Liz Truss has signalled a historic shift in British foreign policy by saying she would review the location of the UK’s embassy in Israel in order to strengthen ties with the Jewish state. The announcement came in a letter sent by the Tory leadership candidate to Conservative Friends of Israel. The Foreign Secretary writes:
‘I understand the importance and sensitivity of the location of the British Embassy in Israel. I’ve had many conversations with my good friend Prime Minister Lapid on this topic. Acknowledging that, I will review a move to ensure we are operating on the strongest footing within Israel.’
The British Embassy is currently situated in Tel Aviv, despite Israel’s capital being Jerusalem. The UK has hitherto withheld recognition of Jerusalem in line with the Foreign Office’s preferred policy of neutrality and treating the city as a ‘corpus separatum’. This is because the Palestinian Authority claims the eastern section of Jerusalem for the capital of a Palestinian state, despite consistently rejected offers of such a state. The international community has danced along for decades, refraining from acknowledgement of Israel’s capital in the hopes it would encourage the Palestinians to the negotiating table — or at least keep the peace.
This dead consensus has begun to crumble. The United States has formally recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there, as have Taiwan, Nauru, Honduras, Guatemala, and Kosovo. Russia and Australia have both recognised West Jerusalem as the capital. I have been arguing for the UK to follow their lead for some years now, most recently two week ago, when I wrote that it was cowardly and absurd for the UK to pretend not to know where Israel’s capital city is based.
This is a friendly country with whom we already have a £5 billion trading relationship, are currently negotiating a free trade agreement, and which supplies us with intelligence to foil terror plots on UK soil. Israeli sovereignty over a united Jerusalem has brought stability, prosperity and religious liberty for Jews, Muslims and Christians, a trifecta achieved by no other state or occupying power in modern history. It is up to Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate the final borders of any two-state solution but until they do there is no interest, British or otherwise, advanced by affecting neutrality over these plain realities. Not least when doing so inhibits a mutually beneficial diplomatic and commercial relationship.
Truss is not to my taste politically but her willingness to break from the failed dogmas of the past is bold, clear-sighted and not a little courageous. The Tory left will fight her bitterly on this and I can’t even begin to imagine how she intends to get an embassy move past the people who actually decide the UK’s international policies: Foreign Office civil servants and diplomats. That crowd harbours an animosity towards Israel that would be considered a bit much at a Fatah branch meeting. Truss will have to steel herself for an almighty battle but if she is prepared to fight the blob on this issue, it suggests she is open to doing so on others. Then again, she has already been forced to perform a massive policy U-turn this week. Maybe this proposal will go the same way.
One final point. It is noteworthy that Truss mentions having discussed an embassy move with Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid. Presumably it was Lapid initiating these conversations since Boris Johnson’s government has always stuck to the old script on Jerusalem. Unless, of course, Foreign Secretary Truss was planning for her own relocation to No. 10 long before Johnson’s resignation and has been laying out her personal foreign policy vision behind the scenes in Jerusalem and, one would have to assume, other world capitals.
Lapid would be particularly keen on seeing Britain’s embassy shifted, given looming elections on 1st November and a strong challenge from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Such things don’t swing the outcome of elections in Israel but it would nonetheless be a diplomatic coup for Lapid. On his watch, and for the first time ever, a majority of permanent members of the UN Security Council would recognise Jerusalem in some fashion as the capital of the State of Israel.
With some guts and plenty of determination, Liz Truss might just make history.