British Policy Towards the Middle East

By November 7, 2005

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 11

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In the wake of its active involvement in the 2003 Iraq war, Britain’s traditional policy of acting as a ‘bridge’ between the US and the EU in relation to Middle Eastern strategic affairs has been severely criticized by those who would like to see Britain adopting a more wholehearted European orientation. This paper argues that such a shift would not bolster Britain’s influence and that ‘bridging’ remains the most constructive approach. However, Prime Minister Blair’s grandiose vision of ’bridging’ as securing Britain’s position as a pivotal power at the crux of alliances and international politics is completely unrealistic.


The expected visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, is intended to provide international assistance for the creation of robust economic and security structures in the PA. As such, it is an attempt to capitalize on Israel’s disengagement from Gaza by creating momentum for a return to a negotiated peace process. This initiative is part of Britain’s wider, very active engagement with strategic issues in the Middle East. This activism is not merely a legacy of Imperialism, nor just a function of Tony Blair’s penchant for foreign affairs; rather it reflects a long-standing British commitment to ‘punching above its weight’ in the international arena.

Interests and Approaches

Britain shares broadly the same interests as other Western countries regarding the Middle East: maintaining the flow of oil, combating radical forces and preventing them from threatening regional stability or Britain itself with a lethal combination of terrorism and WMD. Britain also has extensive commercial interests in the region, though arms sales, which were very important in the past, are likely to become much less important in the future. Within British policy there are two long-standing orientations as to how to advance these interests that can be termed ‘Strategic’ and ‘Diplomatic’

The Diplomatic orientation emphasises maintaining the best possible relations with existing regimes or those forces that seem likely to take power. It recommends that Britain try to meet the demands of such forces as much as possible and to avoid confrontation. Often, a major demand of such regimes is the adoption of a pro-Arab stance on the Arab-Israel conflict. Against this background, Israel tends to be viewed as a cause of instability and anti-Western feeling in the Arab world. The Diplomatic orientation is associated with a mutually reinforcing combination of ideological sympathy for the Palestinians, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a pro-European orientation and, to a decreasing extent, commercial interests. (Israel was actually the UK’s biggest bilateral trading partner in the Middle East in the first years of the new millennium.) In contemporary domestic politics, the Diplomatic approach is strongest on the left, within the Labour party and the Liberal-Democrat party. It also has increasing domestic political value, due to the improved political effectiveness of Britain’s Muslim community, which greatly outnumbers the Jewish community.

The Strategic orientation focuses on threats – military, political and ideological, and on countering them. It perceives aggressive anti-Western governments and belief systems as the principle threats, which must be contained and sometimes actively challenged. Against this background, Israel is viewed positively due to its Western orientation, its military strength and by virtue of common enemies: Islamist Iran, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Ba’athist Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah. The Strategic approach is associated with a mutually reinforcing combination of ideological sympathy for Israel, a pro-US orientation and the office of the Prime Minister. It is well represented in the contemporary Conservative party and among moderate Labour leaders.

Of the factors underpinning the two orientations, the most important is the tension between an ‘Atlantic’ (pro-US) orientation and a ‘European’ orientation. Since its decline from Great Power status in 1945, Britain has sought to retain influence by working more closely with these partners. Rather than choose between them it has generally sort to act as a ‘bridge’ between the two. Yet it has proven much easier for Britain to enunciate such ideas that to actually implement them, as is clear regarding recent British policy in the Middle East.


From the beginning of the post-Cold War era when Saddam invaded Kuwait, Britain has been the most loyal ally of the US regarding Iraq. During the 1991 Gulf War, Britain deployed an armoured division, putting it in a clear number two position to the US within the coalition. In the 1990s Britain supported the US against French and Russian attempts to lift the oil embargo on Iraq and to dilute the weapons inspections system. Britain was also America’s only ally to be actively involved in the military strikes in the late 1990s against Saddam. While backing the US against it critics in Europe, Britain’s attempts at bridging were apparent in its consistent efforts to encourage the US to gain wider legitimacy for its actions by working through international institutions. The most obvious example of this was Blair’s success in persuading a reluctant Bush administration to try and gain prior UN backing for the 2003 war in Iraq. Ultimately however, this bridging tactic failed, forcing Blair to side with the US against France and Germany. The fallout seems to have damaged Blair’s position within the Labour party more than Britain’s standing within the EU, due to the support the US received from new members of the EU such as Poland and the Czech Republic.


Sympathetic observers might point to recent policy on Libya as example of British success. During the Thatcher era, the ‘Strategic’ orientation dominated British policy towards Libya, as was most obviously apparent in British support for the US bombing of Libya in April 1986. In the 1990s, lacking a clear lead from the US, UK policy drifted towards the European position. In 2003, as a byproduct of the Iraq War, the Libyan President, Col. Gaddafi, announced that he would dismantle all of Libya’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. Britain played a central diplomatic role in making this happen. Britain’s successful ‘engagement’ of Libya was quite closely coordinated with the US, however the Europeans were far less involved.


In the 1990s, while the US pursued a policy of ‘dual containment’ towards Iran and Iraq, opposing diplomatic and economic contacts, the EU, including Britain, pursued a ‘critical dialogue’. The most powerful force behind Britain’s drive to normalize relations with Iran was commercial advantage. As a result, Britain accepted verbal, as opposed to written, assurances that Tehran would not continue to proffer the bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head. As late as 2003, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who made four visits to Teheran in 2002-2003, described Iran as an ‘emerging democracy’ and stressed the ‘good cooperation’ that Britain has enjoyed from the regime in Teheran. Nevertheless, British engagement of Iran has so far failed to yield solid gains regarding the most important strategic issue – Iran’s nuclear program. In the latter part of 2003, following a concerted effort led by Britain in cooperation with France and Germany, the Iranians announced the cessation of efforts at enriching uranium, and re-admission of nuclear inspectors into their country. However, Iran quickly reneged on that agreement and despite continued negotiations, Britain has become extremely disillusioned with Iran and is leading efforts to bring the Iranian nuclear question to the Security Council, much to the satisfaction of the US. Recently, Britain has also begun to publicly criticize Iranian support for Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad terrorism. In tandem, a far more critical line towards the Syrian regime has been pursued, as part of an emerging consensus that includes both France and the US.

The Arab-Israeli Arena

The issue of ‘bridging’ has been most acute in the Arab-Israeli arena. On the one hand, Britain accepts and supports substantive US diplomatic leadership in this arena, while seeking to coordinate EU and US positions. Unlike France, it does not generally want the EU to ‘balance against’ the US in this arena. On the other hand, Britain has demonstrated a consistent willingness to adopt formal European positions that differ from the US stance. This was evident after the International Court of Justice ruled against Israel on the issue of the separation barrier in 2004. Britain was initially inclined to oppose a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Israel. However, following intra-European negotiations, Britain gave way to France and voted with the EU bloc in favour of the resolution.

In the 1990s it was relatively easy for Britain to pursue a policy of ‘balance’ due to the existence of the peace process. Thus, in 1995 Prime Minister John Major became the first Western leader to hold talks with Yasir Arafat, inside PA territory, while the first official royal visit to Israel took place in 1998. In addition, following the ending of the British arms embargo on Israel in 1994, the defence relationship grew significantly until the collapse of the peace process in 2000.

The first consequence of the collapse of the peace process was the re-emergence of the Diplomatic orientation evident in comments by the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, on alleged ‘double standards’ at the UN regarding Security Council resolutions dealing with Iraq and those dealing with Israel. Such statements were designed to ‘cover’ Britain’s support for the Iraq war. More generally, this orientation was bolstered by the Left’s outrage at Israeli policy and domestic political calculations aimed at appeasing the Muslim community. This ‘red-green’ alliance played the leading role in the campaign to boycott Israeli universities and delegitimize Israel as the new version of South African Apartheid. Though the 2005 AUT boycott was reversed almost immediately, support among trade union activists (and many Church leaders) for a wider boycott is widespread, despite the opposition of both the government and the Conservative opposition. Israel is also extremely unpopular with middle-class, educated, public opinion.

In terms of British-Israeli relations, this transnational dimension is far more problematic than official state-to-state relations, which are currently quite positive since Prime Minister Blair is sympathetic to Israel and has pushed British policy in a more Strategic direction. Thus, Britain opposed calls within the EU for the freezing or rescinding of trade agreements with Israel. Moreover, Blair was among the European statesmen most critical of Arafat’s failure to act against terror. He also recently took a lead in Europe proposing that Hizbullah be defined as a terrorist organization. Nonetheless, Blair has consistently sought to encourage the US to be more active in advancing the Road Map, with some success. While Blair supports Bush’s plan for reform of the Arab world, he argued that it required a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, since Arab regimes used the conflict as an excuse for blocking domestic reform, while Al Qaida used it to garner support. However, Britain has sought to advance the peace process, while taking seriously Israeli concerns regarding security. In this vein, Britain has been the leading international power trying to facilitate reform of the Palestinian security services, the first chronological step of the Road Map. Britain has also taken the lead on Palestinian reform more generally, hosting an international conference on the subject in London in March 2005.


In the wake of the 2003 Iraq War, there has been an enormous amount of criticism directed at British policy, mainly by those opposed to the war who advocate Britain adopting a more wholehearted European orientation (though in the wake of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London, criticism has become more muted). Yet it is doubtful that such a change would actually increase British influence (or indeed prevent terror attacks on London). In fact, it would probably diminish British influence.

Britain’s standing in Europe has not declined as a result of its support for the US in Iraq. Meanwhile, alone in Europe, only Britain has played any serious diplomatic role in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, due to its consistent support for the US and its acceptability to Israel – which in turn is due both to the US factor and to the fact that it has adopted a more balanced approach to the conflict that the EU as a whole. However, while ‘bridging’ probably remains the best strategy open to Britain, one that can provide it with a constructive role, it does not necessarily make Britain a central player. In this vein, Blair’s grandiose Churchillian vision of Britain as a ‘pivotal power, a power that is at the crux of alliances and international politics which shape the world’ is completely unrealistic. Ultimately, British diplomatic efforts depend on the good will of other parties, not on British power. Consequently, while ‘bridging’ gives Britain a satisfying sense of ‘punching above its weight’, it often produces only a semblance of substantive influence, rather than the real thing.

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Prof. Jonathan Rynhold
Prof. Jonathan Rynhold

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a senior lecturer of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and director of its Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People. Email: [email protected]