Middle East turmoil prompts Hague to get blunt with Bibi

February 10, 2011
Egyptian demonstrators were still protesting against Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s Tahrir Square this week

Egyptian demonstrators were still protesting against Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s Tahrir Square this week

William Hague's dramatic intervention in the Middle East peace process this week can not easily be dismissed as spin or journalistic hype.

It is no accident that he spoke so candidly to The Times during his mission to five countries affected by the "New Arab Revolt", nor that he used such strong language.

His determination to talk tough to Israel and the Obama administration about the urgency of restarting the peace process in the light of events in Egypt marks a significant development.

Although there is no change in UK policy, there has been a definite shift in tone. It matters that what was once said in private briefings, under Chatham House rules, is now said openly to a journalist on a plane.

Mr Hague could not have spoken more plainly in his criticism of Binyamin Netanyahu when he said: "This is not the time for belligerent language. It's a time to inject greater urgency into the Middle East peace process."

Yemeni President Saleh (left) greeting Hague on Wednesday

Yemeni President Saleh (left) greeting Hague on Wednesday

Mr Hague will also have been emboldened by the statement by the Quartet on the importance of resuming talks. There is now a deep frustration at ministerial level with the Netanyahu government's intransigence and a growing doubt that the Israeli prime minister will be in a position to negotiate in the near future.

British diplomats have been keen to emphasise a growing convergence of the UK/Israel position on Iran, the resolution of the issue of universal jurisdiction and new initiatives to co-operate on science and high-tech industry.

But until now the Foreign Office has preferred to talk euphemistically about "managing differences" on the peace process. Following Mr Hague's comments, one is tempted to say to the UK's popular new ambassador in Israel, Matthew Gould: "Manage that!"

Mr Hague's sentiments are shared by the German president, Angela Merkel, who is believed to have told Tony Blair, the Quartet representative, that she has given up any notion that Mr Netanyahu is serious.

That view was expressed within Israel by Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who told the JC this week: "Looking at what is happening in the Arab world, some people may feel we need to stick together and do nothing. But that is completely wrong. We need to embrace peace and the idea of two states even more urgently. You have to decide if you are willing to pay the price of peace. Netanyahu is not."

It is now possible to identify a pattern in the statements of the British government. David Cameron has never apologised for describing Gaza as a "prison camp" during a speech in Turkey last year and was happy to criticise the boarding of the Mavi Marmara. He and William Hague have always couched their support for Israel in terms of being a "critical friend". This is very different from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who were first and foremost friends, but who might, from time to time, choose to be critical on particular policy issues.

Now there are identifiable fissures in the UK-Israel relationship. On the British side, the wounds are still raw from the use of British passports in last year's Mossad Dubai operation. Meanwhile, in Israel there is growing anger that Britain has become the international hub of the delegitimisation movement.

But there is another important aspect to the new diplomatic direction: the Hague Doctrine, if you like. This places an emphasis on engaging with the new economic tigers in the Arabian Gulf. This is at least part of the reason Mr Hague is expending so much political capital on developing a reputation as an honest broker in the eyes of the Arab nations.

For this project Mr Hague has at least one important ally in the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is keen to attract investment from the Gulf. But Mr Hague was attacked this week by both the Conservative and Labour Friends of Israel. Nevertheless, this shift in UK foreign policy could have a lasting effect on relations with Israel.

Last updated: 12:40pm, February 10 2011