By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
Buried in the myriad policy pledges of the Conservative leadership campaign was a diplomatic time bomb. It was so buried that most media outlets did not cover it at all. One grand list of winner Liz Truss’s commitments in all spheres did not even mention it.
In a letter to the Conservative Friends of Israel, which is predominantly an anti-Palestinian lobbying group in the governing party, incoming Prime Minister Truss outlined her position on Jerusalem, stressing the “importance and sensitivity of the location of the British Embassy. I’ve had many conversations with my good friend Prime Minister (Yair) Lapid on this topic. Acknowledging that, I will review a move to ensure we are operating on the strongest footing with Israel.” In other words, she has committed herself to reviewing whether to move the British Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby unilaterally recognizing Israel’s claim to the contested city.
Note the wording here. She is not doing this as part of any policy review to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — one of the seminal conflicts of the last century and more. No, she does not bother to mention this in her letter. She is just doing it to improve the UK’s relations with Israel.
Truss goes further. She boasts of advocating for Israel on the world stage. Many might think her job as foreign secretary should have been to advocate for Britain and its interests. No surprise that she gives zero consideration to Israel’s consistent, decades-long violations of UN Security Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention, its use of torture or the international human rights consensus that it is guilty of the crime of apartheid.
The other remarkable and alarming element of the letter is that Truss made no mention of the Palestinians at all. They do not exist. One might think of this as an unfortunate oversight but, since she became foreign secretary last year, the word has barely left her lips.
Truss does not even mention any approach to support any form of peace process or talks between the two peoples. She does not care and is leery of alienating the anti-Palestinian constituency in her party. The Palestinians, for much of the Conservative Party, have become a non-people, their fate a non-issue. The gap with the Republican Party in the US has narrowed almost to the point of irrelevance.
Multiple sources in the Foreign Office informed me that, during discussions earlier in the year about a potential Truss visit to Israel, she dismissed the idea of going to Ramallah and having meetings with the Palestinian Authority. She questioned why this was at all necessary.
Truss’s erstwhile rival, Rishi Sunak, lost no time in lowering himself to her depths. At a Conservative Friends of Israel hustings, Sunak claimed that Jerusalem is “undisputedly the historic capital (of Israel) and clearly there is a very strong case for it to be recognized.” He added that he was “very open to looking at that,” viewing it as a “historic and practical step.” Like Truss, he made no commitment to hold Israel to account, but had no qualms in stating that Palestinians must be.
Does this matter? For those who want to see a fair and peaceful resolution to this conflict, it certainly does. Jerusalem is at the core of the conflict. It matters to two peoples and the adherents of the three monotheistic faiths. In total, it is believed to have changed hands through war and violence 37 times.
Rushing in blindly and shredding the international consensus on the future status of the city is a recipe for disaster. When US President Donald Trump did exactly this in 2017, it was only the steadfast position of key European states, including the UK, that was able to hold the consensus together.
Under the Oslo Accords, the status of the entirety of Jerusalem, not just the Israeli-occupied eastern part, was to be determined through negotiations. Recognizing one party’s sovereignty over any part of the city would undermine any future talks and peace process. It also flies in the face of the reality on the ground. Despite the Israeli propaganda that it is an undivided city, it is one of the most divided and contested in the world. The Israeli and Palestinian areas are immediately distinguishable one from another, not least because the former has properly funded municipalities whereas Palestinian areas do not, despite the residents also paying taxes.
The consensus on Jerusalem is also at the heart of the consensus on the two-state solution. The central feature of this would include two states with a shared capital or two separate capitals in the city. This would acknowledge Palestinian equity in the city.
For the increasing number of people who believe only a single-state option is viable as a solution, they too should be worried. This is not a step toward this vision but a way of reinforcing a one-state reality, in which Israel controls all the territory and maintains tight “sovereign control” over the entire territory from the river to the sea, permitting Palestinian residents (not citizens) municipal powers on allotted urban areas, all under Israeli control. Eventually, all the settlements and more will be formally annexed, just as Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to do two years ago.
As for Jerusalem, Israeli policies will accelerate the Palestinian displacement from the city. The settlement projects, combined with home demolitions and dispossessions, are designed to push Palestinian residents of Jerusalem further away from the Old City and the religious sites, with their communities replaced by a biblical theme park and a cable car. Palestinians are already fairly invisible to all but the most curious visitors to the city. But they will become the unseen squatters in overcrowded, peripheral neighborhoods well away from Israelis and, of course, tourists.
All of this is happening right now. The only thing that has slowed but never reversed this process is the international consensus, with Europe as the anchor. Britain may no longer be a member of the EU, but it is still a major player in sculpting European positions due to its historic ties, knowledge and influence. Such a joint Anglo-American position would be hard to ignore.
Should the new British prime minister choose the path of the pyromaniac and abandon all efforts to resolve this conflict, no doubt other countries would follow suit.
Once again, conflict resolution, international law and the rules-based order are likely to be jettisoned for narrow short-term political and economic gain. Even if a British decision is not immediate, the direction of travel is being set. The anti-Palestinian constituency in the Conservative Party will relentlessly push the government to go all the way down this path. Voices of reason have to win the argument and ensure a course correction before it is too late.
• Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London.