The major political groupings in the State of Israel have at last reached an agreement on the formation of a coalition government to be headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. A central element in this agreement is that the coalition will pursue what has been termed the “annexation” of sections of the West Bank.
Following the Oslo Accords the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed that in Area C of the West Bank (which is home to around 300,000 Palestinian Arabs and 360,000 Jews) the Palestinians would – in broad terms – be governed by the PA and the Jews by Israel. If the Netanyahu-Gantz government proceeds with its annexation ambition, large sections of Area C will become part of metropolitan Israel, just as East Jerusalem has been ever since its annexation by Menachem Begin’s government in 1980.
On 23 December 2016 the United Nations Security Council voted in favour of a draconian resolution declaring Israel to be in grave violation of international law not merely in relation to Jerusalem but in respect of what was seen as its brazen facilitation of Jewish settlement throughout the West Bank. In a parting diplomatic shot at Netanyahu, outgoing US president Barack Obama declined to oppose the resolution. Obama supported it, as did the UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, and May’s then foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. UN Security Council resolution 2334, condemning as illegal Jewish control of Jerusalem and even of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, was in fact passed unanimously: the governments of the USA and the UK could have vetoed it, but neither did so.
Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and in light of the current global pandemic you might have thought that the international community has weightier matters to grapple with.
But if you did so you’d be wrong. In 2017 the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, announced that America’s embassy in Israel would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he recognised as the capital of the Jewish state. Now, facing re-election next November, Trump has indicated that he is willing to countenance the Gantz-Netanyahu plan to annex much (perhaps the whole) of Area C.
This has indeed become an issue in the American presidential election. At the beginning of May the Democrat presidential challenger Joe Biden indicated that he was prepared to acquiesce in the present location of the American embassy: he would not have moved it from Tel Aviv but he would not now move it back there. If the West Bank annexation goes ahead, Trump will use it not so much to garner Jewish votes as to maintain his influence amongst the millions of American Christian Evangelical Zionists, whose interests are represented in his administration by his current Vice-President, Mike Pence.
What is the British government to do? Recently the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) orchestrated a letter to Boris Johnson and his foreign secretary Dominic Raab, in which the signatories demanded that the UK impose sanctions on Israel should any West Bank annexation go ahead.
Well of course the Tory government could impose sanctions. It could bring a halt to co-operation between the UK and Israel over – say – international terrorism. But would it? Or over the search for a vaccine against Covid-19. But would it? It could ban the import into the UK of Israeli foods (thereby enraging the Tory party’s many Jewish supporters, members and funders). But dare it? It could impose an arms embargo. But Israel is the UK’s eighth largest market for the export of military equipment: many UK jobs would be at stake were such exports to be banned. The UK could very publicly ‘recall’ its ambassador in Tel Aviv – an essentially meaningless gesture since diplomatic relations would remain fully intact. It might impose a freeze on Israeli assets in the UK. But such a step would very likely bring down the wrath of the very Trump administration with which Boris Johnson is hoping to conclude a post-Brexit trade deal.
In relation to the West Bank and Jerusalem successive UK governments have themselves pursued a policy of deliberate fudge. New UK ambassadors to Israel routinely present their ‘letters of credence’ at the official residence of Israel’s president in Jerusalem. UK pensioners resident in the West Bank are not supposed to get the annual inflation-related rise that those living ‘within’ the 1967 border (the so-called ‘green line’) automatically receive. In fact such residents are widely known to provide accommodation addresses within the green line; their UK pensions are then paid in full, no questions asked!
Of the 138 signatories to the CAABU letter only a handful (9) are currently Tory MPs; another five are Tory peers. It’s true that the present UK government has recently made a number of ritualistic noises disapproving of any West Bank annexation. On 11 May Middle East minister James Cleverly told the House of Commons that his government was “deeply concerned” about the annexation plans. If the West Bank annexation goes ahead, there will no doubt be more huffing and puffing in and from Whitehall – as there was over the US embassy move. And there, I venture to suggest, the matter will be allowed to rest!