UK pivots to Israel in post-Brexit scramble

A group of people sit beneath three posters depicting British PM Boris Johnson, British minister Pirit Patel and Arnold Balfour, who penned the Balfour declaration, giving away Palestine

Struck out: Palestinians see the UK as another western government increasingly hostile to their rights. 

Majdi Fathi ZUMA Press

What a difference five years and mass delusional collective self-harm on a geopolitical scale can do to a country and its diplomacy.

In the aftermath of Israel’s full-on military assault on Gaza in 2014, British parliamentarians voted to recognize a Palestinian state.

It may not have been binding on the government of the day (or have gone far enough), but the motion passed without fuss and suggested mainstream acceptance of and sympathy for at least part of the Palestinian narrative.

Which is no more than one might expect from a country that created the whole mess in the first place.

In 2015, the Labour Party, the UK’s only real opposition party, then elected Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime proponent of Palestinian rights, as leader.

Fast forward several years, however, and the landscape looks dramatically different.


Over the past year, the UK has taken a number of steps aligning itself much closer with the US and Israel than its own past positions.

The UK and Israel have just signed a “strategic plan” entirely devoid of strings or demands on Israel.

At about the same time, and for the first time ever, the UK abstained from an annual UN vote on the status of Jerusalem.

In November, London announced a comprehensive ban on Hamas, including its political wing, reversing decades of British efforts to make the UK an important interlocutor between Hamas and western countries.

The UK is also actively opposing attempts to hold Israel accountable at the International Criminal Court, even though it is quite clear and well documented that Israel is unable or unwilling to investigate itself.

Not only that, but with Corbyn long gone, partly under a cloud of anti-Semitism allegations that in many cases deliberately conflated criticism of Israel and Zionism with racism, Labour has become a shadow of its former self on the issue.

So reliably compliant has Her Majesty’s official opposition become, in fact, that attempts to criminalize the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – and thereby undermine basic civil rights – are also moving forward.

What happened?

In a word: Brexit.

In more words: beggars can’t be choosers.

From its carefully constructed mid-Atlantic perch – part of the world’s largest trading bloc while enjoying a “special relationship” with the Oval Office – the 2016 referendum narrowly rejecting EU membership has turned Britain into an insular and floundering island state running on colonial nostalgia fumes.

The UK has been well and truly downgraded by a succession of second-rate politicians and chancers, none more so than the current prime minister who had two op-eds ready for publication just ahead of the referendum: one for, one against.

So poorly conceived has Brexit been that Boris Johnson’s government is now in danger of breaking international law over Northern Ireland. London is trying to square the circle of maintaining an open border in Ireland, as per the Good Friday Agreement, while keeping intact UK territorial cohesion over an area effectively still in the EU’s customs area.

While alienating traditional European allies, London is also getting no traction on any preferential free trade treatment in the US. First Barack Obama opposed the UK leaving the EU, then Johnson provoked the anger of Donald Trump, in spite of his apparent initial fondness, and now Joe Biden has effectively told London to get in line.

The UK needs new friends and pronto.

The UK-Israel strategic partnership agreement – setting out a “roadmap” for cooperation in the areas of “diplomacy, defense and security, cyber, science, technology” – is partly a consequence.

But it likely would not have happened without the Abraham accords, which saw Gulf countries move ever closer to Israel.

Friends with (financial) benefits

Gulf states are crucial investors in the UK. Their importance has only increased over the past years since Brexit, when foreign investment has steadily declined.

The UAE recently promised the UK some $14 billion in investments over the next five years.

Such investments might in the past have swayed the UK government’s hand in favor of the “Arabists” in the foreign office, those who might have cautioned against too close a relationship with Israel in order not to alienate Arab allies (and investments).

No more. With Bahrain and the UAE having normalized relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia signaling its intent to do so all but formally, closeness to Israel no longer carries any political or economic risk for an inward-looking, cash-strapped UK.

Israel is not a particularly big trade partner for the UK. But closer ties with Israel now come with no fear of regional repercussions and Palestinian protests no longer find purchase among the UK opposition.

London already knows what Israeli tech can do, so why not?

And just as the UAE calculated when normalizing relations with Israel last year, London might also feel this could curry favor in some of the many corridors of power in Washington.

But this is diplomacy by desperation. And it perfectly reflects the caliber of politician that has been running the UK since Brexit.

A hustle of jokers

Perhaps no one typifies the kind of Johnson loyalist that has thrived since Brexit better than Priti Patel, the home secretary.

Patel was forced to resign her cabinet post as international development secretary by Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, after holding “unofficial” meetings with Israeli officials and business leaders while supposedly on holiday.

She has since, with the intervention of Johnson, survived a bullying scandal that in the past would have forced another resignation or sacking.

Patel is the proud progenitor of a controversial clause to the UK’s nationality and borders law that would grant the home secretary the power to strip foreign-born dual nationals – like her own parents – of their citizenship without notice. Such moves play to a far-right conservative constituency that is in the ascendancy in the UK.

Similarly, Patel’s bill proscribing Hamas’ political wing is also intended to boost her political fortunes. The bill will have little effect on Hamas, but it could make a difference to pro-Palestine activism in the UK, since it is now illegal to voice support, however defined, for Hamas.

It will also make a difference to British diplomatic efforts and any backchannels already established with Hamas – through British citizens or non-governmental organizations – that may no longer be workable under the new legislation.

Patel has been joined in this pro-Israel frenzy by the foreign secretary, Liz “blessed are the cheesemakers” Truss.

December’s Jerusalem vote came under Truss, though diplomatic sources tell The Electronic Intifada that the abstention had been signaled long ago and that British officials were hamstrung by what appears to be a decision from the very top.

(A similar situation, say the same sources, obtained in May over the UK’s vote against a UN Human Rights Council resolution on investigating alleged Israeli human rights violations.)

Truss – whose political rise seems unconnected to any particular political achievement – may not be to blame for these previous votes. But she did have the distinction of signing the new Israel trade deal and of penning a joint op-ed with Yair Lapid, the Israeli foreign minister, which did not mention the Palestinians or Israel’s military occupation of any territory even once.

That is quite an achievement.

And by so completely delinking UK-Israel relations from any Israeli behavior in occupied territory or anywhere else, the UK’s pivot to carte blanche US-style pro-Israel bias is almost complete.

Labour MPs and leaders, meanwhile, appear to have taken just one lesson from the anti-Semitism controversy that embroiled the party for years under Corbyn: Taking up the mantle of Palestinian rights – and by extension, the equal and global application of human rights – is simply not worth it.

Thus, with the Labour Party offering nothing for Palestinians or Palestinian rights or even a bulwark against Israeli expansionism or Israel’s version of apartheid, the UK has rendered itself an irrelevance as merely another example of US-style bipartisanship on the issue.

It is a loss to Palestinians and those who agitate on their behalf, certainly. But it is perhaps a greater loss to any chance of the UK ever being seen as anything other than a minor Washington enforcer.

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.