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The strange appointment that indicates there’s little change in Britain’s policy on Israel

Conservative MP Sir Alan Duncan
Conservative MP Sir Alan Duncan

The appointment of Conservative MP Sir Alan Duncan as a Foreign Office minister was largely overlooked when Theresa May formed her new government recently. Duncan will be responsible for the USA and Europe (post-Brexit), an important role but no doubt a disappointment to him. A more logical option would have been to make him Middle East minister, covering a region of which he already has first-hand experience.

Apart from his impromptu role in the ousting of Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi in 2011, Duncan was appointed previously as special envoy to Yemen, a former business haunt of his. Freedom of Information documents released this week show how he secured personal meetings with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, the Crown Prince, Deputy Crown Prince and the Foreign Minister in Riyadh. He also met with President Hadi of Yemen, his Prime Minister Ahmed Bin Daghr and the Foreign Minister Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi. The MP for Rutland and Melton was offered no additional administrative support for these efforts, and was not paid any extra, but still found time to meet with the UN regional humanitarian coordinator, Amer Daoudi, as well as representatives from NGOs including Oxfam, Amnesty and Medecins Sans Frontieres. He was also, the documents reveal, in “regular telephone contact” with the UN Special Envoy. All of this was when he was not even a minister.

So why is Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood still in office, and why has Duncan not got the job he is surely better qualified for? Ellwood was an army officer in the early nineties but never served in the Middle East; he entered politics and finance as an advisor to Conservative MPs and a manager at the London Stock Exchange. By comparison, Duncan worked with Shell International between 1979 and 1981, and then as an oil trader from 1982 to 1988, focused largely on the Middle East. In 1989, he set up Harcourt Consultants as advisers on oil and gas matters in the region. No wonder that his parliamentary website listing cites “Middle East” as one of his political interests. Dislike the guy’s politics by all means, but you can’t say that he doesn’t know his way around the Arab world.

I am far from misty-eyed about Duncan, however; his support for the UK-Saudi alliance is dogmatic, of dubious value to Britain and has the moral odour of Donald Trump on a sleazy night out with Vladimir Putin. He remains adamant that Britain should continue to arm the Saudi air force, whose pilots can neither shoot straight (unless they’re aiming for schools and mosques), nor succeed in the mission that their impetuous monarch has set them. Duncan also seems oblivious to the severity of human rights abuses in Bahrain, and the risk to this country that unchecked abuses by our allies (and his former business clients) might bring about.

Despite these shortcomings, the fact that Duncan was not given the obvious Middle Eastern role that his knowledge and experience deserves is both telling and troubling. My suspicion is that he missed out on the obvious job for one reason and one reason alone: he is one of the most ardently pro-Palestinian politicians in his party and, arguably, the House of Commons.

In a blistering rebuke of Israeli policy in late 2014, Duncan described the state’s illegal settlement programme for what it is — “apartheid”. His speech continued: “Occupation, annexation, illegality, negligence, complicity: this is a wicked cocktail which brings shame to the government of Israel… It would appear that on the West Bank of the Jordan the rule of international law has been shelved.”

Although backbench Tory antipathy to Israeli policy is frequently under-estimated, Duncan’s words are still astonishing from a senior party figure, not least because he made this speech not at a fringe event at a party conference, but at the heart of the Whitehall defence establishment, the hallowed Royal United Services Institute. The timing was significant too, shortly after he voted in parliament to recognise the State of Palestine, a historic opportunity from which most Conservative MPs ran a mile. Duncan remains a regular visitor to the West Bank and was until recently Chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, which represents Gulf interests in Westminster and acts as a pro-Palestinian counter-balance to Conservative Friends of Israel.

What was Prime Minister Theresa May so concerned about which prompted her to avoid the obvious appointment of Duncan to the Middle East portfolio? For a start, it is very hard to leave a friend if you are the last one they have. Israel has invested a great deal more in relative terms in London than she has in Washington recently, because the Obama administration has been relatively unfriendly, and because European allies have now begun to ostracise Tel Aviv. The appointment of outspoken Duncan would have represented a sea change in Britain’s approach, and perhaps its abandonment by Israel’s final unflinching friend.

Then there is the departure of David Cameron, Michael Gove and George Osborne, a trio who would watch Benjamin Netanyahu execute a Palestinian child himself and still maintain that he is an angel on earth. Theresa May probably does not want to worry the Israelis even more now that their friends have departed to the back benches, and having the forthright Duncan covering Middle East affairs would surely have sent too abrupt a message to Tel Aviv.

Aside from the enormous amounts of money that pro-Israel donors still give the Tories, Israel would, though, have had cards to play back if pro-Palestinian Duncan had got the job. Their intelligence services are currently providing information to MI6 about terrorism in the Sinai. Given the numbers of British tourists sunning themselves in Sharm El-Sheikh each year and recent events, this is not a source of intelligence that May seems willing to risk. There may also be concerns that if the Israelis feel that they are losing friends in Britain, on top of their diplomatic losses elsewhere, they may resort to cosying up to Putin’s Russia, as has been suggested by Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a native of the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

Ultimately however, Duncan’s missing out on the Middle East job may have come down to personal preference. The new prime minister’s pro-Israel stance may pale in comparison to the previous clique in charge, but if her previous statements are anything to go by, she will undoubtedly remain a firm friend of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Furthermore, Duncan’s new boss, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, is rarely to be heard banging the drum of Palestinian rights.

Sir Alan Duncan may have the experience, but you don’t get far in today’s Westminster unless you’re pro-Israel, through and through. He is learning that to his cost.

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