Brave new Anglosphere: Israel revels in fresh support from US-UK-Australia triumvirate

As Trump vows to radically change America’s approach to the Middle East, Theresa May’s Britain and Malcolm Turnbull’s Australia defy international consensus on the peace process, irking Ramallah

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

It’s springtime for Israel’s relations with the Anglosphere. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loves to talk about burgeoning ties with the Arab world, but in the months and years ahead, a newly formed pro-Israel triumvirate of English-speaking countries looks set to form the backbone of international support for the Jewish state.

The first and most important indication of this trend is, of course, the change in the White House. Arriving on Friday, the Donald Trump administration has made plain its intention to shut out the public daylight that Barack Obama introduced between Washington and Jerusalem, vowing all but total support for Netanyahu’s policies.

In addition, the United Kingdom has in recent weeks surprisingly and dramatically aligned itself with Jerusalem, defying European and even global consensus.

Completing the pro-Israel trio is Australia, which has long been exceptionally friendly toward Israel but recently reached new heights in opposing anti-Israel measures embraced by the rest of the world.

Canada is a fourth English-speaking country that is staunchly pro-Israel, but as opposed to the US, the UK and Australia, it has remained silent on the dramatic diplomatic developments of recent weeks. The two odd countries out are Ireland and New Zealand, whose relations with Jerusalem remain tense.

Only the Anglosphere unconditionally supports Israel

In the face of an ascending and ever-aggressive Shiite Iran and the threat of Sunni jihadist terrorism, many Arab governments have softened their sworn enmity toward the Jewish state. But those ties, which focus mainly on security cooperation and the sharing of intelligence, will remain clandestine for the foreseeable future, since Arab leaders vow not to formalize their relations with Jerusalem in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

The possible relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem could further complicate the much-touted quasi-rapprochement between the Arab world and Israel.

The European Union remains Israel’s largest trading partner, and there are some indications that 2017 will see an improvement in currently tense EU-Israel ties. But the union’s position on the peace process, especially its vehement objections to settlement expansion and Israeli demolition of EU-funded buildings in the West Bank, will dominate bilateral interactions and likely cast a shadow over any conceivable detente.

Even Germany, Israel’s closest ally on the continent, fully backed recent multilateral initiatives geared at reining in Israel’s settlement policies.

By contrast, the world’s leading English-speaking nations are poised in 2017 to strengthen their already-strong alliances with Israel regardless of what happens in the West Bank.

US President-elect Trump campaigned on a radically pro-Israel platform, which includes not only recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy there. He also denounced the Iran nuclear deal and UN Security Resolution 2334, which the outgoing president, Barack Obama, allowed to pass last month. Additionally, he named several staunch supporters of Israel to top positions in his administration; some of them are firm advocates of the settlement enterprise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in New York, on September 21, 2016 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in New York, on September 21, 2016 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the US,” Trump tweeted last month, “but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (UN)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”

British Prime Minister Theresa May and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, too, have recently taken surprising, even unorthodox steps demonstrating support for Israel.

The UK Foreign Office helped draft Resolution 2334, which condemned the settlement enterprise as illegal, and Britain voted in favor of it on December 23. However, there are indications that May was unaware of the specifics of the resolution, or of why Israel deemed it so unacceptable.

After US Secretary of State John Kerry gave a long speech on December 28, in which he justified the US abstention, again lambasted the settlements, and proposed parameters for a future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, 10 Downing issued an exceedingly rare statement denouncing America’s outgoing top diplomat.

“We do not believe that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally,” a spokesperson for May said. The settlements “are far from the only problem in this conflict. In particular, the people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism, with which they have had to cope for too long.”

Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Theresa May (Composite image, Flash 90, AP)
Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Theresa May (Composite image, Flash 90, AP)

London’s defiance of the international community’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued on Sunday, when it refused to sign the concluding joint declaration of a peace conference in Paris, which endorsed a two-state solution and called on both sides to relaunch negotiations.

While the text was much softer than the the Security Council resolution and affirmed positions the UK principally agrees with, the Foreign Office criticized the meeting for its inopportune timing ahead of a new US administration, and for the fact that neither Israelis nor Palestinians were present.

Practically adopting an Israeli talking point, a spokesperson for the Foreign Office said Sunday that the Paris summit risked hardening Palestinian negotiating positions “at a time when we need to be encouraging the conditions for peace.”

Even senior observers of the UK-Israel relationship were caught by surprise. “I was gobsmacked,” Jonathan Hoffman, a former vice chair of Britain’s Zionist Federation, told JTA. He called it a “a watershed moment for UK-Israel relations and a huge change from anything I had seen before.”

Upping the ante, Britain on Monday blocked France’s effort to have the Paris conference’s final communique adopted by the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council.

British foreign minister Boris Johnson attends an EU foreign ministers meeting at the European Council, in Brussels, on January 16, 2017. (AFP/EMMANUEL DUNAND)
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, January 16, 2017. (AFP/Emmanuel Dunand)

The Palestinians reacted with dismay. “We were expecting the United Kingdom, in particular, to play an effective role in the international system that rejects the Israeli occupation and its settlement enterprise,” Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said Monday evening.

“The United Kingdom should revise its positions by holding Israel accountable, as well as support the Palestinian and international initiatives,” he added. “It is time to end the historic injustice that befell our people who will soon mark the anniversary of the infamous Balfour Declaration.”

(Last month, May called the Balfour Declaration, which declared London’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Mandate Palestine, “one of the most important letters in history.”)

Many European officials and analyst interpret May’s unusual moves as having less to do with Israel and more with her effort to cozy up to Trump.

“It’s madness. Just three weeks ago the Brits pushed for UN Security Council resolution 2334 [which criticized] the settlements and voted for it, and now they’re blocking resolutions on the matter at the Foreign Affairs Council,” a European diplomat told Haaretz this week. “With all due respect to the British, you can’t run foreign policy according to someone’s tweets.”

Great Britain, having voted to leave the EU last year, is no longer afraid to defy European consensus on the Middle East. Indeed, its new policy vis-a-vis the peace process can be seen as an effort to reassert itself as a sovereign nation pursuing an independent foreign policy.

“They’re starting to feel the loneliness,” a senior European diplomat told The Times of Israel this week.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, right, gestures next to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop during a meeting in Sydney, Australia, July 19, 2016. (AFP/POOL/JESSICA HROMAS)
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, right, gestures next to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop during a meeting in Sydney, Australia, July 19, 2016. (AFP/Pool/Jessica Hromas)

Australia has long been an unconditional friend of Israel. It first distinguished itself from the rest of the world in early 2014, when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in an interview with The Times of Israel refused to call Israeli settlements illegal.

Last month, Canberra once again broke with international consensus by being the only country in the world, besides Israel, to denounce Security Council Resolution 2334. Bishop declared Australia would have likely opposed the text and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull — who has Jewish ancestry — later attacked it as “one-sided” and “deeply unsettling.”

It didn’t stop there. Like the UK, Canberra on Sunday sent only a junior delegation to the Paris peace conference and expressed concerns over the joint declaration issued at the end of the event.

The stance prompted harsh criticism from the PLO.

“We are actually quite unhappy with Australia,” which is standing on the “wrong side of the law,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the organization. It is “shocking that Australia of all countries would decide to stand outside the global consensus.”

Erekat, the PLO’s secretary-general, called on Australia to “correct this mistake” and to recognize the State of Palestine. “The real risks threatening peace lie in such positions that grant Israel impunity and encourage it to continue with its illegal settlement enterprise on the land of Palestine,” he said.

Canberra did not hesitate to respond to Erekat’s criticism, stating that “Australia’s longstanding position is that a Palestinian state can only be achieved through direct negotiations with Israel. Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority was represented at the Paris Conference.”

Netanyahu has good reasons to be elated about the prospects of working together with three important Anglo-Saxon leaders ready to go against the flow. Despite the current corruption probe against him, he is still planning to become the first-ever sitting Israeli prime minister to go Down Under next month, to thank the country for its unwavering support.

He is also reportedly planning a trip to Washington to powwow with Trump in early February, and given Theresa May’s recent moves it will surprise no one if he were to make his way to London sometime soon, too.

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