Obama’s tardy support for the Palestinians gives way to Trump’s confusion

The surprise Security Council resolution (No. 2334) on 23rd December 2016 marked the end of the Obama presidency, obliging Israel to abide by its legal obligations under the Fourth Geneva convention, condemning the conduct of its occupation of Palestinian territories since 1967, calling for a freeze of all settlement activity and the dismantlement of outposts, and reiterating support for a two-state solution. Most unusually, the United States did not use its veto. It later emerged that HMG had pulled the strings and played a key role in drumming up support among Security Council members.

Illegal Israeli settlement

Illegal Israeli settlement under construction

However, Britain did not sustain its position. Only 5 days later, on December 28th Theresa May issued a statement distancing herself from the vote and chiding Mr.Kerry for, among other things, describing the Israeli government as the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by the most extreme elements. In January, Boris Johnson reneged on a commitment to have Britain represented at the Paris Peace Conference, only sending a FO official who could not sign the final communiqué. Over 70 countries attended, but Britain missed this opportunity to reinforce the message it had sent Israel through the Security Council resolution 2334. The UK was also not present at a meeting of the European Council which forced a postponement of a summit between Israel and the European Union scheduled for February 28 because of Netanyahu’s announcement of new settlement building (source: Palestine Briefing). 

John Kerry

Where are the British?

Johnson also blamed the Palestinians for the breakdown of talks with the Israelis in 2014 (contradicting Kerry’s view based on his direct experience), and took Prime Minister Netanyahu’s side in supporting talks without preconditions. The latter means that Netanyahu will sit down to talks on condition that he can continue building illegal settlements, a bit like negotiating the sharing of a pizza while devouring it.

In his answer to a Parliamentary question, Johnson used a classic pro-apartheid argument that the occupation provided the Palestinians with jobs. According to another article in Palestine Briefing he told Labour MP Andy Slaughter that it was UK policy to continue to trade [with illegal Israeli settlements] on the grounds that that is the best way to support the economy of the region – – – many workers in the region come from populations within the occupied Palestinian territories, and their livelihoods depend on that industry. This is a major departure from existing UK policy which is to neither encourage nor support trade between UK companies and companies trading in illegal settlements. What could account for such a drastic U-turn, and how could the UK put Israeli interests before those USA? Well, it seems to have been playing perfidious Albion, lining up with the President-designate Trump and seeking to mollify Israel’s fury.

Netanyahu was incensed at the Security Council members for the lack of usual international obeisance. He took petty diplomatic reprisals against New Zealand and Senegal which had sponsored the resolution, and in Britain the pro-Israeli lobby reportedly threatened to withdraw Jewish support from the Conservative Party at the next General Election in key constituencies with large Jewish electorates (source: Middle-East Monitor). This prompted Tobias Elwood, Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, to issue a placatory statement, on January 11, and it may also explain Britain’s reluctance to take any action against the Israeli Embassy on the basis of the Al Jazeera revelations that appeared shortly afterwards.

To cap it all, The Times of 9 March reported that the first official visit of a British royal to Israel looks set to go ahead this year, with a view to marking the Balfour centenary. The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, extended the invitation during a meeting with Boris Johnson in Jerusalem. If a royal makes this visit it will break with the post-1948 precedent in which HMG has quietly rejected such invitations.

President-designate Trump’s initial moves favoured the Israeli Government. He bitterly criticised UNSC 2334, he designated a highly partisan Ambassador (David Friedman), he supported moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, and ended America’s (rhetorical) support for a two-state solution. Friedman’s appointment was particularly questionable, as he had reportedly been involved in channelling tax-exempt funds to a West Bank settlement that was illegal (even under Israeli law), and in contravention of US tax rules which prohibit charity donations to any occupied territory.

Notwithstanding, the White House has become more cautious and equivocal in its utterings. There has been less talk of moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and on 10 March President Trump spoke by phone to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, inviting him to the White House. A number of times Trump has expressed interest in achieving what he calls the ultimate deal, i.e. peace between Israel and the Palestinians.