23 March 2023
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the UK this week on the first day of Ramadan.
He is guaranteed a warm welcome by the British government, whose job it is to see that any criticism of his extremist, racist administration is drowned in talk of a lucrative trade deal, the “malign influence” of Iran and the “scourge of anti-Semitism.”
And he is guaranteed a loud welcome by those who see Netanyahu for what he is: the prime minister of an international law-breaking nation that intends to end the struggle for Palestinian rights.
This is a prime minister whose government includes senior ministers who recommend the total removal of, or second-class status for, all Palestinians, from river to sea. Netanyahu himself has been clear that Jews have an “exclusive and indisputable right” to all historic Palestine, including 1967 occupied territory.
Obfuscation is at the heart of British efforts to ignore all this and to disguise Netanyahu’s visit as crowning a triumphant UK-Israel trade and cooperation deal, signed on Tuesday, and estimated to be worth more than $8.5 billion (we do not know how this is split), covering security, technology and cybersecurity.
Political emphasis in the agreement, dubbed the “2030 roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations,” is on anti-Semitism and Iran.
The matter of the rapid descent into killing and chaos, exacerbated and prompted by the new Israeli power constellation of Zionist settlers and religious extremists that Netanyahu oversees, will, it appears, be a muted add-on. The document stresses only the need for “all parties” to end the violence.
Nowhere in this trade deal is there any hint that Israel is for the 56th year violating international law in its occupation and oppression of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and what has become the de facto annexation of their lands (to which the finance minister Bezalel Smotrich has added Jordan).
There is no vital requirement that any such agreement should carry with it severe and practicable restrictions, at the very least on British trade with and investment in Jewish settlement concerns on the West Bank.
It can all be presented as business as normal, it appears, by trying to create significant space between the Israeli prime minister and the extremists by his side in cabinet. But this is as unreal as everything else that informs Britain’s policy of privileging Israel despite the evidence: Netanyahu, after all, came to power again by gaining the support of racist outliers.
Also, since 1993, Netanyahu has done more than any other Israeli leader to render obsolete the chance of the two-state solution that Britain and its Western allies still hide behind.
Whether two states was ever a valid idea, it can no longer be. The British know it, but it is convenient as a shroud, one we shall see flourished during the coming days.
Last week, I accompanied a small delegation from the Policy Working Group, an Israeli two-state organization comprising former diplomats, academics and journalists, round Westminster and its confines. We met lawmakers, as well as officials from the UK’s Foreign Office and civil society groups who are active in the struggle for change in British policy.
“Negotiating a free-trade agreement is not the way to deal with a rule-breaker,” said one. “Any free trade agreement should be connected to the question of Palestinian rights.”
“It is vital to break Israel’s view of itself as untouchable,” said a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa.
British heads nodded in agreement, but we all knew it was hopeless. Britain’s rulers remain tied to Israel, and not just the current government, but any conceivable new one, Labour or Conservative.
Trade and security come first. Just and workable solutions to the Palestine issue are down the agenda.
Caveats are off the agenda.
The specter of accusations of anti-Semitism has scared most of Britain’s political representatives and mainstream media commentators into silence.
British recognition of Palestinian statehood, which the delegation strongly recommended – ”it would be a game-changer”, said the former Israeli ambassador – is permanently delayed.
But there is a wider question here. This Israeli government may be more obvious and fanatical in its efforts to bring all of Palestine under one rule, but it is only pursuing a historical Zionist aim in which the whole land will eventually be, and be seen as, de jure as well as de facto, one Israeli-run entity.
Barring another Nakba – and the language of characters like Smotrich prepares the ground for this – such an entity would contain equal numbers of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis, and would undeniably be an apartheid state. Even a British government would not be able to ignore this.
These are the ghosts at the feast of trade and cooperation that Netanyahu and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will attend.
We can rest assured that no one will wish to remark on them.
Tim Llewellyn is a former BBC Middle East correspondent and an executive committee member of the Balfour Project charity. His views are his own.