Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement to authorise more than 800 new housing units in West Bank settlements, and the condemnation which followed from British Foreign Secretary William Hague, has marked a new high-water mark in the mutual frustration felt by the two governments.
The move, which followed close on the heels of the Israeli Prime Minister’s decision to block legislation to regularise unauthorised settlement building, was criticised in a strongly-worded statement from Mr Hague last Thursday:
‘While we appreciate the Israeli Government’s efforts to avoid damaging legislation in the Israeli Knesset by voting against a bill to legalise West Bank outposts, the decision to move settlers from an illegal outpost by creating housing units in settlements elsewhere across the Green Line sets a dangerous precedent.’
Much is made of the positive elements of British-Israeli relations: co-operation on intelligence, high-tech collaboration and increasing trade links. But the settlement issue remains a deep and festering diplomatic sore. On both sides the frustrations are easy to identify. The UK has a consistent and longstanding view that settlements are illegal in international law and, because they ‘change the facts on the ground’ represent a real and significant block on the road to peace. On the Israeli side the view is that the British government and its partners in the European Union have made a fetish of the settlements, which is unhelpful domestically and unnecessary when it is recognised that land swaps will form a significant part of any final agreement on the Middle East peace process.
The view is that the UK’s statements on the issue may be in line with government policy, but are sometimes couched in language that is unduly hyperbolic.
In April, Mr Hague caused deep consternation in Israeli diplomatic circles by issuing a statement suggesting that in permitting new settlement building Israel was sowing the seeds of its own destruction:
‘We and our EU partners are clear: systematic, illegal Israeli settlement activity poses the most significant and live threat to the viability of the two state solution.’
The Foreign Office certainly has a view, which can come across as deeply patronising, that Israel is its own worst enemy. From an Israeli perspective, the triple reality of missiles from Gaza, an anti-Zionist Islamist resurgence and a nuclear Iran would suggest the enemies lie elsewhere.
William Hague is fast losing patience with the Netanyahu government and some of his statements suggest that for him the situation is beyond repair. On the Israeli side, Britain is now lumped with the EU as a near lost-cause. The fact that the EU’s High Representative on Foreign Affairs, Baroness Ashton is British merely adds to this impression.
On this issue, has Israel given up on the UK and thus on any idea of us playing a significant role in any future peace process? The Israeli Foreign Ministry simply refused to respond to Mr Hague’s statement on settlement building. This is beginning to look very much like the diplomatic equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders.