(Editor’s note: Israel has not had many champions within England’s political class which is all the more reason to remember and honor men like Harold Wilson. Given the rote comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa by her enemies, it is especially interesting that Wilson told his Foreign Secretary that he had a free hand except in two areas—Israel because of his respect for her and South Africa because of his detestation of apartheid.)
Harold Wilson was a mid-table prime minister, the Stoke or Southampton of the political world. Nonetheless, Wilson is the only occupant of Downing Street to have won four general elections – albeit three by the skin of his teeth. October 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the first of those victories.
Although of the television age, Wilson was the last monochrome prime minister. This perhaps helps explain why his two stretches in Downing Street–1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976–don’t rank higher in the national consciousness. To the extent they are remembered at all, it is as a time of sweeping liberalization and deep economic crisis.
What is now forgotten is Wilson’s staunch Zionism–an unfashionable trait today among the Labour left from whose ranks he originally hailed. And Wilson’s commitment to Israel was intimately connected to his socialism. As his political secretary, Baroness Falkender, later explained: “Wilson admired Israel’s determined development as a socialist state.” Alongside his hero, Aneurin Bevan, and perhaps his two closest political allies, Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle, the future prime minister formed close relationships during the 1950s with a number of young Israelis who were later to become leading politicians: Yigal Allon, Chaim Herzog, and Teddy Kollek. For Wilson, these young men were “social democrats who made the desert flower”.
Wilson’s view of Israel may, as Falkender believes, have been “in many ways a romantic one”, but there was nothing whimsical about it. His book, The Chariot of Israel: Britain, America and the State of Israel, was described by Wilson’s home secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins, as “one of the most strongly Zionist tracts ever written by a non-Jew”. Its hero was Arthur Balfour, its villain Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary alongside whom Wilson served in Attlee’s cabinet as the creation of the state of Israel was hotly debated.
As prime minister, Wilson was determined, says his biographer, Philip Ziegler, to “expiate Bevin’s sins”. On appointing him foreign secretary, Wilson told Jim Callaghan he would have a free hand “with the exception of two areas–Israel and South Africa,” the latter because of his detestation of apartheid. When the Egyptian president, Colonel Nasser, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in May 1967, Wilson pledged that Britain would “promote and secure free passage”.