Boris Johnson has insisted the world would be “impoverished” without the existence of Israel and acknowledged a “violent response” would be required if London came under attack in a similar way as Israeli communities have from Gaza.
The mayor of London’s comments came in an exclusive interview with the Jewish News during his three-day trade mission to Israel and the territories, during which he sought to further develop trade ties and repeatedly attacked moves to boycott the Jewish state.
After plans for the mission were first revealed in the Jewish News two and a half years ago, he joked that the trip was “thanks to you because you kept badgering me” about when he would fulfil the pledge.
The visit came on the back of a doubling of bilateral trade over the past five years and after more Israeli firms had listed in London than any other country.
Joined by a delegation of representatives from 15 London tech firms looking to connect with counterparts in the startup nation, Johnson kicked off the visit at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange where he hailed Israel’s hi-tech prowess as “an absolute education”.
It is “inestimable” how much poorer the UK and world would be without Israeli innovation, he told this newspaper.
“It’s an incredible country that’s changed out of all recognition since I worked on kibbutz 30 years ago. I’m here because of that economic change,” he said. “Israel has been responsible for everything from USB memory sticks to all sorts of apps that are of great value. The country has played a huge role in computing generally and the whole tech explosion. But it’s more fundamental than that: the world would be greatly poorer without Israel. The world would be impoverished without a state – for all its faults and all the the criticisms you can level – is far and away the most free, open, democratic in this neighbourhood. It’s a great thing and we need to preserve that.”
He said it didn’t bother him “at all” that the visit was not universally applauded on Twitter, where many reacted to posts about the trip with messages about settlements and claims of “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinians, some even taking issue with his use of the word democracy.
He said: “I fully expected it. I think people – not unreasonably – apply very different standards to Israel than they do to other places in the world because it’s a free democratic country. There’s a high level of expectation. That means there are double standards. People will criticise Israel for things they ignore in other countries. That doesn’t altogether exculpate Israel or successive Israeli governments from some of the failings we’ve seen. There’s no question everyone wants to see more progress in trying to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians. All it takes is leadership. Abba Eban said the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity – that’s been the case over a long time. Let’s hope the current leadership of the Palestinians and Israel can turn it around.” Asked if Benjamin Netanyahu could be doing more to move towards a settlement, he added: “That’s not something I can easily comment on.”
The MP, named by David Cameron as a potential successor as Tory leader, last year condemned Israel’s military action against rocket attacks as “disproportionate” and “ugly”.
Pressed on the matter, he told Jewish News: ‘Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorism, I support that totally. All I was saying is sometimes in response to those attacks it’s important tht Israel should not forfeit our natural sympathies by actions that can be seen as excessive or involving the loss of civilian life. I think it’s important for friends of Israel to be able to point that out.” If rockets were raining down on London, he acknowledged, “of course” action would be needed.
“If you are under attack and your people are being bombed you are entitled to respond with violent action. I think the question for many, not least in Israel, is in the response how do you calibrate it and make sure you avoid needless loss of life.”
The mayor attacked Jeremy Corbyn over his description of Hamas as “friends”, saying it was “bizarre” and “nobody in their right mind” would do so. He also dismissed as “totally wrong” the Labour chief’s description of the Balfour declaration, whose 98th anniversary dinner he addressed alongside Yair Lapid, as a “mistake”.
“The balfour declaration was a great thing,” he said. It was the right thing, it reflected a great tide of history.” But he said the second part of the declaration – that the creation of the new state should not prejudice the civil and religious rights of all the people there – “nobody could really say that was being fully borne out. I think a two-state solution has got to be part of it. If, as I fear, the assumption is we continue with low level friction, I think that would be sad. There must be an idealism.”
In the interests of developing bilateral ties, he responded “why not” when asked whether he would like to see other London boroughs follow Barnet’s example in twinning with an Israeli city. But further boosting trade links that was the focus of the visit.
Ahead of a meeting with deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom that included talks on the rise of Islamic State, he condemned as “crazy” moves for boycotts and questioned the logic of snubbing the region’s only functioning democracy – a trait he said enabled innovation to thrive.
He later drew applause from audiences in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as he rounded on the the “courduroy jacketed, leftie” academics who advocated such action.
He told 300 guests at the Balfour dinner at the Hilton Hotel on Monday night: “Sometimes it is the synergy between the London environment and Jewish brilliance” that produces the best results – citing a number of inventions including fish and chips.
Highlighting the similarities between Israel and the UK’s achievements and outlook, he added: “It is a partnership of innovation, and that spirit of innovation is only possible because of our shared values, values that re not trivial and are often under siege.”
The mayor got up close and personal with several cutting-edge gadgets during an event at Google’s campus in Tel Aviv. In one of the most memorable moments of the trip, he experienced life as a dog after donning googles created by Israeli company MindCet, which are designed to put Israeli kids into the bodies of animals to enhance empathy.
Avi Warshavsky, the company’s CEO, said they are now setting their sights on using the technology to give people of different genders and races a sense of what it’s like to live as another. Hoping to attract investors, he said: “We’ve had collaborations before when when it’s at the level of the mayor it’s a different discourse.”
Johnson immediately spotted the potential use for building management app BlockDox at City Hall to ensure the lights don’t go out when someone he still.
London-based founder Nicholas Shulman said joining the delegation had enabled him to make “the right connections” with potential Israeli partners, while SimilarWeb, a leader in measuring traffic and engagement on websites, is looking to grow its staff in London significantly by the end of next year. The company founder Or Ofer said: “London is the gateway to international business.”
The mayor also had an opportunity to get on his bike on more than one occasion in Israel including to test cutting-edge technology produced in Israel to improve road safety.
It was announced that two hundred refuse collection lorries will be equipped with ‘Cycle safety Shield’, developed by Mobileye, which helps drivers be more aware of vulnerable road users. After a successful demonstration, those behind the project triumphantly declared: “We saved London’s mayor!”
Taking part in his first international trip since becoming chief executive of the London Stock Exchange was Nikhil Rathi, who said: “Israeli companies are really starting to see the benefits of London – the time zone, depth of investor base we can bring. We’re really just scratching the surface and there’s a huge amount of potential.
All of us working in this world need to do much more to explain the pace with which Israel is developing and the sheer number of start-ups tthat are producing world-beating products.”
On his hopes for the mission, he added: “I would like to say we have bult relationships here that will enable us to deleliver not just one new transaction but to build a systematic process of understanding between the two capital markets so we can engage much more broadly than we have before.”
The visit, which is to conclude in the West Bank today, also included a visit to Machane Yehuda market where he got to grips with a large grouper fish to the amusement of locals and the mayor’s close team including chief of staff Sir Edward Lister. He also joined President Reuven Rivlin to kick-off the new season of Equaliser, a British Embassy backed organisation working with 140 schools to bring together Jewish and Arab kids through football.
- Mayor of London Boris Johnson is given a fish during his visit to Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, Israel, where he met stallholders during the second day of a four day trade visit to the region. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday November 10, 2015. See PA story POLITICS Johnson. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
On Tuesday evening, the mayor – who has written an acclaimed book on Winston Churchill – delivered the first annual lecture in memory of the former premier, at an event organised by the Jerusalem Foundation. He told a transfixed audience that there was “something Churchillian” about Israel, even if the late politician’s vision for the country he played a role in creating does not yet fully accord with the reality. Though he wouldn’t put the blame on his wartime hero, the mayor said it was “inconceivable” more wasn’t done by the allies to halt the holocaust.
He was asked to answer a question about his hairstyle in prime minister’s question fashion, which he duly did. And questions over his own political ambitions were never far from the fore. At one point his ambitious Tel Aviv counterpart Rob Huldai was asked by British media if he believed it was a good idea for mayors to aim for higher office to which he replied ‘yes’, joking that that Johnson asked him to say so.
Asked by Jewish News if he would return to Israel as PM, Johnson said; “Thankfully that job is being done brilliantly by David Cameron and there is then a big queue of other people.”