OPINION: During my time as ambassador, UK ties with Israel have blossomed

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OPINION: During my time as ambassador, UK ties with Israel have blossomed

The UK's outgoing ambassador to Israel, Neil Wigan, reflects on 75 years of friendship between the UK and Israel

Ambassador Neil Wigan giving a speech at the ceremony
Ambassador Neil Wigan giving a speech at the ceremony

When I became Britain’s ambassador to the State of Israel, I knew the challenges this posting could bring.

Having served at the Embassy from 2002 to 2006, I knew that working in one of the most high-profile and contested regions of the globe is no easy feat. What I had not expected was how much the work of the Embassy had changed since I was last here.

Neil Wigan, British Ambassador to Israel

Back then, the Middle East peace process and security issues dominated my inbox and British engagement with Israel. When I returned four years ago, I expected much of the same. Supporting a peaceful path to a viable two state solution remains a priority, but it is also notable that Israel was no longer seen simply through the prism of conflict.

Instead it is viewed as a thriving superpower of technological innovation, a leading trade partner and a critical security partner for the UK – and for many countries around the world. Indeed, during my Posting, I witnessed Israel’s changing relationships with its neighbours, particularly because of the Abraham Accords.

The UK is proud of our support for the creation of the State of Israel. We understand the complexities and responsibilities that accompany this historic role. Nevertheless, our two nations are unapologetically close partners with shared values and interests and, in recent times, with new opportunities and challenges. We do sometimes disagree and have difficult conversations; we do so as friends.

Margaret Thatcher

A key strength of the UK-Israel relationship in recent years is the developing economic and technological ties between our two countries. It is no secret that Israel has a thriving technology industry – from cybersecurity, fintech, and healthcare, to energy and climate tech.

UK companies have established partnerships and collaborations with Israeli companies in the tech sector. Over 400 Israeli technology firms have set up offices and operations in the UK – more than in any other European country. The British Embassy’s very own ‘Tech Hub’ – the first of its kind in any British Embassy anywhere, supports many.

Shimon Peres and Gordon Brown, Downing Street, 2008

Our record of bilateral trade is testimony to the strength of the economic relationship.

The UK has become one of Israel’s most important trading partners, with trade between the two countries reaching over £7 billion annually in 2022. The current UK-Israel Trade and Partnership Agreement was one of the UK’s first trade continuity agreements signed after Britain left the European Union, and ensures tariff-free trade on 99% of the value of goods traded between our countries. We are now negotiating an upgraded, ambitious Free Trade Agreement, which will focus on services and innovation where both of our countries excel.

While the economic partnership between our two countries has expanded over 75 years, so too has the number of visitors on both sides. One just has to walk down any major street from Tel Aviv to Nazareth to Beit Shemesh to hear a familiar British accent.

Over 214,000 UK tourists visited Israel in 2019, making it the third-largest source of tourists. 238,000 Israeli tourists visited the UK in 2019 – many of my Israeli friends seem to know London better than I do. I am glad to see that after the difficult COVID-19 years, British-Israeli tourism is once again thriving.

Our diplomatic and military co-operation is also flourishing, including in areas such as counterterrorism and cybersecurity. The UK is clear about Israel’s right to exist and is unequivocal in supporting Israeli security and right to self-defence, in the face of threats from its neighbours, particularly Iran. We have often stood at the UN defending Israel against unwarranted and disproportionate criticism.

The UK has consistently supported the establishment of a two-state solution, with Israel and a future Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security.

This policy is a fulfilment of the Balfour Declaration but also results from a sincere belief that lasting security for Israel – preserving its Jewish and democratic character – requires a solution that offers equal rights and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Neil Wigan with Israeli delegation

We are deeply concerned by the recent escalation of violence in Israel and the West Bank and are working with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other partners to end the senseless violence that causes so much suffering.

The recent tragic murders of British-Israeli citizens Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee in a terrorist attack underline the security threats faced. There can be no justification for such abhorrent violence and, as we have already made clear, the UK unequivocally condemns this act of terror.

As we reflect on the past 75 years of friendship between the UK and Israel, we are also looking ahead to the future. I am very glad that last month our two governments were able to sign the 2030 roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations.

The roadmap sets out our ambitions for cooperation over the next decade, as part of an innovative and forward-looking strategic partnership. It includes a new £25 million Scientific and Innovation programme, funded by both governments.

It is an agreement that I am personally incredibly proud of (so much so, the signed version is framed in my office). I look forward to watching its implementation, through my team, our partners in the Government of Israel and beyond.

My time as Ambassador to Israel comes to an end in June.

I am proud of the strength of our relationship. Whether it’s our trade, tourism, technological collaboration, culture or security, both countries will continue to work together. I know that the past 75 years relationship are just the beginning, of what is an ever-evolving, ever-closer relationship.

On behalf of the British people, I want to wish Israel a very happy 75th birthday.

Yom Ha’aztmaut Sameach!

  • Neil Wigan OBE is British Ambassador to Israel
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