The administration of US President Donald Trump has come to be defined by racism on the domestic front and recklessness on the international stage, and yet the British government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to follow Trump’s lead in what has been his most controversial policy to date: moving his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Johnson, leading one of the most right-wing British governments in history, is reported to have asked officials within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to speed up plans for such a move, which would reverse Britain’s existing policy, fly in the face of international law, and most likely lead to further instability and violence in the Middle East.
Trump’s unilateral decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the eventual embassy move in May last year prompted mass protests, during which at least 61 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. In the global outrage that followed, member states of the UN, including Britain, voted unanimously to declare the controversial decision “null and void”.
The reaction reflected deep anxiety amongst Palestinians and the international community, as Trump’s move was seen to have killed any hopes for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. The Jerusalem question is a final status issue that is supposed to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant UN resolutions. Trump basically upended long-held global consensus and international law.
With Brexit looming, crippling uncertainly has beset the United Kingdom, making it ideal for the hawkish right-wing government in Washington to demand concessions for better trade deals with the US. Conversations of this nature, according to an unnamed source in the FCO, took place during US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s visit to London earlier this month. Details of the meeting between Bolton and officials at the FCO were revealed by Craig Murray, a former British diplomat turned political activist.
Until 31 October, when Britain is set to leave the EU, Westminster is bound by a common European foreign policy position that stops it from following the US and moving the British Embassy to Jerusalem. No such restriction will exist on 1 November. It’s reported that FCO officials had previously been asked to produce a contingency plan, but the construction of a $17 million embassy and a four year timescale made the option unviable. Instructions to find a quick fix have been given, though, and it is thought that a solution that involves moving the ambassador and immediate staff to Jerusalem and turning the British Consulate there into the British Embassy is apparently on the table.
The uncertainty about post-Brexit Britain is tied to a right wing Conservative government filled with some of the most pro-Israel ministers ever. These include Home Secretary Priti Patel, who as Secretary of State for International Development under Theresa May was forced to resign after it came to light that she had held 12 meetings with Israeli political and business leaders without the knowledge of the then Prime Minster. The paralysis within the Labour Party due to its battle against allegations of anti-Semitism, which naturally involves discussion about Israel, must also be added to the equation which makes a controversial embassy move so appealing to Johnson and Co.
The FCO source also revealed that Bolton had discussed British support for Israel’s likely annexation of the occupied West Bank. The source admitted that this was going to be much more difficult politically, due to the lack of support amongst Conservative MPs in parliament. This view would correspond with what has been stated publicly by the government, with recently-appointed Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisting that Israel should halt illegal settlement expansion as it contravenes international law.
MEMO contacted the FCO to see if it would confirm any details of a planned embassy move but no response has been forthcoming. If the FCO source is to be believed, such a move would represent a dramatic shift and raise even more accusations of another historic betrayal by the former colonial power. Britain, as Labour MP Grahame Morris noted in 2014 during a Commons debate on formal recognition of a Palestinian state, has “a unique historical connection – and a moral responsibility to the people of both Israel and Palestine. In 1920 we undertook a sacred trust to guide Palestine to statehood and to independence. That was nearly a century ago and the Palestinian people are still yet to have their rights recognised.” The parliamentary vote was 274 to 12 in favour of recognising the state of Palestine, belatedly many would say. Five years on, however, the Conservative government has failed to move on this decisive mandate and offer the Palestinian people the full legal recognition that they deserve.
Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) met the news of a possible British Embassy move by expressing their grave concern that Britain might follow America’s lead. “We view such a decision as provocative and dangerous and condemn it strenuously,” Yousef Jabareen MK told MEMO.
“Indeed, relocating the embassy would contradict international law and violate longstanding international consensus regarding the status of Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states — Israel and Palestine. Furthermore, a decision of this nature undermines the chances for peace in our region,” added Jabareen, who is the head of the Joint List (of Arab-Israeli MKs) International Relations Committee. “The relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem represents another nail in the coffin of peace and a disgraceful support for annexation, colonisation and the continued occupation of Palestine. Peace in the region will not be possible without recognition of a Palestinian state alongside Israel based on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states.” He concluded by saying that he and his colleagues view such a decision as a provocation that will fuel the flames of an already volatile situation. “We therefore seek to ensure that such a move won’t take place.”
Jabareen’s sentiments have been echoed by Israel’s former security chief, Ami Ayalon, and Gilead Sher, a former Chief of Staff for Prime Minister Ehud Barak who was Israel’s chief negotiator at Camp David. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, both opposed calls by Conservative MPs and the Board of Deputies of British Jews — the Jewish community’s main representative body — to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Britain is about to chart a new course for itself on the global stage, almost certainly outside the EU. To begin this new chapter by blindly following the US in a policy that will lead to greater instability and violence would be both reckless and foolish by any rational standard. Throw in the historical obligation that Britain has never really fulfilled to the Palestinian people, and suddenly the word “betrayal” sounds totally inadequate.
Update 27 August 2019 at 13.00: In a reply to MEMO’s request for comment, the FCO said: “These reports are incorrect. The UK position on Jerusalem has not changed. The British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and we have no plans to move it.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.