Britain and Israel

Summary: UK at odds with Kerry on Israel, will have to take policy decisions with one eye on Trump. Revelations about Israeli subversion in Britain.

The Palestine problem is never off the international agenda. For historical reasons and because of its permanent membership of the Security Council Britain is always involved and is sometimes seen as a lead nation. A number of forthcoming events are likely to require Britain and other states to take and defend a policy position. The first is the conference to be held in Paris on 15 January, which according to Paris “will give the participants an opportunity to present a comprehensive incentive package to encourage the resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Only they will be able to conclude a peace deal directly.”

britain-and-israel

Other possibles are a move to secure recognition of the Palestine state at the UN, and Donald Trump’s declared intention to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

British governments are always subject to conflicting pressures on such occasions. That is certainly the case now, and makes British policy less predictable than usual (compounded by the extraordinary level of unpredictability in Trump’s Washington).

The most recent set piece occasion was the vote on 23 December on Security Council resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements, discussed in our posting of 28 December. The British vote in favour was no surprise; anything else would have been a sharp reversal of long-standing policy and practice. But the British ambassador along with the others was summoned for a dressing down by Netanyahu on Christmas Day. John Kerry defended the US abstention in a major speech on 28 December. Most unusually this was sharply criticised by Theresa May’s spokesman –“We do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally”. Asked by the BBC whether he was surprised by her comments Kerry said “what I expressed in the speech has been the policy of Great Britain for a long time … The honest answer is yes.”

Visiting Washington for the first time since the US election Boris Johnson had “positive but frank talks” with some of Trump’s team including his son in law Jared Kushner. The talks are said to have covered Syria, but we have seen no public mention of Israel/Palestine. In November Trump hinted that Kushner was the man who could be very helpful in solving the Israel/Palestine problem (our posting of 24 November); yesterday transition officials confirmed his appointment as a senior White House adviser and said he would be working on trade and the Middle East.

British media reporting of all this has been reasonably balanced. Two recent events affect the political atmosphere. One is the murder of four Israeli soldiers, three of them women, by a Palestinian lorry driver copycatting the use of a lorry as a murder weapon in Nice and Berlin. This, the murder of the largest number of Israeli victims for some years, has been widely reported in the British media as a shocking incident, but put in context as part of the “knife intifada” in which many Israelis and many more Palestinians have been killed.

The second is the revelation by Al Jazeera of an apparent plot involving Shai Masot, a political adviser to the Israeli embassy in London (not listed as a diplomat, and therefore presumably not having diplomatic immunity), and Maria Strizzolo, “chief of staff” to the pro-Israeli MP Robert Halfon, to consider “taking down” the pro-Palestinian MP Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State at the FCO. Other plans include a move against Crispin Blunt MP, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the establishment of new pro-Israel lobby groups such as young Conservative and young Labour friends of Israel. There is mention of a million pound budget for subsidising the Labour Friends of Israel. There is an edited transcript of part of the meeting on the Mail online website.

The Israeli ambassador promptly apologised and said that Masot’s contract will shortly be ended. The FCO accepted the apology and declared the incident closed after only a few hours. Strizzolo has resigned. According to Ha’aretz as reported in the Guardian the embassy in London had earlier warned the Israeli government that operating British Jewish organisations from Jerusalem could be illegal and risky; “Operating like this could encounter opposition from the organisations themselves, given their legal status: Britain isn’t the US!”

As the former Telegraph correspondent Peter Oborne has suggested that is not likely to be the end of the matter; senior MPs such as Sir Nicholas Soames (Conservative) and Emily Thornberry (Labour, shadow Foreign Secretary) are said to agree.

Al Jazeera are to run four programmes based on reports by their investigative journalist on Israeli activities in Britain daily from tomorrow 11 January, so more revelations are to be expected.

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