A little over two years ago, while foreign secretary, Boris Johnson penned a Government article about Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Moscow had “broken the first principle of international law – that countries may not acquire territory or change borders by force,” he wrote. “We should… redouble our determination to stand up for our values and uphold international law.”
He went on. “In the end, the security of every nation depends on the essential principle that countries should not change borders or acquire territory by force… We all have an obligation to stand up to Russia in a measured and resolute way.”
Tellingly, he concluded that “no country, however large, can dismember its neighbour and break international law without consequence”.
He was reminded of all this in the House of Lords this month, as peers debated the whys and wherefores of Israel’s plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank.
Other than Crimea, there are very few other recent examples of a powerful state annexing the land of an unwilling neighbour, so were we all to look at Boris’s statements on Russia to discern what he will say on Israel, the peers wondered?
True, his thoughts will determine the government’s reaction, but the UK is fighting its way out of a pandemic and into the worst recession for a century, so those who see Israeli annexation as a priority for them must realise that it won’t be his.
That doesn’t mean that the questions don’t still stand, or that they are no longer pertinent. It matters what Boris says about Israel if it starts annexing territory this summer. To what extent will he stamps his feet in public will be telling. He may not even be roused enough to say something himself, instead pushing Dominic Raab forward with pre-prepared blandery.
This newspaper takes a nuanced view on annexation, in part because the Jewish community takes different views on it, but before the peers start waving Boris’s 2018 comments at him, it is worth pointing out how the Israeli situation is wholly unlike that of Crimea.
For one, Boris chastised Russia for “trampling on” all sorts of international covenants, including Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, but Article 2 talks of annexing the land of a sovereign neighbour. Ukraine is such, the West Bank is not.
Boris also lashed his tongue at Russia’s imposition on, and harassment of, Crimean residents, but Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev says he thinks Israel will offer all annexed Palestinians full Israeli citizenship.
There are countless other reasons why Israeli annexation is unlike Russia’s flag-planting on the Crimean peninsula, as there are to suspect that Boris will look on Israel differently, not least because Israel is an important UK ally, whereas less than two weeks after he published his Crimea article, Yulia and Sergei Skripal were poisoned in Salisbury.
That said, there are some dubious pro-annex arguments currently doing the rounds, both online and in the upper chamber.
One, put forward by both Regev and Conservative peer Lord Polak, is that Yitzhak Rabin also saw the Jordan Valley as necessarily Israeli in order for the state to have a secure eastern border. In other words, if Rabin agreed, who are we not to?
Nobody doubts Rabin’s commitment to peace or the price it cost him, but quoting a slain PM from 25 years ago to justify PM Netanyahu’s plan to unilaterally declare Israeli sovereignty over land seized in war is at best bad taste. At worst it misremembers history. Rabin sat down with the Palestinians. He’d have negotiated it as part of an overall package. Netanyahu and Gantz propose no such thing.
Another dodgy argument, put forward by the Zionist Federation this week, is that Israel can take such unilateral action because it has a democratically-elected government. Putting aside Israeli anger over the “betrayal” of voters by dozens of politicians now serving under Netanyahu despite saying they wouldn’t spit on him if he were on fire, this argument implies that it’s OK to take someone’s territory as long as you hold elections yourself.
Ultimately, arguing to and fro is pointless – in the Israeli mind, the time has come for annexation, because peace talks are a thing of the past and Donald Trump will support it. Given that Trump may lose the presidency in November, for Israel it’s now or never.
The only question for those in the UK who care about all this is what the UK will do or say when the time comes.
Boris’s article about Crimea was penned four years after the Russian annexation took place. If he is ever as frothy about Israel, I suspect he’ll be so in 2024 at the earliest, by which time jobs and businesses will – I hope – be plentiful and buoyant respectively.