The reason given by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, in a written answer to parliament, was that is was to reward Israel for pressing forward with the search for peace. 'I have decided that,' he said, 'in light of favourable developments in the Middle East peace process, in particular the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, the United Kingdom's arms embargo against Israel should be lifted.'
Britain, along with its European partners, imposed its arms embargo on Israel in 1982 in protest at its invasion of Lebanon. Israeli forces still occupy an enclave in south Lebanon, so Britain had to find another pretext to relax the embargo. One was that the other European states had already relaxed the restrictions, and the French signed a military co-operation agreement during the visit of the defence minister earlier this year. Britain's refusal even to permit the export of gas masks to Israel when Iraqi Scud missiles were landing on Tel Aviv during the Gulf war was seen in Israel as an especially vile demonstration of British hypocrisy.
However, the Conservative Friends of Israel say that a major motive for the change of policy was government fears of losing Jewish votes before the European elections. The Conservatives had already done badly in the local elections in boroughs with high numbers of Jewish voters like Barnet and Harrow. Then last week the Jewish Chronicle published a letter which incensed the Jewish community. A Jewish organisation campaigning for a united Jerusalem - the policy of almost all Israeli political parties - had written on 9 May to John Major asking for his support. His private office replied that as Britain did not recognise Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem, he could not give his support.
The reply sparked a row. It may in fact have merely restated British policy, that Britain still recognised the status of Jerusalem as determined in the 1947 UN partition plan. But Britain has long recognised de facto Israeli sovereignty over west Jerusalem. The blunt and dismissive tone of the letter angered the Jewish lobby. Several days later a Foreign Office minister, David Heathcoat-Amory attended a meeting of Likud activists in Golders Green and apologised for its peremptory tone.