Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Should Britain be a 'Friend of Israel'?

Surely one of the more loaded terms amongst international idioms is the self-certification of being “a friend of Israel”. It is clearly more than just exchanging Christmas cards and the odd Facebook update, and you can’t get your boots under the best desk in the White House without at least claiming to be one, even if you have your fingers crossed.

The phrase can denote an often unspecific standing, found somewhere on the sliding scale from casual Semitic sympathiser to fully-paid up Zionist. Barack Obama has claimed to be a ‘friend of Israel’, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad most definitely hasn’t, and I dare say William Hague would like to avoid the question. Especially now the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has announced plans to build 3000 new settlement homes in the 'E1' area, to the northeast of Jerusalem. Indeed, some of Israel’s friends may sense the mild misgivings akin to taking a mate to a family wedding, who then, despite bearing all the outward vestiges of sophistication, gets smashed on the free bubbly, makes a pass at the bride’s mother and throws up on the cake.

The timing of Israel’s announcement suggests a knee-jerk reaction to the United Nations General Assembly recognising Palestine as a ‘non-member observer state’ this week. One might think that after all this time a refusal to recognise anybody would have been considered rude, yet still the US opposed the motion and the UK took a traditionally assertive stance, and abstained.

Palestinian commentators note that the ‘state’ now recognised is itself fairly unrecognisable compared to that agreed by the United Nations in 1967. However, if the newly proposed settlements were to proceed, then the West Bank would be effectively cut off from East Jerusalem, and the territory would become so divided as to render the ‘two state solution’ virtually unviable. It is perhaps this, rather than the settlements themselves, that induced an unusually robust response from notable European powers. The British, French and Swedish Foreign Ministries summoned respective Israeli ambassadors to express concern over further building deemed illegal under international law, with similar statements issued by both Germany and Russia.
The UK government, whilst rowing back from the early rumours of recalling the ambassador to Israel, is keeping all diplomatic options on the table. Such measures could potentially stretch to suspending trade deals in protest, however, David Cameron confirmed the Coalition are "not proposing to do anything further at this stage".

Whilst it would be inappropriate to attempt to solve or even summarise such a complex geo-political conundrum in one trite paragraph, if a neighbour keeps planting trees on your lawn you’ll eventually need a chainsaw. The preferred outcome of course, would involve a direct but diplomatic neighbourhood watch, which is where the rest of us come in.     

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