Israel-Palestine war: Has David Cameron revived the Tory Arabist tradition?
On 6 November 1956, after Britain and France launched a military action in collusion with Israel to occupy the Suez Canal, the Spectator published an editorial denouncing it as an ill-considered “act of aggression”. It was a bold move from Britain’s iconic Tory magazine, one that would age well, on the part of then-editor and proprietor Lord Ian Gilmour.
Gilmour went on to serve briefly as defence secretary under Edward Heath’s Conservative government, and then for two years as Margaret Thatcher’s lord privy seal - until she sacked him in 1981. During that time, and throughout his life, Gilmour belonged to the almost extinct tradition of Tory Arabism and was a staunch and consistent supporter of the Palestinians.
In 1961, the Spectator published Erskine Childers’ article “The Other Exodus”, which shattered the official Israeli narrative about the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948. Childers challenged the (now thoroughly debunked) notion that the Palestinians were ordered to leave by Arab leaders.
In 1982, Gilmour lamented Israel’s “short-sighted preference for continued occupation and annexation of the disputed territories to withdrawal and peace”. He condemned the American press’s record of portraying Palestinians “as terrorists and primitives, always seeking to persecute the Israelis and unreasonably objecting to the Zionist takeover of their territory”.
Then, in 2001, having visited Gaza, he wrote in the Guardian that a “ruthless colonial war is being waged throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank”, accusing Israel of imposing “collective punishments” on the Palestinians.
He also disdained what he saw as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s hypocrisy in denouncing Palestinian “terrorism” - “forgetting, no doubt, that his own record of terrorism and violence is, as the police used to say, as long as your arm”.
While Gilmour condemned Palestinian violence against civilians in Israel, he wrote that many Israelis “recognise that most (though not all) Palestinian violence in the [occupied] territories is not 'terrorism' but justified resistance to armed occupation”. Gilmour warned that when, “as the Israelis have done, you make life not worth living for thousands of Palestinians, there will be no shortage of suicide bombers”.
Today it is inconceivable that any mainstream politician, let alone a Tory, could employ this kind of analysis. Support for the Palestinian cause is framed either as a purely left-wing anti-western obsession or - when it comes to British Muslims - as a failure of integration and multiculturalism.
Tory Prime Minister Rishi Sunak allowed his home secretary, Suella Braverman, to make a series of inflammatory attacks on pro-Palestine protesters - before eventually sacking her over an article accusing the police of bias. With encouragement from Downing Street, Braverman suggested that displaying the Palestinian flag could in itself be an offence, and smeared hundreds of thousands of people protesting for Palestine as a “hate march”.
Yet there has been a long line of Conservative politicians and writers who have been sympathetic to Palestine. Neglect of this tradition impoverishes our current public discourse. It introduces a damaging partisanship to the Israel-Palestine issue: if you’re right-wing you have to be pro-Israel, while leftists have to be pro-Palestinian. It allows commentators to cast support for Palestinians as un-British and in opposition to western values. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Certainly, there has always been a strong tradition of Tory support for Israel. Winston Churchill is a prime example of this. During his sole visit to Palestine in 1921, he announced: “The cause of Zionism is one which carries with it much that is good for the whole world, and not only for the Jewish people; it will bring prosperity and advancement for the Arab population.”
But in the interwar years, many Conservatives advocated for the Palestinians. In some cases, this was a symptom of antisemitism - Lord Sydenham in the 1920s, for example, saw Zionism as a world Jewish conspiracy linked to communism. But certainly not in all cases.
Edwin Montagu, for example, was the only Jewish member of the cabinet when the Balfour Declaration was passed - and he was firmly opposed to it, fearing it would mean that “Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine”.
Pro-Palestinian sentiment was strengthened in the late 1940s in the face of violence by militant Zionist groups, labelled by the British government as terrorists. The Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organisation), whose commander Menachem Begin would ultimately chair the Likud party that Netanyahu now leads, bombed the British Officers Club in Haifa, killing 30. They also infamously blew up the British administrative headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in July 1946, killing 91 people - including 28 Britons.
In the second half of the 20th century, Conservative governments aimed to be even-handed on the Middle East - unthinkable today. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973 - the most serious attack on Israel since its creation - Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath halted weapons supplies both to Israel and its Arab opponents, and refused to allow US planes supplying Israel with weapons to use Britain’s military bases.
Margaret Thatcher was more supportive of Israel, but her backing was never unequivocal. "You cannot be selective in your defence of law,” Thatcher warned the Israeli government. “You cannot say, ‘I like that law, I will uphold that one, I will not uphold the other'."
In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, Thatcher told US President Ronald Reagan that a “balanced policy” was best and that “unlimited support for Israel can only lead to growing polarisation and despair in the Arab world”. Britain imposed an arms embargo on Israel that lasted until 1994 - a far cry from Sunak declaring Britain’s “unequivocal” support for Israel's bombardment of Gaza.
Thatcher denounced the 1982 massacres committed by Christian Phalangists with the Israeli army’s complicity in Lebanon as “pure barbarism”. It’s impossible to imagine Sunak describing Israeli war crimes today in such strong words - or for that matter in any words at all.
Tory MPs founded the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, which aimed to promote Palestinian interests and survives to this day. One of its founders was the former Tory minister Anthony Nutting, who had resigned from government during the Suez crisis.
His views about Palestine were informed by his close study of British policy in the inter-war period, which he ruthlessly critiqued - accusing ministers at the time of a “total and deliberate disregard for the rights and interests of the Arabs”. Israel barred Nutting from visiting the occupied West Bank in 1969, alleging that he told students in Beirut it was up to guerilla fighters to find a solution to the Palestinian predicament.
Conservative Friends of Israel
The strength and prominence of these Tory pro-Palestinian voices influenced Conservative governments. Under Thatcher, the UK signed the Venice Declaration - in which nine European countries formalised their concern about Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories (contrast this to Boris Johnson’s government voting against allowing the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for alleged war crimes).
Thatcher also oversaw the founding of the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) in 1980, with Dennis Walters as its chairman.
The influence of the Conservative Friends of Israel is a significant factor in the near total marginalisation of Tory support for Palestine in recent years
This change came alongside the rising influence of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) - which boasts 80 percent of Tory MPs as members and was described a quarter of a century ago by the historian and Conservative MP Robert Rhodes James as “the largest organisation in western Europe dedicated to the cause of the people of Israel”.
If anything, its influence has grown since Rhodes James wrote those words. The influence of the CFI is a significant factor in the near total marginalisation of Tory support for Palestine in recent years. So far as we can determine, the CFI has never once criticised any action by any Israeli government.
Its president Lord Polak recently told fellow peers of his concern about Britain’s refusal to engage with Israel’s notoriously racist National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, explaining: “We work with all elected Israeli politicians, and we must be very careful not to go down a route of suggesting that our support for Israel is somehow conditional on any individual politician.”
Britain’s new foreign secretary, former prime minister David Cameron, is an important case study in the demise of Tory Arabism. As a young politician, he was influenced by Tory supporters of Palestine, especially Douglas Hurd, whose Witney constituency he inherited, and former party chairman Chris Patten.
As leader of the opposition, Cameron allowed his shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, to strongly criticise Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006. "I think we can say that elements of the Israeli response are disproportionate,” Hague told MPs in the House of Commons, going on to cite "attacks on Lebanese army units, the loss of civilian life and essential infrastructure, and such enormous damage to the capacity of the Lebanese government".
In the wake of that remark, the Conservative Friends of Israel secured a meeting with Cameron in which the Tory leader gave what was understood as an undertaking not to use the word "disproportionate" again.
Throughout his time as Tory leader and British prime minister, Cameron was as good as his word. He never once used the word in connection with any Israeli conflict. His government went on to be assertively supportive of Israel, leading the country’s newspaper Haaretz to ask whether he was the "most pro-Israel British PM ever".
Yet, Cameron has reversed policy towards Israel and Palestine with stunning speed since Sunak appointed him foreign secretary two weeks ago. During a recent visit to the occupied West Bank, Cameron said of the current war in Gaza: "There won't be long-term safety and security and stability for Israel, unless there is long-term safety, security and stability for the Palestinian people."
In meetings with Israeli government ministers, Cameron added: "I stressed over and over again that they must abide by international humanitarian law, that the number of casualties are too high and they have to have that at the top of their minds." Cameron also condemned the violent attacks by illegal Israeli settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank since 7 October.
Privately, we have been told that Cameron warns of the deep damage being done to Britain’s international reputation, especially with Arab governments, by the blank cheque handed to Netanyahu on Sunak’s visit to Israel last month.
Most important of all, Cameron has allowed his junior minister, Andrew Mitchell, to reverse British policy towards the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Israel. This is a concrete change that has sent a shiver down the spine of Israel’s senior political echelon.
Cameron’s apparent rediscovery of the long-lost Tory Arabist tradition looks like another humiliation for hapless Sunak. But it also spells danger for Labour leader Keir Starmer
As prime minister in April 2021, Boris Johnson had written to the Conservative Friends of Israel: "We do not accept that the ICC have jurisdiction given Israel is not a signatory to the Rome statute, and Palestine is not a sovereign state." Johnson also stated that an ICC enquiry into war crimes was a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK.
Middle East Eye understands that the sudden reversal of the Johnson doctrine has given rise to behind-the-scenes protests from Britain’s pro-Israel lobby.
To sum up: in the space of two short weeks, Cameron has seized control of the Gaza file and renounced Sunak’s policy of "unequivocal" support for Netanyahu’s Israel. James Cleverly, Cameron’s predecessor as foreign secretary, was inexperienced, timid, out of his depth and reluctant to upset Downing Street or offend Israel.
Cameron, by contrast, has mastered his brief and shows every sign of being his own man. Cameron’s apparent rediscovery of the long-lost Tory Arabist tradition looks like yet another humiliation for hapless Sunak. But it also spells danger for Labour leader Keir Starmer.
Cameron has outflanked the Labour leader and made him look and sound dangerously like Netanyahu’s pointman in Westminster.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.