Conservative cowardice on Israel?

Peter Oborne's recent comments on the Conservative Party and Israel are overshadowed by his fundamental misunderstanding of British politics and the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict

Is there more Cameron can do on the Middle East peace process?
Carly Beckerman-Boys
On 13 December 2012 14:03

The Telegraph’s chief political editor has called David Cameron’s stance on Israel “cowardice”. But Peter Oborne’s otherwise valid criticism is overshadowed by a fundamental misunderstanding of British politics and the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Oborne’s attack is levelled chiefly at the Conservative Party. He wavers between condemning the close relationship between Tories and Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) and calling on their historic connection to effect peaceful change in the region. Apart from the contradictory nature of this argument, these points require a certain amount of qualification.

Oborne sums up the British relationship with Zionism in a single sentence: “The connection dates back at least as far as the historic meeting between the great Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and the Conservative prime minister A J Balfour in 1905, during which Weizmann convinced Balfour of the case for a Jewish national state.” This is wrong on many levels.

First, there is absolutely no evidence that Chaim Weizmann convinced Lord Balfour of the merits of Zionism in 1905. The issue of a Jewish National Home was cultivated and orchestrated up to Cabinet level during the First World War by the enigmatic attaché to the War Cabinet, Sir Mark Sykes. This was a way to legitimate Britain’s planned invasion of the Holy Land against French claims to the territory.

When the Balfour Declaration was announced in 1917, it was the result of Sykes’s diplomatic wrangling with the French and Russians as well as Lord Balfour’s and Liberal PM David Lloyd George’s anti-Semitic belief in a powerful world Jewry. Chaim Weizmann was one part of these negotiations, but the idea that he single-handedly secured a British commitment to Zionism is simply a myth.

Second, the British relationship with Zionism hardly continued in a linear fashion. The early 1920s witnessed a considerable Conservative backlash against Zionism on the basis of injustice done to the Arabs and the cost of policing Palestine against Arab riots. The Conservative press barons, Lord Rothermere, Beaverbrook, and Northcliffe used their papers, The TimesThe Daily ExpressThe Daily MailThe Daily Mirror et al. to attack Britain’s commitment to the Jewish National Home on the issue of high taxes and post-war economic slump.

In addition, it was the Conservative Government under Neville Chamberlain that attempted to end the Jewish National Home by giving the Arabs of Palestine their independence and Winston Churchill who gave up on the cause completely following Jewish terrorism during the Second World War and the assassination of his close friend, Lord Moyne. Simply put, support has always ebbed and flowed. The Conservative Party has no more of a historic connection to Zionism than Labour (who refused to cut Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1930 despite multiple expert reports that it was creating a class of landless, unemployed Arabs, and whose 1944 manifesto advocated the transfer of Arabs out of Palestine).

When Britain left Palestine in 1948 it was partly an admission of imperial failure. After organising negotiations between Zionist and Arab leaders in the early and late 1920s, mid 1930s, and 1946-47, successive British Governments were simply unable to achieve any agreement between the two. As the British Empire continued to collapse relatively quickly after that point to be replaced in the Middle East by clashing superpowers, what possible historic influence could Britain retain with the Jewish State?

Oborne is not advocating any action that would be helpful in solving the Israel-Palestine conflict. While ongoing settlement building is a barrier to the two-state solution, it is up to Israelis to elect a Government that will prevent or dismantle the buildings. All David Cameron could do is issue his condemnations in a shout rather than a whisper.

This may prolong the illusion of British influence in the region and help assuage a few British consciences, but history shows the two sides simply cannot be forced to agree. The Oslo Accords constituted the closest approach to agreement witnessed thus far, and they started with absolutely no outside intervention from the United States (or Britain for that matter). In contrast, every forced summit/round of talks since the Second Intifada – like British attempts in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s – has ended in frustration and failure.

Fundamentally, Oborne makes an important point about the potential power of lobby groups, but his argument that a historic Conservative-Zionist alliance exists and that this could somehow help to ease or end the Israel-Palestine conflict is simply not backed up by history. No amount of banging heads together has ever done any good, and Britain lacks the necessary political or economic clout regardless.

A final point is to ask whether this is an attitude Britain should take even if it had the power. A British official, Edward Keith-Roach, described what he saw as the problem during Britain’s rule over Palestine in the 1920s: “The Jews, Christians and Muslims are like three bewildered, disconsolate children at a party. ‘We don’t want jam; we don’t want honey; we don’t want cake. We want jelly.’ Alas, there is no jelly.”

Do we still wish to be this patronising, this condescending? Was the mighty British Empire able to achieve a settlement by taking this attitude? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

Carly Beckerman-Boys is a PhD Candidate at the University of Birmingham. She maintains a website at and can be followed on twitter @carlybboys

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