William Hague: I'm a natural friend of Israel
He doesn't rule out military operation in Iran, seeks to change law to allow Israeli leaders to visit kingdom without fear. What did Britain's new foreign secretary think about passport affair, did he enjoy swimming in Sea of Galilee, and will he be good for Israel?
Hague, 49, replaced John Major as leader of the Conservative Party in `97, but lost the premiership to Tony Blair and was forced to wait until 2010 before finally entering the government.
Following Gordon's Brown resignation, Queen Elizabeth appointed David Cameron as his replacement, and the new British prime minister announced that Hague would be his first appointment. The man who lost to Blair in 2001 and immediately resigned as the party's leader, rehabilitated the party in the opposition and already knows what his first mission in office will be.
"The most urgent thing is the Iranian nuclear program," Hague said recently in an interview to the Jewish Chronicle. "We have consistently been the party arguing for tough sanctions and a strong European approach over the last few years and are very frustrated that that hasn’t emerged strongly enough.
"Unlike the Liberal Democrats, we don’t say you rule out for ever any military action. However, we are not calling for that. The way I usually put it is that Iran getting nuclear bomb may be a calamity, although military action may be calamitous. This is why we need peaceful pressure. But to simply take all military efforts off the table is reducing the pressure on Iran."
William Hague. Finally entering government (Photo: Reuters)
Over the past year Israel has clashed with the Labour government, headed by Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband, on several occasions. One of the main issues of dispute was the use of British passports in the assassination of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai.
Hague responded to the matter politely, but clarified that Israel had "more questions" to answer on the apparent use of false British passports. He said that there was "great concern" about the forging of passports and that "our own particular national interest is in protecting the passports of UK individuals."
Livni, Barak to return to kingdom?
Hague said the Brown cabinet did the right thing by inviting Israeli Ambassador to Britain Ron Prosor to discuss the passport affair, rather than summoning him firmly. "There was no need to humiliate him," he told the 170 guests at a British-Israel Chamber of Commerce dinner in Manchester the same evening. He added, however, that he wanted assurances from Israel that it was not misusing British passports for its own ends.
Hague's appointment is expected to give Israeli leaders the option to return to London. The new foreign secretary is in favor of changing the law preventing Israeli leaders and army officials from visiting the kingdom for fear of being arrested for war crimes.
'National interest in protecting the passports of UK individuals'
The difference between the Conservative and Labour parties in terms of the Middle East peace process is not big, but Hague believes the change of government could help the negotiations. He said recently that Britain has not been sufficiently involved in the peace process in the past few years and has not made many efforts to restart the process.
"Yes, we are friends of Israel. We are concerned that if a two-state solution is not arrived at soon, then it will never be. And that that would not be in the long-term interests of Israel and that is why we want to see all parties involved being prepared to negotiate."
'23 state solution'
Hague stresses that he is a "natural friend" of Israel, but does not spare criticism against the Jewish state on the settlement construction issue. However, it appears that his criticism is not too critical.
"The recent announcement of a new project in east Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden was not a great way to advance diplomatic relations. It was a mistake to make it public in that way although it was probably an accident in terms of the timing. These sorts of things can happen, particularly within coalition governments, but that's a great shame that it came out when it did," he said.
"There are things that we're asking of Israel, such as the freeze on settlement expansion, but there are also important things we ask of Palestinians. And we still have the issue of dealing with Hamas in Gaza, an organization that doesn't recognize Israel."
Gaza on fire during Operation Cast Lead. Hague understood Israel's stand (Photo: AP)
"So it's absolutely true that the pressure must be applied on all sides," he added. "Foreign Secretary David Miliband has often spoken about needing not a two-state solution but a 23-state solution of all the Arab states, and this is true."
Hague has visited Israel in the past and examined the security problems up close. "I've travelled across the country. I've stood on the Golan Heights and swam in the Sea of Galilee. I've stood on the part of the West Bank where you can see the Mediterranean, where you really understand Israel's strategic fragility. But we are candid friends, which means we don't always agree."
Hague criticized Israel during the Second Lebanon War as well, saying that the fighting damaged its image among the international community. He voiced a different opinion about Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
"There are still things I think that need examining about this conflict but I didn't use the term 'disproportionate' because, in this instance, Israel was under repeated rocket attack. This has to be kept in mind. We did want a ceasefire as soon as possible but always stressed the need for a ceasefire on both sides for it to be effective."
Nonetheless, he said the Goldstone report, which accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes in Gaza, should not be dismissed. "Goldstone raised some important issues, which all concerned have to address. And of course democracies and free societies are held to high standards and should be."