By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Thursday, February 9 2017
As official visits go, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to London earlier this week looked like a textbook lesson in how not to conduct diplomacy. But looks can be deceptive.
In the full glare of the world’s media, Netanyahu arrived at U.K. Prime Minister’s Theresa May’s residence at 10 Downing Street only to find himself locked out and left standing in the street on his own for what seemed an eternity. At one point I wondered if he might have to kneel down at the front of the door and announce his arrival by shouting through the letterbox. Fortunately, before it got to that stage, the door was finally opened and a very sheepish Netanyahu gratefully entered.
On the face of it, things didn’t appear to get much better for Israel’s prime minister once he got inside.
May smiled and stressed the importance her government attaches to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response, Netanyahu, a man who appears to have a permanent frown these days, warned about the danger Iran poses to the Middle East.
A few hours after the meeting relations appeared to get even frostier when Israeli MPs voted in favor of the so-called “regulation law,” which gives retroactive approval to illegally built Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
May’s government was quick to condemn the new law. Tobias Ellwood, the foreign office minister responsible for the Middle East, said: “It is of great concern that the bill paves the way for significant growth in settlements in the West Bank, threatening the viability of the two-state solution.” He added: “As a long-standing friend of Israel, I condemn the passing of the Land Regularization Bill by the Knesset which damages Israel’s standing with its international partners.” Well up to a point. The most important international partner, U.S. President Donald Trump, who will host Netanyahu in Washington next week, has yet to offer the world his thoughts on the matter. His administration is on record as saying Israeli settlements are not an obstacle to peace, but their expansion “may not be helpful.” Go figure. At any rate, Netanyahu was still en route from the U.K. when the vote happened, having left London empty handed. His clarion call for May to follow Trump in imposing fresh sanctions on some Iranian individuals and entities following Tehran’s ballistic missile test last week were ignored.
May has asked the U.N. to examine whether the tests breached any resolutions, but U.K. government officials insist it is a separate issue from the 2015 nuclear accord that lifted a host of sanctions on Iran in return for curbing its nuclear program.
Moreover, when she became the first Western leader to meet Trump in Washington last month, May advised the U.S. president of the dangers of jeopardizing the nuclear accord, advice that appears to have been heeded in Washington – despite Trump’s tweet last week that “Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
May reiterated her stance to Netanyahu, telling him the accord was “vital,” though in what some see as a nod to Trump’s misgivings about the deal she added it needed to be “properly enforced and policed.” That caveat could prove significant. Because for all the frostiness in the stagecraft of this week’s visit, behind the scenes other factors are at play for May as she seeks to create a viable blueprint for the U.K.’s post-Brexit economic future.
There has been a visible change in the U.K.’s relationship with Israel since London played a key role in drafting last December’s U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the continuing expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.
It was followed by May’s bizarre criticism of outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his condemnation of Israeli settlement expansion – just days after the U.N. vote. The broadside at Kerry was widely seen as a clumsy attempt to earn some brownie points with the then-incoming Trump administration – Trump of course made a number of stridently pro-Israel comments during his election campaign.
Why? Because post-Brexit U.K. is desperate for business.
May is under intense pressure to secure some sort of U.K.-U.S. trade deal in the wake of her announcement last month that she is prepared to accept a clean break with the European Union, that will sacrifice membership of the single market and customs union, in order to allay domestic concerns about immigration and Europe’s open borders.
That has led to a rather unseemly rush to broker new trade deals, which has also seen May cosying up to Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan in recent weeks. The two governments have agreed to set up a joint working group to carry out the groundwork for a bilateral trade deal. Turkey’s current trade with the U.K. amounts to around 16 billion pounds a year.
May even tapped up Netanyahu, who also agreed to establish a working group to prepare the ground for a post-Brexit freetrade agreement. The U.K. is already Israel’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth 5 billion pounds a year.
Ironically, the U.K.’s former EU trading partners are reassured that the rush of British firms to cultivate business deals with Iran since sanctions were lifted means May’s support for the nuclear accord will remain solid.
However, during this month’s EU summit in Malta European leaders openly expressed fears that May’s desperation for post-Brexit allies is pushing her too far toward Trump, and a softening of U.K. opposition to Israeli settlement expansion.
It is worth pointing out that the U.K. failed to attend last month’s one-day Middle East peace conference organized by the French government in Paris. U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the conference was “a little like Hamlet without the Prince” because the Israelis had declined to attend.
But is U.K. opposition to settlements up for negotiation?
The fear that it might be underlines the dilemma that Brexit poses for the U.K. and its Middle East commitments. It’s early days yet, but despite the stagecraft of this week’s visit, it’s clear May is keener than any of her predecessors to keep Netanyahu onside as a means to court favor with Trump and the potential for favorable U.S. trade deals. At the end of May’s meeting with Netanyahu she invited him to return to the U.K. later this year to attend events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in November. I very much doubt he will be left waiting on the doorstep on that day.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star. This article was first published in the print edition of The Daily Star on Thursday February 9 2017.