Foreign Office questions, House of Commons, March 28 2017
The Foreign Office has issued a threat to vote against its own policies on Israel’s occupation of Palestine if the United Nations Human Rights Council does not end its “disproportionate focus on Israel”.
It fired the first warning shot last week when the Council voted on a motion calling on Israel to freeze construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and on UN members to advise businesses of the legal and reputational risks of trading with illegal settlements.
Although both these points are already UK policy, and although all the other West European countries – Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Switzerland – voted in favour of the motion, the UK chose to abstain.
After the vote the UK Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Julian Braithwaite, issued an unusually strongly-worded attack on the UN’s “bias against Israel” ending with the threat that: “If there is no change, in the future we will adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Palestinian and Syrian Territories”.
This was raised at Foreign Office questions by Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Tom Brake and SNP MP Tommy Sheppard (right), who asked for a reassurance – after the “petulant tirade” from the UK Mission – that the UK was still opposed to illegal settlements.
Although the threat appeared In the official “Explanation of Voting” issued at the end of the debate by the UK Mission, some find it difficult to believe the Foreign Office would have allowed this threat to be made if it had not come from the Foreign Secretary himself.
One paragraph in particular departs sharply from the usual studiously even-handed approach of the Foreign Office: “We must recognise the continuing terrorism, incitement and violence that Israel faces. According to the Quartet’s report last year, there were 250 terrorist attacks, leading to the deaths of at least 30 Israelis. Renewed Hamas efforts to rebuild their tunnels are a grave concern. The scourge of anti-Semitic incitement and glorification of terrorism continue. And for as long as terrorists are treated as martyrs, peace will prove distant.”
In this one paragraph five one-sided accusations are made:
- “We must recognise the continuing terrorism, incitement and violence that Israel faces.” No mention is made of terrorism, incitement or violence faced by Palestinians, either from settlers or the Israeli army or the Israeli authorities.
- “According to the Quartet’s report last year, there were 250 terrorist attacks, leading to the deaths of at least 30 Israelis.” No mention is made of 247 Palestinians killed by Israelis in the same period.
- “Renewed Hamas efforts to rebuild their tunnels are a grave concern.” This fact is only relevant if it is assumed that Hamas is always the sole aggressor. No mention is made of arms Israel is stockpiling for future assaults on Gaza.
- “The scourge of anti-Semitic incitement and glorification of terrorism continue.” By use of the word ‘anti-Semitic’ the assumption is made that all incitement and terrorism is directed against Jewish people or Israel and none against Palestinian people or Arabs.
- “And for as long as terrorists are treated as martyrs, peace will prove distant.” (This appears to be directed against Palestinians, but in fact scores of streets in Israel are named after members of the Jewish militias who carried out terrorist attacks on the British and on Palestinians.)
This is bound to feed the suspicion that we are seeing a gradual unannounced reversal of the UK’s position, starting with the Prime Minister’s criticism of John Kerry’s speech in December, continuing with the boycott of the Paris peace conference – a calculated snub to the French government – and now a public disagreement with the German, Dutch, Belgians and even the Swiss, countries that have traditionally been far more reluctant to criticise Israel than the British.
This disagreement has not come over a matter of policy. The ‘Explanation of Voting’ is full of reassurances that the UK’s policy has not changed: “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the international community in the conviction that a two-state solution is the only sustainable path for delivering justice and human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians.
“The abstention should not be misconstrued. The trend of Israeli conduct in the Occupied Palestinian territories over the past year has been negative,” it says.
The issue is the Human Rights Council’s “disproportionate focus on Israel”. It points out that human rights in Israel have been the subject of 68 of the 135 country-specific resolutions passed by Council since its inception.
The Council has spent so much time discussing human rights in Israel that they have given Israel a permanent slot on the agenda. Whatever else is happening in the world, Israel is always Agenda Item 7.
This is a reasonable complaint, but not a new one. The Council voted to make Israel agenda Item 7 in 2007 and it has been a contentious topic for the last ten years. It is not something new that is causing the UK to reconsider its view about Israeli settlements.
Nor does the ‘Explanation of Voting’ say how it can be rational to vote against one’s own policy. It will not bring any desirable goals closer. But it will push a number of desirable goals further away.
It will be seen as chasing a better trade deal with the Americans at the expense of the Palestinians. It reduces trust. It increases the frustration and anger in the Middle East.
The motion on which the UK abstained was passed by 36 votes to two. Abstaining undermines our attempts to form a common position with other leading West European nations, especially France and Germany, which is essential if we are to help resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.
It leaves us in a very isolated position. It is not clear how that will benefit the UK.
RESULT OF MOTION ON ISRAELI SETTLEMENTS
YES (36) Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, China, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Netherlands, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, South Africa, Switzerland, Tunisia, UAE, Venezuela
ABSTAIN (9) Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Panama, Paraguay, Rwanda, UK
NO (2) Togo, USA