On December 12, the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, gave a fulsome speech to the annual Conservative Friends of Israel lunch. Before a roomful of 800 pro-Israel Conservative MPs and party supporters, she lavished praise on the Jewish state. She praised Israel’s achievements and castigated its enemies. She said that Britain would be marking the centenary of the Balfour declaration “with pride.” She also stressed that cooperation and friendship between Britain and Israel was not just for the good of those two countries, but “for the good of the world.”
For many of the people listening in the room, there were just two discordant notes. The first was related to the focus on anti-Semitism in May’s speech. As she used the opportunity rightly to lambaste the Labour party for its anti-Semitism problem, she extended the reach of her own claims for herself. While boasting of her success as Home Secretary in keeping out the prominent French anti-Semite Dieudonné and finally deporting the Salafist cleric Abu Qatada al-Filistini back to his native Jordan, she also used the opportunity to congratulate herself for banning Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Pastor Terry Jones from coming to the UK. “Islamophobia comes from the same wellspring of hatred” as anti-Semitism, she explained.
This is a serious category error for a Prime Minister to make. It puts critics of a religion, such as Geller and Spencer, on the same plane as people wanted for terrorism (Qatada). It blurs the line between speech and action, and mixes people who call for violence with those who do not. The comparison also fails to follow the consequences of its logic to its own illogical conclusion. The comparison fails to recognise that anyone who objects to Islamic anti-Semitism is immediately known as an “Islamophobe.” Therefore, someone hoping to come to Britain would have to accept being attacked by Muslim extremists for fear of being banned from entering the UK. These are serious and basic misunderstandings for a Prime Minister to propagate.
There was, however, a clear political sense to them. A Prime Minister in a country such as 21stCentury Britain might believe that he or she has to be exceptionally careful not to appear to be criticising any one group of people or praising another too highly. So for the time being in Britain, a moral relativism continues to stagnate. If the Jewish community complains of anti-Semitism, then you must criticise anti-Semitism. If the Muslim community complains of “Islamophobia,” then you must criticise “Islamophobia.” To make value judgements might be to commit an act of political folly. Wise leaders in increasingly “diverse” societies must therefore position themselves midway between all communities, neither castigating nor over-praising, in order to keep as many people onside as possible.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the annual Conservative Friends of Israel lunch, December 12, 2016. (Image source: Conservative Friends of Israel)
The same tactic brought the other discordant moment at the Prime Minister’s lunch — the same tactic brought to the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. For the other discordant note in May’s speech came when she mentioned Israeli settlement building. It was carefully placed in the speech, after a passage in which May congratulated her own Department for International Development (DfID) Minister, Priti Patel. In the days before the lunch, Patel had announced that DfID would carry out an investigation to determine whether British taxpayer money being sent to what May called “the Occupied Palestinian Territories” was being used to fund salaries for Palestinians convicted of terrorism offences against Israelis. Following this May said:
“When talking about global obligations, we must be honest with our friends, like Israel, because that is what true friendship is about. That is why we have been clear about building new, illegal settlements: it is wrong; it is not conducive to peace; and it must stop.”
The comment was received in silence and May moved on.
But this comment fitted in closely with the strategy of her other comment. For having lavished praise on Israel, a castigation apparently seemed necessary. It is wrong, but hardly possible for a British Prime Minister currently to do otherwise. If there are terrorists receiving funds from British taxpayers thanks to the largesse of the UK government, then this may — after many years of campaigning by anti-terrorism organisations — finally be “investigated.” However, throughout any such investigation, the British government, whilst saying that it remains committed to a peace deal that comes as a result of direct negotiations between the two sides, has for years announced its own preconditions for peace: a freeze on the building of what it calls “settlements.” They maintain this line despite the fact that settlements have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Before the June 1967 Six Day War, there were no such things as “settlements.” Palestinians were trying to destroy and displace Israel anyhow — in 1948, 1956, and 1967. The core problem is not, and never was, “settlements,” but the right of Israel (or any non-Muslim nation) to exist inside any borders in that part of the world.
At the time of May’s speech, these two issues seemed like minor cavils to some and gained little notice. Only now, a fortnight later, has the true duplicity of the speech been exposed. For now the world has learned what diplomacy the British government was engaged in even as May was making her speech.
At the same time as the Prime Minister was talking about “true friendship” in front of friends of Israel, her government was conspiring with the outgoing Obama administration to kick that friend in the back. In the wake of the collapse of the Egyptian-sponsored initiative at the UN, the British government was exposed as being one of the key players intent on pushing through the anti-Israel UN Security Council Resolution 2334. British diplomats were revealed to have been behind the wording and rallying of allies for the resolution.
The most obvious interpretation of this fact is simply a reflection that friends do not kick friends in the back. Especially not in the world’s foremost international forum for kicking that particular friend. But some people are putting a kinder interpretation on the facts. The kindest to date is that the May government believes that a sterner line on the issue of Israeli settlements would give the British government more leverage with the Palestinians.
If that is so, then it seems that the May government will have to learn abroad the same lesson that they must learn at home. Both will come about because of the same strategic mistake: a reliance on the short-term convenience of what must seem at first to be only convenient little lies. The problem is that such little lies, when tested on the great seas of domestic and international affairs, have a tendency to come to grief with exceptional rapidity and ease.
Politicians are keen on taking stands. But if you take a stand that is based on a lie, then that stand cannot succeed. If you try to oppose anti-Semitism but pretend it is the same thing as “Islamophobia,” then the structure on which you have made your stand will totter and all your aspirations will fail. If you try to make a stand for Israel while simultaneously conniving at the UN to undermine Israel, then your duplicity will be exposed and admiration for this and other stands will falter. If you try to make a stand based on the idea that settlement construction rather than the intransigence of the Palestinians to the existence of a Jewish state is what is holding up a peace deal, then facts will keep on intruding. They have before — at home and abroad — and they will again.
Douglas Murray, British author, commentator and public affairs analyst, is based in London, England.