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Thursday, 30 March 2023
  • “Global Britain” must not move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – in its own interests

“Global Britain” must not move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – in its own interests
Ian Black

Britain’s brand-new prime minister, Liz Truss, has an awful lot on her plate: the “mini-budget”, unveiled by her chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, on September 23, was deeply shocking to many people – not least the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which very unusually rebuked a G7 government.

 Boris Johnson’s replacement as Conservative Party leader is facing extremely challenging times in 10 Downing Street. The UK economy is in turmoil – fueled by rising energy costs, inflation, recession and the war in Ukraine. And, last but not least, her government’s controversial plan to tackle all those problems by cutting taxes, especially for the rich, to boost growth.

 But during her first visit abroad as premier, she took the public initiative to significantly change UK policy on one of the most intractable, divisive and toxic issues in the world. It was a bad move.

 Truss met her Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and promised to “review” the transfer of the British embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That was in line with what President Donald Trump did in May 2018, breaking decades of American policy. It was yet another serious mistake with far-reaching Middle Eastern and global implications.

 Back then Theresa May, the then Tory prime minister, condemned Trump’s decision and refused to follow it. It was widely and correctly viewed as incendiary, including by the British government.  It sparked protests and clashes in which Israeli security forces killed dozens of Palestinians.

 Though a superpower’s example offers cover to others, only four countries followed the US: Honduras, Guatemala, Kosovo – and Paraguay, which swiftly reversed course. The British embassy in Israel is located in Tel Aviv, where most other countries have their embassies. Many, including the UK, have consulates in East Jerusalem, from where they administer their relations with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

 Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission in London, said he was shocked at Truss's review, and declared that any move to relocate the British embassy would "destroy" the Palestinian relationship with the British government.

 All Israeli governments see Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of the country, although that is not recognised internationally. Palestinians say East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future independent state.

 Israeli officials were naturally delighted that Truss floated the idea of moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and thereby recognising Israeli sovereignty over the city, as one of her first foreign policy moves as prime minister.

 Truss should worry more about the impact on Britain’s global reputation of a move that would break with an international consensus among leaders of advanced democracies. Not to mention the position firmly held since the 1967 war by every British government up to and including her scandal-prone predecessor.

 Britain’s historical role in the Middle East confers on it an obligation to seek justice for the Palestinians. Much of the Palestinian public already blames the Balfour declaration in 1917 for promising a “national home for the Jewish people” for its present travails. In the section of the declaration promising this would not be at the expense of the rights of “non-Jewish communities” remains spectacularly unfinished business.

 What is strange is that during her tenure as foreign secretary, under Johnson, Truss made no attempt to relocate the embassy. That has given rise to speculation that she ordered the review for political expediency: to ingratiate herself with Israel and its supporters in Britain, and specifically, with the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), whose membership includes most of her cabinet and around 80% of Tory backbenchers. 

 During the Conservative leadership race, Truss said she understood the “importance and sensitivity of the location of the British embassy” in a letter to CFI. But she does not seem to have understood how entirely counterproductive to British interests would be in moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

 Following Trump’s example that would not go down well in the White House. Although Biden has not reversed the move of the US embassy, he has undertaken a series of measures to limit the damage done by his predecessor.

 Like Johnson, Truss is a passionate proponent of post-Brexit “Global Britain”. Breaking international law, however, will do nothing to promote this brand, nor will it help to get a trade agreement with the US, which was touted as one of the major benefits of an independent foreign policy

 Britain’s Arab allies – in unison – have expressed their rejection of the idea. Even Arab states that have formal and full diplomatic relations with Israel have been clear that such a move would be out of bounds. A collective letter from Arab ambassadors in London has already been delivered to the Foreign Office, which says such a deal could jeopardise a free trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council.

 This an issue of national interest for the British people at a very challenging time. “The sad truth is that since 1967, Israel has become addicted to the occupation.” wrote Avi Shlaim, a renowned historian of the conflict. “A true friend does not indulge an addiction but tries to wean the addict from it.”