LONDON: Britain’s very public outrage over Israeli plans to build settlements in east Jerusalem in the wake of Palestine’s United Nations (UN) victory marks a distinct change in UK policy toward Tel Aviv.
It comes mere days after Britain dropped its UN opposition to Palestinian efforts to upgrade the country’s status – abstaining, rather than voting no, on a resolution to classify Palestine as a ‘non-member state’ – and weeks after the UK openly supported Israel actions in Gaza, placing the blame firmly at the feet of Hamas even as the death toll from Israeli shelling spiraled.
Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that 3,000 new homes would be built in E1, effectively cutting the West Bank off from East Jerusalem, has even prompted speculation that Britain would consider recalling its ambassador in Tel Aviv. An unprecedented threat, even if Prime Minister David Cameron quickly played it down yesterday.
In a statement issued Saturday, a day after Netanyahu’s announcement, Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said: “We deplore the recent Israeli government decision to build 3,000 new housing units and unfreeze development in the E1 block. This threatens the viability of the two-state solution.
“We have called on the Israeli government to reverse this decision,” it added, revealing that the Israeli ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, had been summoned to a meeting with Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt.
In the wake of the statement, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that not just Britain, but France had considered recalling their ambassadors in Tel Aviv. A spokesman for Cameron, however, appeared to rule that out in a press conference yesterday, saying: “We are not proposing to do that.”
Despite the denial, it is clear that Britain’s anger is real. A statement from the British Embassy in Tel Aviv has expressly criticized Israel’s punitive response to Palestine’s UN victory – which has also seen Israel deny the Palestinian Authority $100 million in taxes that it collects in the West Bank on the PA’s behalf.
“Strong reaction(s) to Thursday’s UNGA resolution undermine(s) the prospects for negotiations and efforts to build a strong foundation for the peace process,” the statement said. “It may become the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Hugh Lovatt, Israel/Palestine project coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Arab News.
Lovatt said that the change in tack is partly a result of British dissatisfaction with the US in its failure to engage in the Israel-Palestine peace process. In the run up to the UN vote, he says, there was a “flurry” or activity from Britain and the EU urging the Americans to engage, but this came to nothing. Even now, in the wake of the vote, recent statements by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice seem to preclude the possibility of progress.
“Faced with this situation, it falls to the EU – and most especially Britain, France and Germany — to take the lead, something which they look increasingly set to do,” said Lovatt. “The unprecedented and forceful reaction taken by Britain seems to indicate that it is now prepared to introduce a stick into its relations with Israel to complement the already abundant EU carrots.”
But as British attitudes have hardened toward Israel, so have European, as a comparison of the last week’s UN vote and the UNESCO vote in 2011 reveals. Germany, the Netherlands and Lithuania, who previously voted no, abstained while Italy, Portugal, Denmark and Switzerland moved from abstain to yes. Sweden switched its vote from no to yes.
It comes as the results of a YouGov poll revealed that an overwhelming majority – as high as 86 percent in Germany and 59 percent in Britain – supports Palestinian statehood. Increasingly, it looks like the US and Israel is being left out in the cold, while Palestine is developing powerful allies in Europe.
Both the poll and the vote also came before the recent settlement announcement, which will only serve to isolate Israel further in Europe. Tel Aviv had previously agreed to a freeze on settlements with the EU, which is considered illegal under international law and a deal-breaker for the Palestinian Authority, which has long refused to begin peace talks with Israel until the construction is stopped.
“It will have tremendous consequences for Israel,” said Lovatt. “Unless it is immediately rescinded such a move will likely lose it considerable good will amongst previously supportive EU member states.
“This move also comes at a time when the EU is debating possible action against Israeli settlements. While any unanimous decision seemed unlikely until now, Israeli actions will all but guaranty a strong EU response.”