UK and Israel sign deal strengthening tech, trade and security ties

The UK and Israel have signed a long-term agreement strengthening ties in the fields of defence, security and technology following plans announced last year to put relations between the two countries on an elevated footing.

The timing of Tuesday’s agreement is controversial since it will be seen as a mark of approval for Israel’s far-right government, which has put settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank at the top of its agenda and faces a massive backlash over plans to neuter the role of the judiciary.

The agreement was signed by the UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the Israeli foreign minister, Eli Cohen, in London. It forms part of the UK’s efforts to forge strategic partnerships with so-called middle countries.

A Foreign Office press release referred to British concern about the recent rise in violence across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, but made no attempt to apportion blame. It also made no reference to the Israeli government’s planned changes to the judiciary, which have been widely criticised, including by the US president, Joe Biden, in a phone call on Sunday with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The release instead praises a landmark agreement that will define bilateral relations between the two countries until 2030.

Netanyahu is expected to visit Rishi Sunak in London on Friday for talks focusing on the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme, in the light of the normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this month. Netanyahu has been touring European capitals in recent weeks to gauge the mood towards Iran.

The UK Foreign Office said the two countries “are determined to form a modern, innovative and forward-looking relationship that continues to focus on mutual priorities for mutual benefit, including on trade, cyber, science and tech, research and development, security, health, climate and gender”.

The UK is also committed to working closely with Israel to tackle antisemitism. As chair for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2024, the UK will promote fact-based knowledge of the Holocaust and strengthen media and information literacy.

Cleverly said: “The UK-Israel bilateral roadmap is a testament to the strength of our close and historic relationship … The UK and Israel also stand together, defiant in the face of the malign influence of Iran in the region, and against the wider scourge of antisemitism.”

After the meeting Cohen emphasised the discussions on how to increase sanctions against Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab British Understanding, described the timing of the agreement as “deeply disappointing given the continued settlement expansion treatment … This also completely undermines the tens of thousands that have protested against the judicial reforms.

“It is laudable to work to tackle antisemitism, but to do this with a government that contains a finance minister that denies Palestinians even exist is a kick in the teeth.”

He said he assumed the agreement had been long in the making and there must have been some internal discussion in the Foreign Office about whether to go ahead at such a sensitive time.

It is possible that the UK Foreign Office wanted the agreement out of the way before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan due to fears that violence will escalate further.

In a letter to MPs, Cleverly said he had no plans to engage with Israel’s extreme-right security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir. But the UK is in a bind since it can hardly engage with half of a government.

The UK-Israel trade relationship is estimated to be worth about £7bn, and there are more than 400 Israeli tech firms operating in the UK. Israeli investment into the UK is said to add about £1bn gross value to the UK economy, creating about 16,000 jobs in the last eight years.

On Tuesday, Israeli lawmakers repealed a 2005 act under which four Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank were dismantled at the same time as Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip, in the latest move by Netanyahu’s to promote settlement activity in the territory.

The UK embassy put out a brief statement on Twitter in response, saying: “The decision undermines prospects for a two-state solution. At a time of increased sensitivity in the West Bank, we encourage the government of Israel to take steps that reduce tension.”

Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s economic affairs director, said: “We’ve repeatedly warned ministers that the new trade deal currently being negotiated with Tel Aviv could end up providing further cover for Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian territory by failing to differentiate between goods produced in Israel and those made in the illegal settlements.”