Moving the British embassy to Jerusalem would be an outrage

Liz Truss and Yair Lapid (AP)

Donald Macintyre

The Observer  /  September 25, 2022

Liz Truss’s pledge to Israel’s Yair Lapid to review the location has appalled the Palestinians and breaks international consensus

So this is what a Liz Truss foreign policy, freed from the constraints of EU membership, looks like. She may be unworried – perhaps even pleased – that her consideration of transferring the British embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has appalled the Palestinians. She should perhaps be more nervous about the impact on Britain’s global standing of a move that would break with an international consensus so far uniquely violated, among leaders of developed democracies, by Donald Trump. Not to mention the position firmly held since the 1967 six-day war by every British government up to and including even Boris Johnson’s.

Perhaps Truss thinks that position merely reflects a similar “orthodoxy” in the Foreign Office to the one she has repeatedly denounced in the Treasury. It doesn’t. The refusal to station an embassy in Jerusalem ahead of a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians is in keeping with international law and every UN resolution over five decades calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The latter was annexed, in the world’s view illegally, in the aftermath of that war and earmarked by every European country – hitherto including Britain – for the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid, was praised by Joe Biden (and attacked by the right wing Benjamin Netanyahu-led opposition) last week for promoting a two-state solution in his UN general assembly speech. Yet Lapid wants Israeli sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, conditions far short of what the Palestinians could accept in any negotiation. If the embassy move went ahead, it would help to bury the notion, accepted even by past Israeli leaders such as Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and, before he reversed his position of less than 15 years ago, by Lapid himself, of a division of Jerusalem into two capitals, Israeli and Palestinian, side by side. Beyond that, it would directly help to empower the Israeli right in their relentless extension of illegal settlements not only in East Jerusalem but across the West Bank, corralling and dispossessing Palestinians in the process. Truss likes to project herself as Margaret Thatcher’s heir. But it’s impossible to imagine that Thatcher, who came to a much deeper understanding of the conflict than Truss has so far displayed, and became progressively more impatient of Israel’s settlement project, would have done anything remotely similar.

For Britain’s historical role in the Middle East – and not just its permanent membership of the UN security council – confers on it a unique obligation to seek justice for the Palestinians. Much of the Palestinian public already blames the 1917 Balfour declaration promising a “national home for the Jewish people” for its present travails. In fact, the section of the declaration promising this would not be at the expense of the rights of “non-Jewish communities” remains spectacularly unfinished business.

You have to hope that Truss’s embassy review is (unnecessarily) to help an early trade deal with Israel or to boost her “good friend” Lapid’s chances of winning the Israeli election in November. But merely announcing it has done plenty of damage to long-term British interests already – damage that can only begin to be undone by a decisive rejection of any aspiration, in present circumstances, to move the embassy from Tel Aviv.

Donald Macintyre is the author of Gaza: Preparing for Dawn