Jake Wallis Simons

Britain is right to pursue closer military ties to Israel

Britain is right to pursue closer military ties to Israel
(Photo: Getty)
Text settings

There’s a group called Palestine Action whose raison d’être is to throw red paint over the British offices of Elbit, an Israeli high-tech arms company, in an orchestrated attempt to hound it out of the country.

Five members of the ‘direct-action network’, which has links to Extinction Rebellion, armed themselves with paint pots and climbed onto the roof of the Elbit offices in Staffordshire in September.

Activists also targeted sites in London, where they not only hurled paint over buildings, but also over several Jewish people, who had gathered to stage a peaceful counter-demonstration.

Quite why the protesters choose to target an Israeli arms manufacturer rather than, say, a British company like BAE – which sold Saudi forces fighter jets as they bombed Red Cross and MSF hospitals in Yemen – is a question where the obvious answer is probably the correct one.

Whatever the group’s intentions, the police, who reportedly sustained injuries during the Palestine Action protests, are taking these incidents seriously. I have been informed that officers recently intercepted a Palestine Action suspect at one of Britain’s ports, as part of a ‘more far reaching’ investigation.

It is easy to look at these events and conclude that the sensible people are in retreat in Britain, and that we are abandoning our national moral compass to radical loons. In truth, however, Palestine Action’s antics demonstrate the exact opposite.

The real lesson from these wild splatters of red paint is the fury of a movement that has been in disarray since its figurehead was routed at the ballot box this time last year. These are headline-grabbing stunts, carried out by a small number of ideologues. After all, the decent majority doesn’t need to throw Dulux about.

Most people appreciate that it is in Britain’s national interest to have a close relationship with Israel. In recent years, while the far-left designed memes, stockpiled paint and argued over names for new splinter groups, trade between the two countries grew by 72 per cent, to about £7 billion. Hundreds of millions of pounds of this was military spending, increasing the capabilities of our armed services and saving lives in both countries.

Last week, in a move that must have caused Palestine Action activists to grind their teeth, London and Jerusalem signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement, sending a clear message that Elbit is a key part of Britain’s defence – red paint or no red paint.

It is not all straightforward, of course. The question that concerns many Britons – not just the Dulux brigade – is whether Israel adheres to the moral standards expected by the British Army. The IDF has carried out controversial operations that have attracted much criticism, such as the use of live fire against Gazan protesters in 2018.

But context is everything. Many top brass who understand the complexities of asymmetric warfare believe that Israel’s rules of engagement are among the most stringent in the world. As figures like Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, have argued, criticism of the Israeli military is often magnified by standards not demanded from other armies, as well as the poison of ideological agendas and the toxic politicisation of its every move. This can warp the terms of the debate.

In the case of the live fire used in Gaza, for instance, terrorist groups later claimed their members were among the dead, and it was claimed some had been using the crowd as cover in an attempt to lead a massacre in the Israeli towns across the border. Some may insist that this is no excuse. Many civilians were also killed and injured. But the massed protests, so close to population centres and harbouring so many hostile threats, presented an urgent and serious security challenge to Israeli troops, who did not have the luxury of not acting.

How would British forces have responded to the same threat on the outskirts of Southampton, or Birmingham, or Dundee? Or Belfast?

All modern, democratic armies face similar operational challenges. From time to time, all fail under pressure. But in any bilateral relationship, the fundamental test is the extent to which the strategic interests of both parties match. In the case of Britain and Israel, both sides face threats from Islamist terrorists, and intelligence sharing has saved lives in both countries. In 2015, Mossad helped British police uncover a bomb factory in north west London, where officers recovered three tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in disposable ice packs.

And Mossad’s former deputy director, Ram Ben-Barak, disclosed to me recently that an Israeli air strike on Syria’s secret nuclear reactor in 2007 came after a tip-off from British spies. To put this in perspective, had this intelligence relationship not existed, Assad may have been able to fight his subsequent civil war with nuclear weapons, not just chemical ones.

Iran is another major common threat. While it is of far deeper concern to the Jewish state, Britain also stands opposed to the theocracy’s nuclear ambitions and regional meddling. Royal Navy warships had to be deployed to the Strait of Hormuz to protect seven million tonnes of British shipping amid tensions with Iran last year, and Tehran’s continued incarceration of British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a source of significant diplomatic tension.

Given the depth and breadth of these shared interests, it is no surprise that the British-Israeli defence collaboration has been steadily deepening over the last decade. There have been tangible and significant results. Based on Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone, London’s Watchkeeper surveillance UAVs have saved countless British lives in Afghanistan, accumulating more than 3,000 flying hours.

As the British Army seeks to modernise, Israeli expertise and experience is of great benefit. A key part of the British vision for its fighters of the future is what General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the chief of the general staff, dubbed the ‘boots and bots’ policy. In future wars, armoured fighting vehicles could become ‘motherships commanding teams of robots and thereby generating a new form of combat mass,’ he said, adding that they would direct fire on ‘targets identified by swarms of drones’. As frightening as this sounds, this is the brave new world of warfare.

For Britain, there are many lessons to be learned from the IDF, a democratic military machine that relies heavily on technology to engage enemies on various fronts and in diverse contexts.

The IDF is able to draw on a unique research and development ecosystem, comprising the military, the academy, industry and government. Under its new ‘Momentum’ plan, it has been undergoing a technological overhaul, aiming by 2030 to become a more digitally networked and highly efficient force, that can destroy enemy capabilities with great speed and precision while minimising casualties for both civilians and its own troops.

Elbit, which lies at the heart of this effort, has long shared its expertise with British forces. They have worked together in the provision of battle management systems – software that allows combat information to be instantly shared across a fighting force. In October, as part of the UK’s speculative Army Warfighting Experiment programme, British servicemen on Salisbury Plain trained with Elbit’s cutting-edge Rhino mobile command and control centre, which pulls in battle data from multiple sources and puts it in front of commanders in an armoured personnel carrier.

There is more traditional cooperation, too. Last year, Israeli warplanes flew over Britain for the first time as part of Exercise Cobra Warrior, a three-week RAF ‘high intensity large force tactical training’, alongside German, Italian and American planes. Returning the compliment, the Israeli Air Force invited British airmen to take part in its next ‘Blue Flag’ multinational combat simulation in Israel.

The list goes on. Most sensible members of the British public understand all this. Military, economic and diplomatic cooperation with the Jewish state, including companies like Elbit, makes all our citizens safe – even the ones expressing their impotence with red paint.