Britain’s Dual-track Diplomacy: Improving Relations While Fighting the Settlements

Britain's severe diplomatic response to Israel's decision on settlement expansion should not have surprised anyone.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Last Wednesday, at Prime Minister’s questions in the British Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour MP and fierce critic of Israel, demanded that Britain vote the next day in favor of the UN upgrading Palestine’s status. David Cameron’s answer would have done an Israeli diplomat proud. “We need talks without any preconditions,” said the prime minister. “We can wish for all we want in the United Nations, in the end you have got to have direct talks between the two parties to get the two-state solution we want.”

But despite Cameron’s support, the severe diplomatic response by Britain to the government decision to build 3,000 new homes in the West Bank should not have surprised anyone.

These are good days for British-Israel relations. While the local Jewish community may not be nearly as influential as that in America and much of the British media is extremely critical of Israel, ties between the two countries have rarely been better. The public aspects, trade, culture, science, are all strong and Britain was one of Israel’s main supporters during last month’s Operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza. Last year, Britain changed its universal jurisdiction law, greatly limiting (though not totally ending) the possibility of senior Israeli officials being prosecuted in London. Cameron’s government also put on hold former prime minister Gordon Brown’s attempts to adopt European standards of labeling goods produced in the settlements.

On the less visible levels, ties are also close. Britain is considered Israel’s second most important ally (after the U.S.) in the campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. On some issues, Britain was ahead of America in sanctions on the Iranian economy, dragging after it the rest of the European Union. Intelligence-sharing and diplomatic coordination has never been better and in at least one case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took public credit for an action against Iran that had been achieved by Britain.

Cameron publicly displayed his support of Israel twice this year. During the London Olympic Games, he took part in a memorial service for the victims of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. And in October, he was the guest of honor at the annual dinner of the main pro-Israel fundraising group in Britain, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, better known as UJIA.

At the event Cameron harshly criticized the Palestinian Authority saying that “if the Palestinian plan is simply posturing with the UN rather than negotiating with Israel, Britain will never support it.” He also exhibited wide knowledge of Palestinian incitement against Israel, promising that Britain would not transfer aid to groups tainted by incitement. His criticism was briefly mentioned at the end when Cameron brought up Britain’s long-standing demand that Israel cease building settlements, which the U.K. regards as illegal. Israeli diplomats were overjoyed with the stern rebuke to the Palestinians but preferred to ignore the settlement remarks.

For more than a year, Britain has been issuing constant and increasingly severe denunciations of every new building tender in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A British diplomat said that it is not just rhetoric. “There is an intentional escalation of our protests,” he said.

“The Israeli government is very interested in the positive sides of the relationship but won’t listen to our concerns. We don’t want to harm the ties but if we see that Israel continues to ignore us, there will be further steps directly targeting the settlements,” he continued. This is a clear threat by Britain to join settlement product labeling schemes currently adopted only by governments with tense relations with Israel.

Britain is trying to pursue a dual-track diplomatic policy with Israel – improving relations at all levels while fighting the settlements. Spearheading these efforts is British Ambassador in Tel Aviv Matthew Gould, who emphasized the criticism of the settlements and is also a fervent supporter of NGOs identified with the left and human rights campaigns.

Four months ago, Gould gave an unusual interview to Israel’s Channel 10, in which he warned viewers that “support for Israel is starting to erode and that’s not about these people on the fringe who are shouting loudly and calling for boycotts,” but rather “those members of parliament in the middle – and in that group I see a shift – who have a growing concern at the lack of progress toward peace.” Gould warned that Israelis “might wake up in 10 years’ time and suddenly find that the level of understanding in the international community has suddenly changed, and that the level of patience for continuing the status quo has reduced.”

Last month, at the annual dinner of the British supporters of the New Israel Fund, one of the main events was a video greeting from Gould warmly praising the NIF’s activities and objectives and saying that they reflected the values of British Jews. Gould did not mention politics, but the fact he was going out his way to compliment an organization that has been accused by ministers and Knesset members on the right of “acting against Israel” was not lost upon those present.

Last year, an MP caused a stir when he questioned the capability of a Jewish diplomat to fully serve Britain’s interests as ambassador in Israel. Another British diplomat recently said “that is the opposite of the truth. Matthew, being so close to the Jewish community, can openly voice the government’s real criticism in a way that other diplomats may hesitate. He is doing this with the full knowledge and approval of the Foreign Office.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and David Cameron in Downing Street. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO