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‘Moving UK Embassy in Israel would be a British Betrayal’

Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall – who headed the Foreign Office’s Middle East Peace Process Section for two years in the late 1990s – assesses reports that the UK’s embassy in Israel could move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Prime Minister Liz Truss. Photo: Alistair Grant/PA/Alamy

Moving UK Embassy in Israel would be a British Betrayal

Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall – who headed the Foreign Office’s Middle East Peace Process Section for two years in the late 1990s – assesses reports that the UK’s embassy in Israel could move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

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Liz Truss has consistently condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and insisted that it can never be right to change borders by force. In her keynote address to the Conservative Party Conference she reiterated her Government’s rejection of Russia’s “illegal” annexation of Ukrainian territory. The Foreign Office has issued a series of strong statements affirming that Luhansk, Donestsk, Zaporhizia, Kherson and Crimea are Ukrainian. 

Yet, almost unnoticed by the British press, late last month, Truss announced she was considering moving the UK’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a move that would represent a complete betrayal of the very principles she claims to be upholding in respect of Ukraine. 

It is 50 years since the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel routed the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert from Egypt; the Golan Heights from Syria; and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. 

The Israelis went on to annex East Jerusalem and Sinai, and establish tight control over the rest of the occupied territories, in moves which were never recognised by the international community. Israel has since built numerous housing settlements for Jews in the Occupied Territories, in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention which states that “an occupying power shall not transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.

The United Nations Security Council, its General Assembly, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Court of Justice, and the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention have all agreed that Israeli settlements are illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

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While successive UK governments have staunchly defended Israel’s right to exist; condemned rocket attacks on it from Gaza; opposed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel; and criticised what is sees as the UN’s one-sided approach to the conflict, up until now the UK has always held fast to two core principles: that Israeli settlements on Palestinian-occupied territory are illegal; and that the status of Jerusalem can only be resolved through negotiations with the Palestinians. 

In 2018, then Prime Minister Theresa May in fact strongly criticised Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, stating that “we believe it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region” and that the “British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and we have no plans to move it”. 

May added: “Our position on the status of Jerusalem is clear and long-standing: it 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. In line with relevant Security Council resolutions, we regard East Jerusalem as part of the occupied Palestinian Territories.”

In a Westminster Hall debate last June, James Cleverly, who was then the Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the Middle East – and is now Foreign Secretary – rejected calls for the UK to recognise Palestinian statehood, and reaffirmed the UK’s belief in a negotiated peace agreement, on the basis of a two-state solution.

Last December, the UK’s Political Coordinator at the UN reaffirmed this position and asserted that “the UK opposes unilateral action in Jerusalem absent a final status settlement”.

As recently as last month, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN, Dame Barbara Woodward, affirmed that “the UK firmly believes that a two-state solution, based on 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as a shared capital… is the best way to deliver long-term peace”.

Liz Truss’ reported plan to move the UK embassy drives a coach and horses through those principles. It represents a betrayal of the Palestinians on a par with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which expressed British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. This reneged on assurances given in 1915/16 in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence to establish an independent Arab state in the region, in return for Arab support against the Ottomans. 

Both the Balfour Declaration and the Husayn McMahon correspondence were, in turn, in conflict with a third agreement authored by the British, made without any reference to the people living in the region, namely the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1915, which more or less agreed to split all Ottoman land between Britain and France. 

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These monumental acts of British duplicity and betrayal laid the seeds for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict today, in which people on both sides continue to suffer and die. The conflict has created destabilising ripple effects across the Arabian Peninsula, and continues to act as a source of motivation for much international terrorism.  

There is no evidence that Truss’ proposed move would meaningfully enhance UK-Israel relations, let alone contribute to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it would most certainly poison relations with the Palestinians, and its Arab supporters, who have already submitted a letter of protest to the Foreign Office. They have even suggested it could jeopardise progress on a free trade deal between the UK and the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

Given the lack of any obvious benefit, I believe that the main motivation for this move can only be a Brexit-related gimmick – a way to show the UK acting independently outside the EU.

If our new Prime Minister can be so cavalier with this fundamental tenet of British foreign policy, what else might she choose to throw out next? How well can the Ukrainians rely upon British assurances, if a future prime minister might decide 50 years from now, to tacitly recognise Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory?

And how can the British Prime Minister be allowed to get away with this, with barely a murmur of dissent from her own party, let alone the wider British public?

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