Susie Becher

‘Vision’ of UK-Israel Ties Is Blind to the Occupation

Demonstrators against PM Netanyahu gather outside London's Savoy Hotel on March 25, 2023. (Amy Spiro/Times of Israel)

Despite the worrisome trajectory of Netanyahu’s ultraright coalition, the UK lays out a roadmap for developing bilateral ties based on expedient interests rather than common values, including adherence to international law.

Coverage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to London tended to focus on the demonstrations that followed him wherever he went, his host’s decision not to hold the traditional photo op with a visiting counterpart, and the first couple’s dinner at the opulent Savoy Hotel where they were caught on camera consuming unkosher fare with a plate of lobster in the foreground. Substantive reports said Iran was the focus of the meeting between the two leaders, although Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reportedly did express to Netanyahu his concerns about Israel drifting away from democratic values should the judicial overhaul proceed as planned.

The Israel-Palestine conflict did not feature prominently in the talks, except for the pro forma UK statement against “undermining efforts toward the two-state solution.”   While the ineffectiveness of such expressions of “concern,” as Sunak described it, has long been obvious to all, this statement was particularly absurd as it came against the backdrop of the 2030 roadmap for UK-Israel relations signed by Foreign Secretary Cleverly and Foreign Minister Cohen just a few days earlier. Reading this love letter, one would think that its authors never heard of the occupation, the land expropriations, the demolitions and expulsions, the checkpoints, the apartheid roads, the midnight raids, the detention of minors, and the numerous UN Resolutions, cosigned (and sometimes drafted) by the UK, determining that the settlement enterprise is illegal and asserting the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination through the establishment of a sovereign, independent state alongside the State of Israel.  The policy paper’s opening paragraph, which praises the two countries “as freedom-loving, innovative and thriving democracies” that “complement each other’s strengths,” reads as if written in a different universe where world leaders aren’t quaking at the thought that “the only democracy in the Middle East” is about to turn into a theocratic-dictatorial hybrid.

Just prior to Netanyahu’s visit, I participated in a one-week advocacy tour in the UK on behalf of the Policy Working Group (PWG), a team of senior Israeli academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and political analysts who advocate for greater international involvement to secure a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict based on two states.  Together with former Ambassadors Ilan Baruch and Alon Liel, we held meetings with parliamentarians, government officials, civil society organizations, and members of the Jewish community.

Our primary message was the need for measures to indicate to the Israeli Government and public that the free ride is over and that perpetuating the occupation will come at a cost. In addition to calling for full implementation of UNSC Resolution 2334 on the illegality of the settlement enterprise, we were armed with many steps that the UK can take on the bilateral track to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law.

Having been geared to expect considerable pushback from the officials with whom we met, we were surprised to find little daylight between our opinion of the current Israeli Government and that held by most of our interlocutors, including several Tories. When it came to our calls for action, however, it became clear that the current UK Government will persist in issuing toothless statements that condemn settlement construction as illegal, declare it an obstacle to the two-state solution, and call on both sides to avoid unilateral measures (anybody conversant in Middle East politics can recite the mantra off by heart) but will do nothing to halt the Israeli juggernaut.

Our disappointment was somewhat mitigated by the fact that we had encountered many like-minded persons whose concurrence with our views left a window open for continued dialogue and perhaps a shift toward a more action-oriented UK policy down the road, but that was before the release of the FCDO “vision” of Israel-UK relations until the end of the decade.

‘Open your eyes’: Ex-Israeli diplomats warn of dictatorship as Netanyahu visits UK (Middle East Eye, March 23, 2023)

The roadmap’s references to the welfare of the Palestinians are limited to their livelihood and economic development, reminiscent of the Trump-era fallacy that there can be “economic peace” without national liberation. Other mentions of the Palestinians castigate them for seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and for the ongoing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns which, according to the paper, “undermine efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.” Had the paper been released before my return from London, I would have relished the opportunity to ask the FCDO what is wrong with turning to the ICJ to determine whether a 56-year-long occupation can be defined as temporary and exactly which promising dialogue has Israel turned its back on because it encountered BDS opposition.

Also noteworthy is the commitment to “encourage the development of cooperation between educational institutes of both countries,” which carries a footnote referencing the authorities of Israel’s Council for Higher Education and its Planning and Budget Committee.  In 2020, this committee elected a professor from Ariel University in the West Bank, in contravention of the policy set by the Committee of University Heads, which had refused to accept the status of a university located beyond the Green Line. One can only wonder what this means for UK policy when it comes to differentiation between the State of Israel and the settlements in the occupied territories.

True, work on the seven-year program began long before the new ultraright Israeli Government was installed. Nonetheless, the UK could have stepped on the brakes after reading the coalition’s guiding principles, which begin with the declaration that the “Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel” and that the government will “develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel – the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank to those who still respect international boundaries). There, in these few short sentences, is everything one needs to know about Jewish supremacy, denial of Palestinian rights, and defiance of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  And to drive the point home, the day before the policy paper was released, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich appeared before an audience in Paris and declared that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people while standing on a podium decorated by a map of Greater Israel that included not only the West Bank but Jordan as well.

None of this seems to have phased the UK Government whose policies, according to the paper, are being driven by the two countries’ “collective interests.” Looking at what the paper addresses and what it fails to mention, one can only conclude that persuading Israel to respect the rule of law is not one of them.

About the Author
Susie Becher is Managing Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a collaborative quarterly published in Jerusalem; is Communications Director of the Policy Working Group, a team of senior academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and media experts who advocate for an end to the occupation and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and serves on the Steering Committee of Zulat, an activist think tank advocating for human rights and equality in Israel.
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