Nothing new has come out of the virtual visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories by James Cleverly, Britain’s Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa. It was simply more of the same, laden with symbolism but lightweight on substance. Palestinians have every right to be disappointed.
Nonetheless, the minister seemed content with the exercise when he tweeted on 4 June: “I discussed #coronavirus and its economic challenges with @PM Shatyyeh, UK opposition to annexation, and our commitment to a negotiated two-state solution.”
There is no question that Israel’s threat to annex 30 per cent of the West Bank is illegal, imminent and dangerous. It will be a setback for another generation of the Palestinian goal of establishing an independent state in their historic homeland. Besides, it endangers the peace and stability of the entire region, which are vital to Britain’s national interests.
Now spare a thought for how Britain reacted to Iran’s threat to withdraw from its nuclear agreement with the P5 +1 countries. Back in December 2019 the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement warning Iran that “unless it reversed course, we would have no choice but to take action.” Their message was clear; that they would trigger the dispute mechanism of the 2015 agreement allowing them to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran.
Even at this late hour, there has been no such joint statement from Europe’s most powerful countries toward Israel for its reckless provocations. Nothing suggests that such a move is being contemplated in Whitehall.
If that were the case, Cleverly would have done so during his virtual visit. His refusal or failure to do so calls into question the “take back control” policy which was sold to the British public during the Brexit referendum campaign.
Clearly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is yet to prove that it is in ‘control’ of its Middle East policy making. At best, they appear susceptible to US political blackmail. In January this year Johnson stunned his European counterparts when he called for a ‘Trump deal’ to replace the UN-endorsed Iran nuclear agreement. The Europeans did not have to wait long for an explanation for Johnson’s about turn.
In its customary crass manner, the Trump administration warned Britain that it risked losing a free trade deal with the US if it did not withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Reacting to Johnson’s remarks about the nuclear deal, Richard Goldberg of the White House national security council (NSC) declared: “It’s absolutely in his interests and the people of Great Britain’s interests to join with President Trump, with the United States, to realign your foreign policy away from Brussels, and to join the maximum pressure campaign to keep all of us safe.”
If Britain’s vulnerability to US pressure was exposed on the Iran nuclear deal, its chances of withstanding Trump’s deal of the century in Palestine are much less.
Whether they care to admit it or not, Israel’s annexation will test the integrity of UK policy making. For if it supports the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign state, then it should recognise forthwith the State of Palestine, as did 132 member states of the UN.
As it stands, Israel’s prime minister knows that in Donald Trump, Israel has its best opportunity to deal a final blow to the Palestinian national project. Washington has already clarified its position; that the issue of annexation has nothing to do with international law or UN resolutions.
“As we have made consistently clear, we are prepared to recognise Israeli actions to extend Israeli sovereignty and the application of Israeli law to areas of the West Bank that the vision foresees as being part of the State of Israel,” a US State Department spokesperson said in April.
Netanyahu is convinced that even if Trump is not re-elected, a Biden administration will not reverse the measures. After all, he has already said that he will keep the US embassy in occupied Jerusalem, even though he disagrees with the decision to move it from Tel Aviv.
For Johnson, this may also be his last opportunity to distance himself from Trump’s incendiary deal of the century. It must do so not because it fears the collapse of the Palestinian Authority or the consequences of an intifada, but because it is the right and just thing to do.
It is not enough for Britain to keep issuing patronising platitudes about ‘a negotiated two-state solution.’ After a quarter of a century of futile negotiations, it is clearly time to move on. There are no grey areas in Palestine today. Either you recognise a sovereign Palestinian state in the 1967 territories or you don’t. So far, Britain’s Conservative government has given no indication that it has the political will and moral courage to do so.
Ultimately, Britain’s sovereignty will remain incomplete if it takes back control from the EU only. If this mantra of take back control is to have any real meaning and relevance it must be applied across the board, to the US as it is to the EU. Only then will Boris Johnson restore trust and respect for British foreign policy in the Middle East and the world over.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.