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The new Tory divide on Israel

Splits over the war in Gaza are pitting Israel-philes against Israel-sceptics.

By George Eaton

The story of this parliament has largely been of Tory division and Labour unity. But when the war in Gaza began last October, these roles were reversed: the Conservatives united in support of Israel while Labour fractured.

Six months later, the contrast between the two has lessened. Labour divisions over Gaza endure – Sadiq Khan and more than 50 MPs have called for the party to support a ban on arms to Israel – but they are now mirrored by Tory feuds. 

Conservatives who have called for the government to suspend arms sales to Israel include MPs Crispin Blunt, Paul Bristow, Flick Drummond, David Jones and Alicia Kearns, as well as peers Nicholas Soames and Hugo Swire. It was Kearns, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair, who alleged that the government had received advice from its own lawyers stating that Israel had breached international humanitarian law in Gaza. While the government has so far refused to publish its advice, David Cameron used a Sunday Times op-ed to warn that the UK’s support for Israel is “not unconditional”.

As some Tories distance themselves from Israel, others are reaffirming their solidarity. Boris Johnson has assailed Cameron for refusing to rule out an arms ban (declaring that such an act would be “insane”). Suella Braverman and David Frost have similarly offered uncritical endorsements of the Netanyahu government’s strategy.

It is the latter group who might be regarded as quintessentially Conservative, but history undercuts this assumption. Though Winston Churchill was a proud Zionist, not all of his successors shared his ardour. As prime minister, Ted Heath blocked UK arms sales to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and barred US planes supplying the country with weapons from using British military bases.

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Labour was Israel’s most redoubtable ally then: as opposition leader, Harold Wilson imposed a three-line whip on MPs to back a motion supporting arms exports. Like Wilson, many in Labour, not least Tony Benn, were proud Zionists and championed Israel as a socialist experiment. The left’s admiration for the country contributed to the right’s suspicion of it (as, for some, did simple anti-Semitism). Tory Arabists, as they became known, instinctively sympathised with the Palestinian cause and Israel’s Middle Eastern rivals. 

Under Margaret Thatcher, who viewed Israel as a vital Cold War ally, the Conservatives adopted a far more supportive position. As Israeli politics moved towards the right, so the right moved towards Israel. But a distinctive Tory Arabist strain endured, epitomised by Thatcher-era cabinet ministers such as Peter Carrington and Ian Gilmour, and later by the likes of Soames, Desmond Swayne and the former Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan (now under investigation for his comments on pro-Israel “extremists” inside the party).

Though it would be a stretch to describe Cameron as an Arabist, he was closest to this faction during his early years as Tory leader. In 2006 he condemned Israel’s invasion of Lebanon as “disproportionate”, in contrast to Tony Blair. As prime minister, Cameron declared in 2010 that “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp”.

He was never so critical again but his recent pointed references to Israel as an “occupying power”, and the sanctions imposed on violent West Bank settlers, have evoked memories of his earlier stance. As such, Cameron has become the leading target for those who fear the Tories are “going soft”.

There is, then, a new divide inside the Conservative Party. Rather than one between Zionists and Arabists – terms that reflect a different geopolitical era – it is best described as one between Israel-philes and Israel-sceptics. The former, in common with much of the US right, regard standing “shoulder to shoulder” with Israel as a defining test for conservatives; the latter fear that Israel’s present course will prove both morally and strategically disastrous.

In the battle for the Conservative Party’s soul, this will be a crucial subplot.

[See also: Will the Blue Wall fall?]

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