Theresa May took time out of a crunch week on Brexit to restate her “absolute solidarity” with Anglo-Jewry in tackling antisemitism – as Israel’s ambassador hinted at another historic visit by Benjamin Netanyahu to a Gulf state “in the not too distant future”.
The prime minister took time out of her preparations for a crucial statement in Parliament to address 800 guests at Conservative Friends of Israel’s annual lunch – but didn’t miss the opportunity to issue a last-ditch warning to the 200 parliamentarians present about the dangers of rejecting her deal. And she joked: “Is there something else happening today? Where else would I be but the CFI lunch?”
May, who received a prolonged standing ovation from the entire room, said: “As we prepare to begin a new chapter we will look to friends like Israel to broaden and deepen our links.”
Moments after being praised by Israel’s Ambassador Mark Regev for standing up for Israel over the threat of Hezbollah tunnels and Hamas rocket attacks last week, she pledged: “We will always support Israel’s right to defend itself, today and in the future. And in a world where Britain and Israel face many of the same challenges and threats, our security services will continue to deepen their co-operation to keep all our people safe.
“The values that the UK and Israel both prize – liberty, democracy and the rule of law – are unquestionably superior to any of the alternatives against them. But those of us believe in them must be prepared to stand up for them. And we will stand by Israel when it is treated unfairly at the United Nations and have no truck boycotts, divestment or sanctions that are simply unacceptable.” She also referred to the “thriving” Christian community in Israel, in stark contrast with other parts of the region.
Courage and vision was now needed from both sides in order to achieve peace, she warned, calling for an end to settlement building and to Palestinian incitement.
However, she insisted criticising the actions of any government can never be an excuse for calling into doubt Israel’s right to exist or hate towards Jews. “There are no excuses,” she told the gathering. “I stand in absolute solidarity with the community against this poisonous force.”
And in a broadside aimed at Jeremy Corbyn , she added: “You cannot claim to be tackling racism if you’re not tackling antisemitism – and that starts with being clear and out what antisemitism is.” She took a swipe at the party’s attempt to “rewrite” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. “We accepted it in full. Labour did not. The fact the Labour Party has allowed it to go unchecked is a stain on a once great party.”
In front of an audience that included Philip Hammond, Liam Fox, Amber Rudd and Brandon Lewis, the PM – who praised the contribution of CFI – hailed the organisation’s chair in the Lords Lord Pickles for his work on the IHRA definition and wider support for the community.
Regev said the two visits to the UK by Netanyahu last year and the historic trip by Prince William “demonstrates to the world the strength of the UK-israel relationship”.
And insisting ties with the Arab world were also at an all-time peak, he added: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see another visit to a Gulf country in not too distant future.”
Pickles told May: “When we were new backbenchers I don’t think either of us thought antisemitism would move from the fringes to take over a mainstream political party.”
Those who quibble about the definition want to hold Israel to a different standard to other countries and compare Israel to the Nazis, he said: “I don’t call that freedom speech. I call that bigotry.”
Other speeches came from CFI honorary president Lord Polak and and Commons chair Stephen Crabb, who said the organisation’s work is made easier by having the strong support of ministers from the PM down.
????An honour to be with Prime Minister @Theresa_May???????? at the @CFoI???? Annual Lunch, where I thanked her for standing with #Israel???????? and against #Hezbollah & #Hamas terrorism???? pic.twitter.com/g56zUfVNXC
— Mark Regev (@MarkRegev) December 10, 2018