Expressing “disappointment” at Prof Hawking’s decision, Mr Steinitz said: “I didn’t hear that Prof Hawking or other British academics, who are so easily boycotting Israel, are boycotting other Middle East countries. Or if they have reservations about America invading Iraq, they so easily boycott American universities. So some Israelis feel that there is some kind of double standards.
“The fact that Israel is treated differently, the fact that some people can say so easily, let’s do something against Israel, let’s boycott Israel, let’s boycott Israeli products, this is some kind of disguised anti-Semitism. In past times people said that they are against the Jews. Now, especially after the Holocaust, nobody says that they are against the Jews, but people are against the Jewish state.”
Mr Steinitz a former finance minister said British perceptions of Israel were more negative than those of other Western or European countries and drew comparison with popular sentiment in the US, Canada and Australia.
“There should not be much difference between people in America, Canada, Britain and Australia,” he said. “[They have] the same language, very similar cultures. And still in America, Canada, in Australia in opinion polls, most citizens support Israel with a very warm feeling. In Britain it is much less.
“When you think that all four are Anglo-Saxon democracies, why should people in America, Australia or Canada have different relations to or appreciations of the minuscule Jewish state than the people of Britain? Just recently, there was a very general poll in the United States. The support for Israel in the United States was stronger than ever. I’m not confident that this is the case with Britain as well.”
Asked if this difference in attitude might be reflected in the Foreign Office or in Government policy, he replied: “This might be the case.”
Anti-Semitism existed in Britain to a “certain extent”, he added, manifesting itself in negative attitudes to the Jewish state.
Widely believed to be Mr Netanyahu’s favoured choice as Israel’s next foreign minister, Mr Steinitz was almost certainly reflecting his boss’s views. One official close to the prime minister has told The Daily Telegraph that Mr Netanyahu views British public opinion towards Israel as “very tough”.
Mr Steinitz insisted that he was not accusing Mr Hague or other British ministers who had criticised Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank of anti-Semitism, saying this was a “legitimate view”.
“Not every kind of criticism is anti-Semitism,” he said. “I didn’t say that any criticism of Israel was anti-Semitic or unfair even. If somebody has some criticism of Israel, this is one thing. The same person can also have some criticism of his own country.