Government's Israeli U-turn threatens UK neutrality


In a time where global tensions are at their highest in years, what does the UK’s decision mean for diplomatic relations with Israel and Palestine

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By Tom Lindley

Hidden behind the controversial tenure of former Prime Minister Liz Truss, lurked an equally controversial foreign policy initiative: moving the British embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Following a brief meeting between Truss and Israeli PM, Yair Lapid, reports circulated that the UK would be "positively considering" the move.

The plan was under review by the Foreign Office until the appointment of new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, whose team stated no move will take place. This is despite Truss' appointed Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, remaining in office. The plan to move the UK embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has now officially joined the plethora of Truss policies to be quickly overturned.
When deadly clashes broke out in 2018, over former President Donald Trump's decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the international community came out in droves to disapprove of his decision.

The Conservative-led government at the time, headed by Theresa May, had made their position clear - a two state system would be the best way of ensuring peace in the Middle East. Fast forward four years, and the change of face at the head of government clearly brought with it a change in direction. Despite the government U-turn, the UK will still have to face the consequences of having previously shown such support for one side of the conflict.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine, which first erupted in 1948 upon the creation of the Israeli state, is the global focus of a concerned international community. Its constant presence in the struggle for peace has packed the in-trays and red boxes of countless British foreign secretaries, and in true British fashion, the governments of the past have upheld a fine balancing act by maintaining an embassy in Tel Aviv and a consulate in Jerusalem. By doing this, the government has been able to work simultaneously on issues that impact both Israel and Palestine.

The government website states that the British Consulate General in Jerusalem exists to "work on political, commercial, security and economic interests between the UK and the Occupied Palestinian Territories." If the embassy to Israel has been moved to Jerusalem, it would likely take the space of the Consulate General, therefore quashing the dialogue that the UK maintains with Palestine.

While Sunak has distanced himself from his predecessor's plan, the international community is not always as quick to forget. In the aftermath of the controversial proposal, nations who are actively working on a two-state solution will look at the UK less favourably, when considering its position as a potential mediator in peace talks.

From its influence over culture and global political values, combined with its senior position in many global organisations such as the UN, Britain is generally seen as a potential mediator over talks for a two-state solution. However, the willingness of the government to come down on one side of the dispute by even discussing the proposed plan will have significantly jeopardised UK neutrality. If the UK has plans to restore global significance as a major soft power, they have created more hurdles.

Director of the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP) Crispin Blunt MP has echoed his concern over the UK's neutrality. Upon announcement of the plan, he stated, "The fact that the UK is apparently seriously considering this is already causing serious reputational damage."

No official comments have been made by the Israeli government following the new of the potential policy or following the confirmation that it would not be going ahead. However, there has been a great amount of concern voiced by Palestinian officials, who have stated thar the opportunity for peace talks to proceed will have been greatly damaged by the policy proposal. Moreover, there were issues over the legality of the plan that had been raised by the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot, who stated that the move would be "a blatant violation of international law" on Twitter.

It is not just concern from within the region - many British politicians also voiced their opposition. Most notably the Labour MP, Naz Shah, who wrote a letter to former PM, Liz Truss, stating her worries over the proposed plan. In the letter, she stated that going through with the move would be a "catalyst of uncontrollable catastrophic events."

Perhaps it is too early to call whether these "catastrophic events" will occur. After all, the new government has consigned the plan to the history books. Yet, there is a shift in British foreign policy. For the plan to have gone this far suggests serious intent in taking the UK away from the middle ground, and towards one side of the dispute.

Overt support for Israel now won't be shown through the British Embassy moving, but if the plan of the Sunak government is to put a stop to the shift in foreign policy and go back to being a global mediator, it has a lot of ground to make up.