By Alistair Burt
Three notable interventions from UK sources this week gave an indication that the country’s long relationship with and support for the state of Israel is imminently facing its greatest ever test.
Almost 130 cross-party and nonaligned parliamentarians signed a letter drawing attention to the Israeli coalition government’s declared intention, post-July 1, to carry out a policy of annexation of territory in the West Bank and to bring Israeli law to existing settlements in land internationally designated as occupied. It compared such action to Russia’s seizing of Crimea and warned of the consequences of imitation in allowing such actions to go unchallenged, urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to go beyond concern and be prepared to take action, including sanctions.
Perhaps more shocking and telling was a long article in Jewish News by Sir Mick Davis, a former Conservative Party treasurer, a major donor to Israel, and chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council. In a piece highly critical of Israel’s “dysfunctional political system,” he wrote of an “existential challenge to relations with the diaspora,” adding: “When we talk of existential threats to Israel, annexation is the genuine article.”
And, at the UN, the UK joined with France, Germany and other EU states in a strong and united warning to Israel, with the British representative saying: “Any unilateral moves towards annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel would be damaging to efforts to restart peace negotiations and would be contrary to international law.”
This is not stuff to be brushed aside. Support for the existence of the state of Israel has never wavered in the UK since 1948, symbolized last week by mutually warm articles from the UK’s Minister of State for the Middle East James Cleverly and Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev. They rightly celebrated 70 years of diplomatic relations and the wide-ranging nature of the countries’ trade, technological and security association. But divergence on policy with the current government of Israel has been growing, and is becoming harder to mask.
We are not alone. In the US, 149 prominent Jewish leaders from pro-Israel groups expressed their concern about annexation. And, while this might be waved away as naive or misguided external attention, the 220 senior retired Israeli security figures who have also signed a public advertisement against unilateral annexation don’t fall into that bracket. All in all, the government of Israel is facing not murmurings of discontent from abroad that can be brushed away, but a potential tsunami of objection that is set to undermine the fundamental relationships of the state of Israel with many of its staunchest defenders. David Petraeus’ famous words, “Tell me how this ends,” are pertinent.
It need not be like this. The UK understands and has stood, publicly and privately, with Israel against those who threaten it. We know that it faces missiles on its borders, that Hezbollah is heavily armed in Lebanon, and that the occupied Golan Heights is unlikely to ever be in anyone else’s hands. We have shared frustrations over the years as peace agreements have faltered for many reasons unconnected with Israel and where previous land-for-peace offers have not delivered. We understand, and are not uncritical of, failures in the Palestinian leadership over the years — and now.
But none of this justifies the imminent risk of what many are terming an irrevocable step. This is the result of a process of non-negotiation handled by the US, whose attempt to forge a “deal” excluded the Palestinian voice and ended in a series of unilateral declarations, putting the friends of Israel and the US in an impossible position. It compromised those Palestinians and Arab states, not least Egypt and Jordan, which had accepted Israel’s existence but longed for a just, two-state future in which Palestine’s economy and security were plugged into that of the Middle East as a whole. Those friends of Israel and the Palestinian people — and many are one and the same — want to see, despite all the frustrations of the past, a true negotiation revived. They fear that, in another well-worn phrase, this may really be the last chance. Despite all the consequential finality of the rhetoric following the Washington announcement, many are begging that all sides be genuinely prepared to try again and must search themselves for the determination to do so. They will not be alone if they do.
UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov deserves full support in his efforts to ensure that the region turns aside at this critical hour, so that the legitimate rights of all — to existence, security and justice — are addressed. The coronavirus, reminding us all of our frailty and vulnerability without boundaries or politics, can either serve as cover for an action that cannot go without consequence or a bridge on which to build from the basic, but real, cooperation currently being experienced between Israel, Ramallah and Gaza.
I know full well what the UK wants to see.
Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK