Events & Expos

Events in Israel lay bare Tory tensions over Palestinian question | Conservatives


The recent outbreak of intercommunal violence in Israel has prompted two former Conservative Foreign Office ministers to urge the British government to realise the Palestinian issue cannot simply be managed in the hope it will fade away.

The calls reflect a tension inside the party over Palestine that has often been overshadowed by the more glaring disputes inside Labour over antisemitism.

Some observers predict the Tories’ recent electoral progress among Muslim voters may eventually erode the rock solid support for Israel in the party.

The Israeli police action at al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, they say, has offended the Conservatives’ strong belief in freedom of worship, and led to MPs being heavily lobbied. Some of that concern will be tempered by revulsion at the Hamas rocket attacks into Israel, and displays of antisemitic abuse in London and elsewhere.

The former Middle East minister Alistair Burt said the failure to secure a just resolution to the Palestinian issue was responsible for the scenes of violence. He added he had repeatedly said it was a mistake to think the Palestine issue could be managed or be expected to drop away.

Another former Foreign Office minister, Sir Alan Duncan, warned on the ConservativeHome website: “The last few weeks have starkly illustrated that the UK government has been living a lie for years. Its policy, such as it is, exists in a moral vacuum.” Ministers continue to express support for a two-state solution, but increasingly look as if they do not mean it, he said.

Both Burt and Duncan, from different perspectives, fear the repetitive Foreign Office statements of concern over Israeli settlements have a ritualistic air.

A third former minister said: “At issue is less the formal policy of a two-state solution, but the energy we expend to turn it into a reality and whether it still works as anything but a figleaf. But there is a new element now. We have fascists roaming the streets, fuelled by social media. Co-existence is at risk.” A fresh peace initiative is required, he added.

Chris Doyle from the Council for Arab-British Understanding said: “There may be a change in outlook. It was noticeable how many Conservative MPs last week in the Commons criticised Israel security forces’ role at al-Aqsa mosque.” He said “this may reflect the Conservatives’ recent success with Muslim voters and the number of Tory MPs representing seats not previously won by the Conservatives”.

At one level, Israel can rest secure knowing how much sway the Conservative Friends of Israel wields in the Tory party.

In its latest annual report, the CFI said “over 100 Conservative MPs and Lords have spoken in support of Israel and in condemnation of antisemitism and Iran’s regional aggression in the Houses of Parliament this year, in more than 440 oral and written contributions”. CFI adds it was “joined by as many as 125 Conservative parliamentarians at our events this year, both online and in person before lockdown”.

The Israeli caretaker prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, recently secured two diplomatic victories with the Boris Johnson government – including persuading the prime minister not to support the attempt to refer Israel to the international criminal court. In a letter to the CFI, Johnson said the ICC had no jurisdiction and the inquiry looked prejudicial.

He also responded to CFI pressure not to back what Israel regarded as anti-Israeli motions at the UN human rights council in March. The UK was the only country from the European continent, with the exception of the Czech Republic, to vote against all three of the controversial resolutions.

If there is a counter-body inside the Tory party, it is the Conservative Middle East Council, but it is prevented from acting as an advocacy group, and to the extent it has a principle it is “the upholding of international law”.

CMEC is also hampered since many of the pro-Palestinian old hands in the Tory party, such as Duncan, Nicholas Soames, and Hugo Swire left parliament at the last election. Fewer than 10 of the 41 Tory MPs that backed the recognition of Palestine in a Commons vote in 2014 remain in parliament and Covid has made it hard to judge the mood of the backbenches.

Nevertheless the UK has been reluctant to break with its European partners over the issue of the Middle East. Over the past four years, Johnson as foreign secretary and prime minister did not take his lead from Trump by moving the British embassy to Jerusalem, and to Israel’s disappointment, the UK did not follow the US out of the Iran nuclear deal.

It did not resist, but nor did it over-enthuse, over the “Abraham Accords” – the now imperilled peace deal with Israel signed by two of Britain’s closest Gulf allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. In recent days the UK has played a mediating role between the US and UN security council members frustrated by US resistance to a possible UN resolution on the current crisis.

But it seems implausible Johnson would regard next month’s G7 summit in Cornwall as a launchpad for a reinvigorated peace process. The agenda of such summits can get skewed at the last minute by an incoming crisis, but the summit’s agenda is currently dominated by Covid and the Indo-Pacific. It was noticeable that in the 87-paragraph G7 foreign ministers communique – a cook’s tour of the world’s trouble spots and issued before the current explosion of violence – the words Palestine and Israel did not feature.

Johnson will take his lead from the Americans, and so far Biden’s energies in the Middle East have primarily been directed to Yemen’s civil war, the US return to the nuclear deal and the opportunities of a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.


Source link