Britain beginning to close its ears to Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: AP)

Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: AP)

It comes to something when Conservative Friends of Israel is forced to issue a statement distancing itself from the position of a Tory-led government towards Israel. But even after the Foreign Office played down reports that William Hague was considering withdrawing our ambassador from Israel over plans to expand settlement building, CFI felt it necessary to issue a highly critical statement. Stuart Polak, its director, could not have been more forthright: “Britain’s response will only serve to inflame the already fragile situation in the region.” He went further still: “The UK risks permanently reducing our ability to play a positive and supportive role in the peace process.” This is strong stuff.

Mr Polak is a past master at arguing the case that this government is devoted to Israel. On universal jurisdiction, Iran and Israeli intervention in Gaza, ministers appear to have done him proud. According to the CFI narrative, David Cameron and his senior ministers are convinced and passionate friends, and all but a few mavericks on the Tory benches are full-square behind Israel. In the debate on Gaza, more than 20 Tory MPs spoke in favour of Israel and in support of the government’s position that Hamas was responsible for the escalation of the violence.

Cracks began to show when CFI issued a statement earlier this year condemning UK ambassador Matthew Gould for comments he had made about the shift of support in the UK away from Israel. It now looks more than ever that Mr Gould was stating the obvious.

Mr Hague’s main focus has always been Iran. At times, this has led him to be blindsided on other issues, for example when he cultivated a relationship with Bashar al-Assad in the mistaken belief that the Syrian dictator could persuade the Iranians back from the nuclear brink.

He has learnt quickly that it is impossible to neatly compartmentalise countries or issues. The Foreign Secretary now warns of a “perfect storm” for 2013, with a potential intensification of the crises in Iran, Syria and the Middle East peace process, an issue he raised at last month’s meeting of Arab League and EU foreign ministers. It didn’t seem possible that Israel could be more isolated than after the vote in the United Nations in favour of recognising Palestine as an “observer state”.

The announcement by Mr Netanyahu has achieved this.

The Israeli PM has since felt it necessary to clarify to the Americans what he meant. He pointed out that the 3,000 new homes had been authorised in existing Jewish areas of east Jerusalem and existing settlements. The controversial announcement on the E1 development had “only” received planning approval, he added.

These details matter, but only if someone is listening to the arguments — and even the British government is beginning to close its ears.

For many years, the UK Jewish leadership and advocacy organisations have been keen to argue that the international community should not make a fetish of settlements but instead prioritise a return to negotiations.

It is no longer possible to argue that settlement-building is an irrelevance. The Israeli logic may be sound but it makes no odds if no one else accepts that logic. Settlement-building matters because the UN says it matters, the US says it matters, the UK says it matters and the EU says it matters. It also matters to the Palestinians.

Last updated: 5:45pm, December 6 2012