Established in 2002 to facilitate the transport of products from and to America, Europe, the Middle East and the rest of Asia, the joint Israeli-Jordanian industrial zone extends over 1200 thousand square meters on the Jordanian side, and 270 thousand square meters in the Israeli side.  The reconceived Jordan Gateway industrial and employment park will be constructed in conjunction with the Emek Ha’Maayanot Regional Council at the northern end of the Jordan Valley. 

The idea of a joint industrial zone was first proposed during talks on the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace agreement, and the revitalized project was finally signed off at a meeting between Lapid and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman in the last week of July 2022.

“Twenty-eight years since the peace agreement with Jordan,” said Lapid, “we are taking the good neighborly relations between our two countries another step forward.  This is a breakthrough that will contribute greatly to developing and strengthening the region.”  It will, he said, “increase employment in both countries, advance our economic and diplomatic relations, and enhance the peace and friendship between our two countries.” 

These are worthy objectives. and wholly in line with those inherent in the Abraham Accords.  In effect Jordan is lining up alongside the UAE and Bahrain to capitalize on the benefits that follow from a flourishing cooperative relationship with Israel. 


Published in the Jerusalem Post, 15 August 2022, and in Jerusalem Post online as: "Can Jordan be nudged toward the Abraham Accords?"
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-714709

Published in Eurasia Review, 31 August 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/31082022-nudging-jordan-toward-the-abraham-accords-oped/

Published in the Jewish Review, 26 August 2022:
https://jewishreview.co.il/nudging-jordan-toward-the-abraham-accords-16375/

Published in the MPC Journal, 29 August 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/nudging-jordan-toward-the-abraham-accords/

Published in Jewish Business News, 26 August 2022:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/08/26/nudging-jordan-toward-the-abraham-accords/

Sunday, 21 August 2022

Lapid speaks – is anyone listening?

 

It is not usual for the prime minister of Israel to speak directly to the Palestinian people, but Yair Lapid did exactly that on Monday evening, August 8.  With Operation Breaking Dawn well and truly concluded, thanks to the sterling efforts of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in brokering a ceasefire, prime minister Lapid issued a statement about the operation.  Having emphasized Israel’s efforts to minimize harm inflicted on civilians, and deploring all civilian deaths especially those of children, Lapid changed direction and addressed himself to the people of Gaza.  This message he repeated in a video which he posted on Facebook.

“I want to speak directly to the residents of the Gaza Strip,” he said, “and tell them: There is another way. We know how to protect ourselves from anyone who threatens us, but we also know how to provide employment, a livelihood and a life of dignity to those who wish to live by our side in peace.  There is another way to live. The way of the Abraham Accords, of the Negev Summit, of innovation and prosperity, of regional development and joint projects. The choice is yours. Your future is in your hands.”

The presentation of his message may have been dramatic and unusual, but the content was not. It was entirely in line with the vision for a long-term settlement between Israel and the Gaza Strip that, as Israel’s foreign minister, he set out on September 12, 2021.

He was addressing a conference of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University, a private university situated in Herzliya.  Dubbing his plan "economy for security", he was essentially proposing a pragmatic deal – the reconstruction of Gaza in exchange for the disarmament of Palestinian armed factions.

"Since Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005,” said Lapid, “we have been dragged into round after round of violence causing suffering for our people and harming our economy. The policy Israel has pursued up until now hasn't substantially changed the situation. The closures haven’t stopped the smuggling and production of weapons. Last night we once again struck Gaza after yet another rocket was fired, and residents ran to their shelters. We need to change direction. What should we do? The short answer is that we need to start a large, multi-year process of economy for security. It is the more realistic version of what in the past was called 'rehabilitation for demilitarization.'"

Lapid explained that his plan encompasses two stages. The first will address the immediate humanitarian crisis in Gaza, tackling basic human needs there.

 "The electricity system will be repaired, gas will be connected, a water desalination plant will be built, significant improvements to the health-care system and a rebuilding of housing and transport infrastructure will take place. In exchange, Hamas will commit to long-term quiet."

The second stage includes a comprehensive economic jump-start for the Gaza Strip. Lapid proposed that "as part of the second stage the artificial island project off the coast of Gaza will be advanced, which will allow for the construction of a port. A transportation link between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will be built. International investment inside Gaza and joint economic projects with Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority [PA] will be advanced. Industrial and employment zones will be built near the Erez border crossing."

Lapid’s proposed way forward was not to attempt negotiating any of this directly with Hamas, but to gain international consensus on the plan, and then the support of a group of like-minded nations in persuading Hamas into accepting it.  Finally he added the message that he has now put directly to the Gazan population – that he hoped Gazans understood what they were missing out on as a result of terrorism, and that they realized how much they stood to gain if terrorism was ended.

Lapid emphasized that a plan like this had never before been presented officially by an Israeli government. It seemed clear from the earnestness with which he spoke, and the degree of detail he set out, that Gaza reconstruction was to feature in future Israeli regional policy.  Indeed, Lapid indicated that the process of implementing the policy had already started.  He revealed that in recent weeks he had held a series of conversations with partners in the Arab world and the West about his plan.

The reactions of Hamas and of the Palestinian Authority (PA) were entirely negative, but for different reasons.  Hamas viewed Lapid’s plan as a bribe aimed at buying off the support of Gazans for the “armed struggle”.

            “The enemy has resorted to various proposals in order to weaken the resistance,” said Hamas spokesperson Hazim Qasim. “Its resort to such a plan indicates its inability to deal with the resistance and our Palestinian people.”

            And yet there are some who believe that Hamas’s decision not to involve itself in the conflict between Islamic Jihad and Israel was precisely because of Israel’s recent policy of economic incentives for Gaza, including a substantial increase in the number of permits allowing Gazans to cross into Israel for work.

As for the PA, Lapid’s plan would see them take charge of implementing Gazan reconstruction on the ground. The PA, for whom the idea of cooperating with their regional rivals Hamas was, perhaps, a non-starter, saw the whole Lapid policy as an effort to bypass peace negotiations leading to a comprehensive resolution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute.

Speaking to the Palestinian cabinet, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh rejected the Lapid plan as half-baked.  He believed that the reconstruction of Gaza could only follow a full-scale peace accord. “Gaza’s problem is political,” he said. “There must be a serious political process based in international law, to end the occupation and lift the blockade… this would make the reconstruction of Gaza possible and sustainable.”

It was precisely this negative, blinkered, non-aspirational attitude of the Palestinian leadership that induced Lapid to address the Gazan people direct, and to pin his hopes on assembling sufficient international support to see his proactive plans for a reconstructed and thriving Gaza Strip made reality.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, and in the Jerusalem Post on-line as:"Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks to Gazan civilians", 22 August 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/politics-and-diplomacy/article-715230

Published in the International Jerusalem Post, 26 August-1 September, 2022

Published in Eurasia Review, 2 September 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/02092022-lapid-speaks-is-anyone-listening-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 3 September 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/lapid-speaks-is-anyone-listening/

Published in Jewish Business News under the by-line Edmund Owen, 2 Sept 2022:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/09/02/lapid-speaks-is-anyone-listening/



Iraq in political turmoil


On July 30 hundreds of supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq's leading political figures, breached the parliament building in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, forced their way inside, and started a coordinated sit-in to protest at the recent nomination of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani for the premiership.  Sixty protesters were injured in clashes with security forces.  Three days earlier a mass protest outside parliament by al-Sadr supporters had ended only after al-Sadr tweeted a request to them to disperse.

            Iraq has been in a political crisis ever since the general election last October.  Months of discussion and negotiation between the various political groupings has failed to result in the election of a president or prime minister, the essential precursors under the Iraqi system for the formation of a government.  Constitutionally the president, whose duty is to task the future prime minister with forming the new government, must be elected within 30 days of the election of the speaker of parliament.  Sunni lawyer Mohammed al-Halbousi was elected speaker on January 9, but the required election of a president within 30 days never happened.  Having a newly elected speaker and no president violates the constitution, but that seems a minor matter, given the political deadlock.
           

          On July 17 the febrile political atmosphere was rendered even more critical when an Iraqi journalist named Ali Fadel released on social media a set of secret recordings. In them a one-time prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, apparently gives vent to a succession of insults and accusations against al-Sadr.

As background, it is useful to know that al-Sadr, although a Shiite, leads a popular movement opposed to Iran’s excessive control of Iraqi affairs, while al-Maliki is a leading figure in a major Shia parliamentary grouping called the Coordination Framework, which is very much beholden to Iran.

The venom of al-Maliki’s apparent verbal onslaught against al-Sadr shook the nation.  The percentage of voters who believed al-Maliki’s rapid denial of ever saying the words attributed to him, and his assertion that the recordings were fake, is not known. What is certain, however, is that the recordings, genuine or false, removed al-Maliki’s chance of a return as prime minister    Al-Sadr himself dismissed them as of no consequence.

           In the recordings al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister from 2006 to 2014, apparently reveals a British plot to use al-Sadr as a disposable puppet in a scheme designed to hand Iraq over to Sunni control.  “That project exists,” al-Maliki seemingly says, “but I am fighting it, and it is to be fought politically and militarily.”  He apparently proceeds to cut al-Sadr to ribbons.  “Moqtada is a murderer… the kidnappings, the car bombs…he is a coward, a traitor, an ignoramus who knows nothing.”

In Iraq’s October 2021 general election the bloc led by al-Sadr won 74 seats, making it the largest grouping in the 329-seat parliament.  But on June 13, following months of ineffective negotiations and a total failure to nominate people to fill the high offices of state or to form a government, al-Sadr ordered the members of his bloc to resign from parliament. 

Under Iraqi law if an MP resigns, the second-placed candidate in the election takes the empty seat. The process of filling the vacated seats led to a new wave of intense debate and protests, but finally the pro-Iran Coordination Framework became the majority bloc in parliament.  It then nominated Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as prime minister.

 A succession of Iran-backed groups and militias welcomed the nomination; the Sadrist reaction was posted on a Facebook site.  Dubbing al-Sudani as nothing more than a facade for al-Maliki, al-Sadr was virtually declaring that as prime minister he would be al-Maliki’s puppet. Two days later, on July 27, the country’s political crisis reached boiling point and al-Sadr supporters stormed the Iraqi parliament protesting against al-Sudani’s nomination - a riot instantly quelled by a tweet from al-Sadr.

In the run-up to the election, al-Sadr had committed himself to forming a “national majority government” representing different sects and ethnicities, including Sunni and Kurdish groups but sidelining the pro-Iran Coordination Framework.  This commitment put al-Sadr at odds with the Fatah alliance, the political wing of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces militia. Some pro-Iran militia groups warned of intensified violence if Sunni and Kurdish groups joined an al-Sadr government.

If al-Sadr’s “national majority government” had succeeded, it would finally have put paid to Iraq’s so-called muhasasa political system, imposed on the country after the US-led invasion in 2003.  Akin in some respects to Lebanon‘s sectarian power-sharing structure – itself a continual source of political instability – muhasasa is an attempt to provide proportional representation in public office among Iraq’s various ethno-sectarian groups, including Shia, Sunni and Kurdish.  Many Iraqis believed from the start that the system was deeply flawed. It was soon widely perceived as underpinning the corruption, collusion and patronage networks that characterized public life in Iraq, and became the target of popular protests. Overturning muhasasa would have markedly reduced Iran’s political influence in Iraq.  If al-Sadr ever achieves political power, it may yet come to pass.

Did al-Sadr shoot himself in the foot by ordering the resignation of his 74 parliamentary followers in June?  Many of his vacated seats were filled by members of the Coordination Framework, and it might seem as though he had handed his political opponents the power to form a government. However the recent mass political protests by Sadrists clearly demonstrate that al-Sadr is far from a spent force.  It is obvious that with or without his parliamentary majority, al-Sadr with his vast supporter-base remains a force to be reckoned with, and will have to be take into account if Iraq’s political turmoil is ever to be resolved.


Published in the Jerusalem Post, and in the Jerusalem Post on-line as "Iraq's Sadr remains a force to be reckoned with", 8 August 2022:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-714230

Published in Eurasia Review, 13 August 2022:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/13082021-iraq-in-turmoil-oped-2/

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 August 2022:
https://mpc-journal.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=13361&action=edit

Published in Jewish Business News, 18 August 2022:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2022/08/19/iraq-in-political-turmoil/

Thursday, 4 August 2022

The UK's new prime minister - who will it be?

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine, 12 August 2022

          Pity the Brits in Israel.  They’re not only caught up like the rest of the country in the trauma of Israel’s rotating prime ministers and the political posturings prior to November’s general election, but their emotions are also being thoroughly stirred by the battle in the UK between the candidates vying to replace Boris Johnson as Britain’s new prime minister.

          The reasons for Johnson’s fall sound vaguely familiar to Israeli ears.  Despite astounding electoral and, indeed, political successes, Johnson’s personal failings led to a widespread belief that he was unfit for his office. He blithely breached the Covid restrictions that his government had imposed on the population at large, and was fined by the police for doing so.  He misled parliament about that and related matters, and finally he promoted to a position of importance a man he had been told years before was a sex offender.  That proved the final straw.   His ministers started resigning en masse and he found himself unable to continue governing.

          And so Britain‘s arcane method for moving forward in such a situation was brought into play.  As is often pointed out, Britain does not possess a written constitution, and the rules governing political crises have evolved over time.  The system that brings a person to the position of UK prime minister, and thus head of the government, bears no resemblance to US presidential elections.  In the US system a candidate seeks a personal mandate from the American people; in Britain 650 constituencies each elect a member of parliament, and the leader of the largest party in parliament becomes prime minister.

           In short, it is the winning political party that secures the nation’s mandate to govern, not its leader. So if a leader is deposed, the party’s mandate to govern is not affected.  That is why the Conservative party is currently engaged in choosing a new leader who will automatically become Britain’s next prime minister.

           The party leadership devised a two-stage process.  In the first stage the eight parliamentarians who secured enough support to stand as potential candidates were whittled down by a series of elections to just two.  Rishi Sunak, once Johnson‘s finance minister, came out on top.  Second was Liz Truss, his foreign secretary. 

           The second stage involves the two selected candidates putting their case to the membership of the Conservative party, who will vote for their preferred choice in the period up to September 2. The exact number of Conservative party members is not precisely known, at least by the general public, but it is in the region of 180,000.  The winner – and thus Britain’s new prime minister – will be announced on September 5.

           There is, of course, a vociferous body of opinion within the UK that finds it unacceptable for the nation’s next prime minister to be selected by a handful of Conservative party members.  But the process, or something akin to it, has been used a fair number of times in recent years under both Conservative and Labour administrations, and it does accord with the basic principles underlying the British parliamentary system.

           Although the nation as a whole will have no say in the outcome, the fact that interviews of the candidates, and debates between them, are being broadcast on radio and TV, and splashed all over the print media, has turned the whole process into a national jamboree.

   Would a win by one or other of the candidates make a difference to UK-Israeli relations?  They have never been warmer than they are right now, and both candidates are pledged to enhance them.  The Conservative administrations of the past twelve years, and their changing leaders, have been notably friendly toward Israel, encouraging ever-closer collaboration.  On July 20 the UK trade minister launched negotiations between the UK and Israel for a new, innovation-focused trade deal.

The groundwork for this was laid by Yair Lapid in his visit to the UK in November 2021.  He and foreign secretary Liz Truss struck up a warm relationship right from the start. The close Israeli-UK understanding was demonstrated to the world on November 29 when the Daily Telegraph achieved a journalistic coup – an article written jointly by the British and Israeli foreign ministers, Liz Truss and Yair Lapid. 

Headed: “Together we can propel both our nations to safety and prosperity”, the piece heralded a new UK-Israeli agreement, to be signed later that day, which they described as “a major step forward, transforming our close friendship into an even closer partnership by formally agreeing a new strategic plan for the next decade spanning cyber, tech, trade and defense.” 

 Liz Truss comes from a middle class home – her father was a mathematics professor and her mother a nurse – and she was educated in a state school.  At Oxford University she was president of the Liberal Democrats, but later joined the Conservatives.  Making slow but steady progress up the political ladder, she won a parliamentary seat in 2010.   Once in the House of Commons, her abilities were quickly noticed, and she moved up the ministerial hierarchy from 2012 onwards, ending as Foreign Secretary in September 2021.

   What are Truss’s views about Israel and the UK Jewish community?  In a recent article in the UK’s popular on-line newspaper, Jewish News, she wrote: “Israel and the UK are already closely intertwined with deep relationships in trade, security, culture and tourism. If I am elected as the next Prime Minister I will set about ensuring that alliance grows even closer.”  Asserting that Conservative values and Jewish values go hand in hand, she said “the British Jewish community represents the best of our country and as Prime Minister I will be your strongest champion… I will do everything in my power to ensure that those spewing clear Jew hatred will be prosecuted quickly within the full force of the law.”

Rishi Sunak is as different an individual as it is almost possible to be.  Born to Indian immigrants from East Arica, he is an observant Hindu and, if elected, would become Britain’s first prime minister of colour.  His parents ran a pharmacy, and from there they managed to send their son to the prestigious Winchester College and on to Oxford University.  In 2009, Sunak married Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Indian billionaire Narayana Murthy. He met her while studying at Stanford University in the US. The couple are multi-millionaires.

Sunak was elected to the House of Commons in 2015. He held a junior ministerial post under then-prime minister Theresa May, and when Boris Johnson succeeded her, he became a senior treasury minister.  The early resignation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer propelled him unexpectedly into that post, and he won many plaudits for the support measures he introduced to ease the financial burdens imposed on the population by the Covid restrictions.

In March Sunak met with Israeli finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to discuss the ambitious UK-Israel Free Trade Agreement.  He took the opportunity to offer condolences over the Bnei Brak shootings the previous night.  “I assured him,” Sunak tweeted, “that the UK stands with the people of Israel against terrorism.”

 Writing in Jewish News about antisemitism, Sunak pledges: “As Prime Minister, I will continue the work of this Government to support Jewish communities across the country…I am determined to ensure this scourge on our society is eradicated. Antisemitism can take many forms. I will continue to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill, that will prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion.”

          The only reference in his piece to Israel is positive, but oblique.  He writes: “The Jewish community is right to call out those who seek to damage the only Jewish state in the world.”

          Meanwhile Brits the world over are agog at the spectacle of two senior figures in the parliamentary Conservative party slogging it out on national media as they struggle for the votes of the membership.  So far polling has shown a marked preference among them for Liz Truss, but some commentators are certain that Sunak is closing the gap and is certain to emerge the winner.  For the Brits in Israel, the exercise makes for a diverting distraction before the hard slog of their own elections in November.

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine, 12 August 2022