The unexpected return of former United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron to British politics during Israel’s war in Gaza and pro-Palestinian protests in Britain has sparked questions over the implications for the UK’s policies towards the Middle East.
Cameron, now foreign secretary, has previously called the Gaza Strip “a prison camp” and advocated for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but he has also been a staunch backer of Israel. On October 9, as Israel announced a “total” blockade on Gaza and pummelled the enclave in retaliation for a surprise attack two days earlier by the armed Palestinian group Hamas, the 57-year-old made his pronouncement in favour of the Jewish state.
“I stand in complete solidarity with Israel at this most challenging time and fully back the Prime Minister and UK Government in their unequivocal and steadfast support,” he said on X, including the blue and white Israeli flag in his post.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Israel following the despicable acts of terror brought upon them over the weekend, and my heart goes out to all those who have so cruelly been taken against their will, and their families. Their worry and heartache is simply… pic.twitter.com/yFkRIorHjs
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) October 9, 2023
Hundreds of thousands of protesters have marched in London in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza over the weekend as a small number of far-right groups staged counterprotests.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sacked Home Secretary Suella Braverman on Monday after she drew anger for accusing police of being too lenient with pro-Palestinian protesters and making comments described as “inflammatory”.
He replaced Braverman with Foreign Secretary James Cleverly before announcing Cameron as Cleverly’s surprise replacement.
Ben Whitham, professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (SOAS), said that while Cameron was expected to strike “a more conciliatory tone”, he would not be favourable to Palestinians in the conflict.
“Certainly, like any senior Conservative politicians, he is broadly going to side with Israel and its alleged right to carry out the offensive in Gaza,” he told Al Jazeera.
Whitham said Cameron’s appointment was also aimed at “healing some of the divisions within the Conservative Party”.
“He is seen as having strong ties to strategic economic partners in the Middle East,” including an ongoing personal relationship with Saudi Arabia’s leadership, Whitman said.
During his tenure as prime minister from 2010 to 2016, Cameron criticised Israel’s “illegal” settlements in the occupied West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip. “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp,” he said on a visit to Turkey in 2010.
However, as Palestinians in Gaza benefitted from a fleeting ceasefire that temporarily halted one of the deadliest bombardments in the enclave in 2014, his party rejected calls from coalition members to re-examine arms export licenses to Israel should the fighting resume.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited the episode among the reasons why Cameron was the most pro-Israeli British prime minister ever, snatching the honorific title from “ardent” supporters like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and “unabashed admirers of the Zionist endeavour” of the calibre of Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson.
“In many ways, he sees the Middle East very similarly to Netanyahu,” Haaretz said, referring to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also held office from 2009 to 2021. Since last month, Netanyahu has repeatedly refused a ceasefire in Gaza and has promised to wipe Hamas “off the face of the earth” in an aerial and ground offensive that has killed more than 11,200 Palestinians.
During the 50 days of hostilities lasting from July 8 to August 26, 2014, 2,251 Palestinians were killed. Sayeeda Warsi, a senior minister in Britain’s Foreign Office and Britain’s first Muslim to serve in the cabinet, resigned as the ceasefire collapsed and accused Cameron’s government of taking a “morally indefensible” approach to the conflict.
Warsi said at the time that the government’s response to the events in Gaza was one of the factors behind the radicalisation of British Muslims, which could have consequences for years to come, citing early evidence from the Home Office.
Yet, the member of the House of Lords appeared to have buried the hatchet as she welcomed Cameron back on Monday. “If ever there was a time for balanced, thoughtful, compassionate leadership it is now. Your country needs you,” Warsi said on X.
According to Whitham, the former prime minister’s personal ties with Saudi Arabia have played a decisive role in his political reinstatement. Cameron was among a handful of leaders, including former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former US presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner, to travel to Saudi Arabia in 2019 for the “Davos in the Desert” summit.
“We have [a pillar] in British foreign policy in the Middle East that is becoming more important in the post-Brexit context, which is … that these foreign strategic allies outside of Europe, like Saudi Arabia, are really important,” Whitham said.
“Maintaining good relations with these partners comes above everything else,” he added. “And Cameron is seen very much as a continuity candidate in this respect.”
Military involvement in the Middle East
Cameron has been a supporter of using Britain’s “military prowess” to defeat groups regarded as “terrorists” in the Middle East. In 2014, as ISIL (ISIS) sought to establish a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, he warned that the West faced having an “extremist” state on the borders of the Mediterranean if ISIL succeeded in its goals.
His government agreed to extend air strikes into Syria from Iraq, where he voted in favour of an invasion when it was put to the British Parliament in March 2003.
“Probably the most controversial foreign policy decisions during Cameron’s time as prime minister was the decision to use extrajudicial killings in Syria, which inaugurated a programme of drone strikes that continues to this day,” Whitham said.
Since his resignation in 2016 after his unsuccessful bid for Britain to remain in the European Union, Cameron’s Middle East policy has been reviewed and found to have had a lasting impact for the region.
In 2011 when Britain and France intervened in Libya, Cameron’s government said the operation was aimed at protecting civilians under fire from longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi. But the Foreign Affairs Committee later analysed the decision and found it had relied on flawed intelligence and hastened the North African country’s political and economic collapse.
The parliamentary report concluded that Cameron had a “decisive” role in the decision to intervene and must bear the responsibility for Britain’s role in the crisis in Libya.
Much like former US President Barack Obama, Cameron opened the path to the use of lethal force in parts of the Middle East, Whitham said. “Cameron has demonstrated that he’s quite keen on military intervention in the region,” he said.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate on whether he will join the chorus of pro-Israel voices and potentially frame Hamas as an extension of ISIS. That will be down to the line Sunak takes and Cameron will have to toe that line.”