The British government’s criticism of the US Secretary of State’s Middle East speech was not a show of support for Israel. It was a fairly straightforward strategic calculation by Downing Street about how to gear up for a new foreign policy approach when Donald Trump enters the White House.
Britain’s denunciation of John Kerry’s emotive speech on 28 December concerning Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking ought to be judged in terms of how the UK government can best serve its own interests following the two momentous election outcomes of 2016: Brexit and Trump.
Kerry’s 70-minute speech followed a UN Security Council resolution condemning ongoing Israeli settlement activity, which the US effectively allowed to pass by abstaining in the vote. These last-minute moves by a lame-duck administration are widely perceived as parting shots at Israel from Kerry and President Obama. They’re frustrated by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s lack of vision, and his government’s policies in the Palestinian territories. Former US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross summed it up well when he said Kerry’s remarks reflected “something he just had to get off his chest”.
Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu vehemently rejected Kerry’s account of why the conflict persists. He said Kerry’s comments were almost as biased against Israel as the “shameful” UN resolution which preceded it. He lambasted Kerry’s “obsession” with the settlement issue, while ignoring “the root of the conflict – Palestinian resistance to a Jewish state within any borders”. Israel’s very existence, in other words.
The US State Department, on the other hand, expressed “surprise” at Britain’s public rebuff of Kerry’s assessment, especially since Britain supported the UNSC resolution. Far from being single-issued, US officials point out, Kerry had discussed six principles that the US believes could form the basis of a future peace. The principles consider future borders along 1967 lines, Palestinian recognition of Jewish statehood, compensation for refugees, the status of Jerusalem, mutual security guarantees, and the end of all claims under the terms of a final deal. All these issues have been chewed over and spat out for years. Kerry offered no new recipes.
So, seen more as an assault on Israel than as a new set of parameters, such as those Bill Clinton set out in 2000 before leaving office, Downing Street appeared to come to Israel’s defence. An unusually forceful statement made clear the UK’s view that focusing solely on settlements was unhelpful given the complexity of the conflict. It added that Kerry was wrong to attack the composition of a democratically elected government when he warned Israelis of the risks of being dragged down a dangerous “one-state” path by the most right-wing coalition ever to represent them.
Some of the commentary which followed seemed to somewhat naïvely take Downing Street’s interjection at face value, while to other observers it was just convenient for them to interpret it that way.
The conservative Daily Wire, for instance, reported that Kerry’s speech was “too much to stomach” even for the UK, with its “strong pro-Arabist tilt”. If Arabophile British diplomats found Kerry’s speech overly anti-Israel, it really must have been biased, went the thinking. Yet this misses the point of Britain’s very public disavowal of Kerry’s speech.
Theresa May’s criticism was not a u-turn following the UK’s reported key role in brokering the UN resolution, or in voting for it. PM May has a strong track record on Israel and Jewish issues, as demonstrated in her recent speech at the UK Conservative Friends of Israel annual lunch. That coincided, not incidentally, with her government’s official adoption of a new definition of antisemitism to help tackle new forms of Jew-hatred. Nor was May’s rebuke an attempt to make amends with Netanyahu, after he reportedly cancelled a meeting with his British counterpart on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos later this month. (His office later qualified that the meeting hadn’t been fully firmed up.)
The British PM’s reaction actually had little at all to do with Britain’s stance on Israel or, for that matter, long-standing differences between a traditionally Arab-leaning Foreign Office and a more strategic approach often preferred by No. 10 and the UK defence establishment. The latter tend to be more sensitive to Israel’s unique security challenges. Although with a former ambassador to Israel, Simon McDonald, heading Britain’s diplomatic corps today, it might be worth revisiting some of the old thinking about attitudes to the region that held sway within Whitehall for most of the last century.
London weighed in on the latest rift between Washington and Jerusalem in a manoeuvre aimed squarely at preserving that other much-ballyhooed “special relationship” – Britain’s with America.
Since Britain’s role as a great power withered after World War II and the 1956 Suez debacle, its foreign policy calculus has invariably revolved to one degree or another around this most important of strategic alliances. Rightly so, on balance, given America’s military and economic superiority, and the deeply cherished set of shared liberal democratic values that has cemented the bond for decades.
Indeed, Britain’s place in America’s shadow has been broadly, if somewhat mutedly, acknowledged among policymakers for almost as long. Muted because Britons remain seized of their sense of national identity and autonomy, regardless of overwhelming interdependence in the modern age, and often overlooked reliance on the US as the lynchpin of European security and guarantor of international order. The epithet of “America’s poodle” is one which British politicians dismiss, a label they seek to avoid even when they know they are ranked a distant second among equals.
These sensibilities fed into the notion that the US was meddling in Britain’s affairs when Obama warned that the UK would be “at the back of the queue” if they voted for Brexit. It riled parts of the British electorate before last June’s referendum, and most voters ignored the president’s warning.
The UK government now faces the conundrum of leaving the European Union without doing huge damage to its own national economy. Beefing up trading relations beyond the Continent is seen as crucial in that gambit, including new trade deals with the US and others as early as possible. Theresa May wants to project strength before triggering Article 50 and entering fraught negotiations with Brussels. So getting near the front of that queue Obama mentioned is an urgent priority for the UK right now. It’s not hard to see why close ties with the Trump administration are considered especially vital from the outset.
Of course, Britain has its gripes with the US now and then, but it tends to believe it can best influence Washington by maintaining intimacy in the bilateral alliance. The Brits normally opt for discretion, rather than scolding top diplomats. And they rarely air their dirty laundry out in the open when it comes to differences of opinion with Uncle Sam – unless there are extenuating circumstances.
Kerry’s speech presented such circumstances. Aside from the cooperation desired and required post-Brexit, the US, simply, is in transition mode. Kerry made his controversial remarks just 23 days before he and Obama vacate their offices. British policy is completely in sync with the bulk of the substance Kerry discussed, but that didn’t really matter. Not after Trump characteristically weighed in via Twitter to accuse the outgoing administration of treating Israel with “total disdain and disrespect”, and telling the Israelis to “stay strong” until Inauguration Day.
Sure, Trump’s approach to world affairs once he gets inside the Oval Office remains to be seen and tested, but it’s already clear that he would not endorse speeches of the style Kerry delivered. This president-elect sees himself as Israel’s unqualified best-friend-in-waiting. By rebuking Kerry, the British government was trying to get ahead of the curve, and to align itself with what it expects to be a very different kind of White House come January 20th.
Many seem to believe that Trump’s decision to appoint his bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, as the next US ambassador to Israel offers a glimpse of what’s coming. Friedman has been a vocal opponent of the two-state solution and voiced strong support for Israeli settlement in those areas of ancient Israel which are meant to form the basis a future state of Palestine. This may explain some of the Obama administration’s latest antics.
But it is pure fantasy to believe that Trump will ever reconcile support for Israeli settlement expansion with any plausible scenario in which an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is finalized. The settlement enterprise and some form of two-state outcome which moderates on all sides back are mutually exclusive. They will remain so even with a self-proclaimed master dealmaker in the Oval Office. Ongoing construction of new housing and outposts outside the so-called “consensus” blocs will totally undermine the possibility of restoring the trust and political capital required to return to negotiations. So if Trump or his son-in-law or anyone else in his administration make genuine progress, it won’t be all plain sailing for the Israeli government. Almost by definition, it can’t be.
It is absolutely true that peace has remained elusive for so long for many reasons besides settlement expansion. Palestinian leaders have failed to internalize the compromises required of them for decades. The Israeli peace camp never really recovered after the violence of the Second Intifada, and a new generation of proud and loud progressives has not emerged. Israelis have only been given further cause to raise their hands in a gesture of “WTF?” when peace is even mentioned anymore, given all the regional chaos and rocket fire, as well as the recent wave of deadly stabbings, shootings and vehicle-ramming incidents. This latest violent outburst was a product of official Palestinian Authority and Hamas vitriol in the age of Facebook. It was also a taste of the kind of ideologically inspired, locally planned and ‘lone wolf’-esque jihadi terror that has since cast a dark cloud over Europe.
So the idea that the present protracted impasse and chronic distrust between Israelis and Palestinians boils down to an unprecedentedly right-wing Israeli government may remain popular, but it is parsimonious – and wrong. And yet, for all the totally justifiable rebuttals about how settlements are not the only issue, there is no escaping that among settlers and their supporters are those who for too long have been allowed to sabotage even the prospect of separating from the Palestinians in a reasonable way.
About that, Kerry is understandably frustrated, even if his speech was ill-timed and too focused on Israel’s dark side. Some of his remarks reflected a view shared by many Israelis who still know in their hearts that further concessions are worthwhile to preserve Israel’s democratic and Jewish character. Palestinian Arabs need to find inner solace with their Jewish neighbours, but Israel cannot afford to be reactionary forever. It must seize the initiative and act, whether what’s being said in London, Washington or Paris later this month seems supportive, constructive, neutral, critical, or hostile.
The nineteenth century British statesman Lord Palmerston famously observed that there are no permanent friends in international affairs, only permanent interests. Perhaps he got it only half-right, since interests can shift over time too. Either way, the British government waved goodbye to its friendship with the Obama administration last week, as Israel’s resigned on the chemistry some years ago.
Would Downing Street have reacted as it did if Kerry had given his speech earlier on in his tenure, when it might have had more of an impact? Almost certainly not. But the UK, like some other countries, enters the unchartered waters of 2017 trying to navigate to a point from where it hopes to be able to maximise manoeuvrability. Both Britain and Israel will try to advance their foreign policies in the context of their particular national priorities, be they implementing Brexit or managing intractable conflict with the Palestinians, as smoothly as possible. Everyone is trying to get their head around a new, messy phenomenon which has so far scared some of us more than others: “Trumpism”.