Israeli diplomats have expressed their “deep disappointment” over what they have termed Britain’s “megaphone diplomacy” over Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
But the Minister for the Middle East, Bill Rammell, has denied that the government is planning any initiatives.
Mr Rammell visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority last week and at the end of his stay said: “Our position is long-standing. We have always said that the settlements are illegal by international law and that they make facts on the ground, making a solution more difficult.”
He insisted that Britain’s latest moves, in demanding that Israel labels goods from the settlements, and the new advisory to British citizens that they should not buy property in the West Bank, were not a new policy or an attempt to pressure Israel.
Mr Rammell said: “It was important that the EU agreement, from which the settlements were explicitly excluded from getting preferential treatment, would be upheld, and we have a responsibility to our citizens to see that the facts and the information that are being imparted to them is accurate. But I’ve made clear that it’s not a new initiative, we are simply implementing what has already been decided.”
These explanations did not convince senior officials in Israel’s Foreign Ministry who view the Foreign Office’s latest actions as an attempt by the government to launch its own Middle East initiative, to make Britain the leading diplomatic partner of new US President Barack Obama. Nor were Mr Rammell’s comments, made after visiting the area around the Gaza Strip under fire from Hamas missiles, reassuring for Israel.
He said: “The rocket attacks are simply unacceptable. But I am also conscious, looking at the situation in Gaza — the lack of humanitarian access, the lack of supplies, the lack of aid, the power cuts — is creating a humanitarian crisis. And I think that it is very clear that Hamas has not been defeated militarily.”
Mr Rammell’s comments were made before the Israeli action in Gaza.
He reaffirmed the UK government’s support for the Arab League peace initiative. It “creates a chance to reach a comprehensive solution, not just for Israel-Palestine but a 23 Arab state solution.
“This is a very positive step forward and we have to see now what kind of commitment can be made and how Israel can go ahead in a reciprocal step–by–step.
“This is a new juncture in the area with a new US administration and the renewal of the Arab initiative. We will try to use what initiative we have to see a momentum on this with the newly-elected Israeli government.”