مقابلة: دول الإتحاد الأوروبي لا تريد خروجاً سهلاً لبريطانيا

مقابلتي في أخبار قناة الغد عن تداعيات خطاب رئيسة وزراء بريطانيا تيريزا ماي عن خروج بريطانيا من الإتحاد الأوروبي بتاريخ ٢/٣/٢٠١٨

The UK is quietly changing its policy on Israel and Palestine

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 5/4/2017


Palestinians were delighted to see 2016 end with the UN Security Council passing resolution 2334 which reaffirmed the illegality of Israel’s settlement enterprise. The passing of the resolution was facilitated by the US abstention in the dying days of Obama’s administration. The UK played a key role in the drafting of the resolution and then voted in favour.

While not formally denying its involvement in drafting the resolution, the Foreign Office stressed “the resolution was proposed and drafted by the Egyptian delegation”, adding that the UK, as one of the five permanent members of the security council, “engaged with” the text “as we do with all security council texts”. At the time, this put the UK on a collision course with Israel and raised the spectre of a disagreement on Israel and Palestine with the incoming Trump administration.

Whatever pressure was applied on the UK worked rather quickly as Prime Minister Theresa May heavily criticised outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech on the Palestinian-Israeli issue delivered as he was about to leave office. He concluded that the two-state solution was “in jeopardy” and laid much of the blame at Israel’s expansionist settlement policy, driven by “the most right-wing government in history” and arguing that “the settler agenda is defining the future in Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state: Greater Israel,” Kerry said. He added that, “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both, and it won’t ever really be at peace.”

In a statement on Kerry’s speech, Number 10 made clear a more broad-ranging approach was needed to encourage peace and that “…the settlements are far from the only problem in this conflict. In particular, the people of Israel deserve to live free from the threat of terrorism, with which they have had to cope for too long”. In what was seen as a rebuke to Kerry, the prime minister’s spokesman said that Britain did not believe “that it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically-elected government of an ally. The Government believes that negotiations will only succeed when they are conducted between the two parties, supported by the international community.”

An explanation of May’s position was provided by Conservative MP and member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Mike Freer. He argued that the prime minister had been “blindsided” by the Foreign Office which he described as having “a patchy record at the UN regarding Israel. This too I suspect may now change.”

In what seems to be a re-orientation of its policy on Palestine and Israel, the UK then refused to send a high-level delegation to the Middle East peace conference organised by France just five days before Trump took over as US president. The UK was the only major stakeholder in the conflict to send a low-level delegation while 36 foreign ministers as well as the US Secretary of State were in attendance. The attendees saw the conference as an opportunity to restate the international community’s commitment to a two-state solution and to express opposition to a move of embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

A Foreign Office statement said: “We have particular reservations about an international conference intended to advance peace between the parties that does not involve them – indeed which is taking place against the wishes of the Israelis – and which is taking place just days before the transition to a new American President when the US will be the ultimate guarantor of any agreement.” The statement further argued that, “There are risks therefore that this conference hardens positions at a time when we need to be encouraging the conditions for peace.”

The UK’s position on the Paris conference was a sign of departure from longstanding positions allied to those of the EU to ones that seemed to be looking across the Atlantic to the future Trump administration.

If further confirmation of the shift of UK policy was needed, then this came at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) 34th session. The UK’s stance surprised most commentators as it changed its voting policy under item seven on the agenda which requires that Israel’s human rights record be discussed and scrutinised three times each year.

On this occasion, the UK representative to the UNHRC made a scathing attack against the Council, accusing it of “bias against Israel”. He further argued that, “The persistence of bias, particularly the disproportionate volume of resolutions against Israel, undermines the council’s credibility as the globally focussed and objective international human rights body we all want and need.”

Placing the UNHRC “on notice” the representative concluded that if things did not change soon, “in the future we will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Syrian and Palestinian Territories.”

More recently, reports emerged of reluctance by the UK to issue a diplomatic visa to the PLO’s new representative in London, Ma’en Erekat. In an interview with the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, PLO Chairman and PA President Mahmoud Abbas implied that the UK was trying to “scale back” the status of the mission and that it was trying to “put restrictions and obstacles. But we told them that we want to be treated like before, to deal with the new ambassador just like the former ambassador.”

The UK would claim that its position has not changed. That it is still for a negotiated settlement based on the two-state solution, which was reiterated by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on his most recent trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories.

“Israel has first and foremost an absolute right to live in security, and the people of Israel deserve to be safe from terrorism,” Johnson said, stressing Britain’s “rock-like” support of the country. But he later added: “Of course we must also try to remove obstacles to peace and progress such as the settlements”. However, Britain’s most recent positions outlined earlier indicate a change of policy which seems to be moving away from the EU’s position to one more closely aligned with the Trump administration.

That should be very worrying to Palestinians as the US government is taking an unashamedly pro-Israel line, arguing Israel has been “treated unfairly”, that the settlements are merely “unhelpful” rather than illegal and that it should be left to the two sides to come up with a solution, ignoring the asymmetry of the situation. There is no acknowledgement of the history of the conflict and the injustice that befell the Palestinians through the creation of Israel or its continued serial violations of international law, international humanitarian law or even its immediate refusal to adhere to UNSC Resolution 2334 amongst tens of resolutions it has defied. There is no room for any criticism of Israel in Trump’s world.

As the UK seeks trade deals following Brexit, it is looking at the US and Israel as two close allies who might deliver deals quickly after exiting the EU. The powerful pro-Israel lobbies in the US and the UK will bring pressure to bear on the UK to side with Israel rather than with the weak Palestinians. It will celebrate Balfour’s centenary, or “mark it with pride” as the prime minister characterised it, with complete insensitivity to the Palestinians and their plight. In light of this, it is clear that the UK’s policy is moving towards greater protection of Israel while it abandons the Palestinians, just as it did in 1948.

What Brexit should mean for the Arab world

First published by the Arab Weekly on 30/10/2016

June 23rd marked a turning point in Britain’s relationship with the European Union when the British people voted to leave the union, triggering a process known as Brexit.

This quickly brought about the resignation of the prime minis­ter, David Cameron, who was replaced by Theresa May. In her first major speech, she confirmed that Britain would be leaving the European Union and that “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”.

Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Since then it has had a love-hate relationship with the European Union as in later years the union took control of more of the issues held dear by the British people. While Britain had a special deal with the European Union exempting it from the European currency, the euro, and the Schengen agreement, which allowed free movement of people within that area, there was a perception by Britons that they had lost sovereignty and control of their borders.

May recently announced that Britain would formally inform the European Union of its decision to leave by the end of March 2017, triggering Article 50 in the relevant treaty, which then sets in motion at least two years of negotiations to extract Britain from the union.

As the reality of what has happened sinks in, and Britain begins to look to the future as an independent kingdom able to negotiate its own trade deals, opportunities open for it and for others. Negotiations about membership or access to the single European market will be the most difficult as the Euro­pean Union generally ties the degree of access to the freedom of movement of labour, which Britain now wishes to control.

It is widely expected that Britain’s access to the single market will change significantly. It is therefore imperative that it looks to enhancing trade with other countries and regions if its economy is to at least hold its own and to benefit from Brexit as its proponents have claimed it will.

One of the initial effects of the referendum vote was a drop in the value of the pound by almost 20%. This makes British exports, education and holidaying in Britain cheaper for consumers from the Arab world.

At a recent reception held alongside the ruling Conserva­tive Party conference in Birming­ham and hosted by Arab ambas­sadors, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson surprised the audience when he stated that “the growth in exports to the Arab world outstrips any other part of the planet including the EU”. The exports include Rolls-Royce cars, underpants and even sand to Saudi Arabia. Significantly, he did not mention the arms trade. Clearly, the Arab world, whose “troubles” Johnson did not wish to see characterise the British people’s impression of it could offer some respite to Britain as it forges new partner­ships.

The West always talks about mutual interests driving policy. Therefore, here is an opportunity for the Arab world to welcome Britain’s desire to grow its partnership with its members but to also press for a more favour­able foreign policy towards the region.

At the reception, the Palestin­ian ambassador reminded Johnson that in 2017 a number of anniversaries are coming up connected to the Palestinian issue, including the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which Britain will want to mark. Surely, it should be possible for the Arab world to exert some pressure on Britain to finally realise its responsibility for the plight of the Palestinian people and, in turn, exert pressure on Israel to end its expansionist project.

It seems Arab ambassadors in London have an open door, through trade, to push for a more enlightened British foreign policy. Will they rise to the challenge of making the best of Brexit or miss this unique opportunity?

Rolls Royce, pants and sand: What Boris Johnson said to the Arab ambassadors

First published by the Middle East Eye on 13/10/2016

The foreign secretary’s candid speech reveals an opportunity to influence UK policy in the Middle East – Arab ambassadors should seize it

Away from the endless discussions on Brexit at this year’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham, there were the usual fringe meetings and receptions that complement such an occasion.

One such event was the Arab ambassadors’ regular reception to which the Foreign Office normally invite the foreign secretary. I was grateful for an invitation. On previous occasions, the person who ended up attending to speak on behalf of the party and government was a junior minister rather than their boss.

However, on this occasion the rumour was that it would be the man himself, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. There was notable excitement among the attendees, including ambassadors representing countries from across the world.

We knew that the main speaker was about to arrive when the Kuwait TV camera and the ambassadors were summoned to the entrance led by his excellency, the doyen of the London diplomatic corps, Khaled al-Duwaisan, Ambassador of Kuwait.

It took some 10 minutes for Boris to complete the round of handshakes and small talk before he could be welcomed formally.

Balfour’s legacy

The doyen welcomed Boris as a “star” of Britain and praised him not only as current secretary of state but also for his previous role as mayor of London. He told him that “our relations as Arab countries are very strong’ and Britain has with them a “historic relation”.

He then invited the head of the diplomatic mission of Palestine, Professor Manuel Hassassian, to address the foreign secretary. It was not clear whether this had been agreed in advance, but the foreign secretary was happy for this to happen.

Professor Hassassian made good use of this opportunity to remind Boris of why 2017 would be a “remarkable year” for Palestinians. “We will be commemorating the hundred years of the Balfour declaration and 70 years of the Nakba and 50 years of the occupation and 10 years of the Gaza siege,” he explained.

He thanked the UK for the “nice words” of support and the money it donates to support the Palestinian Authority. This brought a smile to Boris’s face. Then the ambassador hit hard: “But Sir, we don’t need the money, we need you to be more involved in the political process.”

Hassassian suggested that “crisis management” had been a dismal failure and that what is needed is “conflict resolution”. He did not think it was enough for Britain to consider not importing goods from Israeli settlements or to simply say that it is for the two-state solution or the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. “Those are nice words to be said, but we need to see them concretised on the ground,” he challenged.

He also reminded the foreign secretary of Britain’s role. The Balfour Declaration, he said, “was the starting point in the destruction of Palestine. Great Britain should shoulder its historic, legal and moral responsibility.” He laid a challenge at Boris’s door to “add one sentence to the Declaration: ‘the recognition of the independence of Palestine'”.

Rolls Royces, pants – and sand?

Anyone thinking that Boris would rise to the challenge was quickly disappointed.

“I hope you will forgive me if I don’t venture to solve the problems of the Middle East peace process tonight off the cuff,” he told the crowd. In his typical light-hearted style, Boris acknowledged the doyen’s important role in leading the ambassadors in “paying the London congestion charge”.

Returning to more important matters, Boris acknowledged the importance of solving the Palestinian problem, but that “it was not the only problem in the region”. He seemed surprised at the lack of reaction to his statement. He then significantly stated that he did not believe that that region should be “defined by those problems”.

READ MORE: Human rights advocates weigh in on Boris Johnson’s comments and the UK export push to the Middle East

 

“It is absolutely vital that we do not allow the Middle East, the Arab world in the eyes of the British public to be defined by these problems,” he said, arguing that the region should be seen as providing a great opportunity, particularly following Brexit.

Reflecting on his time as mayor of London, Boris Johnson said that people used to accuse him of being the mayor of the “eighth Emirate”. He acknowledged the massive investment London has received, which changed its skyline. He described the Shard as “poking through like a gigantic cocktail stick through a super colossal pickled onion”.

Boris then talked of the opportunities in the other direction as “we also get the ball back over the net. This is the fastest-growing economic partnership that Britain has”. He then stunned the audience when he proclaimed that “the growth in exports to the Arab world outstrips any other part of the planet including the EU”. The exports include Rolls Royce cars, pants and “sand to Saudi Arabia”.

He finished with an acknowledgment of cultural synergy between Britain and the Arab world as the 400th anniversary of its greatest author is celebrated “who was himself a Sheikh,” he said with a dramatic pause. “Shakespeare!” This brought the house down.

Seize the opportunity

This was Boris Johnson at his best, connecting with the audience brilliantly and they loved him.

However, it is clear where Britain’s and his current priorities lie. The impact of Brexit, which was being debated in the serious sessions taking part in Birmingham’s magnificent Symphony Hall, clearly comes ahead of solving the problems of the Middle East.

The foreign secretary directed approaches to him on these issues to his junior minister, Tobias Ellwood, who was also in attendance. I doubt if he would have done that with such ease to the Israeli ambassador.

The most important message I took away from the evening was the statement about the growth of exports to the Middle East far exceeding any other part of the planet. I would see this as an open opportunity for the Arab world to influence British foreign policy in its favour as Britain seeks to develop its economic ties with markets outside the EU.

I would urge the Arab ambassadors who attended the reception to see this significant opportunity and formulate policy accordingly. This would be power not only for the various troubled countries in the region but also for the Palestinian problem. Their collective voice could and should be used to influence the kind of approach Britain takes to 2017 and, in particular, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

My only regret was that, had I known Boris was to speak at the reception, I might have turned up in a corduroy jacket but I do not own one. During a visit to Israel last year, the then London mayor accused supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement of being “completely crazy” and being promoted by a “few lefty academics” in corduroy jackets pursuing a cause.

I did manage to shake Boris’s hand at the reception wearing a suit and he may remember me as not “completely crazy”. He needs to realise that those working for justice for Palestinians are neither crazy, nor anti-Semitic, as Israel and some of its supporters claim.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: London mayor Boris Johnson salutes photographers as rides a bicycle in front of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, during his visit to Dubai, on 16 April 2013 (AFP)

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