Since the ascension of America and its aggressive foreign policies throughout the world, both laymen and analysts have mocked Britain for being a shadow of its former self. Its legacy in global affairs, after all, is far-reaching, and that is especially true for its controversial legacy in the Middle East. From its role in the carving-up of the region and the setting up of new unheard-of kingdoms, to even the Suez crisis merely seven decades ago after its imperial holdings in the region had already ended, the United Kingdom has indefinitely left its mark on that part of the world.
What many have overlooked, however, is the role Britain has played in the decades since: a diplomatic one representing a largely neutral stance in the affairs of the Middle East and beyond. What many took for weakness or a complete decline in power, London has in fact been maintaining strong relations with numerous opposing States and actors while, at the same time, utilising both its military and – more subtly – its intelligence services to ensure its place in global affairs.
Britain’s influence and legacy goes beyond the awe and respect that its citizens’ passports command, with its strength following the colonial age having been in its diplomacy and ability to appear neutral or mediatory.
Recently-selected Prime Minister, Liz Truss, and her government, though, are attempting to change that. After she told her Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, last month that her office will review the British Embassy’s location in Israel, consider moving it from the capital Tel Aviv to the holy city of Jerusalem, she further preached those intentions to the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) at an event on the sidelines of her party’s conference in Birmingham, where she called herself “a huge Zionist” and a “supporter of Israel” who aims to “take the UK-Israel relationship from strength to strength”.
Support for Israel and appeals to the pro-Israeli lobby are nothing new in British or American politics, of course; they are an essential and necessary factor for gaining greater positions of power throughout government or diplomatic posts. Truss’s rival in the prime ministerial selection, Rishi Sunak, also felt the need to make assurances of support for the faraway country. To defy Tel Aviv is to commit career suicide. That is well-known.
The move that Truss and her government are apparently intending, however, is taking it many steps further. Not only does it potentially raise the bar for the level of appeals that future up-and-coming politicians in the UK will have to make, but it primarily removes Britain from the diplomatic legacy it had itself developed. By moving the Embassy to Jerusalem, the government will seriously violate ethics of neutrality over the Israeli-Palestinian issue, effectively discard any notion of support for a “two-state solution”, and muddy decades of influence it has carefully built up.
Opposition to the potential move has not just been from Muslim leaders, but also from the Christian patriarchs and churches in Jerusalem, as well as Christian communities in the UK in the form of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of Scotland, Church of England, United Reformed Church, Methodist Church in Great Britain, Quakers in Britain and Christian Aid.
Even elements from her own party have criticised the plan, such as William Hague – the former British Foreign Secretary and former Conservative Party leader – who said it “would be a breach of UN Security Council resolutions by one of its permanent members, break a long-standing commitment to work for two states for Israelis and Palestinians, and align Britain in foreign affairs with [former US president] Donald Trump and three small states, rather than the whole of the rest of the world.”
That rest of the world includes Arab States in the Middle East and North Africa, with ties between those countries and the UK at serious risk if the potential move of the Embassy to Jerusalem goes ahead. That is especially the case with the Arab Gulf States – even those currently most inclined to support any relations with Israel – whose diplomats wrote to Truss last month to warn that the move could risk preventing a free-trade agreement between the UK and the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries from being signed by the end of the year.
The damaging of those relations could carry on years into the future, threatening trust in their ties and in Britain’s diplomatic reputation. As the former UK Consul-General of Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean, told the Financial Times, the move would “antagonise the Arab and Muslim world, for no valid reason”. There are also valid security concerns, he said, citing the protests against the US Embassy’s move previously and Israel’s subsequent killing of 50 Palestinians. “Jerusalem is a tinderbox. Ms Truss should extinguish her match.”
Another prominent fact that an embassy move would prove, as alluded to earlier, is British politics’ total capture by and subservience to the pro-Israel lobby. The potential move will please and appease only UK-based groups such as the CFI and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Israeli government and the US. That means it would effectively be for the sole pleasure of a minority, both at home and on the world stage.
One would think that such a sacrifice of decades of diplomatic relations, security status quo, international law and the respect of the international community would all be for enormous gain heavy enough to outweigh the many downsides. On the contrary, any gain from moving the British Embassy to Jerusalem will be minimal, at best, and will come at the price of jeopardising all of the above.
In essence, the plan would “mark a fundamental shift in UK foreign policy”, as the UK’s former Foreign Office minister, Sir Alan Duncan, said. He put it well when he warned that “If pursued to its conclusion, moving the Embassy would destroy the UK’s reputation for respecting international law, and it would undermine our standing in the world.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.