Netanyahu heads to UK seeking a ‘united front’ against Iran
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Netanyahu heads to UK seeking a ‘united front’ against Iran

PM says alliance needed ‘in light of Iran’s defiance against international order’; set to talk security, economic and tech cooperation with May, Johnson

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 5, 2017. (AFP/AP and pool/Dan Balilty)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 5, 2017. (AFP/AP and pool/Dan Balilty)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to London Sunday afternoon for his first meeting with his British counterpart, Theresa May, in what he described as a bid to create a united Israel-US-UK front against Iran.

“I intend to emphasize the need for a common front against Iran’s defiant aggression, which has raised its head in recent days,” Netanyahu said about his trip at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “This must be done on an ongoing basis, but especially in light of Iran’s defiance against the international order.”

In London, Netanyahu will also meet with UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. “I will discuss with them how to deepen bilateral diplomatic, security, economic and technological ties, including cooperation in the field of cyber,” the prime minister said.

The prime minister is expected to land in London late Sunday and will return to Israel after meeting with Johnson late Monday.

Netanyahu said that Israel is gearing up for “a significant diplomatic period,” a likely reference to a slew of upcoming trips abroad. Next week, he is scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump at the White House, and two days after his return from Washington on February 17, will embark on a week-long trip to Singapore and Australia.

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing street for the weekly Prime Minister's Questions session at the House of Commons in central London, February 1, 2017. (AFP/Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS)
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing street for the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session at the House of Commons in central London, February 1, 2017. (AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas)

Late last month, Iran tested intercontinental ballistic missiles in an apparent breach of a United Nations Security Council resolution, prompting angry responses from Jerusalem and Washington.

Trump, echoing Netanyahu, has harshly criticized the nuclear deal Iran struck with six world powers, and last week threatened the regime over its illicit missile tests. The regime was “playing with fire,” he said, vowing to react to Iranian saber-rattling more aggressively than his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The UK, which is currently in the process of leaving the European Union, is seeking to forge new international alliances, most notably with the US. But London has in recent weeks also courted Jerusalem and took a pro-Israel line by refusing to sign the closing document at the Paris conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in January.

However, as opposed to Israel and the US, Great Britain has full diplomatic relations with Iran, including a functioning embassy in Tehran. The Foreign Office has so far remained mum over Iran’s ballistic missiles test launches. Thus, it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will succeed in getting the UK to align with the Israel-American anti-Iran position.

In this Dec. 29, 2016 file photo, released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), a long-range S-200 missile is fired in a military drill in the port city of Bushehr, on the northern coast of Persian Gulf, Iran. (Amir Kholousi, ISNA via AP, File)
In this Dec. 29, 2016 file photo, released by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), a long-range S-200 missile is fired in a military drill in the port city of Bushehr, on the northern coast of Persian Gulf, Iran. (Amir Kholousi, ISNA via AP, File)

In his remarks to the cabinet, Netanyahu did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or last week’s announcements of plans for settlement expansion, a topic that is likely to be brought up by his British interlocutors as well.

The Foreign Office has been consistent in condemning every single announcement of new housing units planned for the West Bank.

“This spike in settlement activity undermines trust and makes a two-state solution – with an Israel that is safe from terrorism and a Palestinian state that is viable and sovereign — much harder to achieve,” UK Minister for the Middle East Tobias Ellwood said last week, reacting to an Israeli announcement of an additional 3,000 housing units beyond the Green Line. Settlements are “illegal under international law, and not conducive to peace,” he said.

Netanyahu had spoken to Johnson ahead of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which on December 23 condemned the settlement enterprise as illegal. Not only did the May government vote in favor of the resolution, which Israel denounced as “shameful,” but Johnson later revealed that the “UK was closely involved in its drafting.”

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, Downing Street issued an exceedingly rare statement denouncing America’s outgoing top diplomat.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leaves the weekly meeting of the cabinet at 10 Downing Street in central London, January 31, 2017. (AFP/Glyn KIRK)
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leaves the weekly meeting of the cabinet at 10 Downing Street in central London, January 31, 2017. (AFP/Glyn KIRK)

“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,” she said.

London’s defiance of the international community’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued in mid-January, 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 Security Council resolution and affirmed positions the UK in principal agrees with, the Foreign Office criticized the meeting for its inopportune timing ahead of a new US administration, and for the fact that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were present.

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

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

The Palestinians were dismayed by the UK’s moves, urging the country to adhere to international consensus vis-a-vis the settlements.

Even senior observers of the UK-Israel relationship were caught by surprise by London’s pro-Israel stance, wondering whether the about-face had to do with the UK’s need to strengthen alliances outside of Europe as it leaves the EU.

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, seeing the US as a replacement for Europe.

Great Britain, having voted to leave the EU last year, is seen as more willing to defy European consensus on the Middle East and 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 last month.

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