In the last month Theresa May has given striking evidence of a tilt towards Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel. On 29 December, her spokesman sharply criticised a major speech by John Kerry, who was signing off after years of labouring for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He had told some home truths about the Netanyahu government, describing the current coalition as the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements. Asked by the BBC whether he was surprised by May’s reaction, Kerry said: ‘What I expressed in the speech has been the policy of Great Britain for a long period of time … An honest answer is yes.’
At the beginning of January, al-Jazeera published recordings of a plot involving Shai Masot, an official of the Israeli ministry of strategic affairs described as a political adviser to the Israeli embassy in London (not listed as a diplomat, and therefore presumably not having diplomatic immunity), and Maria Strizzolo, chief of staff to the pro-Israeli MP Robert Halfon. They discussed ‘taking down’ the pro-Palestinian MP and Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan. Other plans included a move against Crispin Blunt MP, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the establishment of new pro-Israel lobby groups. There was mention of a million pound budget for subsidising the Labour Friends of Israel.
The Israeli ambassador apologised and said Masot would be ‘ending his term shortly’. The apology was accepted and there has been no further investigation of the case, let alone criticism of the Israeli government, despite calls from a number of senior MPs including Christopher Soames, Emily Thornberry and Alex Salmond, who commented: ‘Boris Johnson must right now revoke Mr Masot's diplomatic status and remove him from the country as would most certainly have happened had the circumstances been reversed. Perhaps then the Israeli government representatives will regard the foreign secretary as less of a fool’ (Masot was recorded describing Johnson as an idiot).
On 15 January, the French government held a one-day conference on Middle East peace which was attended by about seventy states. It produced a long and boring joint declaration reaffirming the need for a negotiated two-state solution, Palestine's right to statehood, Israel's security needs etc etc. The importance of the conference was symbolic. It could have called for recognition of Palestine’s statehood, but was too timid. Vincent Fean, a former consul general in Jerusalem (Britain’s de facto ambassador to the Palestinian Territories), reiterated the case for recognition in the Guardian recently and commended a petition asking the British government to recognise Palestine; signing it is an opportunity to demonstrate support for the two-state solution to which everyone (including the Israeli government) pays at least lip service.
In an equally symbolic move, Britain participated only as an observer and declined to sign the joint declaration. The FCO stated that it had reservations about a conference in which the two main parties, Israel and Palestine, were not present, about the timing – days before Donald Trump took over as president – and about the opposition of Israel. Netanyahu described the conference as ‘rigged by the Palestinians … It’s a last gasp of the past before the future sets in.’ The following day the UK blocked a meeting of EU foreign ministers from adopting the Paris statement.
‘The US will be the ultimate guarantor of any agreement,’ the FCO statement said. That is new. Middle East peace has always been pre-eminently a UN issue. The US has played the lead role in looking for agreement, but has repeatedly fallen at the last fence under Israeli pressure.
Early in Trump's campaign he said he would be a neutral negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and claimed to support a two-state solution. There is evidence that he has changed his mind: his choice of a US ambassador to Israel who is to the right even of Netanyahu (he has called Obama a 'blatant anti-Semite'), his promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, his own involvement and that of some of his team with the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories which the Security Council has just reaffirmed to be illegal.
The new doctrine that ‘the US will be the ultimate guarantor of any agreement’ needn’t be limited to the Middle East. It implies that Britain is happy to accept subordinate status, which is scarcely compatible with permanent membership of the Security Council. It could be applied to other disputes in which the US has played a major role, such as Northern Ireland. Indeed there are not many international disputes in which the US has not played a major role. Right now its application might seem particularly problematic, with Trump declaring that Nato is obsolete – though ‘very important’ to him.
The veteran Israeli peacenik and columnist Uri Avnery wrote immediately after the US election that he didn't know how Trump would turn out and tended to believe that Trump didn’t either. ‘I think that we are in for four years of uncertainty. Faced with a problem he knows nothing about, he will act according to his mood of the moment. He will take advice from nobody, and nobody will know in advance what will be his decision.’ A strange moment for Britain to be volunteering for the role of poodle.