Boris Johnson has described himself as ‘a passionate defender of Israel’ and, what’s more, ‘a life-long friend, admirer and supporter of Israel’. He says the UK ‘has always stood by Israel and its right to live, as any nation should be able to, in peace and security’. That recognition that the Jewish state should be treated like every other does not, however, extend to a very basic courtesy: we refuse to recognise its capital and place our embassy there.
There is a UK embassy in the capital of China, inflicter of coronavirus and mass incarcerator of Uyghurs. There is a UK embassy in the capital of Iran, one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism. There is even a UK embassy in the capital of North Korea, a slave state and the closest thing to hell on earth. In Israel, however, the Foreign Office maintains the fiction that Tel Aviv is the capital and hides away our embassy there because admitting the truth would be too painful for the activist-diplomats of King Charles Street.
Israel, it is worth reminding those diplomats and the Prime Minister they nominally serve, is a steadfast ally. It sells us plastics and minerals and buys our machinery and vehicles. Just one of its pharmaceutical companies supplies one in seven NHS prescriptions. It signed a continuity trade deal with us a year before we left the EU. It trains our police to detect and stop ‘lone wolf’ Islamist attacks. It furnishes us with vital intelligence. If you don’t remember Hezbollah bombing London in 2015, it is because the Mossad tipped off MI5 about a terror cell in the north-west London where the Met went on to find three tonnes of ammonium nitrate stockpiled. This faithful friend we reward by calling it an occupier in its own capital city.
The mindset that compels us to punish our friends while rewarding our enemies is leaving the UK behind in a changing Middle East. As a result of the Kosovo-Serbia deal, the former will establish diplomatic relations with Israel and open an embassy in Jerusalem — the first Muslim-majority nation to do so — while the latter will relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s capital. Meanwhile, Malawi has announced its intention to open a diplomatic office in the city, the first African nation to do so. This is how countries of the future think about Israel, but the UK seems bent on thinking like a country of the past. (We are not alone. The EU, a supremely bad faith actor in these matters, has fired a warning shot at Kosovo and Serbia in response.)
I asked the Foreign Office what, in light of these announcements, was the UK’s position on Jerusalem. (Since I asked, Chad has reportedly signalled that it too will open a diplomatic mission in the city.) They pointed me to an answer Middle East minister James Cleverly gave in the Commons in May:
“Our position on the status of Jerusalem is clear and long-standing: The UK recognises Israel’s 'de facto authority' over West Jerusalem. But in line with Security Council Resolution 242 and subsequent Council resolutions, we regard East Jerusalem as under Israeli military occupation. The UK believes that Jerusalem's final status must be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Jerusalem should ultimately be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian states.
The UK’s embassy in Tel Aviv will not be moving.
I have noted before that the UK has a Conservative government but a Labour foreign policy. Once Brexit has been completed, there will be no major issue in international affairs that divides the two parties. This is particularly the case when it comes to Israel. I am always bemused when some conspiracy-minded anti-Israel columnist or activist points to the number of Tory MPs who are members of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFOI), typically portrayed as a wielder of awesome institutional power and influence within the Tory party. They are a good bunch and throw a cracking conference booze-up, so I don’t want to beat up on them too much, but the reason they manage to sign up so many MPs is that their agenda is so anodyne. The only aspect of Conservative Friends of Israel that Labour Friends of Israel would object to (and vice versa) is the first word of its name.
If CFOI commanded one-tenth of the sway its demonisers insinuate, the UK’s embassy would be in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. The Conservative government would not refer to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza as ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ and would not scold Israel for allowing Jews to live in Judea. Our UN delegation would not abstain on something as basic as extending the arms embargo on Iran, whose Supreme Leader has called for ‘eliminating Israel’. We would not have a prime minister who hits all the right rhetorical notes but remains wedded to the cobwebbed dogma of a world since passed.
There are many ways to be pro-Israel and it ought not to be confused with being on board with the political agenda of the Likud party, but it should involve a Tory government having a position substantively distinguishable from that of the European Commission and the UN Human Rights Council. Boris Johnson is, I believe, instinctively and sincerely sympathetic to Israel and the Jewish people but his policies do not reflect the warmth of his feelings. Maybe he believes his course is wise and right. Fair enough; people like me can bang on in hopes of changing the terms of debate and nudging him out of his wrongheadedness. However, it could as easily be that the Foreign Office, the world’s leading exporter of certainty and paternalism, has defeated another prime minister who would like to have his own foreign policy but doesn’t have the time or energy to challenge the rule of Sir Humphrey. The latter would reflect a fundamental weakness in the Prime Minister, and that is harder to remedy.
Whatever the reason, Boris Johnson is allowing the UK to become irrelevant in a Middle East that doesn’t work the way it used to but in which we still have strategic interests. If the Conservatives are friends of Israel, rather than polite acquaintances, the Prime Minister would, at a minimum, recognise its capital and put our embassy there.