UK ‘disappointed’ Netanyahu scotched planned meet with May
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'The UK remains and always will be a dear and close friend of Israel,' but considers settlements illegal

UK ‘disappointed’ Netanyahu scotched planned meet with May

Deputy ambassador Tony Kay says UN anti-settlement resolution was ‘sufficiently balanced’ to warrant London’s support

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

British Prime Minister Theresa May gestures as she delivers a keynote address on the final day of the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, central England, on October 5, 2016.  (AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLIS)
British Prime Minister Theresa May gestures as she delivers a keynote address on the final day of the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, central England, on October 5, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLIS)

The UK’s deputy ambassador to Israel expressed “disappointment” Monday over reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has canceled a planned meeting with his British counterpart Theresa May in protest of London’s support for a UN Security Council resolution that condemned West Bank settlement building.

Netanyahu’s office had denied reports Sunday night that he had nixed a meeting with May next month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, saying that no meeting had been set. But the deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, Tony Kay, told The Times of Israel there had been plans for a sit-down, though Jerusalem had not told London it planned to cancel the meeting.

Speaking to Army Radio earlier, Kay expressed unhappiness that the leaders would not be making contact.

“This is a disappointment that the Government of Israel has announced that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not want to have a conversation with Prime Minister May,” Kay said.

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Kay expressed hopes that Netanyahu and May would still meet at the Swiss economic summit or elsewhere.

Tony Kay, the deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv (British Foreign & Commonwealth Office)
Tony Kay, the deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv (British Foreign & Commonwealth Office)

“Davos is an opportunity where many world leaders attend and our prime minister would have conversations with many world leaders, including hopefully Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he said. “We remain hopeful and optimistic that such a conversation can take place at the prime ministerial level, whether it’s at Davos or elsewhere.”

Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that Netanyahu was scheduled to meet with May at the annual WEF meeting in Davos between January 17 and 20, but would not go ahead with that meeting because Britain, along with 13 other members of the Security Council, voted in favor of Resolution 2334, which demands a halt to all Israeli settlement activity and which the prime minister has called “shameful.”

The United States refrained from vetoing, and its abstention enabled the resolution to pass.

Officials close to Netanyahu denied the reports, saying that the prime minister had merely told his ministers to “travel less” to countries that voted against Israel in the near future, the officials said.

Kay said despite the apparent snubbing, he saw opportunities for London and Jerusalem to remain strong partners.

“All I can say is that we welcome any opportunity to develop the very strong and diverse relationship with Israel,” Kay said.

“We want to have conversations with our Israeli counterparts at every level to take forward the trading and investment relationship and the technological relationship that we have developed, and we remain open to having this conversation whenever and wherever,” he said.

In this photo provided by the United Nations, members of the United Nations Security council vote at the United Nations headquarters on December 23, 2016, in favor of condemning Israel for its practice of establishing settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In a striking rupture with past practice, the US allowed the vote, not exercising its veto. (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)
In this photo provided by the United Nations, members of the United Nations Security council vote at the United Nations headquarters on December 23, 2016, in favor of condemning Israel for its practice of establishing settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In a striking rupture with past practice, the US allowed the vote, not exercising its veto. (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)

Britain’s ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, is currently in the UK for the Christmas break and will return to Israel in January. In his absence it was Kay, his deputy, who was summoned to Jerusalem Sunday for a dressing down by the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Western European desk, Rodica Radian-Gordon, and a short conversation with the ministry’s political director, Alon Ushpiz.

“The ministry officials expressed their disappointment and outrage over the resolution passing and also talked about their view that it undermines Israel’s legitimacy and ignores history,” Kay said.

The ostensible meeting between the two prime ministers was not brought up, he said. Neither were any other Israeli repercussions discussed, according to Kay.

His conversations with the Israeli officials were a “useful opportunity” for him to reiterate London’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.

“The UK remains and always will be a dear and close friend of Israel” and rejects boycott or “any efforts to delegitimize or undermine” it, he said. Echoing the remarks of the UK’s ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, made Friday at the Security Council, Kay reiterated his government’s “stalwart commitment to Israel’s security and its existence as the Jewish homeland.”

At the same time, Britain considers Israeli settlements outside the 1967 lines — including in Jerusalem’s Old City — illegal and an obstacle to peace. Furthermore, he added, Resolution 2334 did not only condemn the settlements, but also called for a stop of violence and incitement.

“We worked hard for a balanced text and we felt that the text was sufficiently balanced to warrant the UK voting in favor,” Kay said.

Kay said being called to Jerusalem for a dressing-down was an expected consequence of London’s yes vote but added that he was only slightly inconvenienced by it.

“I’m a diplomat and when I’m overseas I work 24/7 representing the UK abroad,” he said. “It delayed my Christmas dinner by a couple of hours, but when the ministry explained that I was to be called in yesterday, I obviously had to follow that instruction. I’d rather not be called in on Christmas Day, but it was just a couple hours after the morning, so it was no big deal.”

May, the UK’s Conservative prime minister, is known as a staunch friend of Israel. Just two weeks ago, she showered praise on the country, calling it “a beacon of tolerance.”

She said UK ties with Israel were “crucial,” promised to raise the bilateral trade relationship to new heights, and described the 1917 Balfour Declaration — which set forth London’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine — as “one of the most important letters in history.”

In a Hanukkah message last week, May vowed to stand by the Jewish community and to fight against prejudice in all its forms.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) talks with US President Barack Obama at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl national cemetery during the funeral of former president Shimon Peres on September 30, 2016. (AFP/Pool/Menahem Kahana)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) talks with US President Barack Obama at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery during the funeral of former president Shimon Peres on September 30, 2016. (AFP/Pool/Menahem Kahana)

On Sunday afternoon, Netanyahu had called in US Ambassador Dan Shapiro for a meeting for “clarifications” after the US failed to use its veto in Friday’s vote.

Netanyahu, who has publicly accused US President Barack Obama of “ambushing” Israel at the UN with the “shameful” resolution, reportedly told colleagues earlier Sunday that the diplomatic tussle was not yet over. He now fears that the US will seek another vote at the UN to enshrine some of Secretary of State John Kerry’s suggested parameters for an accord, Israel’s Channel 2 news reported on Sunday evening. There was no confirmation of this report.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu ordered the Foreign Ministry to summon the ambassadors of the states that supported the anti-settlement resolution for a dressing-down. Ten envoys were called in on Christmas morning for scoldings from directors of the Foreign Ministry’s respective regional departments, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said.

Netanyahu also reiterated his vow to curtail funding to various UN agencies and to take “additional” measures to punish states that supported the resolution. He said he had ordered a report from the Foreign Ministry to be given to the cabinet within 30 days reassessing Israel’s entire relationship with the United Nations.

On Saturday, Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, canceled the upcoming visit to Israel of the Ukrainian prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, as a punitive measure against the country’s vote. He also ordered a series of punitive measures against New Zealand and Senegal, two of the four countries that co-sponsored the resolution. Netanyahu recalled Israel’s ambassadors in New Zealand and Senegal to Jerusalem for consultations.

He canceled the upcoming visit to Israel of the Senegalese foreign minister and instructed the Foreign Ministry to cancel all aid programs to the African country. He also ordered the cancellation of visits in Israel of the nonresident ambassadors of Senegal and New Zealand.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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