The Middle East has not received much attention in the British electoral campaign. Yet whoever forms the next government will have to establish a stance on the putative Middle East peace process, on Iran, on relations with the Arab Gulf states, including security cooperation and arms sales, and on developments in Iraq, even if British troops are no longer on the ground there.
Judging by the statements of the three main party leaders in their televised debate on foreign policy, all are supportive of British troops in Afghanistan, but none want to see them remain there indefinitely. Labour Party leader Gordon Brown has nonetheless argued that the British deployment is integral to a broader strategy to counter the forces of extremism that could still inspire or instigate attacks on British soil.
However, neither Brown nor his Conservative and Liberal Democrat (Lib Dem) opponents, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, respectively, have given much airtime to the role that resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict could play in countering extremism in Europe. Their positions, which are not dissimilar, give more emphasis to the needs of both the Israelis and the Palestinians for their own sakes, and all support a ‘two-state’ solution, though Clegg has gone further in criticizing the blockade of Gaza.
In the Middle East, both Palestinians and Israelis are interested to know whether British public opinion will weigh in future government calculations. Indeed, both have noticed the emergence of more vocal support for the Palestinians on British university campuses and in public demonstrations of late. The Israelis are particularly attentive to calls for a boycott of Israeli imports, or at least a bar on products made in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband made the imposition of customs duties on such goods a facet of Labour policy. Yet Miliband has done this within the broader context of EU free trade agreements with Israel, which require goods made in the territories to be clearly labeled as such.
Yet this points to the wider context within which the next British government will have to deal with a range of foreign-policy issues, including those in the Middle East.
It is the United States that has adopted the lead on reviving peace talks, and it would make no sense for the future British government to adopt a significantly different line than Washington. Also, as of the Dec. 8 EU statement on the Arab-Israeli conflict, echoed in the most recent pronouncement of the "quartet" (that groups the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia), all EU members have agreed to a joint position on the conflict.
It would be a surprise if the next British government chose to row back on this agreed position. However, unless the Labour Party is able to lead the next government, there could be changes in British relations with both the European Union and the United States under either a Conservative or a combined Conservative and Lib Dem leadership.
While the Tories are mostly Euro-skeptics, the Lib Dems are positively enthusiastic about British involvement in the European Union. Also, the Conservatives have no special rapport with Barack Obama’s administration in Washington, and the Lib Dems have talked about the need to end London’s "subservient" deference to U.S. leadership.
In recent days Israeli newspapers have run stories warning about the potentially negative prospects for Israel of a British government that accords a prominent position to the Lib Dems. They regard Nick Clegg and his party as positively pro-Palestinian. Yet the Israelis are also interested in how a new British government will handle a diminution in the so-called special relationship with the United States.
For decades Israel and Britain could assume a relatively privileged hearing in Washington. With the advent of the Obama administration, however, both are realizing that the United States has new priorities that do not fit so comfortably with their own.
For Britain the implications are less profound than for Israel. The British simply have to get used to the idea that loyal support in the past, notably over Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, will not assure them special status in comparison with other Europeans in the future. In Israel’s case, the bilateral relationship has been palpably shaken.
Whereas the Obama line on restarting the Middle East peace process has confronted the Israeli government with unpalatable demands, the Obama commitment to reaching a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has thus far been welcomed in Britain. Miliband has positively embraced the Obama agenda for the Middle East. On this issue at least, the Lib Dems are likely to follow suit, and it would be a surprise if the Tories chose a significantly different course.
On the subject of Iraq, the Lib Dems claim credit for opposing the 2003 invasion, which has aroused suspicion in Israel, notwithstanding the destabilizing regional fallout from that adventure. Brown and Cameron would rather not talk about Iraq for that reason.
All three parties say there will have to be a comprehensive Strategic Defence Review (SDR) following the election. That will be vital to determining Britain’s place in the world and policy priorities in the future because financial constraints and overstretch of the armed forces will require making choices. Labour and the Tories want Britain to build a new nuclear deterrent capability, while the Lib Dems want to consider various, as yet unclear, alternatives to the existing plans.
If there is no clear winner in the elections, a coalition government is in prospect. Clegg will likely be the kingmaker. Ironically, given Israel’s own history of coalition governments, the prospect of minority rule or a coalition in Britain is greeted in Israel with apprehension on the grounds that both would spell uncertainty and indecisiveness. The biggest fear of some in Israel appears to be the appointment of Clegg as the next British foreign secretary.
However, Clegg could well opt for another slot in a coalition government, such as deputy prime minister. The real issue will be whether a weak government would want to take a strong stance on the question of Iran — especially if Iranian intransigence on the nuclear issue presages a slide toward military action.
Meanwhile, a Conservative-led government, with Euro-skeptic William Hague as foreign secretary, will first have to divine a way forward on British relations with the European Union and the United States. The decision of the Conservatives to leave the center-right bloc in the European parliament in favor of an alignment with right-wing groups considered populist and even anti-Semitic in more mainstream EU circles portends an uncomfortable relationship with the rest of Europe.
The key question therefore is what role the Lib Dems could play in tempering the foreign-policy leanings of a Conservative or Labour leadership in a minority or coalition government. They could rescue a Tory leadership from isolation in Europe. Yet they will probably not be able to make changes to British ties to the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
When the Labour government called off the Serious Fraud Office investigation into British arms manufacturer BAE Systems’ handling of defense deals with Saudi Arabia — in the national interest — the Lib Dems were vociferous in their criticism. Yet if they participate in government and become privy to the secret details of British intelligence links and arms sales to the Gulf, the Lib Dems will no doubt have to sacrifice some of their principles.
Intelligence cooperation with Arab allies and defense deals, are vital to both the British anti-terrorism strategy and independent arms industry. If the Lib Dems assume a central role in the operations of government, they will lose the luxury of moralizing from the sidelines.
The prospects are nothing if not exciting and full of uncertainties. Yet all those in the Middle East, Israelis, Arabs, and Iranians, can rest easy. The next government will not be focusing on their part of the world ahead of other priorities, and when it does, it will not be in a position to make major changes in the region.
Rosemary Hollis is director of the Olive Tree Programme at City University London.