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Mixed messages from Mr Hague

The balancing act of international diplomacy is never an easy task. It becomes especially difficult for British diplomats when dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is not because the problem is beyond human comprehension, but because of what they try to do. Foreign Secretary William Hague proved this when he spoke alongside the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, at an event hosted by Chatham House to mark sixty years of British-Israeli diplomatic relations. Despite his best efforts to appear even-handed, he left his audience in no doubt that Israel was a special and exceptional case.

In his opening remarks Mr Hague laid down the marker; 'Our relationship with Israel goes far beyond the realm of diplomatic relations…' He then explained that it is one based on bonds between communities and families and shared values.

To the close observer, it was predictable that Mr Hague would bend over backwards to reassure his Israeli guest. After all, the event came only weeks after Britain voted in support of a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories. As is always the case with bitter medicine, western diplomats often feel obliged to sweeten their condemnation of Israel with patronising and grovelling statements.

Given the historic events unfolding in the region the audience was, nevertheless, right to expect something new from Britain's top diplomat. They were disappointed. On the contrary, they were treated to the familiar cocktail of the clichés on Israel's security, two states living side by side, and the Iranian threat.

Altogether, the speech contained a number of disturbing mixed messages, which seemed contradictory at best and one-sided at worst. For example, while reaffirming the UK's vision of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, he inserted the caveat of 'equivalent land swaps'. This clearly runs counter to the opinion of the International Court of Justice, which regards the West Bank as occupied territories and demands that Israel should withdraw from it. Hague however conveniently ignores this. He proposes instead a formula that would enable Israel to sidestep the law and gain recognition for the new 'realities on the ground'. The fact is, Israel does not own the land which it occupied in 1948 west of the armistice line. Yet, Mr Hague found himself proposing to swap it with land east of the armistice line which it occupied in 1967 and does not own.

What the Foreign Secretary did not tell his audience about the proposed land swap is that his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, is on record as calling for the transfer of Israel's Palestinian citizens to the Palestinian state, in exchange for Israel keeping some of its illegal West Bank settlements. Palestinians in Israel view this as a crude blueprint for ethnic cleansing.

Of course, Mr Hague must be commended for outlining in the clearest language possible Britain's position on the settlement expansion. "We do believe it is illegal, an obstacle to peace and a threat to a two-state solution." What he evidently was incapable of doing, and which no diplomat has succeeded in doing, is to reconcile Israel's maximalist demands with Palestinian rights. Like oil and water, they simply would not mix.

By attempting to do this, Mr Hague found himself equating the coloniser with the colonised, and the occupier with the occupied. The longstanding vision of two states on the 1967 borders would only come to fruition when Israel withdraws from the lands it belligerently occupies.

There were still more sweeteners in the speech for the Israeli president. That Britain firmly opposes boycotts and attempts to delegitimize Israel. One would expect that to the same degree that he is appalled by the boycott of Israel campaigns, he would also be outraged by the four year siege of Gaza's one and half million inhabitants. Given this apparent oversight, the question must be posed, why is the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign growing internationally? The answer is simple; people the world over are sick and tired of Israel's disregard for international law and standards of conduct.

Rightly so, Mr Hague doesn't want the 'Peace Process' to become a casualty of regional uncertainty. He therefore calls on both Palestinians and Israelis to 'urgently' recommit themselves to negotiations based on principles supported by the 'international community'; which is, of course, quite different from international laws and norms. It is important to mention this because the very next day after the speech, the Israeli Knesset passed a law paving the way to revoke the citizenship of its Palestinian citizens. In the occupied West Bank, it abducted an elected member of the Palestinian parliament, Muhammad Mahir Badr on the same day.

Surely, if Britain is to benefit from the great historical opportunity for change and democracy in the region that Mr Hague spoke of, it must help prevent such arbitrary abuse of power. All the governments which were swept from power or shaken by popular uprising excelled in this practice. Ultimately, Britain has everything to gain and nothing to lose from supporting the democratic will of the region's people and ensuring adherence to universal standards of justice.

Without this, it would be pointless to profess any sense of hope; or to suggest that it would be business as usual if the Israelis and Palestinians were to begin negotiations. Clearly a peace agreement with a united and representative Palestinian side has a much better chance of succeeding than a flawed agreement with a weak, unrepresentative and divided partner. This is the way forward.

Commentary & AnalysisEurope & RussiaIsraelMiddle EastPalestineUK
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