Palestinian and European officials on Monday slammed the UK’s apparent readiness to defy international consensus and stand up for Israel, accusing London of aligning with Jerusalem to garner favor with the incoming Trump administration.
“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 in a statement released Monday evening, hours after the government of Prime Minister Theresa May blocked a French effort to have the European Union endorse a peace conference it held Sunday.
“The United Kingdom should revise its positions by holding Israel accountable, as well as support the Palestinian and international initiatives. It is time to end the historic injustice that befell our people who will soon mark the anniversary of the infamous Balfour Declaration.”
Hanan Ashrawi, another senior PLO official, charged that instead of “rectifying its historical responsibility” for the Palestinian “tragedy,” London is “compounding its culpability.”
— Palestine PLO-NAD (@nadplo) January 16, 2017
On Sunday, the UK sent three lower level diplomats to the Paris peace conference but refused to sign the joint declaration issued by all but two participating countries (Australia also refused to sign the document).
A spokesperson for the British government later criticized the meeting for its inopportune timing ahead of a new US administration, and for the fact that neither Israelis nor Palestinians were present.
While reaffirming London’s support for a two-state solution, the spokesman indicated that the Paris conference might end up being unconstructive and liable to harden Palestinian negotiating positions.
On Monday, the UK successfully blocked France’s effort to have the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council adopt the Paris conference’s final communique, which calls on Israelis and Palestinians to take concrete steps to promote a two-state solution.
Based on the same concerns the UK voiced over the French confab, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson argued against endorsing the text that came out of the conference. A handful of Eastern European nations supported London’s stance and since EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions require unanimity, the text was not adopted.
However, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Monday that the Paris declaration “reflects fully the EU’s consolidated position that we reconfirmed today.”
The Palestinians weren’t the only ones who took issue with what appears to be a British pivot toward positions close to those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Several European diplomats said the UK’s sudden departure from its traditional positions is an effort to endear the country, which last year voted to leave the EU, to President-elect Trump. The new US leader has signaled that he intends to reconsider positions that have long been an international consensus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For instance, he was vowed to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move Palestinian and European officials have warned could have profound negative effects — and appointed advisers and emissaries that support Israel’s settlement enterprise and do not consider settlements an obstacle to peace.
In a recent interview with Bild and the Times of London, Trump said he hoped the UK would veto any anti-Israel resolution at the UN Security Council.
“The Brits read what Trump said and implemented it immediately,” an unnamed European diplomat who attended Monday’s EU meeting told Haaretz.
“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. With all due respect to the British, you can’t run foreign policy according to someone’s tweets.”
Mark Hendrick, a lawmaker for the British Labour party, told the Financial Times that Johnson’s decision not to sign the Paris declaration was “alarming.”
“The UK is changing a 20-year policy on the Middle East and settlements for the sake of a good trade deal with Donald Trump,” a European diplomat told the paper. “They’re basically changing 20 years of international consensus.”
By all accounts, the UK’s refusal to sign the Paris declaration and its subsequent effort to prevent the EU from adopting the text, was highly unusual.
On Sunday, participants from 70 other countries endorsed the conference’s final communique, which even Israeli officials said was “softened” compared to last month’s Security Council resolution — which Britain supported.
London expressed “particular reservations” about the Paris meeting since 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,” a Foreign Office spokesman said. “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.
This 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,” 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.”
On December 23, the UK voted in favor of a UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which passed after Washington refrained from exercising its veto. 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.
Netanyahu contacted Johnson before the Security Council vote, but did not speak to Theresa May.
Days after the vote, May’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.”
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.