As we approach a possible July announcement, a decision by the Israeli government to begin annexing parts of the West Bank would be a reckless and potentially dangerous step.
It would undoubtedly be a blow to the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspiration to self-determination and make a much-needed two-state solution more difficult to achieve. It is also not in the best interests of Israel itself, as many Israelis recognise.
Labour Friends of Israel has repeatedly made clear its unequivocal opposition to annexation. We believe that unilateral steps are a barrier to peace. That is why we also opposed Donald Trump’s decision in December 2017 to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
A two-state solution – one that will see Israel safe and secure within internationally recognised boundaries, alongside an independent, viable and democratic Palestinian state – can only be achieved by direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
The issues upon which previous political processes – like that led by Bill Clinton in 2000, the Annapolis talks in 2007-8 or John Kerry’s efforts in the Obama administration – foundered are highly complex and emotionally charged. Tackling these thorny questions, which include settlements, refugees, and boundaries, requires patience, goodwill and painful concessions on the part of both sides. The international community should work to promote, encourage and facilitate such talks. Unilateral actions – which seek to impose terms on either side – simply makes the job of negotiators more difficult and the atmosphere in which talks are eventually held less conducive to the positive outcome we all desperately desire to see.
It is, though, important that we remember that many Israelis are deeply opposed to the action their government has threatened. A poll released earlier this month by the Geneva Initiative showed just 32.2 percent – and only half of those who vote for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party – support annexation. Moreover, nearly half of Israelis thought annexation would harm the chances of peace with Palestinians. Many Israelis also view annexation as a distraction from their main concerns: only 3.5 percent listed it among their top priorities – far behind those who picked the economy, public health and security.
Opposition to annexation is intense among members of Israel’s security establishment. In April, over 200 members of the group Commanders for Israel’s Security – retired Israeli generals and leading figures from Mossad, Shin Bet and the police – signed a newspaper ad warning of its dangers.
Their concerns were subsequently detailed by former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, and ex-general Gadi Shamni, in a piece for Foreign Affairs magazine. They argued that annexation not only endangered a two-state solution but also Israel’s peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt and the emerging détente between it and the Gulf states.
Annexation will undoubtedly be used by the boycott divestment and sanctions movement to further its aim of demonising and delegitimising the state of Israel. Its confected outrage should not blind us to the fact that the BDS movement does not support a two-state solution and instead is guided by the belief of its founder, Omar Barghouti, that all of Israel constitutes “occupied Arab land” and that there should be no “Jewish state in any part of Palestine”. That is why the new Labour leadership was right to initially reaffirm our party’s long-standing and principled opposition to BDS.
The BDS movement has had little impact on the Israeli economy, as Kristin Lindow, a senior vice president at Moody's Investors Service, has previously suggested: “The impact of BDS is more psychological than real so far and has had no discernible impact on Israeli trade or the broader economy”. Tragically, its greatest impact has been on the Palestinians themselves: around 500 Palestinian workers were left jobless after SodaStream, an Israeli company, closed its West Bank production plant following a high-profile BDS campaign.
But BDS does weaken the voices of Israeli progressives and strengthens those of right-wing hardliners. The spread of the BDS-inspired anti-normalisation movement has allowed right-wing Likud politicians to claim there is “no partner for peace”, pushing key swing voters – who are pro-peace but sceptical of Palestinian intentions following waves of terror attacks and multiple failed peace negotiations – into the right-wing bloc. “In Israeli politics, moves against Israel in the international arena hinder the left too, encouraging the right’s ‘us against them’ mentality, where Likud claims only belligerence and militarism can keep us safe,” the former Israeli Labor MK Michal Biran has noted. “It undercuts the left’s attempts to promote diplomacy and reconciliation... Progressives abroad turning against Israel hinders the fight for progressive causes within Israel.”
Nor should we fail to consider the undoubted impact that sanctions against Israel would have on our own economy and health service, at a time when both are under huge strain. UK exports to Israel were worth $6.15bn in 2018, with important trade deals including a $1bn agreement for Rolls-Royce to supply Trent jet engines to El-Al for its new Dreamliner fleet.
Alongside cyber, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, Israel’s famed tech industry is key to our two countries’ growing trade and economic relationship. Between 2012-18, the UK-Israel Tech Hub generated 175 partnerships worth £85m, which is estimated to have boosted the UK economy by £800m. Much of the UK-Israel trade relationship would be hard to easily replicate. Israeli cyber security experts are heavily involved in helping the UK’s financial sector stave off cyber-attacks and thus play a vital part in helping London retain its status as a safe and secure global financial centre.
Trade with Israel is also playing a major role in the NHS, with the UK importing $2.8bn worth of Israeli pharmaceuticals in 2018. The Israeli firm Teva provides one in six of the NHS’ drugs. Moreover, this relationship is helping the NHS to save money. Based on the NHS’s total drugs bill and the volume of generics Teva provides for the NHS, it has been estimated that these contribute more than £2.9bn of savings per year to the British public. Israeli tech companies are also now leading the effort to digitalise the NHS. Israel is considered a world-leader in the field, with 100 percent electronic medical records.
Finally, we should be sensitive towards the attitude towards BDS of the Jewish community here in Britain. Surveys indicate that British Jews strongly support a two-state solution (less than one in five are opposed to it) and believe that the Palestinians have a “legitimate claim to a land of their own”. Leading members of the community have also publicly condemned annexation and urged the Israeli government to think again.
But opposition to BDS in the community is also overwhelming and fear of the campaign is marked. “The prevailing attitude towards the BDS movement, as reflected in the Jewish media and in Jewish social discourse, is that BDS is deeply unpopular and commonly regarded as anti-Semitic and/or motivated by a desire to undermine Israel’s survival,” argued a 2015 report conducted by City University. The reasons for this are not hard to discern. As the Board of Deputies has suggested “It has become a regular feature of daily life for members of the UK Jewish community to experience discomfort and intimidation at the hands of BDS activists.”
LFI believes that any response taken by the British government in the light of annexation should be both measured, effective and meet each of the following five tests: Does it harm or further the prospect of a two-state solution? Does it weaken or strengthen the voice of Israeli progressives, peace activists and opponents of annexation? Does it hurt or help the Palestinian people economically? Does it damage or bolster the British economy and our National Health Service? And does it hamper or assist the fight against antisemitism here at home and the cause of good community relations?
Many of us who are friends of Israel are distressed and disheartened by the actions of the Netanyahu government. But I believe the best way to oppose them is to redouble our efforts on behalf of a two-state solution and our work with all those in Israel and Palestine who seek to further this vital cause.