Netanyahu adds UK to diplomacy round-trip

By Martin Bright, April 28, 2011

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to spend an intensive 36 hours in Britain next week as part of a whistlestop tour to persuade European leaders to vote against the recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September.

News of the trip leaked out in Israel and, although Downing Street had not confirmed the visit at time of going to press, the government was keen to accommodate Mr Netanyahu despite the stopover falling in the week of the AV referendum and local elections.

Mr Netanyahu's new interest in Europe should act as a wake-up call to David Cameron. The visit, if confirmed, would provide the British Prime Minister with a potentially historic, if unexpected, opportunity to place himself at the heart of the peace process.

Over the past months the UK government has become increasingly frustrated with the Netanyahu government, with Foreign Secretary William Hague and Middle East Minister Alistair Burt both making public statements about settlement building. On the Israeli side, the continuing saga of reform to the law of "universal jurisdiction" has put a chill on relations.

But necessity has forced Mr Netanyahu into Europe's arms. America's traditional position as the dominant partner in the diplomatic process has been undermined by two years of stagnation. Meanwhile, the spectre of European recognition of a Palestinian state has given a new urgency to Israeli diplomacy, especially since France's Permanent Representative to the UN Gerard Araud announced that European nations were considering recognition. Sources suggest that Mr Netanyahu was not planning to make any substantive announcement in London or Paris ahead of a planned visit to Washington later in the year, when he will address Congress.

The visit should act as a wake-up call to Cameron

President Obama's deadline of September 2011 for an agreement is fast approaching and both sides in the conflict remain committed in principle. Mr Netanyahu has urged an immediate return to the negotiating table, but the Palestinians have said they will not re-enter talks until settlement building stops. Two weeks ago, the US was reported to have blocked an initiative by Britain, France and Germany to base an agreement on 1967 borders. It was also forced to use its veto at the UN to block an attempt to formally condemn continued settlement building by Israel.

There is speculation that Israel will agree to a form of words on the right of return of Palestinian refugees in return for a commitment to the Jewish identity of the Israeli state. There is even one suggestion circulating that Mr Netanyahu will surprise everyone by announcing that Israel will itself recognise the Palestinian state should his diplomatic efforts in Europe fail.

With intervention in Libya, Mr Cameron has shown that he does not share the "little Englander" instincts of some of his colleagues. He now has the opportunity to demonstrate that Britain can take a lead on the peace process. He may not get the chance again.

Last updated: 4:28pm, May 31 2011