UK prime ministerial hopeful Boris Johnson has said that he "loves" the "great country" of Israel and considers himself a "passionate Zionist".
In an exclusive interview with UK newspaper Jewish News, Johnson – the former British foreign secretary who is now hoping to lead the ruling Conservative Party and, therefore, the country – yesterday described himself as a "passionate Zionist" and Israel as a "great country" that "I love".
Johnson also sought to clarify his previous comments about Israel's 2014 assault on the besieged Gaza Strip, which he once described as "disproportionate". Johnson yesterday claimed "it's totally unacceptable that innocent Israeli civilians should face the threat of rocket fire and bombardment from Gaza," adding: "I understand why Israel reacted in the way that it did and I understand the provocation and the outrageous behaviour that occasioned that response."
He continued: "Those of us who support Israel always want Israel to show the greatest possible restraint [but] Israel has a right to respond, Israel has a right to defend itself. Israel has a right to meet force with force."
Johnson also discussed other aspects of the UK's relationship with Israel, saying he was "proud to be the Mayor who led the first ever London-Israel trade mission" in 2015. Johnson served as mayor of UK capital London from 2008 to 2016, but stressed that, if he becomes the UK prime minister later this month, he "will be actively supporting trade and commercial engagements of all kinds [with Israel]".
The politician also addressed the prospect of moving the British Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of US President Donald Trump's December 2017 decision. Johnson said he could "see the logic" of the British government pursuing such a policy, but added that "the moment for us to play that card is when we make further progress". Johnson did not specify what form this progress would take.
On Palestinian issues, Johnson condemned the Palestinian Authority (PA)'s payment of stipends to the families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails. "I think it's ludicrous that there should be any kind of financial incentive or compensation for terrorist activities," he argued, claiming that he has spoken to PA President Mahmoud Abbas about the policy in the past.
Johnson also appeared to label the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement anti-Semitic. Asked whether he agreed with rival candidate for the Conservative leadership, current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, that boycotts of Israel are anti-Semitic, Johnson claimed they "often stem from that syndrome, definitely".
He added: "Anybody who knows anything about it knows that actually the boycott and disinvestment movement will probably hit hardest Palestinian […] people who are in jobs, are benefitting from Israeli investment, Israeli farming, whatever. It just makes no sense at all."
Efforts to label BDS anti-Semitic have gained pace in recent weeks, after the German parliament in May voted to pass a non-binding motion to this effect. The motion claimed that BDS' "don't buy" stickers – which aim to identify products of Israeli origin so consumers can refrain from purchasing them – "arouse associations [with] the Nazi slogan 'Don't buy from Jews'" and are "reminiscent of the most horrific phase in German history".
Despite widespread condemnation, Israel has continued to pressure other European states to follow Germany's lead, even seeking to prevent the Palestine Expo – Europe's largest Palestine exhibition which took place in London this weekend – from happening and trying to ban its Knesset members from attending.
Johnson is no stranger to controversial statements: he has previously said that Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab look like "letterboxes" and "bank robbers"; referred to Africans using the racial slur "picanninies" with "watermelon smiles"; and claimed that former US President Barack Obama's decision to remove a bust of former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, from the White House Oval Office was "a symbol of the part-Kenyan president's ancestral dislike of the British Empire".
These statements have caused concern about Johnson's suitability for the position of prime minister, which he will automatically assume if he is elected as Conservative Party leader this month. Johnson could serve as prime minister until 2022 without holding a general election, which would represent five years since his soon-to-be-predecessor, Theresa May, held the UK's last general election.
The results of the Conservative Party leadership race are expected on 23 July, with May likely to step down as prime minister the following day.