Published in the Independent 30 May 2020
Whatever Boris Johnson’s troubles, he can always comfort himself that unlike the prime minister of a British ally 3,000 miles away, he’s not running the country while simultaneously being tried on corruption charges.
But a difference between Johnson and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is the latter’s political nous, most recently deployed in his use of Israel’s own Covid-19 crisis, though less grave and better managed than the UK’s, to serve his primary goal: staying in office and out of prison (Netanyahu denies all charges against him).
After an inconclusive election, Netanyahu persuaded his main opponent Benny Gantz to join a “unity” government, ostensibly to deal with the coronavirus crisis. But to become defence minister (and in 18 months prime minister in the “rotation” envisaged by the coalition agreement) Gantz paid a heavy price – not for himself but for regional stability.
Gantz agreed that Netanyahu can stay in office despite what promises to be his very lengthy criminal trial. But Gantz also had to back formal annexation of key sections of the West Bank occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967. This was a minimum requirement of Netanyahu’s other coalition partners, and Israel’s prime minister insists that he will begin the process on 1 July.
This would be a momentous step, finally eliminating any hope that Israel is prepared to negotiate an end to the conflict on the minimum terms the Palestinians could ever accept: their own state alongside Israel, on 22 per cent of the Holy Land and broadly on the borders of Israel up to June 1967. Which is only one reason why the Palestinians are so perturbed by the threat.
But it is also a critical foreign policy test for European governments, including the UK, who currently oppose annexation because it is a flagrant violation of international law – just like the West Bank Jewish settlements which annexation would for the first time unilaterally define as being in Israel. So much so that within the EU a debate has started over whether, if Netanyahu implements his threat, sanctions should be applied to Israel as they have been to Russia over its illegal annexation of Crimea.
A powerful argument in favour of Britain doing just that has now emerged, remarkably, from within Israel itself. A letter from a group of prominent liberal Israeli public figures, sent to Boris Johnson last week, and shown to The Independent, says bluntly: “For 53 years, Israel has deepened its hold on the occupied territories without being held accountable. While de facto annexation has long been a policy of the Israeli government, de jure annexation will put paid to the argument that the occupation is temporary and will turn Israel into an apartheid state.”
The signatories, who include three former Israeli ambassadors, the former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, and the eminent academics Zeev Sternhell and Menachem Klein (a former adviser to Ehud Barak) have done their homework. They point out that as foreign secretary, Johnson himself said in a 2017 interview with The Jerusalem Post, “You have to have a two-state solution [hopes for which the new letter says will be dealt a “mortal blow” by annexation] or else you have a kind of apartheid system.”
Arguing that, “Britain’s history in our region gives it a unique responsibility to uphold the right to self-determination of both peoples”, the letter notes that in a 2017 Telegraph column just before the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which paved the way to the eventual creation of Israel, Johnson’s pledge to give “whatever support we can” finally to fulfil the declaration’s promise that a Jewish homeland would not prejudice Palestinian rights. (The letter also calls on Britain to recognise Palestine in line with the UK parliament’s 2014 vote.)
Most significantly the signatories back a recent call for sanctions in the event of annexation by 149 UK politicians including two former Tory cabinet ministers – Lord Patten and Andrew Mitchell – former Foreign Office permanent secretary Lord Jay, and Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who vigorously campaigned against antisemitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership.
Annexation is more than a paper formalisation of the (indefensible) status quo. Leading Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard has argued that it would for the first time in the West Bank make it “legal” – in Israeli though not in international law – to use mechanisms originally confined to Israel proper, to grab even more Palestinian land.
True, some Israeli commentators believe that Netanyahu will not actually carry out his threat. But much could depend on Donald Trump, whose so called “peace plan” backs annexation of 20 per cent or more of the West Bank – though theoretically only in the context of a negotiated agreement. But Trump could back unilateral annexation if needed to shore up his fanatically pro-Israeli government, evangelical Christian, base before November’s US election.
Europe will certainly condemn annexation, though the prospect of pan-EU sanctions – as opposed to action by individual members states – could be blocked by Israel’s loyal right-wing allies in eastern and central Europe.
Neither letter spells out the envisaged sanctions. But they should surely at a minimum include a ban on imports from Israeli West Bank settlements. It isn’t, admittedly, easy to see Johnson imposing sanctions, not least because he will be seeking to negotiate post-Brexit trade deals with Israel and the US.
But the letter to Johnson from inside Israel is a formidable reminder to him – and the rest of the international community – that fine words are not enough. If they are to escape mounting charges of hypocrisy, western democratic leaders will sooner or later have to act as well as speak against Israel’s persistent denial of Palestinian rights.