Israeli soldiers on a 155mm M109 Dores self-propelled howitzer fire a shell towards Gaza.

Israeli soldiers on a 155mm M109 Dores self-propelled howitzer fire a shell towards Gaza.

The first coalition rift between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives on Israel has emerged following Britain’s threat to suspend some arms exports to the Jewish state, writes Justin Cohen.

Two days into a 72-hour ceasefire in the Middle East and as talks continued in Cairo to bring about a longer-term solution, Business Secretary Vince cable announced on Tuesday that the Government will suspend a dozen arms export licenses to Israel “in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities”.

While it review of licenses triggered by the crisis found the vast majority of exports are “not for items that could be used in operations in response to attacks by Hamas”, it identified a dozen licenses for components which could be part of equipment used in Gaza including for military radar systems, combat aircraft and tanks.

In an announcement that provoked “regret” from the Israeli Embassy and led to community leaders accusing Cable of “providing an incentive to Hamas to breach the ceasefire”

Cable said: “In the event of the renewal of significant hostilities, the government’s concern is that it may not have sufficient information to determine whether the licence assessment criteria have been contravened, for example, whether a serious violation of international humanitarian law has occurred and whether equipment containing UK components has been used. It therefore would suspend licences while it establishes more information.”

It is within the sole power to grant, refuse or suspend arms licenses, although a spokesman for his department says he receives “detailed expert advice” from other key departments.

Rifles sold to Israel are among the military items Cable and Clegg have sought to ban

The Lib Dems had previously advocated a full arms embargo and it’s understood that Tory minister Matthew Hancock and a senior Number 10 advisor fought to ensure no immediate action was taken and that any moves related to only a small number of licenses.

A senior Tory source said: “Conservative members of Government including the prime ministers are extremely concerned by the imposition of these restrictions but in the end this was the best compromise that could be achieved.”

A Lib Dem spokesman said: “It is no secret that there has been a difference of opinion in the coalition Government on this issue. It has taken a significant amount of time and effort from Liberal Democrats in Government to get us this far.”

A statement from the Israeli Embassy noted the UK’s decision to leave in place current criteria for arms export licenses and joined in expressing hopes for a long term solution.

But it added: “Israel regrets calls to cancel or freeze export licenses, or to condition them on a non-recurrence of hostilities. Political decisions of this nature do not reflect Hamas’ responsibility as a serial violator of past ceasefires, and are unlikely to contribute to the goal of negotiating a sustainable solution to the current conflict.”

Simon Johnson of the Jewish Leadership Council

The Jewish Leadership Council Simon Johnson (pictured, left) said he would be writing to Cable “because in exercising his power he appears to have given Hamas an incentive to breach the ceasefire”.

He said: “This seems to create an inherent conflict within government. On the one hand the government is rightly calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and yet at the same time one secretary of state is tacitly signalling to Hamas that Israel will suffer if Hamas breaches the ceasefire”.

Conservative Friends of Israel’s Stuart Polak said:“It is a crazy situation that the Business Secretary has sole power in relation to an important foreign policy tool. The legislation gives the Business Secretary the legal power to enforce against export license rules. This law needs to be amended so this cannot happen again.”

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “The Government suspends export licensing where, because of a deteriorating security situation in the export destination, it is impossible or extremely difficult to use the regular criteria to assess export licences. Suspension is automatically considered during any conflict to ascertain if the extant export licences remain in accordance with the 8 criteria against which they are granted. When the situation changes in any country that receives equipment that has a licence a review of those licences is begun.”