A group of British lawmakers on a visit to the region clashed with senior Palestinian Authority officials Wednesday during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, after a PA representative blamed the MPs, as Britons, for causing the entire Israel-Palestinian conflict.
A lunch meeting between a delegation from the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) and veteran PA negotiator Nabil Shaath turned hostile, The Times of Israel learned, with Shaath and other Palestinian officials hurling accusations against the group for their implicit support of the 1923-48 British Mandate in Palestine. That was “years and years before I was even born,” said one of the MPs wryly later.
“There were certainly fireworks at that meeting,” said James Gurd, executive director of the CFI group, an advocacy organization that brings parliamentarians from the UK Conservative party on trips to Israel and lobbies for Israel in Westminster.
The current delegation, comprising nine Conservative MPs, arrived in Israel on Sunday, participating in a range of strategic briefings and political meetings across the country.
Wednesday’s itinerary focused on the West Bank, with a tour of Rawabi, the first planned Palestinian city; meetings with a number of Palestinian experts; and a lunch hosted by the PLO. The lunch, at which the parliamentarians were served falafel and pita bread, was attended by Shaath as well as Palestinian ambassador to the Vatican Issa Kassissieh and PLO executive committee member Hanna Amira.
John Howell MP, the vice president of CFI who is leading the delegation, said the topic of Rawabi triggered a tense debate.
“One of things we were trying to say was that if you had a number of Rawabis then perhaps you might have a more contented population,” Howell told The Times of Israel after the meeting. He was referring to the internal Palestinian debate over the virtues of the entirely new town, whose critics say building a modern, comfortable Palestinian city merely serves to normalize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
“But I think the real fireworks came from suggestion that the PLO would lose an election in the West Bank tomorrow to Hamas. That really put them at unease,” Howell said.
“The specific accusations that came out from the meeting were the attempt to blame us, as being ‘the British,’ for the entire situation in Israel and Palestinian territories as a result of having the Mandate, years and years before I was even born,” Howell said with a bitter half-laugh. “It’s such a naive view of things.”
Howell, who is visiting Israel for the fifth time, said he believes dialogue is the key to a long-term peaceful resolution, but Wednesday’s meeting made him question the viability of talks with the PA.
“It’s difficult to see that these people could be a basis for negotiation. I think there would have to be some agreement about how so many things in the world have genuinely changed before we can start talking.”
Earlier Wednesday, the group attended a ceremony marking the announcement by UK Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock, currently visiting Israel on a trade mission, of new moves by the British government to discourage anti-Israel boycott activity in Britain. Under the new guidelines, “discrimination against Israeli suppliers” will be considered a breach of international trade agreements.
The proposal is the most recent in a series of actions by various governments to block efforts to boycott Israeli goods. Previous measures include a provision in the American Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act requiring non-cooperation with bodies that participate in the BDS movement.
The Palestinian Authority slammed the UK announcement, saying it “empowers Israeli occupation.” A statement released by PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said the decision sends “a message of impunity” to the Israeli government.
“In order to accommodate the Israeli occupation, the British Government is undermining British democracy and their own people’s rights. Such a law would have prevented British citizens from taking peaceful actions against the South African apartheid,” the statement read.
Although the CIF trip was planned before the government trade mission and the plans to unveil the new guidelines, Gurd said the presence of the group at the announcement — along with the first cross-party delegation from the House of Lords to Israel, also visiting this week — sent a strong message of support.
“To have over 20 British parliamentarians in Israel at that announcement was very symbolic, and even historic,” Gurd said. “Israel can rest assured that its got friends fighting for it.”
But not everyone in the British Parliament welcomed the move.
A spokesman for Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Hancock of imposing Conservative Party policies and restricting local democracy and freedom of expression. “The Government’s decision to ban councils and other public bodies from divesting from trade or investments they regard as unethical is an attack on local democracy,” he said.
Corbyn, elected as leader of the party in September, has been criticized by members of the UK Jewish community for being sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah — terror groups committed to destroying Israel — and is widely regarded as one of the British MPs most hostile to Israel. He has publicly endorsed a blanket arms embargo on Israel and the boycott of Israeli universities involved in weapons research.
John Howell said that while Corbyn’s opinions of Israel are far from mainstream in British politics, he thinks they are beginning the characterize the Labour party stance on Israel.
“I think that the Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude to Israel is almost unintelligible. It’s such a shame that he takes this attitude and it’s one that the Conservative Party does not share,” Howell said.
“If the man had come here to see the facets on the ground, I have no doubt he would have a different opinion,” Howell added.