Israel-Palestine: Tory candidates lurch into dangerous U-turn on Jerusalem

British Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss speaks at an event in Birmingham on 23 August 2022 (AFP)

Peter Osborne

Middle East Eye  /  August 25, 2022

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak say they would consider following in the footsteps of the Trump administration by moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

When former US President Donald Trump announced he was moving the US embassy to Jerusalem five years ago, the decision was widely denounced as illegal and wrong. It seemed to be the act of a far-right president intent on appeasing his core evangelical Christian base, which believed that Israel’s control of Jerusalem was ordained by God.

Former British Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the move in unequivocal terms, noting in a December 2017 statement: “We believe it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region … In line with relevant Security Council resolutions, we regard East Jerusalem as part of the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Her position was reaffirmed by the British government as recently as December 2021. “The United Kingdom’s 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,” the UK’s political coordinator at the UN said in a speech, adding that the UK “opposes unilateral action in Jerusalem absent a final status settlement and remains supportive of the historic status quo”.

This month, however, Britain made a dramatic U-turn – and nobody seemed to notice.

Both candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, said they would consider moving the British embassy to Jerusalem. As Israeli planes bombed Gaza this month in an unprovoked attack, Truss committed in a letter to Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI): “I understand the importance and sensitivity of the location of the British Embassy in Israel … I will review a move to ensure we are operating on the strongest footing within Israel.”

Not to be outdone, Sunak moved in lockstep at a recent hustings organized by CFI. When asked about Britain recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he replied: “To me, it’s indisputably the historic capital … it seems to me that there is a very strong case to it, to recognize what is a historic and practical step.” He added: “It would be something where we’d be acting in concert with our allies in the region and, in general, one of our closest allies, so it’s something I’d like to do.”  

Ripping up foreign policy

This means that both candidates to be the next prime minister are now pondering ripping up British foreign policy in the Middle East in order to follow Trump’s example.

This demands explanation. There had been no public clamor of any kind for moving the British embassy, and the issue was not even debated between the two candidates. The idea of moving the embassy was simply presented to the Conservative membership, and therefore the British people, as a fait accompli. 

It is, however, a prime objective of Israel, which is twisting the arm of every country to move their embassy to Jerusalem. Most have not succumbed. It is extremely difficult to see what advantage such a move would bring to Britain: relations between the two countries are already excellent, and few additional benefits – if any – would follow from this.

It’s significant that Truss made her announcement in a letter to CFI, one of the most influential lobby groups at Westminster, which claims 80 percent of Tory MPs as members. It’s remarkable in itself that CFI hosted separate hustings with each of the two candidates. No other organization connected to a foreign country has organized such an event; the other hustings have been regional affairs.

The Palestinian voice, meanwhile, is no longer heard in the party. There is an organization called Conservative Friends of Palestine, but not a single Tory MP belongs to it.

This absence of a Palestinian voice is a very serious matter. Any change in the status of Jerusalem has always been treated as a final-status issue, meaning that the status of West Jerusalem for Israel was always contingent on the status of East Jerusalem for the future state of Palestine.

As May put it when she condemned Trump’s move: “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.”

Lurching further to the right

In other words, both Palestine and Israel would claim Jerusalem as their capital, but only as part of an overall settlement. No such settlement exists – nor does the prospect of any talks, which have been ruled out by every mainstream politician in Israel.

If Britain were to move its embassy to Jerusalem in advance of a settlement and an end to the conflict, this would pre-empt negotiations that have not yet taken place.

Some people may speculate that the remarks by Truss and Sunak, made during the height of a leadership campaign, will quickly be forgotten. I wonder. Truss is shaping up to potentially be the most pro-Israel prime minister in British history, and that says a great deal.

The Conservative Party has lurched even further to the right in the course of this leadership contest, with attacks on the rule of law, plans to not merely carry on but to strengthen the policy of sending refugees to Rwanda, and calls for unfunded tax cuts.

Now, Trump’s crazy plan to move the US embassy to Jerusalem – which seemed outlandish when announced five years ago – has entered the political mainstream in Britain. Effectively, this means the end of any chance of a two-state solution.

Britain has a historical responsibility for Palestinians, as the Balfour Declaration in 1917 called for a Jewish homeland to be established in Palestine. But the declaration referred to “a national home for the Jewish people”, not to a Jewish state.

We now have a Jewish state in charge of a Palestinian majority from the river to the sea, and the recent remarks by the two contenders to be the next prime minister mean we have abandoned our right to shape a final settlement, because we can no longer be seen as impartial.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye