OPINION: Israel is sacrificing years of hard-earned progress

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OPINION: Israel is sacrificing years of hard-earned progress

As protests against proposed changes to its judiciary continue, Israel’s reputation as a modern, liberal democracy and global pioneer in technology is at stake, writes Alex Brummer for Jewish News

Alex Brummer is a Jewish News columnist and the City Editor, Daily Mail

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new right-wing coalition and its proposed judicial reforms to reduce powers of the Supreme Court, in Tel Aviv, Israel January 21, 2023. REUTERS/Ilan Rosenberg
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new right-wing coalition and its proposed judicial reforms to reduce powers of the Supreme Court, in Tel Aviv, Israel January 21, 2023. REUTERS/Ilan Rosenberg

At a dinner with a top British diplomat in Tel Aviv less than a year ago, we discussed how the embassy allocated its time. The answer was surprising. In the past the main focus of UK diplomacy in Israel was the peace process, events relating to settlement activity, Gaza and the West Bank which occupied at least 70 percent of the bandwidth. 

Times had changed. The Foreign Office in London and embassy now saw things through a different lens. The relationship with Jerusalem was focused on the economy, trade and finance. Britain was buying into Israel’s high-tech, life sciences, communications and telecoms revolution.

UK FTSE 100 firms and tech start-ups were developing ever deeper relations with their Israeli counterparts. In almost every sphere, ranging from health care and the NHS to gambling platforms, Britain and Israel were locked into enduring trade relationships. Indeed, the importance of these had been underlined by the Abraham Accords which enabled cross-fertilisation in many of these areas across the Gulf where the UK has longstanding economic commitments especially in Saudi Arabia.

Alex Brummer

More than 12 months on, one suspects the relationship which saw former President Reuven Rivlin on an official visit to London and former foreign minister/deputy Prime Minister Yair Lapid joyously lighting the Chanukah candles alongside Boris Johnson at Number 10 has lost lustre.

The ultra-right backed Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul has caused a strong backlash in the British Jewish community, in some cases eroding the ‘Israel right or wrong’ attitude. Just as seriously a media tide, which had after decades of criticism seemed to be turning in Jerusalem’s favour, is being demolished with questions again asked about the moral authority of Israel’s democracy.

The most recent edition of the Observer carried no less than three lengthy articles on Israel’s drift to ‘despotism’ and hardships of Palestinians.

Following the recent outbreak violence in the West Bank, Britain’s Ambassador to Israel Neil Wigan tweeted: ‘Terrible scenes in Huwara with reports of a Palestinian man killed in a settler attack and many more injured.’ Once again Israel-Palestine is dominating the narrative in diplomatic circles.

Lives, both Jewish and Palestinian, will always be more important than commerce.

But no one can ignore the detrimental impact of the judicial reforms (and subsequent violence) on Israel’s economic relations.

Anti-coalition protests in Tel Aviv and the aftermath of the settlers riot in the Palestinian village of Huwara.

No so long ago Unilever won praise for sticking with Israel and Ben & Jerry’s sales in the West Bank and settlements after protests from the ice cream maker’s Vermont-based board.

Now it is start-ups, cyber security and financial pioneers such as Wiz moving their funds and operations out of Israel. The Israeli Central Bank, a beacon for monetary wisdom, also has mildly joined the dissenters.

Israel is fighting a long and painful battle against Arab-inspired boycotts of the country’s economy. It is paradoxical that having won many of the arguments on the trading and tech front, Israel’s own cutting-edge digital sector finds itself in the firing line.

At a briefing last month, Tel Aviv University Professor Uzi Rabi, an expert on Arab and Iranian affairs, argued that the Abraham Accords was a game changer for Israel and the Middle East. Beyond all the hype about kosher restaurants, shul openings and tourism, there had been a shifting of the tectonic plates in the Middle East.

The security ties building with Gulf nations (and hidden to view Saudi Arabia) are changing the position of Israel in the world forever at time when Iranian development of centrifuges has reached nuclear weapons grade.

There has been an irresistible switch to the Israeli view of the security risks in the region.

The autocracies of the Gulf are unlikely to be that moved by judicial changes: they have no legitimacy on that front at all.

But if the mood in the Arab street changes, over the West Bank violence, progress made will be setback.

Israel’s reputation as a modern, liberal democracy and global pioneer in technology currently is at stake. The prosperity it has delivered to large parts of the population (if not the Arab minority) faces fundamental challenge which could take decades to repair.

  • Alex Brummer is a journalist, editor and author. 
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