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UK should suspend arms sales to Israel: Former Tory minister

In an interview with Middle East Eye, former Conservative cabinet minister David Jones called for the suspension of UK arms sales to Israel
Jones has broken ranks with fellow Conservatives to describe Israel's action as 'disproportionate' (UK Parliament)

Former Conservative cabinet minister David Jones told Middle East Eye that support for Israel in the UK’s governing party is due to the success of its pro-Israel lobby group.

Jones also said Britain should suspend arms sales to Israel and broke ranks with Tory leadership by labelling Israel’s actions in Gaza “disproportionate”. He added that he believes a Labour government would not have handled the war any differently than the Conservatives.

A senior Tory who served as secretary of state for Wales between 2012 and 2014 and deputy chairman of the European Research Group since 2020, Jones remained the Conservative MP for Clwyd West in Wales until 30 May, when Parliament was dissolved for the general election.

He is standing down as MP and won't be contesting his seat during the 4 July vote.

In a wide-ranging and candid interview with Middle East Eye, Jones set out his thoughts on the UK’s response to Israel’s war on Gaza, much of which contradicts the positions of the Tory leadership. 

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He described the Hamas-led attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 as an “atrocity” and added that he believes the Palestinian group was “quite clearly being encouraged by Iran into doing what it did”.

“Israel obviously has the right to defend itself,” he said. “If there was a similar attack on British interests, we wouldn’t be questioning our right to respond.”

'Appalling destruction'

However, the former minister broke ranks with the Conservative leadership by labelling Israel’s actions in Gaza “disproportionate”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary David Cameron have never used that term to describe Israel’s actions.

In 2006, when Cameron was leader of the party in opposition, he reportedly reassured the Conservative Friends of Israel that his party would not use the word "disproportionate" in connection to Israel after his shadow foreign secretary at the time, William Hague, had done so.

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“Clearly it’s the case that many thousands of residents have been killed or wounded, many of them children,” Jones told MEE.

“There is undoubtedly concern as to the way that Israel has continued to prosecute its action in Gaza. It’s disproportionate and you see the appalling destruction that’s been inflicted on Gaza.

“You see people starving, reduced to eating animal feed, bird feed, grass. And the international community, which - let’s be frank - has an instinctive tendency to support Israel, is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with what’s happening.” He added.

On the floor of the House of Commons, Jones has repeatedly raised concerns in the past months about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and Israel’s legal obligations under international law.

Jones told MEE he thinks arms sales to Israel should be suspended, noting that “this would be very much a symbolic action and would not make any real difference to the Israeli military's ability to function".

“We should do it, but people shouldn’t become over-excited about it.”

In early April, he joined multiple other Tories in urging an end to arms sales to Israel.

The former cabinet minister further told MEE that he feels the government should “pay careful attention” to the International Criminal Court (ICC), noting that its chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, is a “British barrister” who would not take the decision to issue arrest warrants for multiple Hamas and Israeli leaders “lightly”. 

On 21 May, David Cameron described Khan’s decision to seek arrest warrants for Israeli leaders as “just plain wrong”, accusing the chief prosecutor of making a “moral equivalence between the Hamas leadership and the democratically elected leader of Israel”.

Jones had a different assessment: “It’s not a political issue, it’s a question of justice.”

Labour policy

Jones also criticised conventional expressions of support for a two-state solution to the conflict: “To talk in terms of a two-state solution when you haven’t got two states negotiating is a nonsensical concept."

For this reason, Jones thinks Britain should be “moving towards” recognising a Palestinian state. But he cautioned that he believes such an outcome can only come about “against the backdrop of Hamas clearing out and allowing the Palestinian Authority to take over”.

'The Labour Party has repeatedly made it clear it supports the government position'

- David Jones, former Conservative minister

He further argued that a permanent ceasefire could only happen if Hamas agreed to release its Israeli captives.

Jones also discussed his thoughts on British politics and attitudes towards Israel within his party.

Support for Israel among Conservatives, Jones told MEE, is “principally because the Conservative Friends for Israel have been so active in recruiting members, and one of the things I would like to have seen would be for the Arab cause to have been promoting itself just as actively as the Israel cause”.

Approximately 80 percent of the party’s MPs are members of the Conservative Friends of Israel, a pro-Israel lobby group affiliated with the Tory party.

Jones, who is chair of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, a cross-party lobby group with over 100 parliamentary members, said he has recently been working “to see the Arab cause more actively promoted” in the Tory party.

“I had connections with a number of Arab nations and dealt with them more regularly. We were arriving at a stage when Arab ambassadors were attending Tory conferences and holding receptions. But the Arab cause is behind,” he added. 

Jones was dismissive of the idea that the Conservative Party has a problem with Islamophobia in its ranks, something that has been alleged by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the party’s former chair.

“I didn’t experience any Islamophobia in the Tory party,” Jones told MEE, “and I would have been in a good position to pick that up if it was the case.”

When asked how he thought a Labour government under Keir Starmer's leadership would have responded to Israel’s war on Gaza, Jones said he believed Labour would have handled the situation in “precisely the same way” as Sunak’s Tory government did.

He pointed to the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) as one reason why change was hard to come by, arguing that it “takes a long time for corporate policy to change”.

He also noted that “the Labour Party has repeatedly made it clear it supports the government position" in parliamentary debates throughout the war. 

“There have been certain changes or nuances recently, but overall, Labour’s position has been supportive of the government’s.” 

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