Theresa May raised more than a few eyebrows recently when she attacked US Secretary of State John Kerry for focusing on settlements and underplaying the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his controversial address on December 28, following the UN Security Council resolution.
Understandably, the US State Department reacted with incredulity to Mrs May’s criticisms: Britain itself has been consistent in its condemnations of Israel’s settlement expansion.
Not only did Britain vote for UN Security Council resolution 2334; it also played a key role in crafting the resolution and ensuring that it passed.
Mr Kerry strongly condemned terrorism and incitement against Israel and said that settlements were not “the whole or even the primary cause of the conflict” which only adds to the incomprehension in Washington.
Yehuda Ben Meir, a former Israeli deputy foreign minister under Menachem Begin, pointed out this week in Haaretz that Mr Kerry’s six principles were closer to Israel’s position than that of the Palestinians and held many advantages for the Jewish state. For example, Mr Kerry effectively ruled out a Palestinian right of return and adopted Benjamin Netanyahu’s formulation that two states for two peoples would require the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. He also embraced Israel’s position whereby any peace deal would signify an end to the conflict and all outstanding claims.
Curiously, Mrs May’s spokesman also stated it was inappropriate “to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally”. Mr Kerry claimed that Mr Netanyahu’s coalition was “the most right-wing in Israeli history”. In fact, in the past, Britain has never had a problem in attacking allies that have put extremists in power. It has gone further than this: Britain, as part of the EU, sanctioned Austria when Jorg Haider became a member of the Austrian governing coalition in 2000 (while Israel withdrew its ambassador from Vienna), so Mr Kerry’s statement was not unreasonable. Whether it is true that this Israeli coalition is actually the most extreme in its history is a separate matter for debate (the Shamir coalition of 1990-92 would give the present Netanyahu government a run for its money).
So did the Foreign Office pull a fast one on the prime minister over the UN resolution? This is unlikely. Britain would not have voted for it without Number 10’s approval. Certainly, Israeli officials have had longstanding suspicions about the role of the Foreign Office in Britain’s Middle East policy. During the 1980s, for example, Israeli officials were convinced that British diplomats were upgrading contacts with the PLO behind the back of Number 10. There was little truth in this perception but it might have made sense when the Foreign Office was run by the likes of Peter Carrington and Douglas Hurd, but less so today when Boris Johnson is running the show. There are many things you can say about Mr Johnson but you cannot accuse him of being an Arabist.
Britain’s vote for UN resolution 2334 and Mrs May’s show of support for Israel are a fair reflection of London’s policy towards the conflict. Britain remains one of Israel’s strongest allies in Europe but it has never tolerated Israel’s settlement building policy. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.
Yet it is also important to bear in mind that Mrs May would not have criticised Kerry were it not for the fact that Donald Trump is moving into the White House on January 20. Her actions suggest that she is interested in building bridges both with the Netanyahu government and Mr Trump, who has gone out on a limb in his support for Israel. The British Prime Minister believes that the two-state solution is the only means to achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. She might well have calculated that her chances of influencing Mr Trump to support this position are greater if she distances herself from the Obama administration and emphasises her credentials as a friend of Israel (which she clearly is). Whether this strategy is successful will become clear in the months to come.
Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in international relations at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of 'Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East'