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16 June, 2024
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UK accused of turning a blind eye to Israel-Palestine war

Foreign Affairs Committee to investigate UK's Israel-Palestine focus

Source: The Guardian

Concerns that the UK Foreign Office has neglected the Israel-Palestine conflict in its tilt to the Indo-Pacific and the pursuit of trade deals across the Middle East is to be investigated by the foreign affairs select committee.

Alicia Kearns, the chair of the committee, which will start holding evidence sessions on the issue in November, has been one of the most prominent MPs warning that a crisis was brewing that required greater attention and a more robust approach from the UK towards Israel’s new government.

Critics argue that the UK government, along with others, missed the danger signals and invested in an unconditional and one-sided relationship with Israel that did not acknowledge how different the government elected in November was to its predecessors.

Kearns said it was ridiculous – and symbolic – when the Foreign Office abolished the now-restored post of Middle East minister in 2022. “There is a chance that we might be seeing a third intifada and the Gaza crisis of 2003. We should be worried, because what happens in Palestine and Israel impacts around the world,” she told MPs in July as she called for Rishi Sunak to appoint a Middle East peace envoy following an Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. “I stress that this low-commitment ask would allow us to live up to our responsibilities and demonstrate meaningful resolve. Our voice is unique and will be heard, and we have a role to play in the peace process.”

In an evidence session in March with the Foreign Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Philip Barton, she asked: “Do you think we have the right posture towards Israel? I, for my part, feel that we have failed to be a critical friend. We have a very close and important security friendship but we have yet to adopt that critical one”, adding that she found the agenda of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government concerning.

“If I am honest, it feels increasingly to me that the reason we are silent around the Middle East is because there is no Instagram diplomacy to be won. There are no easy wins,” she said.

Her remarks to the most senior civil servant in the Foreign Office came six days after the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and his Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, issued a 2030 roadmap deepening cooperation across the breadth of the Israel-UK relationship, including on trade, cyber-security, research and development, security, health, climate and gender. It made no reference to the two-state solution, simply promising to help Palestinian economic development. The timing of the roadmap’s publication was striking in that Israel was in turmoil over Netanyahu’s judicial reforms. When Netanyahu came to London a few days later, Sunak avoided a joint Downing Street press event with his Israeli counterpart.

Relations between the Conservative party and Israel have always been warm, but Israel historically felt those relations had been held back by Foreign Office so-called Arabists.

Just before the 7 October Hamas attacks, Mark Regev, a former Israeli ambassador to London and currently Netanyahu’s adviser, felt moved to write a piece in the Jerusalem Post hailing the end of the influence of Arabists in the Foreign Office, those who have devoted their careers to the Middle East.

“For over a half century, Israeli diplomats working in London complained about the legendary antipathy of the Foreign Office’s Arabists,” he wrote. Unlike other specialists – Sinologists, Russologists, and Africa experts – Arabists were accused of having an infatuation with their interlocutors, of seeing Arab and British interests as intrinsically linked, and of viewing Israel through a hostile prism.

Regev said the change had its roots in Arab states themselves. “London’s most important Arab partners, especially those in the Gulf, no longer perceive Israel as an enemy; instead, the pragmatic Arab states increasingly view Israel as a partner and an ally. Even the most diehard British Arabist has trouble remaining more negative about Israel than the Arabs themselves.”

He continued: “If in the past the composition of a UK ambassador in Israel’s job was 80% Arab-Israel conflict-related and 20% bilateral ties, these proportions have now flipped. Today the focus is predominantly on building stronger, mutually beneficial Israel-UK cooperation – which, according to London’s most recent figures, has seen trade reach £7.3bn, up 29.9% from 12 months ago.”

Faced with the charge that he had pursued trade deals above Middle East peace, Cleverly has said he has repeatedly expressed concern on behalf of the government, in public and private, about the expansion of Israeli settlements.

But challenged in June by the foreign affairs committee member Neil Coyle about whether this concern was pro-forma, asking “what actions you are taking against those who are pursuing the expansion and annexation of settlements”, Cleverly replied: “You say that we are seeing no action, but I have made the point that on a number of occasions there have been well-advanced talks through diplomacy.”

Cleverly continued: “Through diplomacy, we have prevented those expansions from happening … we do not get our way in every instance, but that is how diplomacy works”.

UN evidence hardly supports Cleverly’s claim the UK has prevented expansions from happening. The UN estimates that 670,000 Israeli citizens live in 130 illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and this year had already set an all-time record for settlement construction in the West Bank. Since January, Israel has advanced 12,855 settler housing units across the West Bank, according to the NGO Peace Now – the highest number the group has recorded since it started tracking such activity in 2012.

Arguably, the only practical step the Sunak government has taken is to propose a law to prevent UK public bodies from divesting in Israel. The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matter) bill last week had its report stage, when former Conservative ministers such as George Eustice expressed misgivings at its foreign policy implications.

Many Conservative MPs have pointed out the British government’s position over a long period of time has been that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal. But Eustice feared the wording in the bill was designed to send signals that this was changing. Kearns said she had spent hours on the phone with Arab ambassadors, including those who support normalisation with Israel, who wanted to know whether this meant post-1967 Israeli settlements were still regarded as illegal by the UK government.

Israeli soldiers at a position near the town of Deir Sharaf as Jewish settlers gather, in the Nablus governorate of the occupied West Bank, on 2 November 2023.

One former UK ambassador argues Cleverly’s visit to Israel in September was a missed chance to criticise illegal settlements, and the threat they pose to the survival of two-state solution. In a long speech on 12 September to a counter-terrorism conference in Herzliya, Israel, Cleverly did made a clear call for both sides to make a commitment to a two-state solution, but then referenced the “so many wonderful, positive developments in this region” by which he meant normalisation between Arab states and Israel.

Faced with the reality of ever more illegal settlements, he provided £1.5m to help the victims of settler violence and in his speech said he commended “Israel’s taking of legal action against those settlers who have perpetrated violence”. One former diplomat said: “Charitably, one can say he was encouraging those in Netanyahu’s government that want to prosecute settler violence, but to say it is happening is pure wish fulfilment.” In June, Netanyahu had given control of settlement planning in the West Bank to the firebrand finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich.

“It is very hard to find a front rank Tory politician that is willing to criticise Israel about anything,” said Chris Doyle, from the Council for Arab-British Understanding. “The government acts as if Israel is in favour of a two-state solution, but the Israeli government coalition formally opposes it. Ministers never call them out on this.”

Arab diplomats in London say they feel excluded from the Foreign Office, saying normalisation with Israel was too often seen by UK ministers as an alternative, not an adjunct, to the Palestinian issue. Onesaid: “The UK is giving Israel a licence to kill.”

Some feel also the government is playing domestic politics with the issue, trying to create fractures inside the Labour party rather than working out what is the best position to adopt peace. “If Rishi Sunak had called for an end to the siege, I am pretty sure Keir Starmer could as well.” But none are suggesting the planned Gulf-UK free trade deal is in jeopardy.

HMS Queen Elizabeth as seen through the cockpit of a Merlin helicopter before landing on the aircraft carrier during trials off the east coast of the USA.

Calls are still being made for Sunak to signal new energy on the Palestinian issue by appointing either Lord Hague, a former foreign secretary, or Alistair Burt, a respected former Middle East minister, as special envoy. Hague, busy elsewhere, is unlikely to want the job while Burt, a pro-European, would be a hard sell in today’s Tory party.

Those who know Cleverly well say he is deeply horrified by the loss of life, but shares Israel’s desire to see Hamas politically destroyed so it cannot regroup to repeat its barbarity. He has already commissioned work on the “day after” administration in Gaza and is deeply engaged diplomatically.

If he is rushing to catch up, he is not alone among European leaders. But the inquiry may prove uncomfortable if the Foreign Office is asked to show how Britain’s declared proximity to Israel was used to secure peace, and not just profit.


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