Britain again breaks ranks with Europe — this time over Israel

Britain again breaks ranks with Europe — this time over Israel

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk to European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini during the Middle East peace conference in Paris on January 15. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk to European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini during the Middle East peace conference in Paris on January 15. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

Two days after delegates from more than 70 nations attended the Paris summit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was wrong to label the meeting “useless.”

Admittedly the France-initiated event, which neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority attended, did not change the international community’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor did the gathering take any concrete steps to end the dispute.

But it was neither insignificant nor useless from Israel’s point of view. The summit saw Great Britain break ranks with the countries that did attend, in a move that pleased Israel — and perhaps the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

Instead of demonstrating international consensus, as intended by France under President Francois Hollande, the summit turned into a showdown between France and the United Kingdom over Israel. In an unprecedented way, the rift exposed disagreements within a brittle European Union that is bracing for potentially turbulent relations with the United States under Trump.

The first sign of dissent happened before the summit even began, when the United Kingdom dispatched only junior diplomats. By contrast, Hollande attended, as did 36 foreign ministers, including the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry.

Then, the United Kingdom, along with Australia, declined to join 70 other nations in co-signing a relatively mild statement about preserving the two-state solution, even though the statement contained positions long supported by the British government — including in its rejection of “continued acts of violence and ongoing settlement activity” and the call for “meaningful direct negotiations.”

It was a stunning about-face that caught even longtime observers of Anglo-Israeli relations by surprise. “I was gobsmacked,” Jonathan Hoffman, a former vice chair of Britain’s Zionist Federation, said. “It was a watershed moment for U.K.-Israel relations and a huge change from anything I had seen before,” he added, pointing out that the United Kingdom typically sides with its allies on policies toward the Jewish state.

The British “snub” — as the Guardian termed it — of the Paris peace summit pleased Israeli diplomats. They had openly dismissed the event as doomed to fail because it did not address the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to negotiate without preconditions — in this case, a public commitment by Israel to halt construction in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The summit “turned as flat as a failed soufflé,” Emmanuel Nahshon, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s senior spokesman, wrote Sunday on Twitter. “A big show is no replacement for direct negotiations between the parties.”

In previous statements, Israeli officials described the summit as “laughable” in light of Western inaction on the humanitarian disaster in Syria.

The British position was highly unexpected — especially in light of Britain’s leading role, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson described it, in drafting and passing a U.N. Security Council resolution critical of Israeli settlements late last month. Using far harsher language than that of the summit declaration, the U.N. resolution condemned Israeli settlements as a “flagrant violation of international law.”

Trump has called for the United Kingdom to veto any further action on Israel at the United Nations. A midlevel British diplomat, who spoke to JTA under condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to brief journalists on this matter, said his country will not support any further attempts in the near future to pass another resolution on Israel.

So did the United Kingdom’s decades-long policy on Israel radically change sometime between the U.N. vote on December 23 and January 15?

That’s unlikely, according to Yigal Palmor, a former top spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry who now works for the Jewish Agency in a similar capacity.

The British move in Paris is the result of a mix of factors, including a “desire to assert independence from the European Union” — which the British government under Prime Minister Theresa May is committed to leaving as per the result of a June referendum over the issue, he said. May replaced David Cameron as prime minister last year as a result of the Brexit referendum.

Hoffman, meanwhile, said the apparent conflict between the British support for the U.N. resolution and its opposition to the Paris summit declaration could stem from power struggles between May and the country’s Foreign Office, which does not share her relatively pro-Israel politics.

In explaining its refusal to cosign the declaration, the British Foreign Office dropped another clue: A written statement objected that the summit was “taking place just days before the transition to a new American president when the United States will be the ultimate guarantor of any agreement.”

The Foreign Office statement also pointed to “risks” that the conference “hardens positions at a time when we need to be encouraging the conditions for peace.”

Whereas Kerry avidly supported the summit, members of Trump’s transition team signaled their disapproval to French officials, according to the Guardian. The newspaper suggested that May ordered the Paris snub to align her policy with Trump’s.

Hoffman also attributed the apparent British about-face primarily to a Trump intervention. “It’s such a dramatic departure from what we have seen in the past that a Trump intervention is the only thing that makes sense,” he said.

Ever since Obama spoke out last year in favor of Britain remaining in the European Union, Anglo-American relations have become strained. Johnson, a former London mayor who became foreign minister following the Brexit vote, accused Obama of meddling in British internal affairs and of harboring anti-British sentiment because of his Kenyan roots.

The Paris summit was not the first time that Israeli diplomacy benefited from those recent tensions. On Dec. 29, a spokesman for May openly criticized Kerry’s Dec. 28 speech defending the U.S. abstention on the Security Council’s anti-settlements resolution. The spokesman chided Kerry for “focusing on only one issue” of “construction of settlements,” and for saying that the Netanyahu government is the “most right-wing” in Israel’s history.

“We do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally,” May’s office said in its unusual criticism of the Kerry speech.

The cracks in the positions of Israel’s allies offer the Netanyahu government “some relief from international pressure” over some of the Jewish state’s policies, Palmor observed.

In that regard, the dissent benefits Israel, he said, but “ultimately it is not about Israel, not really.”

JTA Wire Service

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