It was a welcome gesture by a new British prime minister whose support for the Jewish community has been demonstrated time and again. But no sooner had the picture of the menorah in the window of 10 Downing Street been published than the angry retorts began on social media.
‘Were those candles lit before or after the UN vote,’ asked one. ‘This woman needs to be given a lesson in Jewish history,’ exclaimed another.
Yet another Facebook user stormed: ‘Why then did the UK collaborate on the wording of the anti-Israel resolution’. The timing of Britain’s backing five days earlier for the landmark UNSC resolution against settlements – and moreover the fact Britain appears to have played a leading role in the motion’s defying and later resurrection – meant this reaction was inevitable.
The unfortunate timing of the vote, just two weeks after a speech by Theresa May to CFI which couldn’t have been warmer towards the Middle East’s only democracy, only added to a sense of profound disappointment and, for some, even betrayal.
Theresa May addressing the CFI annual business lunch.
There’s no doubt this episode has caused damage to relations, at least in the short term, and raised questions and doubts that didn’t exist 10 days ago.
That’s not to say that criticism itself is the source of despondency here, or that many in our community do not see any issue with continuing settlement construction. Many, many do. It’s also worth remembering that May herself demanded settlement building “must stop” during her CFI address, reaffirming the government’s long-standing policy, though this was lost in the coverage of a speech overflowing with praise.
But it was the one-sided nature of the motion that is the issue; the fact it provides a new weapon in the armoury of supporters of BDS which this government has repeatedly spoken out against; that it emboldens Palestinians to feel they can get their way without having to make their own concessions.
No wonder such an early festive gift was welcomed by the party to this conflict that has repeatedly refused to return to the negotiating table. Why should they do otherwise if the world rewards them regardless?
It’s still unclear whether Downing Street was involved in discussions before the vote was cast or whether decisions were taken at the foreign office. With the holiday season kicking off, it’s also not known to what extent the foreign secretary himself was across unfolding events in New York.
Obama with Netanyahu in New York in 2016.
The only comment from the government during the diplomatic storm that followed came in the form of the unprecedented statement of condemnation directed at John Kerry from Number 10. Whether or not you believe the government was rocked by the reaction to the vote or subscribe to the theory this was signalling towards President-elect Trump at the expense of a lame-duck Secretary of State, the words were nevertheless important.
The clear message that settlement are “far” from the only issue in the stalled peace process and that a two-state solution must come through negotiation. Was that crucial message blunted in coming from a messenger that had just backed the UNSC resolution? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes.
Ministers must be challenged on this counterproductive step and hear at every opportunity why this was not a move towards peace, but it is important that supporters of Israel don’t reply with a counter-productive approach of their own.
The government’s decision to stand with the US and the rest of the world does not wipe out the PM’s record of support that predates her arrival at Downing Street. Dismissing the many positives in the CFI speech would be counterproductive at a time when May has set her sights on increasing trade post-Brexit and as we gear up for the Balfour centenary which the PM has said will be marked with ‘pride’.
If Bibi were not to take the first opportunity with his British counterpart – a meeting which Jerusalem insists was not yet scheduled – that would certainly fall into the category of counter-productive at a time when Israel needs friends like Britain. The Israeli leader goes to great lengths to stress Israel’s growing friendships around the world.
It surely can’t be that the entire world has abandoned those friendships from one day to the next, and Israel should avoid steps that could perpetuate claims of her isolation.