Sir Vincent Fean – How will the US Presidential Elections Affect the Israel/Palestine Conflict?

Talk given on 12 November 2020.

Diana Safieh:

Vincent Fean is a retired member of the British Diplomatic Service. His last post was Consul General, Jerusalem, from 2010 to 2014. Before that he was the UK Ambassador to Libya and also High Commissioner to Malta. He has studied Arabic – so his Arabic is probably better than mine, as a Palestinian! He advocates equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians in line with the mission statement of the Balfour Project, and British Government recognition of the State of Palestine alongside Israel on pre-June 1967 lines.
He is our chair here at the Balfour Project and I am handing you over to his very capable hands.

Sir Vincent Fean:
Thank you very much, Diana, and thank you for all you do.
How may the US presidential elections affect the Israel-Palestine conflict?
I began the day listening to Dr Mustafa Barghouti, who has the distinction of playing a part in the last exercise of Presidential democracy in the Occupied Palestinian Territory – in what I call Palestine. That was in 2005, when he ran against Mahmoud Abbas, who, as we know, won that election. There haven’t been any elections since then for the Presidency.
The word that Mustafa Barghouti used was relief. Relief at the prospective departure of Donald Trump and therefore not four more years of destruction – destruction of Palestinian rights.
But a question arises, and we will try to talk about it now. Will President-elect Biden prioritise this very sensitive political issue? Very sensitive inside the United States.
We can’t, and shouldn’t, ignore the USA. How can you? Still the world’s only superpower and Israel’s closest ally. Capable of doing a great deal of good and, as we have seen in the last four years, a great deal of harm, particularly on this issue.
So today: for many, including me, a sense of relief.
At the same time, on this issue, it’s evident that the US alone cannot, or maybe will not, make a decisive difference. And that means that those of us who want to see a change in the region in the direction of equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis need to keep raising awareness, persuading, lobbying, making a noise.
I will talk about the history, touching briefly on Britain’s historic responsibility, because that is the leitmotif, the ethos, of the Balfour Project charity; examining Britain’s role in the first half of the last century. And I argue that that responsibility gives us a continuing role in seeking equal rights between the River and the Sea. Then I’ll talk about where US efforts have led, and briefly describe the current dire situation as regards equal rights – where I think it’s true to say Trump has been an accomplice to theft: theft of land, theft of rights – and look forward to the Biden Presidency; what to expect, what to look out for.
There is urgency, real urgency. The situation is dire on the ground. Hope, that precious commodity, is fading. So we need to underline the urgency and try to ensure that this issue has priority among all the other priorities that an incoming President has to deal with.
Finally, I’ll talk about what we – you and I – can do to make a positive difference in difficult circumstances. By we, I mean the British – the focus of our charity – Government and civil society, Parliament, and the likes of you and me.
I’ll begin with a bit of history.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was not, in my impression, an Anglo-American creation. It was an Anglo-Zionist creation. It, and the British Mandate for Palestine up until 1948, give us British that ongoing responsibility for equal rights which we emphatically did not sustain or achieve, or indeed properly seek, when we arguably had the power to do so. I recall one remark by the eminent historian Sir Martin Gilbert. He said in a speech once – and I paraphrase – If there was one thing that was at the heart of British policy in the Mandate period, it was to make sure that the views of the majority were not heeded until that majority was Jewish.
With World War II, and all the trials and tribulations of that war, UK power was on the wane well before 1948, and American power was on the up. It is significant that when David Ben-Gurion, the founder and first Prime Minister of Israel, made the declaration of Israeli statehood in May 1948, as Britain was leaving, that declaration was recognised by the United States just seven minutes later. Seven minutes later. That was prearranged, worked well, and helped Israel to find its feet in the United Nations. There are parallels in the efforts by Palestinians now to acquire recognition as a state. The state has acquired around 135 recognitions to date. Sadly, the United Kingdom is not one of them.
The UK recognised Israel 70 years ago in 1950, a couple of years after the Americans, partly because of our Mandate responsibilities and our wish to think it through.
From 1948 to date, the United States has been – and is – Israel’s closest friend and ally. The United States has Israel’s back, as they say, militarily, economically, and on the international stage. More than half of US military aid globally goes to Israel and successive American Presidents are keen to ensure that Israel maintains a qualitative edge, militarily, over all other countries in the region. And it does.
It’s important to realise to what extent Israel and the wellbeing of Israel are a domestic issue and interest of the United States. One can look to some of the Trump supporters, the evangelicals, who were impressed by the various moves that Trump made in his four years – we’ll list them in a minute. But the support for Israel goes wider than that, and it is bipartisan between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
What does that mean? Well, to me, it means that an even-handed approach as an “honest broker” is not really possible for the United States, despite the valiant efforts of some. I would include Secretary of State John Kerry among those who made that valiant effort. But can a state which, faced with a negotiation, will consult one party first, agree on a line, and then present that line as a US line to the other party – in this case, the Palestinians – can it be even-handed?
One can hope – but one should realise what’s happened in the past.
My time in Jerusalem included the beginning of John Kerry’s effort in August 2013. It ended in failure in April 2014 and there haven’t been talks, meaningful talks, between Israelis and Palestinians since then. Joe Biden and John Kerry are people of the Obama eight years. Joe Biden was Obama’s loyal Vice-President for eight years. And you can think back to Clinton and the Clinton parameters; to Bush and the Roadmap – drawn up with Tony Blair, I think – but it’s important to remember when you’re thinking about what Joe Biden will do, that he was Obama’s Vice-President for eight years. I believe Obama was probably the President of the United States with the greatest degree of sympathy for the Palestinian cause and for Palestinian rights.
But he blinked. He made an excellent speech in Cairo in 2009 condemning settlement expansion, condemning settlements, and then he blinked. Netanyahu went to Congress and outflanked Obama in his own country.
I remember a visit in my time by Vice President Biden, to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which coincided with a new settlement announcement. There was a great deal of anger. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained, but that settlement now exists.
Now, what I find on settlement expansion, and on many other things, is that there is a kind of ratchet effect. These things are announced, opposed, happen, are condemned and then we move on. And we shouldn’t move on, because the ratchet has moved and it never goes back.
What we are seeing with settlement expansion is incremental de facto annexation. Formal annexation may be “suspended”, but we are seeing de facto incremental annexation, and it never goes back.
So what of Biden and his priorities? I don’t know him. What I know of him is that he is pragmatic, realistic, an improvement on his predecessor, intent on healing America and healing US alliances, including with NATO, the European Union and others, focused on climate change and on foreign policy, on China and Iran. So what priority will he give to this issue? If it means a collision course with the Israeli Government, the instinct of a President is to avoid collision to minimise trouble. But if there is going to be self-determination for the Palestinians, which is an aspiration shared by the Balfour Project, settlements need to cease. Settlement expansion needs to cease because that is killing the concept of Palestinian self-determination. So will Biden, with Europe, stop settlements? We’ll have to see.
Back to John Kerry, and that big effort by the US Secretary of State to secure an agreement between the two parties. Someone quite important said at the time: “Let’s get this negotiating plane up in the air, and then we’ll see where it lands.”
Well, it landed in a bad place. The effort was there, but there was no structure, no framework. Why not? I fear because if there had been – and it was the framework of international law, of UN Security Council resolutions 242, 338 – then the Prime Minister of Israel would not have played, would not have participated. So what did we end up with? We ended up with talks with no framework. That’s a recipe for misunderstanding, for duplicity and for failure.
John Kerry made a valiant effort. I believe he did. I’ve just re-read his last speech as Secretary of State – 28 December, 2016. Trump came into office the next month. The speech is quite prophetic. In substance, what the Secretary of State is doing is defending a United States abstention on a UN Security Council resolution, which Britain backed with France and everybody else. So it was unanimous with a US abstention, which allowed it to pass. That was resolution 2334, which condemns settlements, and calls upon member states of the UN to deal differently between settlements and Israel proper; Israel pre-1967. It also condemns incitement, effectively by both parties.
In his speech, John Kerry says he fears not for Israel’s survival, but for Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, by which I think he means democratic within the pre June 1967 borders. And I’ll quote from his speech:
“The settler agenda is defining the future of Israel.” By that he means – he makes it clear in his speech – the trend towards one state: greater Israel. Everything under Israel’s control from the Sea to the River.
“The status quo is leading towards one state and perpetual occupation.” And he uses two words that matter. He sees the future, without change, as “separate and unequal”. That’s as near to apartheid as he was willing to go in 2016. Others have spoken about apartheid since then. Today we can say the word, because it’s true.
Boris Johnson in March 2017, as our Foreign Secretary, went further than Kerry in a visit to Jerusalem. In a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he said: “We need either a two-state solution, or you end up with some kind of apartheid system.” He then gave an interview to the Jerusalem Post and repeated it. Naturally, this Israeli government objects strongly to the term apartheid, but that’s because the truth hurts.
In that same Kerry speech, he said: “Hope of peace is slipping away.” That was four years ago.
He also looked ahead to the arrival of Trump, without knowing what he would do, and said, “The incoming administration has signalled a different path and suggested even breaking from long-standing US policies on settlements, Jerusalem, and the possibility of a two-state solution. It’s now time to stand up for what is right.”
It’s a great speech, but made three weeks before he left office. And a speech which has been buried by four years of Trump.
Trump did a lot. I don’t remember anything that was good. He cut funding to the UN institution dedicated to Palestinian refugees, the UN Refugee Works Agency. He cut US funding to zero. The US had been the biggest single donor. The UK record on funding of UNRWA is honourable. He cut funding to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to zero. He moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I’m relieved to say the British Embassy to Israel will remain in Tel Aviv. And he abolished the Jerusalem Consulate General of the US, which was the main channel of communication with the Palestinians. He made it a section of the Embassy to Israel. He closed the PLO office in Washington.
One side benefit of that is that Britain has the attentions of Dr Husam Zomlot, the Head of Mission, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK. The man who was Palestinian Ambassador in Washington is now with us and is a bright man.
Trump recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in breach of international law. And tried – I don’t think he succeeded, but he tried – to take Jerusalem and refugees off the table.
He instructed his Secretary of State Pompeo to say that settlements are no longer illegitimate. He surrounded himself in Washington and Israel with US settler supporters. And he produced the Vision for Peace, the deal of the century, about which I will speak now.
Particularly, I’d like to speak about the UK approach to that vision, which was tortuous in the extreme. The UK Government approach was expedient and Janus-like. If you don’t read the text and you see a summary, you might, as Johnson did, refer to Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel and Palestine.
You read the text, then you find that the offer, which is derisory, was Abu Dis – outside the Wall. Therefore, in reality, not part of Jerusalem.
If you don’t read the text, there’s a reference to two states. There’s a reference to Palestinian statehood in that document. But implicit in that document is permanent Israeli occupation of all the land.
So our diplomats found ourselves in the tortuous situation of welcoming Trump’s initiative, but somehow not welcoming the content. Paying lip-service to Trump’s interest in the region, without saying that his interest has been disruptive, destructive and has trampled on Palestinian rights.
We know that the Trump administration engages in blackmail. It blackmailed Sudan into normalisation with Israel. It attempted blackmail of the Palestinians, essentially saying, “Come and negotiate away your land, or if you don’t, in four years’ time Israel can take it anyway”.
So at least now my diplomatic colleagues and successors don’t have to tie themselves in knots over the Vision for Peace.
Asking the Palestinians to come up with something new, when their – the PLO’s – existing policy is actually broadly consistent with UK policy, is an odd thing to do. That’s what I mean by Janus. PLO policy, like it or not, is: Jerusalem shared capital of two states; negotiations on the basis of ‘67 borders; an agreement on refugees; security for both states; agreed land swaps.
I said the situation now is dire, and it is.
I’d like to draw your attention to a fact, which has been in the media, that on the day of the US elections, Israel demolished a Palestinian village, Khirbet Humsa, making 80 people, including 41 children, homeless in the middle of the COVID epidemic.
That timing was deliberate to avoid headlines. It got some, and it got condemnation from the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. The UN called it a grave breach of international law, which it is. But the question is, will the ratchet stop there? I fear not.
In January, when I guess Mr Trump can do no more harm, some things will get better, a bit better, but the fundamentals need to change.
The next Vice-President, Kamala Harris, said just before the election that the Biden administration will renew ties with the Palestinians; oppose any unilateral actions that undermine a two-state solution and take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians; on Gaza, will attempt to address the humanitarian crisis; will re-open the US Consulate General in Jerusalem; will work to re-open the PLO mission in Washington; believes in the worth and value of every Palestinian and every Israeli, and will work to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, security, and democracy. The Biden administration will be committed to the two-state solution, oppose unilateral steps – which I think means settlements – oppose annexation, and oppose settlement expansion. It’s not clear how.
Those things are good, but they’re not enough. And leaving the initiative to the United States, which is the default position of the United Kingdom and European Union member state governments, isn’t enough. Those states don’t want the responsibility of action rather than words.
The Balfour Project position is that we have that responsibility – the British – to work for equal rights, and that the only way we can fulfil that responsibility is by advocating and advancing those equal rights and an end to the occupation of 1967.
Things went backwards under Trump. To be honest, they went backwards – but more slowly – under Obama too – just less blatantly.
Let’s not blame the Americans. That’s as much of a cop-out as thinking that they alone can solve this.
It’s easier to see what should happen than to make it come to pass. It’s not the job of the Balfour Project to tell Palestinians or Israelis what to do. We reserve our efforts for ourselves and our own Government, Parliament, and civil society.
But to a neutral observer, it’s pretty clear that Palestine needs elections. As I said, the last Presidential elections were in 2005. Politically, Palestinians need to unite. Political leaders need to reconnect people and politics. One voice, one non-violent voice. Here I would say that the second Intifada and the suicide bombers have contributed hugely to the lack of trust between the two peoples that we see now.
For Israel, again, as a neutral observer: a realisation that greater Israel equals apartheid.
For the US: not to be the sole player, as even Kerry was, because that didn’t work.
This morning, I heard from Mustafa Barghouti that he wants to see a role for the Quartet, which is the US, UN, Russia and the European Union. The Quartet in the past have effectively been run by the US. I favour a role for the United Nations Security Council, including the US obviously, and the rule of law and those Security Council resolutions that we can remember, and consequences: consequences for illegality, whoever commits that. No government in the West, or the East, wants to talk about consequences for formal annexation or galloping incremental de facto annexation. It’s possible that the Quartet could keep the US honest, reporting to the UN Security Council, rather than ignoring the UN Security Council or baiting it, which is what Trump has done for the last four years.
May I turn back now to the working rule of the Balfour Project: if you’re British and care, start at home, the democratic way. Make your voice heard. If your MP isn’t listening, speak louder, seek consequences for illegality and highlight the differences, the discrepancies, between what we say and what we do as a government. We do some things well as a government, but we don’t do enough and have been saying the platitudes and the condemnations for too long.
Nobody can argue against equal rights. We British, and the Israelis, have freedom of movement, freedom of religious expression and worship; Palestinians don’t. We British and Israelis police ourselves; Israel polices Palestine selectively, as it chooses. We British, and the Israelis, control our own borders; Israel controls Palestinian borders and determines who comes and who goes.
May I finish by referring to the Balfour Project’s last big event, on 27 October, with a focus on Jerusalem. I’d like to read out the “asks” of our Government, which have been endorsed by a large number, scores of British Parliamentarians, and by church leaders. The statement says the Jewish people exercised their right to self-determination in the Holy Land more than 70 years ago. To this day, the Palestinian people are denied this right. This injustice must end. Here I would add that in 1999 the European Council – including the U.K. – endorsed the principle of self-determination for the Palestinian people, including the option of statehood. 21 years ago.
The five “asks”:

  1. To reaffirm publicly East Jerusalem’s status under international law as Occupied Palestinian Territory, and oppose current systematic efforts to undermine this status.
  2. To press for true freedom of access for all believers – Jewish, Muslim, and Christian – to their respective holy sites in Jerusalem from wherever they live, which means in particular from the West Bank to the Al-Aqsa and from Gaza to the Al-Aqsa.
  3. To work effectively to uphold the rule of law reflected in those UN Security Council resolutions, particularly 2334, which condemns illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
  4. To insist that Israel end forthwith its discriminatory practices in Jerusalem, enabling all Jerusalemites to enjoy the same rights and services, regardless of creed or nationality. There is a huge disproportion in the allocation of resources, but equality in the tax system.
  5. And finally to recognise the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel now, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both States.

I’ll conclude:
We should thank the American people for sparing us from four more years of Trump. We should be deeply grateful, but don’t relax. It’s not over until we see genuine equal rights between Israelis and Palestinians. We’re a long way from that and the status quo is going the wrong way, fast. John Kerry was right – and prophetic. But there are people in the US, UK, Europe – we’re in Europe, but you know what I mean – Israel and Palestine who care and want positive change. They, and we all, have to make more of a noise. Please don’t let anyone tell you that it doesn’t matter, because it does. And please don’t think we can’t do anything, because we can.

Diana:
Thanks for that, Vincent.
Let’s start with a question about Kamala Harris. She promised $38 billion in military support for Israel’s security and self-defence. How does that secure Palestinian rights to self-determination or defend their political and human rights?

Sir Vincent:
I think you told me, Diana, that came from Heba Zaphiriou-Zarifi. I’d like to pay tribute to Heba for her work with PalMusic to ensure that the Palestinian cultural voice and expression are heard here in the UK.
That figure of $38 billion is familiar to me. I think it came from the Obama era, and it was one of Obama’s last acts in his last year. It didn’t secure any leverage over the actions of the Israeli government in relation to the Occupation. I think that it would be foolish to think that America will ever not have Israel’s “back.” It’s intrinsic in America to support the existence, the well-being, the prosperity, the growth – economic growth, I mean, rather than geographical growth – of the state of Israel and it is not actually contradictory to work for Palestinian rights at the same time. Those promises I listed by Kamala Harris are freely made and she can be held to account for them. I suspect that the easy ones will get done; but opposition to annexation, opposition to settlements – harder.
But I come back to Heba’s point. I think we need to accept that the United States will always be an ally of Israel. Frankly, so will the United Kingdom. But that does not mean that the United States and the UK should not focus on the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people, expressed as they see fit by whatever means. The logical means is by elections leading to the formation of a government.
I’ll just add: Point 5 of the Jerusalem statement that I read out is a key part of the thinking of the Balfour Project. We do believe that parity of esteem between Israelis and Palestinians means that states should recognise both states, starting with us, starting here at home in Britain, influencing our Government.

Diana:

We’ve got Swee Ang with us here today, who’s one of the co-founders of MAP, Medical Aid for Palestinians. Vincent and I are big fans of hers, aren’t we? This is a comment from her that I thought you would like to hear. She says: “Amazing and uplifting talk. Thank you so much from me and everyone else.”

Sir Vincent:
There are many charities active to try to be of use in the world. In the health sector, Medical Aid for Palestinians, in my opinion, is the best.

Diana:

They are fantastic. The next question is from Martin Linton, who’s with us.
Even if a new Biden administration ends up reversing all of Trump’s policy changes, it would only mean that things have returned to where they were before. Do you agree that progress will only come if and when Biden makes it clear that supporting international law and supporting human rights includes supporting the Palestinian right of self-determination?

Sir Vincent:

The short answer is yes. Thank you, Martin. I don’t want to raise false hopes, because Biden the pragmatist, Biden the realist, may not prioritise this issue. It’s up to us and to people in the United States to help him to make the decision to prioritise this issue. And I’m rather hopeful that some of the recent elections to the House of Representatives will help in that matter because the base of the Democrat party is changing and is moving; is becoming more liberal, more progressive.
But back to the question, self-determination: I am hopeful that President-elect Biden will make a priority of restoring faith in the United Nations, in the United Nations Security Council, in the international institutions that, frankly, Trump has degraded. As part of that, the rules-based order, the rule of international law, need to be upheld. The Geneva Conventions, the ICC: those independent institutions need to be supported and upheld. I don’t suppose he will go out of his way to bless the ICC, but the world needs international negotiation and a means of ensuring that negotiations stick, that once an agreement is reached, it is upheld. That’s in all our interests, be it on climate change, be it on any big issue around the world. And I’m hoping that as part of that “refresh” of the international institutions and a reconfirmation of their necessity, I hope that this issue and the rule of law in this context can be affirmed.

Diana:

Michael Hindley, former MEP, also with us, asked about recognition of Palestine:
May I raise the question of recognition of Palestine as a trading entity, as a customs territory under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation? Biden will certainly be less hostile to the WTO than Trump. So is there an opening there?”

Sir Vincent:

It’s true that Trump sought to degrade the WTO. He was quite insulting and he far preferred strong-arm tactics bilaterally than recourse to international law and international rules. Michael’s quite right.
Joining the WTO as a state is a Palestinian aspiration. Michael’s closer to the action than me from his time as a Member of the European Parliament. I don’t know what obstacles lie in its way. It’s possible that United States opposition is part of that.
I come back to the question of recognition of the State of Palestine. If Britain and some of our European partners were to recognise the State of Palestine, that would no doubt strengthen the hand of the Palestinian negotiators in the WTO. I think it’s quite important that the Palestinians – Palestine – should have a voice in international institutions: in UNESCO; the UN General Assembly; a voice through the Arab representative on the UN Security Council; and in the WTO. It may take time, but it’s a mark of maturity, it’s a mark of arrival and it’s a mark of respect that Palestine should be represented in those fora.

Diana:

A question from Magan Singodia: Israel lobbyists have mentioned that Trump’s parting shot might be to complete annexation of the West Bank – the reason being that Biden will not be able to reverse this. What are your thoughts?

Sir Vincent:

Where things stand on annexation is rather vague. The UAE, when it normalised with Israel said, “We’ve stopped it.”
Netanyahu said, “Oh no you haven’t, we’ve suspended it, but it’s still on the table.”
I have a guess. It’s a guess: that Mr Netanyahu will not wish to demonstrate immediately that the UAE’s remarks were misplaced. Nor, I think, will he wish to start his relationship with President Biden by doing something which is not only in reality wrong, but legally wrong; morally and legally. So my guess is that formal annexation of parts of the West Bank will still be in suspense, and probably President Biden will seek to make that permanent.
It’s all very well to suspend formal annexation. And that’s a good thing not to have formal annexation – our Prime Minister argued against it, and I give him credit for that – but that doesn’t stop the incremental annexation by settlement expansion. And what has happened in recent months is that Prime Minister Netanyahu, at the instigation of his right wing – but probably of his own volition too – has announced settlement growth in remarkably sensitive areas. Where, if carried out, the prospective contiguity of a State of Palestine would be in question – and that’s deliberate. The attempt is deliberately to stop contiguity. So, to me, trying to combat the incremental annexation by de facto settlement expansion is just as important as contesting the annexation proper. And we need to try and make sure that Boris Johnson gets that.

Diana:

Still on the topic of settlement expansion, this is from Kate Scott. She asks: “Even if – and it’s a big if – settlement expansion and the takeover of East Jerusalem cease, when you look at the present map, is there land for a Palestine? Is there still a possibility of a two-state solution?

Sir Vincent:
It’s a big question. I’m not going to duck it.
I hope that it is still possible.
Many wise people think it’s over. Much depends on the will of the Palestinian people. My own take is that we are witnessing two nationalist movements: one Israeli, and one Palestinian. As we said in our Jerusalem statement: Israel achieved self-determination back in 1948, the Palestinians have yet to achieve it, because the Occupation prevents sovereignty, which is part of an act of self-determination.
Where am I going with this… to say: it probably isn’t for me to declare the two-state solution alive or dead. I want it to be alive, but it’s really not for me to declare.
What it is for the Balfour Project to say is that we believe in equal rights. And if we believe in equal rights, the status quo, frankly – forgive me – stinks. Therefore our efforts should be devoted to advancing equal rights.
I would add just one rider to that. The political will of the Palestinian people and their choice as to how they live their lives, in the end will be the determining factor. And of course, the will of the Israeli people. What I want is an outcome where both of those peoples can live in peace.

Diana:

The next question is from Tom Phillips, he says: “Thanks for your remarks, Vincent. I admire your courage and your persistence. You spoke about Britain’s historic responsibility, but surely with Brexit, etc., there’s zero UK appetite to play any sort of role on this one. For years our approach has, essentially, been to leave it to the Americans and neither the latter, nor the Israelis, want us in the room. What are your thoughts on that?”

Sir Vincent:

Thank you, Tom. Most of that, I think, I think that’s true. The Israelis like talking to the Americans, the Israeli government likes talking to the Americans and one reason – certainly under Trump and maybe under Obama as well – is that they think they have a more than equal chance of winning in a negotiation involving the Americans.
The UK is preoccupied by Brexit, by COVID, by jobs, by reality. The issue of what priority to give to this challenge, which has been a challenge for decades, but it’s getting worse and there is urgency, is to argue – and the Balfour Project argues – that in spite of all that, our Foreign Secretary and our Prime Minister should make an effort, because it’s good for us as well as being good for the region.
I’ll make one aside about radicalisation. This issue remains a cause of radicalisation in our country and across Europe, across the world. Unless it is addressed and solved then that trigger for radicalisation will remain and it needs to be eradicated. The only way to eradicate it is to resolve the issue – to resolve the fundamentals.
So I would argue that UK national self-interest, as well as the well-being of the two peoples, is in play here. That may not be what Boris Johnson wakes up in the morning thinking, but his constituents and our listeners can help to make him think it.

Diana:
This question is from Joe Fitzpatrick. “How will the US Presidential Elections affect US relations with other countries in the Arab League, which may in turn affect Palestine-Israel relations?

Sir Vincent:
I’ll start with Jordan.
Jordan is a neighbour. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel; a cold peace, if I may say so, but a peace treaty with Israel, and Jordan is directly affected by anything that affects the Palestinians.
We’re familiar with Jordan in its role as protector of the holy sites in Jerusalem.
Jordan is a state that Britain and the US care about and have long had a good relationship with. Jordan’s voice against annexation was very strong. If hope fades to zero on a resolution to this conflict, Jordan will be the first place to feel the pain outside Palestine.
I’m going to be a bit speculative, because I don’t know as much as my friend and former colleague Tom Phillips about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The Saudi role under King Salman has been supportive of the PLO. He has been supportive, broadly speaking, of Abbas, and, I think, a restraining factor on the normalisation process. But his son may have other views.
The Saudis will now be looking at President-elect Biden and trying to work out their line to take. Likewise, the UAE, which proved to be a close friend of Trump and led the normalisation process.
I’ll just say two things.

  1. When the dust settles, the Arab States will want to, will need to, reform the Arab League. Today, it is not at its strongest, to put it diplomatically, but they will want to reform and they will want to come back together as an entity because that gives them additional political clout.
  2. Some of the states that have been remarkably close to Trump will wish to ensure that they have a good working relationship with Biden. Because as I said, the US is the sole – militarily, certainly – superpower in the world. To a large extent, the rulers of the UAE and Saudi Arabia and their continuity of rule depend on that good relationship. So I hope that the Arab League will reform or reshape. I would hope – this is a rather fond hope – that the Arab Peace Initiative may still live.
    It is unrealistic to expect any state, such as the UK, which has recognised Israel, to do other than applaud when another state does the same. So Boris Johnson and Trump and Biden and Macron and Merkel will applaud any act of normalisation by an Arab state with Israel. But it rather depends on what conditions. I’m talking about the Arab States’ position now. Whether they will make it a point of reference in such normalisation to safeguard Palestinian rights. The UAE said it had done something good over annexation: Palestinians beg to differ. I heard that today as well, but I’m what I’m trying to say is that normalisation may well come. I would like the Arab Peace Initiative to live.

Diana:

We’ve had quite a lot of discussion in the chat box about Israel’s policies being apartheid policies. David Arnold comments: “Surely the use of apartheid is misleading because it implies that Israel (ie. within the pre-‘67 borders) is an apartheid state as was South Africa. This description doesn’t, in my opinion, fit. The Occupied Territories are a different matter and it does not help to confuse the two.”

Sir Vincent:

I go back to Kerry: separate and unequal. I look at the daily life of the Palestinians that I worked with in Jerusalem, trying to get in from the West Bank into Jerusalem to do a job. They queued at Qalandia. If they were West Bankers, they couldn’t drive into Jerusalem; they had to use public transport or taxis. There were certain roads in the West Bank that they couldn’t use: settler roads. Palestinians are not allowed access to the settlements other than to build them, ironically – Palestinians need jobs and building settlements is a job – but once the settlement is built, there’s a fence. There are people with guns who guard the settlement. There are firing ranges in the West Bank, when those firing ranges could be in the Negev desert in Southern Israel. They’re in the West Bank for a reason. They’re there to prevent Palestinians from living and developing agriculture there.
Is that apartheid? I’m not wedded to the word. I know that the context of South Africa is a different context from the context of Israel – Palestine, but I go back to separate and unequal. I think that’s beyond contestation, and separate and unequal is wrong.

Diana:

We have a comment from Maureen Jack, which I’m sure you’d be very willing to address. It’s not really immediately relevant to today’s topic, but I’d be interested to hear your view on the possible impact of the death of Saeb Erekat.

Sir Vincent:

Thank you, Maureen.
I went to Jericho, almost on a pilgrimage, once a week on a Friday from Jerusalem in my time, going down from Jerusalem to Jericho – it’s a fact from the Bible in the parable of the Good Samaritan – going down to the Dead Sea. I went to see Saeb Erekat.
I went to see Saeb Erekat, because he mattered. He was articulate. He was clever; also stubborn. And he told us his truth. One of the jobs of the Consulate General is to feed back to London the views of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He was good at that. If I may say, with no disrespect to the dead, sometimes a bit repetitive, but he was good at that.
And he was bright. What shone through was his sincerity; his concern for his people.
I read that he was born in Jerusalem, but he was a man of Jericho; elected there. He epitomised the effort, the negotiating effort, of the PLO under Arafat and after Arafat, for decades. He felt strongly that the negotiating effort needed to succeed because the alternatives of violence or oppression had to fail.
We shall miss him. It isn’t clear who will take his place. It isn’t, frankly, clear when and whether there will be negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. We haven’t talked much about that today. If Mr Netanyahu only wants to talk about autonomy, “sovereignty minus,” and further land acquisition by Israel, then that isn’t a basis for discussion.
So back to Saeb: we shall miss him. I’m grateful, Maureen, for the opportunity to say so. His memory for me will be sincerity, effort, honesty, and dedication to equal rights, as he believed in peaceful coexistence between the two States and the two peoples.

Diana:

I just wanted to respond to a comment from Rod Cox who asks about asking MPs and Peers – Baroness Tonge – to ask questions in Parliament. I wanted to highlight that we have a section on the website – to which I will post the link in the chat box too – where we post a lot of the questions that have been asked in Parliament; many of them submitted by people related to the Balfour Project.
I’m going to give you the final question Vincent from Mehdi Askerieh. He asks:
“How can the Balfour Project and other similar organisations push the new American administration into real action? I ask this because Bibi Netanyahu has already started his charm offensive on Biden.”

Sir Vincent:

The Balfour Project’s main focus, as I’ve tried to say, is on ourselves, is on the Brits.
I would not underestimate the scope for the British Government to direct its advice, which it will be doing, to the Biden transitional team. What I’m hearing is that the Biden transitional team encompasses a large number of experts from the Obama era, which is not surprising.
If they in the transition team have read the Kerry speech, that’s a start. Because four years ago he was predicting inequality and separation without change and four years on, we are where we are. We’re in a worse position, particularly if you’re a Palestinian, than four years ago and hope is dwindling.
It must not be allowed to be extinguished.
So: back to what we can do. We have to start at home. I think we start with our own Parliamentary process: getting in touch with our MPs. The Jerusalem statement I read out can be sent to them and they can be asked if they will sign it. And then it goes on to Dominic Raab.
It talks about recognition. It talks about international law. It talks about things that matter. So if you’re looking for a peg on which to hang an approach to your MP, that’s it, that’s the current one, that’s a good one. I recommend it.
We should reach out, but there are other institutions than the Balfour Project actually doing this. We should reach out to young American thinkers, to members of the Jewish community, both in the UK and in the United States, who do not believe that Netanyahu, in any sense, represents them and do not approve of the annexation process or of the settlement expansion process.
We should reach out to them. That’s probably a job for others, but let’s not leave it to others. We can try, too. But one way or another, I think it’s our job to try to ensure that this issue is not left, because if it’s left, as we have seen, it gets worse and it’s already bad.
So holding the line is one thing; holding the line of UK Government policy, but making it better by making it action-oriented and making it consequence-oriented on illegality.
May I add one unrelated remark? You said at the beginning, Diana, that we live off our wits and our donations. I would simply end by saying to the people who are listening: please think about a donation to the Balfour Project. We will be able to do more with more, and we need enough to keep doing what we’re doing now.
Thank you.

Diana:

And I’ve just posted – subtly! – the donation link in the chat box on that note.
Thank you Vincent for stepping in at the last minute, and thank you everyone for coming along and joining us. We hope to see everyone at our next webinar, which will be announced shortly.

Sir Vincent:
Thank you, Diana, for making it happen. And thank you to those who stayed the course.

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