Liz Truss, the new British prime minister, has come into office vowing to sweep away the entrenched, outworn attitudes that persist in parts of what is otherwise an admirable Civil Service. One area she is focused on is the Treasury, which she regards as wholly out of sympathy with her radical approach to tackling the severe economic problems that face the UK. Another sclerotic area she has in her sights is the Foreign Office.
On September 22 the media outlet Politico reported a Downing Street spokesman saying that, at the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Truss told her Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, that she had ordered a review of the current location of the British embassy.
This has not come out of the blue. During the course of the leadership contest in the summer, Truss told the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) that, while recognizing the “importance and sensitivity” of the issue, she would have the UK’s decision to stay put in Tel Aviv looked at again.
Shock, horror in the hidebound Foreign Office and diplomatic circles generally. No less than ten former UK diplomats came together to oppose the idea in classic British style – a letter to The Times. Preceded by a catalogue of stock sitting-on-the-fence observations, the letter ended: “Two states is British government policy; until that policy is realized, the embassy should stay put.”
In fact two states is also US government policy, but that did not deter the Trump administration from acknowledging reality and re-siting the US embassy in Israel’s capital city. President Joe Biden has not reversed that decision. nor does he seem minded to do so.
The UK’s foot-dragging on this issue stems from its long-standing, and continuing, refusal actually to acknowledge that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, which it was from the moment of the State’s foundation.
Global opinion is in a terrible muddle about the status of Jerusalem. In the original 1947 two-state Partition Plan for Palestine, Jerusalem was designated to be a “corpus separatum under a special international regime” administered by the UN. The idea that Jerusalem could be separately governed under UN supervision has long been abandoned. Yet the UN as a whole, like the EU, still clings to the idea that Jerusalem is somehow not part of the State of Israel. The UK goes along with this. As recently as 2016, British Foreign Office briefing documents were still referring to Jerusalem as a corpus separatum.
These days the UN and the EU hold that “Jerusalem is a final status issue for which a comprehensive, just and lasting solution must be achieved through negotiations between the two parties.” In short, they hold that the exact status of Jerusalem in international law is yet to be determined.
Yet the UN Security Council, in its Resolution 2334 passed in 2016, seems to override this. It declares that the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank is as it had been on 4 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six Day War – referring three times to “Palestinian territories including East Jerusalem.” Ignored is the fact that in 1967 they were not Palestinian territories; they were territories that had been captured by the Jordanian army in 1948 and illegally annexed by Jordan. The EU, echoing the UN position, officially refuses to “recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including in Jerusalem, other than those agreed by both sides.”
So the UN and the EU assert that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be determined through negotiation, and in the same breath maintain that East Jerusalem is part of Palestinian territories. They recognize no changes to the pre-Six Day War boundaries (the EU calls them “borders”, which they never were), except that they do not acknowledge that West Jerusalem was part of Israel at the time.
Their position defies logic. Either the status of Jerusalem is still to be determined, or the part that used to be occupied by Jordan is declared to be Palestinian and the issue is closed. Moreover if East Jerusalem is Palestinian, then at least West Jerusalem is Israeli – a position acknowledged by both the US and Russia, together with a clutch of other states, including the Czech Republic and Ukraine. In December 2021, that is before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, said his country recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s “one and only capital.” His promise to open a branch of its embassy in the city in 2022 during a projected visit by President Volodymyr Zelensky is, obviously, on hold.
The UK position on Jerusalem is provided in a standard response by the British embassy to public queries. Its first sentence almost boasts that Britain has not shifted its views since April 1950. At that time, it says, the UK unreservedly recognized the State of Israel de jure, “but it withheld recognition of sovereignty over Jerusalem pending a final determination of its status. The UK recognizes Israel’s de facto authority over West Jerusalem, but, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) and subsequent UNSC resolutions, regards East Jerusalem as under Israeli occupation.
“A final determination of the status of Jerusalem should be sought as part of a negotiated settlement…It must ensure Jerusalem is a shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian states… The UK disagrees with the United States’ decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital before a final status agreement.”
Up till now the UK response has concluded: “The British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and there are no plans to move it before, or in the absence of, such a settlement.”
During the leadership contest, Truss declared war on outworn thinking in the Civil Service, declaring she was “prepared to break eggs” in taking on establishment orthodoxy. That final sentence in the British embassy’s standard response may one day need to be amended.