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Britain needs capable diplomats, not spin doctors

British Ambassador Neil Wigan (R) and Elazar Stern, Israel's Minister of Intelligence (L) [@Elazar_stern/Twitter]
British Ambassador Neil Wigan (R) and Elazar Stern, Israel's Minister of Intelligence (L) [@Elazar_stern/Twitter]

There was a time when the mandarins in the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office were renowned for their shrewdness and finesse. That is no longer the case. The department has become so ideologically driven that some diplomats are often seen dancing to the tune of their political masters with little regard for their profession.

So when Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that he is "a passionate Zionist", his subordinates felt compelled to speak and act in the same manner.

Britain's Ambassador to Israel, Neil Wigan, made no attempt to be discreet or fair in his exclusive OpEd which appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth on 22 November. Writing under the title 'Hamas' political and military wings are two sides of the same coin,' Wigan recalled the recent military confrontation between the Palestinian resistance factions led by Hamas and Israel. "During the conflict earlier this year, Israelis fled to shelters as Hamas rockets rained down."

Since it was written primarily for an Israeli readership, the ambassador saw no need to make the connection between cause and effect or explain the context. Instead, he conveniently chose to ignore the preceding weeks of settler attacks upon the Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

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Significantly, while Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah were being threatened with eviction from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers, Britain was busy consolidating its comprehensive military cooperation with Israel.

No one expected Britain to heed the call of the defenceless Palestinians. After all, they had only six months earlier signed a military cooperation agreement with Israel affirming Tel Aviv's role as "a key strategic partner". At the time, Ambassador Wigan could not contain his glee when he tweeted that he was "delighted to announce that UK and Israel Chiefs of Defence Staff signed a new agreement to further deepen our military co-operation."

Against this background, it came as no surprise that Britain did remain an ineffectual spectator while Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinian worshippers nightly in Al-Aqsa Mosque – the third holiest mosque in Islam. Inevitably, these acts of provocation which coincided with the month of Ramadan led to the open confrontation in May 2021.

Although the issue of blacklisting Hamas' political wing was long considered, the actual timing of the decision begs the question, why now? It is a common tactic of governments to deflect attention from their domestic crises by seeking a foreign policy achievement.

Al-Aqsa will remain in the Palestinians' hearts - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Al-Aqsa will remain in the Palestinians' hearts – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

None of the reasons cited to justify the criminalisation of Hamas were innovative; they were all a rehash of claims made decades ago. Hence the timing of the decision seemed calculated to deflect attention from the spectre of corruption that currently stalks the Conservative Government in Whitehall.

Inevitably, the culture of corruption has created the image of a dysfunctional and rudderless government. No wonder a national poll conducted last week revealed that 76 per cent of the British electorate were deeply concerned about the 'dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power.'

In this light, both the Home Secretary's decision and Wigan's article are part and parcel of a concerted effort to regain the respect and trust of the British electorate; albeit at the expense of the Palestinian people. Toward this end, the issue of Hamas was a red herring.

Notwithstanding, there was something that was curiously disturbing about the article. The author in his haste to ingratiate himself to his political masters and Israeli allies ignored the fact that Home Secretary had not yet presented her proposed bill to parliament. Hence by discussing it a foreign newspaper before parliament debated it constituted a deplorable show of contempt for parliament.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsey Hoyle, will no doubt have noticed this act of contempt not least because he had on previous occasions reprimanded government ministers for briefing the media on matters before presenting them to parliament.

Surely, if Britain was genuinely concerned about upholding the rule of law and protecting universal human rights it would hold Israel to account for practicing the crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people. The issue of Israeli apartheid is not an anti-Semitic pro-Palestinian conspiracy; it is the view of Israeli NGOs like Yesh Din and B'Tselem as well as the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In January 2021 B'Tselem published a damning report confirming that there was 'A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.' The report was unapologetically titled 'This is Apartheid'.

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As a signatory to the Rome Statute, Britain is treaty-bound to adopt legislative, judicial and administrative measures to bring to trial and punish persons responsible for the crime of apartheid. Will it ever happen? Certainly not under the incumbent government which is more committed to protecting Israel's public image than defending human rights.

But there is still a glimmer of hope for a free Palestine. Across Europe, people of conscience are increasingly demanding justice and an end to Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid. This was powerfully demonstrated in July 2021 when 160 academics from 21 countries signed an open letter calling on the European Commission to boycott Israeli universities that support the country's apartheid policies and human rights violations.

Ultimately, no number of draconian laws will intimidate or deter the British and European public from supporting the just Palestinian cause. If anything, such measures will only energise support for Palestine instead of undermine it. This is why Britain is in urgent need of capable diplomats to represent it, not just in Israel, but also on the world stage.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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