Conservative Friends of Israel and taking Israel-UK relations forward

It is an exciting time for friends of Israel in the United Kingdom. The visit of HRH Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, was a landmark moment in the shared history of our two countries. In becoming the first member of the Royal Family to make an official visit to Israel, he has righted a 70 year aberration.

The timing of the visit was highly poignant – occurring not only as Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, but also so soon after the UK marked “with pride” the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

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And what a visit it was! The photos of the future monarch that went around the world captured everything we know and love about Israel. From playing football with young Jewish and Arab children in Jaffa and relaxing on the beautiful Tel Aviv beaches, to solemnly reflecting in prayer at the Western Wall and even sharing a joke on Rothschild Boulevard with Netta, Israel’s unofficial queen following her Eurovision success.

The photos stood in stark contrast to those associated with the conflict, which will sadly have been more familiar to casual consumers of news. Viewers were able to see a young and vibrant country with deep historical roots.

Symbolically, the trip highlighted that the long-standing cooperation between the UK and Israel is being celebrated in a more public and high-profile way than ever before. It must not be forgotten that it is on the British Government’s recommendation that members of the Royal Family make official foreign visits.

The significance of this cannot be overstated. As Prince William said: “The ties between our two countries have never been stronger.”

Last week was cause for yet more celebration as the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) family grew when one of us (Eric Pickles) became a member of the House of Lords (Lord Pickles).

While Israel’s democracy is anchored in its single chamber Knesset, in the UK, we have a bicameral system and as co-chairmen in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, CFI now has a permanent presence in both chambers for the first time ever.

It is our mission to ensure that Israel’s case is fairly and proudly heard in Parliament. It is a challenge that we relish and with our supporting team of 15 Parliamentary Officers – who are among Israel’s most active supporters in the UK – CFI looks to be in particularly rude health.

Israel receives strong support from the Conservative benches in the Houses of Parliament. Most of the Conservative Party’s 313 MPs have visited Israel with CFI during their political careers, and a growing number of members of the House of Lords are now visiting. Each year, CFI’s big annual lunch will see as many as 200 Conservative parliamentarians in attendance. And recent Conservative Governments have done more to support Israel than perhaps any in British history – including its continuous and resolute opposition to the so-called Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Conservatives in the UK tend to instinctively support the Jewish state; it is, after all, the only true democracy in the Middle East and shares the same values as we do in the UK. But it is only by going on one of CFI’s highly-regarded fact-finding missions to Israel and the West Bank that any parliamentarian can start to understand the complexities of the situation, and the thriving country that Israel is.

This support is perhaps more important now than it has been in many decades.

The Labour Party in the UK, which has been gripped by a depressing number of antisemitic scandals, is becoming ever more strident in its views against Israel.

In the wake of recent violence on the Gaza border, the Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary spoke of a “massacre” and Israel “slaughtering peaceful protesters.” It was left to more than 20 Conservative parliamentarians to bring balance to the debate by expressing concerns at the events but highlighting the central role of Hamas in the violence.

It is an unavoidable fact that Israel is one of the most oft-discussed foreign affairs issues in the Houses of Parliament.

Despite the many pressing issues facing the international community, you can safely bet that every week there will be a question session or debate relating to Israel, and dozens of written questions will be tabled by parliamentarians of all political stripes.

It is our hope that Conservative parliamentarians will be able to highlight the very many positive aspects of the UK-Israel relationship. Indeed, later today there is a 90-minute parliamentary debate on UK-Israel trade. Bilateral trade between our two countries has been at record levels in recent years and it is something a number of our Conservative colleagues look forward to celebrating.

A few short weeks ago, CFI coordinated a trade focused delegation to Israel for eight Conservative parliamentarians.

The visit gave them a first-hand insight into Israel’s world-renowned high-tech scene, as well as an understanding of the post-Brexit trade opportunities that our countries will share in the near future. The debate will allow the MPs on this visit to champion everything from the hundreds of Israeli companies operating within the UK through to SodaStream’s environmentally friendly approach to sparkling water and how its melting pot workforce stands as an example of peaceful coexistence for the region.

There may be many issues on the agenda – everything from challenging the Palestinian Authority’s continuing payment of salaries to convicted terrorists to the pressing need to challenge Iran’s hegemonic ambitions – but we are excited to be working together to take CFI into its next chapter. We can’t wait to get started. Kadima!

Rt. Hon. Stephen Crabb MP is the CFI Parliamentary chairman in House of Commons and former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Rt. Hon. Eric Lord Pickles is the CFI Parliamentary chairman in House of Lords, United Kingdom Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, and former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.