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Is British policy shifting more towards Israel under Theresa May?

The Europal forum round-table discussion on UK policy towards Palestine on 23rd May 2017 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]
The Europal forum round-table discussion on UK policy towards Palestine on 23rd May 2017 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

Europal Forum held a round-table discussion in London on Tuesday looking at British policy on Palestine as well as the current reality and possible future directions. The aim of the event was to “explore the UK’s stated position but also consider whether the public statements are in line with what appears to be a change of position under Prime Minister Theresa May taking a more pro-Israel stance.”

In its response to a petition initiated by the Palestine Return Centre asking for an apology to be given to the Palestinian people for issuing the Balfour Declaration, the British government made it clear that it “does not intend to apologise.”

“We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel,” the statement continued.

The important thing now is to look forward and establish security and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians through a lasting peace. We believe the best way to achieve this is through a two-state solution: a negotiated settlement that leads to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.

The session opened with a presentation by Kamel Hawwash, a British-Palestinian Professor of Engineering based at the University of Birmingham, and a veteran campaigner for Palestine. His presentation was followed by interventions by prominent speakers and experts.

Image of Professor Kamel Hawwash at the Europal forum round-table discussion on UK policy towards Palestine on 23rd May 2017 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

Professor Hawwash began by looking at Britain’s historical role in Palestine, from the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 to the following year’s Balfour Declaration and then the British Mandate from the early 1920s onwards. He then looked at Britain’s policy towards Palestine-Israel up until the end of 2016 and signs of a shift in policy since then.

Last year ended on a positive note for Palestine with the UN Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 2334 on the illegality of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “The UK, in fact, helped to draft the resolution and voted in favour of it,” Hawwash pointed out. Then came the then US Secretary of State John Kerry’s hard-hitting speech, “placing much of the blame on Israel’s settlement expansion.” In that speech, Kerry stressed that, “The settler agenda is defining the future in Israel.” This is leading to a reality of one state, added the former US official, and if that happens, “Israel can either be Jewish or democratic; it cannot be both.”

Signs of a pro-Israel shift in British policy

Prime Minister Theresa May’s heavy criticism of Kerry’s speech, Hawwash suggested, marked the beginning of a shift in British policy. Britain’s position on the Paris conference and its low-level delegation signalled further a departure from longstanding positions allied to those of the EU, he explained. This was topped by the UN Human Rights Council meeting at the start of 2017, “when, suddenly, the UK decided that it was so unfair to criticise Israel regularly” that it accused the council of “bias against Israel”.

Then came the change of policy towards Palestinian diplomatic representation in London. After the delegation had been “elevated to a mission” in the past, Hawwash noted, the embassy’s status is now being “downgraded,” with Britain withholding a diplomatic visa for Palestine’s new ambassador.

Prof. Hawwash concluded that the status quo in Palestine will continue as Britain’s policy towards the conflict becomes more and more pro-Israel, and predicted that more legislation against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) will follow, with pressure to adopt an even more Israel-friendly policy following Brexit.

Image of Professor Kamel Hawwashat at the Europal forum round-table discussion on UK policy towards Palestine on 23rd May 2017 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

Image of Professor Kamel Hawwash at the Europal forum round-table discussion on UK policy towards Palestine on 23rd May 2017 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

British-Palestinian academic and political activist Dr Azzam Tamimi, however, said that Britain’s exit from the EU may in fact lead to a positive change in Europe’s policy towards Palestine-Israel. “Palestinians feel that Britain has had a negative influence on the EU,” he claimed.

Nadia Hijab, the Palestinian political analyst and executive director of Al-Shabaka, highlighted the importance of looking at the transatlantic alliance and how it affects British policy, in light of a “global push by Israel to end the conflict on its terms” and increasing government action in Washington and London to counter the successes of the BDS movement. “Key to this global push is who controls the narrative and the discourse,” she added. Rather than ending the occupation in the sense that we understand it, she explained, Israel “wants to end all talk of occupation and to legalise some if not all of its presence in the [occupied] West Bank and East Jerusalem.”

Shift in public opinion towards Palestine

“It is important not to feel disheartened,” said Sabah Al-Mokhtar. The member of the Geneva International Centre for Justice and President of the Arab Lawyers Association cited a marked shift in international standing towards Israel over the past few decades. Most of Europe, including Britain, he said, is beginning at least “to feel embarrassed” about Israel’s consistent abuses. He stressed the importance of looking to international law and pushing to hold Israel accountable. “The Palestinian community needs to get a legal team and produce a template for legal action to take against Israel,” he concluded.

The belief that Israel is losing the support of public opinion was shared by Ben Jamal, Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. “There is a fundamental breaking down of the consensus that sustained western policy making for the 30 years,” he said.

Nadia Hijab added that the success of the Palestine solidarity movement is in fact amplified by Israel’s continuing push for colonisation and the passing of “more of what are effectively racist laws discriminating against the Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

Former Member of Parliament and editor of Palestine Briefing, Martin Linton, said that while influencing public opinion is crucial, it is also important to get through to politicians.

We are winning the battle of public opinion, but we are losing a battle in parliament.

mage of Martin Linton (C) at the Europal forum round-table discussion on UK policy towards Palestine on 23rd May 2017 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

Image of Martin Linton (C) at the Europal forum round-table discussion on UK policy towards Palestine on 23rd May 2017 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

“You have to convert your victory in public opinion into the victories that determine the actions of governments,” he added, pointing out that, as it stands, the government continues to do the opposite of what public opinion wants on Palestine. “The West’s frequent condemnations, particularly of settlements and demolitions, are not followed by action,” he noted. What needs to be done, he said, is to shift the focus onto placing economic pressure on Israel. “This is the direction in which [activists] need to move.”

Recognition of Palestine as a state

While pushing for British recognition of a Palestinian state is an important step, Linton stressed, it is not an end but a means to an end.

The commentators moved on to discuss the viability of a two-state solution, given Israel’s current policies and settlement expansion. When asked whether Palestinians are right to continue to push for two-states, given the reality on the ground, particularly as Hamas recently adopted the 1967 borders in its revised charter, or if it was time to push for a single state, Hijab said that the conflict is so far from a political solution that it is important to focus on rights. “And that is the genius of BDS,” she told MEMO. QUOTE“We need to learn to live in and love the grey area.”QUOTE

What was absent from the discussion were the practicalities of having a functioning Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps. As it stands, Palestine has no control over its own borders, while Israel continues to erode Palestinian infrastructure, making it impossible to have an independent functioning state. This is exacerbated by the Gaza Strip and West Bank having no contiguous territory and the West Bank itself being cut up into what Martin Linton called a bunch of “little islands”.

“The viability of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is absolutely essential,” the former Labour MP told MEMO. “There is very little discussion about this.”

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