In its foreign policy so far, the Coalition has managed to spring some welcome surprises. One of these has been a more pragmatic approach to the European Union than might have been expected, given the Eurosceptic noises made by Tories during the election. Now we have William Hague, issuing a very deliberate and very public warning to Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, about avoiding "belligerent language" during the present regional ferment. Overt, or even implied, criticism of the Israeli leadership is not something one would associate with a Conservative foreign secretary, and the timing could be seen as little short of inflammatory.
That Israel might take umbrage, however, does not mean that Mr Hague was not right. These are uncertain, and potentially dangerous, times, and the temptation might be for a stable and militarily strong power – such as Israel – to exploit its advantage, in words if not in actual deeds. A consequence, as Mr Hague spelt out, might well be the sidelining, or even loss, of the peace process. He urged Israel to keep its eyes on the central goal – peace with the Palestinians – for its own good and that of the region.
From Mr Hague's very deliberate tone, and the fact that he was speaking in an interview with the BBC, it is clear that what he said was no oversight. He meant it to be heard not just by Israel's leaders, but by all regional players, and by the United States, from whom he demanded "bold leadership". There was also an urgency which suggested two further purposes. First, a desire to articulate the real fear that the time for an Israel-Palestinian agreement may be running out. And, second, a weightier aspect to Mr Hague's five-country mission than simply showing the UK flag.
This might include, for instance, conveying messages on behalf of the EU and the US. France, as the colonial power in the Maghreb, knows the benefits of keeping its distance (as it showed by refusing exile to the ousted president of Tunisia), while there are considerable benefits for President Obama of being able to operate beneath the radar. In his public words to Israel, Mr Hague may have revealed only a part of his hand.