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Is Israel The Perfect Partner For Brexit Britain?

06/02/2017 11:30
Rosemary Calvert via Getty Images

In tough times you turn to your friends and discover who your real friends are. As the UK spins a new web of alliances and trade deals after Brexit, one old friend could prove especially valuable to British interests. When Theresa May and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet today for the first time they will signal that an already close partnership is about to get closer.

For many years the Britain-Israel alliance has been built on a solid foundation of defence and intelligence cooperation. Israel is tragically the market leader in counter-terrorism, aviation security and cyber security. We have benefited from Israeli expertise preventing and detecting terror attacks and British soldiers have been protected by Israeli battlefield surveillance systems, most recently in Afghanistan. But as Britain seeks to sharpen its defensive edge and make its military capability a key bargaining chip in exit talks with the EU, defence cooperation with Israel, and access to its highly advanced weapons systems and cyber security technology, will intensify.

Bilateral trade is booming, in 2016 it reached a record high of £6billion. Every Government minister who visits Israel returns to Britain energised by the increasingly exciting joint ventures in science and hi-tech that bring a slice of Israeli innovation back home. Hundreds of Israeli tech companies have set up in the UK and they are continuing to expand. For these global entrepreneurs Brexit is an opportunity, not an obstacle. The single market doesn't include digital services so a UK withdrawal is no big loss to them. One item on today's agenda will be the likely contents of a bilateral trade deal and UK ministers have already indicated that Israel will be close to the front of the queue.

If we needed inspiration for how to thrive after leaving the EU then Israel is a shining example. A tiny country with a population of just eight million people meagre natural resources and commodities, shunned for many years by a hostile region - it relied on a highly educated workforce and an obsessive drive to innovate. With a highly competitive but small domestic market, Israeli companies have always had to export to survive and expand. British ministers have been examining every piece of the Israeli success story for some time but now with greater urgency. There are few better models to emulate to solve our productivity puzzle and develop new strategies to encourage more British companies to go global and increase exports.

Much of today's meeting will focus on the diplomatic track and the Prime Minister appears to have moved closer to the Israeli position. The UK supported UN resolution 2334 last December that condemned Israeli settlement expansion but the PM criticised John Kerry's December speech for focusing too much on settlements. In January, the UK snubbed the Paris Peace conference choosing to observe, not participate. At a later meeting of EU foreign ministers Boris Johnson blocked the adoption of the Paris Conference communiqué to the fury of his EU counterparts. These moves were driven by a firm British belief that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians are the only way to make progress, Prime Minister Netanyahu agrees and that is why he opposes Palestinian initiatives to isolate and pressure Israel at the UN.

The British Government took a tough line against recent Israeli announcements to build thousands of new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. May will tell Netanyahu that this undermines trust and push him for a clear statement of intent on the two state solution. Netanyahu will explain the political pressure in his governing coalition and that building in the West Bank is red meat for his right flank that he is forced to serve up to survive. He'll expect some sympathy from a British Prime Minister often in a similar position.

Theresa May is seeking to deepen relations and expand trade with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. In the past this might have been a fault line for relations with Israel, it is now a fertile area for mutual cooperation because of Israel's close ties with the same Arab countries who share the same fears - jihadi terrorism, US withdrawal and Iranian regional expansion. This revolution in regional diplomacy is a significant opportunity for Britain as it becomes more impatient with Iranian military activity, particularly if there is a repeat of the kind of atrocities committed in Aleppo by Hezbollah and other Shia militias. The US will tighten implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal and has imposed new sanctions for ballistic missile development. Netanyahu will ask the PM to support that initiative as soon as possible.

Those who suggest that the UK's increasing closeness to Israel is driven by a desire to win favour with the US are wide of the mark. the Israel-Britain alliance is a boost for the British economy and carries sizeable strategic advantages for both countries. The reality is that a strong partnership with Israel is an asset that will become increasingly valuable for the UK as it resets relations after leaving the EU.

James Sorene is Chief Executive of Israel and Middle East think tank Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

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