Dramatically breaking ranks with participants from 70 other countries, the United Kingdom criticized Sunday’s Middle East peace conference in Paris, arguing that it might harden Palestinian negotiating positions and refusing to sign a joint statement issued after the summit that called for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A Foreign Office spokesman said London had “particular reservations” about the Paris meeting taking place without Israeli or Palestinian representatives, especially since a new US administration is being sworn in later this week.
Indeed, the spokesman’s statement noted that the confab took place against Israel’s expressed wishes and “just days before the transition to a new American president when the US will be the ultimate guarantor of any agreement.”
“There are risks therefore that this conference hardens positions at a time when we need to be encouraging the conditions for peace.”
Due to these concerns, Britain had attended the Paris talks as an observer only and refused to sign the joint declaration issued after the conference, the spokesman said.
“We will continue to support efforts to improve conditions on the ground to enable negotiations to resume and look forward to working with the parties, the new US Administration and other countries represented in this conference to make progress in 2017 and beyond,” the spokesperson added.
The surprising statement appeared to align London’s position on the conference with Israel’s. Jerusalem repeatedly decried the event as a futile exercise that, if anything, will make peace harder to achieve.
“The conference convening in Paris today is a useless conference,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier on Sunday. “Its goal is to try and force terms on Israel that conflict with our national needs. Of course it pushes peace further away because it hardens the Palestinian positions and it also pushes them away from direct negotiations without preconditions.”
According to a report in the British press, London refused to send a high-level delegation to the Paris conference to appease US President-elect Donald Trump, who reportedly disapproved of the conference as well.
Rather than send a minister or its ambassador in Paris to Sunday’s conference, which hosted representatives from 70 countries, the United Kingdom had three junior diplomats attend. Some 35 countries send their foreign minister to Paris for the event, including the US, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Norway, Sweden and Egypt.
London opted not to send a senior diplomat in order to placate Trump, who is said to be very sympathetic to the current Israeli government, a report in the Guardian suggested. The president-elect has reportedly conveyed to French diplomats his disapproval of the conference.
Representing the UK at the conference was the head of the Middle East desk of the Foreign Office, Michael Howells, as well as two advisers to the UK envoy in France, according to the paper.
On December 23, the UK in favor of a UN Security Council resolution lambasting Israeli settlements, which passed after Washington refrained from exercising its veto. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson admitted to playing an instrumental role in drafting the resolution, which was fiercely criticized by Israel, though Jerusalem focused its condemnations on the United States, which allowed the resolution to pass by withholding its veto.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contacted Johnson before the vote, but did not speak to British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Days after the vote, the British prime minister’s spokesperson issued a highly unusual rebuke of US Secretary of State John Kerry for overly focusing on Israeli settlements during a post-vote December 28 speech, in which he defended the US abstention, bitterly attacked the settlement enterprise, and set out his thoughts on how to advance the peace process.
Just a week and half before the Security Council vote, May delivered a speech overflowing with praise and support for Israel. Addressing the Conservative Friends of Israel, the prime minister hailed the Jewish state as “a remarkable country” and “a beacon of tolerance.”
Ties with Jerusalem were “crucial,” she said, promising to raise the bilateral trade relationship to new heights and describing the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most important letters in history.”
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.