Friday, 18 July 2008

Britain is Israel's friend and ally

On Monday, Gordon Brown will become the first Prime Minister to address the Knesset. The occasion reflects the fact that Israel's parliamentary tradition was inspired by Britain. It is fitting that, 150 years after the first Jewish MP took his seat at Westminster, the British PM will be welcomed as an honoured guest in our Jewish "House of Commons".

Israel, unlike any other country in the Middle East, is a vibrant parliamentary democracy. British values such as freedom of speech and the rule of law have shaped our legal and political institutions, in a region where respect for democracy is the exception.

Mr Brown's visit underscores the deep and warm connections between Israel and Britain. The PM will be welcomed in Jerusalem, established by King David 3,000 years ago. Gordon Brown is no stranger to this connection: his father was a Church of Scotland minister who led pilgrims to the Holy Land for 20 years.

Today, Iran threatens not only Israel, but also the values of the democratic world and the security of the Middle East. Iran threatens to annihilate Israel while at the same time holding the world to ransom. In the 1980s, Tehran used missiles to try to choke off Kuwaiti oil exports. The next time Iran acts the regional bully, it will do so as a state that has nuclear weapons.

Israel is the target of Iran's rhetoric - but the whole world will pay the price of Iran's ambitions. This global menace warrants a global response. Israel looks to Britain to take a leading role. In Iran, violent extremists hold power over a sophisticated civilisation. A population with the gifts to enrich the world has been impoverished; the talents of scientists and engineers have been diverted from peaceful potential to genocidal purposes.

It is true, however, that there were darker episodes in our relations. Britain obstructed Jewish emigration to Palestine during the Second World War, at a time when it could have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of European Jews. After the war, Britain continued to restrict emigration when it was the only hope of a new life for survivors.

Yet the two countries have built an enduring partnership. Three Israeli presidents served under the British flag. Our first president, Chaim Weizmann, performed crucial work as a chemist for the Admiralty during the First World War. In the Second World War, Chaim Herzog fought with distinction in the British Army, liberating Nazi concentration camps and earning the rank of Major. Ezer Weizman, Chaim 's nephew, served in the RAF.

Today, Britain and Israel once again face the difficult decisions that must be taken when defending democratic freedoms. Both been the targets of terrorist violence; both know what it is to mourn the loss of innocent life.

As Iran's nuclear programme races ahead, the international response has been sluggish, meandering and uncoordinated. Britain has led the way in urging greater effort, but, to echo Churchill, the international community has so far "decided only to be undecided". Churchill used to tell the parable of the appeaser who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last: the world must send the message to Tehran that feeding time is over.

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