The Israeli and UK media are reporting that Benjamin Netanyahu will visit London on Sunday, before talks with Prime Minister May on Monday. Neither government has yet confirmed, but the UK would be an obvious stopping-off point for Mr Netanyahu as he makes his way to Washington DC for his first meeting with the newly-inaugurated President Trump.
Mr Netanyahu and Mrs May have never met. The Israeli premier met David Cameron, Mrs May’s predecessor, in 2015, and was scheduled to meet the new British Prime Minister in the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos last month but it is alleged that Mr Netanyahu cancelled the meeting after the UK supported a United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
I have written before that Israel is an important ally for the United Kingdom in the Middle East. So this meeting, assuming it goes ahead, is an important one. It is the beginning of a new relationship between two influential world leaders. That being the case, what should be on the agenda, from a British perspective?
1) Trade. This is the UK’s first priority at the moment, as we prepare to withdraw from the European Union and its single market. Mrs May even created a new department of government dedicated to international trade when she assumed office last July. Israel is the world’s 35th largest economy, with a highly-skilled workforce. It is clearly the sort of country with which the UK can do business, and good business, at that. Bilateral trade already amounts to $3 billion a year. So exploring the first steps towards a bilateral trade deal has to be at the top of Mrs May’s agenda. Of course, the precise parameters are unknown and unknowable while the UK is barely at the beginning of Brexit negotiations. It is also rumoured in government circles that the UK desperately lacks experienced trade negotiators, having abrogated that responsibility to the EU since 1973, and there is supposedly a frantic head-hunting exercise going on within the corridors of power.
2) Security. If Mr Netanyahu was elected as Prime Minister for anything, it was to keep Israel safe. The country faces a genuinely existential threat from Islamic terrorism and radicalism, and so the UK can, to some degree, sympathise with the challenges. We have, after all, had terror on the streets of London for more than a decade now from Islamic fundamentalists (having faced the dangers of Irish republican terror for many years before that). The UK Government’s mission statement regarding Israel reads “We promote Britain’s security, prosperity and well-being, and regional peace, through partnership with Israel.” The implication is clear – Israel’s security is intimately linked to that of the United Kingdom.
3) Settlements. This is obviously a huge issue. Whatever one thinks of the UK’s decision to support UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which affirmed that the settlements in the so-called Occupied Territories, “have no legal validity”, there is no question that it has had a serious and deleterious effect on UK-Israeli relations (as demonstrated by the cancellation of the Davos meeting). Personally, I think our support for it was foolish, and the revelation from the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, that the UK was “closely involved” in drafting the resolution merely rubbed salt into an open wound. It was a reiteration of previously-stated positions, it had too little to say on terrorism (and what was said was conveyed in very weaselly terms), and it needlessly provoked, irritated and offended a crucial ally. All of that said, the UK is committed to the two-state solution, and there is no doubt that the settlements are an impediment to the realisation of that. That gives Mrs May a very difficult game to play. At her first face-to-face talks, she must extend the hand of friendship, both for the time being and for future negotiations. She must reaffirm the UK’s support for Israel’s continued existence and well-being. But she must also, unless she is to reverse the UK Government’s position dramatically, have some frank words to say about the expansion of settlement-building and its effects of any future peace deal. We are your friends, she must reassure Mr Netanyahu, but is the depth of that very friendship which means we must sometimes be critical friends.
There is one other thing which, if I were Mrs May, I might bring up, though perhaps it is best to let sleeping dogs lie. The revelation that Shai Masot, a senior political officer at the Israeli Embassy in London, was recorded saying that the deputy Foreign Secretary, Sir Alan Duncan was “causing a lot of problems” and needed to be “taken down”, was unacceptable. Ambassador Regev has apologised, as was quite right, and Mr Masot is no longer employed at the Embassy. Now, candid advice between friends is one thing. Loose talk like that by someone in a sensitive position is quite another. If I were in Mrs May’s shoes (kitten heels are her favoured footwear), I would – smilingly – be seeking a reassurance that such things are not supported by the Israeli Government and will not happen again.
So that’s my menu. I suspect the talks will be short, as this is a sideshow for Mr Netanyahu, an appetiser before the main course of talks in the White House. But it is an opportunity for both sides to patch over a nasty diplomatic spat, and to chart out the framework for a future relationship. Mrs May, after all, does not have to face the electorate until 2020, while Mr Netanyahu renewed his mandate less than two years ago. This may be their first meeting. It will certainly not be their last.