PM Johnson’s appeal to Israel over annexation

By Andrew Whitley, Trustee and member of the Executive Committee of the Balfour Project

Prime Minister Boris Johnson today published a last-minute appeal to Israel not to proceed with the Netanyahu government’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank after the 1st July. The medium used was an Op-Ed in Israel’s biggest circulation newspaper, Yediot Ahronot. And the message conveyed was that Mr Johnson, a self-described lifelong friend of Israel, believes annexation will not bring the country greater security.

The text of what the Prime Minister had to say to Israelis – the strongest words heard so far from the UK Government – is posted below. 

As Israel’s friend, I urge you not to annex: PM Boris Johnson

My first real experience of Israel came when I was 18, and spent several weeks working in the kitchens at kibbutz Kfar HaNassi. My fellow kibbutzniks managed to survive my contribution to their diet. I took away a profound attachment to the state of Israel.

My many visits in recent years have left a deep impression – whether the solemnity and dignity of Yad Vashem, memorial to a unique crime in world history; the extraordinary gathering of world leaders for the funeral of an old friend, Shimon Peres; or cycling down Rothschild Boulevard with the Mayor of Tel Aviv, marvelling at the vibrancy of the White City.

I am a passionate defender of Israel. Few causes are closer to my heart than ensuring its people are protected from the menace of terrorism and anti-Semitic incitement. The UK has always stood by Israel and its right to live as any nation should be able to, in peace and security. Our commitment to Israel’s security will be unshakeable while I am Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

So it is with sadness that I have followed the proposals to annex Palestinian territory. As a life-long friend, admirer and supporter of Israel, I am fearful that these proposals will fail in their objective of securing Israel’s borders and will be contrary to Israel’s own long-term interests.

Annexation would put in jeopardy the progress that Israel has made in improving relationships with the Arab and Muslim world. I have never been more convinced that Israel’s interests overlap with those of our closest partners in the Arab world, including potential security cooperation against shared threats.

But however strong their interest in a different kind of relationship with Israel, annexation would inevitably set back these opportunities and constrain potential Arab partners. Israel’s enemies would seize upon it, and use it against those in the Middle East who want to see progress.

I want to see an outcome that delivers justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. The UK has often stood in a small minority at the UN in defending Israel against unwarranted and wholly disproportionate criticism.

Annexation would represent a violation of international law. It would also be a gift to those who want to perpetuate the old stories about Israel.

I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognise any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties.

There is another way. Like many Israelis, I am frustrated that peace talks have ended in failure. While I understand the frustration felt by both sides, we must now use the energy of this moment to once more come back to the table and strive to hammer out a solution. This will require compromise on all sides.

I do not underestimate the challenges in achieving lasting peace. So many efforts have been made. So many have paid the ultimate price, including of course Yitzhak Rabin.

But I still believe the only way to achieve true, lasting security for Israel, the homeland for the Jewish people, is through a solution that allows justice and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. I refuse to believe that this is impossible.

I welcome the commitment that President Trump has made to find a way forward. We will work tirelessly with the US – and other partners in the Arab world and Europe – to try to make peace a reality.

I am immensely proud of the UK’s contribution to the birth of Israel with the 1917 Balfour Declaration. But it will remain unfinished business until there is a solution which provides justice and lasting peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The only way it can be achieved is for both sides to return to the negotiating table. That must be our goal. Annexation would only take us further away from it.

Published 1 July 2020

A Comment from the Balfour Project

To set Mr Johnson’s words in context, and examine the key messages sent on behalf of the British Government, here is the Balfour Project’s analysis of this highly unusual intervention in Israeli decision-making by the former Mandate power for Palestine.

In the Government’s view annexation will:

  • Not improve Israel’s security and will be against its long-term interests;
  • Negatively affect the improving relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours especially in the security domain; it could damage potential cooperation with Arab states against “shared threats” – a thinly-disguised reference to Iran; and finally
  • Would be a violation of international law.

This last point was passed over lightly, with no threat of practical consequences for any breach, trade or other sanctions, for example, as the UK imposed on Russia after the Crimea annexation. Annexation of occupied territory, it should be highlighted here, is a war crime under international law.

At the same time, the Prime Minister made explicit that Britain would not recognise any unilateral changes to the current border lines set in the 1949 ceasefire agreements and enshrined in subsequent UN Security Council resolutions. This declaration is very welcome.

Where the Balfour Project would respectfully beg to differ with the Prime Minister, however, was in the direction of the road ahead that he sketched out in his Op-Ed.

Perhaps sensing the mood in Israel and the US today, there was no reference to the two-state solution that has long been the bedrock of international consensus on how to resolve the conflict. Mr Johnson wrote instead more vaguely of the urgent need for a return to negotiations that would bring about “justice and security” for Israelis and Palestinians.

The “unfinished business” of the 1917 Balfour Declaration – of which the Prime Minister declared himself “immensely proud” – could be accomplished by working for a lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians, he said. How this laudable goal will be achieved, and what Britain’s role may be in the process, was left unsaid.

Additionally, a veil was drawn over what kind of state, if any, the United Kingdom envisages for Palestine today. For sure, a Palestinian state can only emerge as a consequence of peaceful negotiations. But, in the Balfour Project’s view, the answer is not to pressure the Palestinian leadership into returning immediately to the negotiating table unconditionally, and on the basis of President Trump’s initiative, as Mr Johnson urges them to do. And the kind of state described in Trump’s plan should be dismissed by the UK as a non-starter.

Given the huge inequality in power between them, the playing field for Israel and Palestine is not even. And the Trump Administration has privately admitted that it is not the honest broker that the US previously claimed to be. That is why any return to negotiations, however desirable, has to be carefully prepared and set in an international framework. This is what the Johnson Government should be saying and doing today, if it truly wants to achieve a lasting settlement of this century-old conflict.

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