In less turbulent times, the disappearance of the Home Secretary would lead the television news bulletins and clear the next morning’s front pages. Yet Sajid Javid went missing on Monday with barely an eyebrow raised.
The former Conservative leadership candidate travelled to Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall, the second-holiest site in Judaism and buttressing the holiest site: the Temple Mount. His pilgrimage to the destination of millennia of Jewish prayers is the first by a UK Cabinet minister in 19 years and especially noteworthy because while there he had, in the eyes of his own government, dropped off the map.
The UK does not recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and in fact doesn’t recognise it as even being inside Israel. East Jerusalem, runs the UK position, is ‘part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories’ but the rest of the city is a diplomatic blackspot.
When Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem in 2017, Theresa May said the city’s status ‘should 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’.
This is consistent with the stance of successive Conservative and Labour governments. From the moment he entered Jerusalem until he reached its Old City, the Home Secretary ceased to be in either Israel or ‘the Occupied Palestinian Territories’ and vanished into one of the many holes in British Middle East policy.
In many ways, Javid’s visit is a positive step forward in UK relations with a reliable ally that we have seldom treated as such. Javid is one of the most senior government ministers and himself a long-standing supporter of the State of Israel, even spending his honeymoon there. That this son of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant is showing leadership after a century of British error on the Jewish return to their ancestral homeland says something encouraging about the country we have become.
But the Israelis (and the pre-state Zionist movement) have been here before: Javid is not the first British minister to come bearing warm words and if that is all he turns out to be offering, he won’t be the last.
Since issuing the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the UK has more often been a hindrance than a help to Zionism, from the White Paper and Ernest Bevin to an institutionally hostile foreign policy apparatus and hand-wringing ministerial ambivalence. The UK is pro-Israel but only in the same way that it is pro-Norway: the relationship is cordial but hardly special.
The beginnings of a new partnership can be glimpsed. Israel is one of the UK’s top 50 trading partners; we sell them £2.3bn worth of vehicles and machinery annually and they sell us £1.6bn in plastics and minerals. Brexit presents an opportunity to develop economic ties and the two countries have already signed a contingency deal to trade on preferential terms after the UK leaves the EU.
This is particularly important for the NHS, which fills one in seven of its prescriptions with drugs from Israeli pharma giant Teva. Israel is also a valuable strategic ally. Last week, the RAF confirmed for the first time that it had conducted joint training sorties with the Israeli Air Force, building on mutually beneficial intelligence and security cooperation.
As the UK (maybe, in theory, Ts & Cs apply) heads for the EU exit, it will need all the friends it can get but there is just one friendly nation whose seat of government the UK refuses to recognise and in whose capital it demurs from locating its embassy. Ministers and civil servants tell themselves this is to be even-handed but it is that familiar FCO version of balance, with a guilty thumb on the scale for the latest beneficiaries of our patrician sorrow. This approach has failed and, despite good-faith efforts by the Israelis, the Palestinians continue on the path of rejectionism. The world cannot wait forever for a stateless people to accept a state.
In the absence of peace — which is a matter for Israelis and Palestinians, not us — there is normalisation: treat our ally as we treat every other ally while supporting efforts to strengthen security, stability and prosperity in Israel and in the Palestinian-held areas of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. The first step in normalisation is recognising Israel’s capital (as the United States has and as Russia and Australia have with regards to West Jerusalem) and relocating our embassy there (as the United States and Guatemala have). It would go some way to righting the historical wrong of dividing up the Jewish people’s homeland and barring them from escaping there in their darkest hour. It would also bolster our strategic and economic relations at a time when the UK needs both in bucketloads.
Recognising a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would concentrate Palestinian minds, too. There should already be a Palestinian state and we should be signing trade deals with them as well, but there are no disincentives for a Palestinian Authority that believes it can wait until a fully-formed state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, falls into its lap.
Rebuffing a negotiated peace has not cost the PA favour in the international community, which continues to clamour for the same expansive borders for a Palestinian state, but the UK’s acceptance of Israel’s capital would underscore the risks of rejectionism. The more the Palestinians say No, the less there might be to say Yes to.