U.K. gets Jewish foreign secretary

LONDON — Parliamentary supporters of Israel were among those who have welcomed the appointment of Malcolm Rifkind as Britain's new foreign secretary.

Rifkind, who succeeds Douglas Hurd, became the first Jew to hold the post since Lord Rufus Daniel Isaacs, in Ramsay MacDonald's national government of 1931.

Rifkind, a member of Parliament for Edinburgh Pentlands, has been defense secretary for three years.

He had been widely touted to succeed Hurd after Prime Minister John Major's recent leadership victory over challenger John Redwood.

Rifkind's appointment, applauded in Parliament and Whitehall, was seen as a reflection of changing attitudes within the Foreign Office, which was traditionally regarded as predominantly Arabist in outlook. It was also seen as a reflection of the altered political atmosphere in the Middle East.

Stuart Polak, director of the Conservative Friends of Israel, said his organization was "absolutely delighted" with Rifkind's appointment.

The group, associated with Major's Conservative Party, also expressed satisfaction at the transfer of Jeremy Hanley, party chairman, to the Foreign Office where, as minister of state, he will assume responsibility for the Middle East.

Hanley's predecessor, Douglas Hogg, has been moved to the Office of Agriculture.

A spokesman for the all-party Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group said both Rifkind and Hanley had a "long record of solid support" for Israel.

Rifkind — a strongly identified Jew who nonetheless views his Judaism as "supremely irrelevant" to his political duties — spoke very much like a foreign secretary-in-waiting when addressing a Britain-Israel Chamber of Commerce lunch just hours before his promotion was announced.

He told the chamber that Britain would strongly support the Middle East peace process and voiced his approval of last year's lifting of Britain's arms embargo against Israel.

He pledged that there would be "no political constraint" on the trading of defense equipment between the two countries.

The only other Jewish member of Major's Cabinet, Michael Howard — who had been mentioned as another contender for the foreign secretary's job — retained his post as home secretary.