[‘right to defend itself’] How the UK government has bought into Israeli hasbara

Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has openly rejected a two-state solution, which is the UK government's stated goal (AFP)

Gwyn Daniel

Middle East Eye  /  April 18, 2022

Official communications are replete with empty mantras about ‘restraint on both sides’ and Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’.

That the UK government’s foreign policy on Israel/Palestine is in a state of impasse and moral bankruptcy is hard to deny. One visible sign is that its communications are characterized by the reiteration – ad nauseam – of a few empty mantras. The favourite is that of being “firmly committed to a two-state solution”, which is “to be achieved by meaningful negotiation between the two parties”. 

At times of outright violence, such as the May 2021 Israeli assault on Gaza, the UK government habitually urges “restraint on both sides”, inevitably accompanied by another vacuous mantra, that “Israel has the right to defend itself”. When challenged on this approach, ministers will usually preface the above by stating something like: “The government’s longstanding position is clear and unchanged.”

This much, at least, is true. Indeed, we could argue that it has remained substantially unchanged since the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

Keeping these stale mantras going even when Israel, the state they are designed to protect, has long since abandoned them requires a certain degree of rhetorical ingenuity.

If the UK government lacks the courage to say outright that it is utterly indifferent to the fate of Palestinians, but at the same time finds it expedient to pay lip service to international law, then how does it fend off demands that Israel, like other countries, be held accountable for any of its regular and well-documented breaches of international law? 

Then there is the embarrassing issue of apartheid. How does the UK government respond to calls for a policy review, in the light of meticulously researched reports from four major human rights organizations evidencing Israel’s apartheid practices? Furthermore, since the official policy is to support a two-state solution, how does it justify withholding recognition of Palestine as a state?

Rhetorical devices

In search of clues as to the rhetorical devices employed and what they might reveal, I examined some recent utterances by the present minister for Asia and the Middle East in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Amanda Milling, in response to debates and written questions posed by parliamentarians. Statements by ministers at this level are usually characterized by a reluctance to step one millimetre outside the party line. They are thus likely to inadvertently reveal the incoherence and inconsistency of the positions they attempt to defend.

On recognizing Palestinian statehood, the Cameron government responded to a 2014 resolution overwhelmingly passed in the House of Commons by ignoring it. When it was suggested in 2017 as a fitting marker of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson replied that the time was not right to “play that card”. 

More recently, in the parliamentary debate on recognition held on 24 February, Milling parroted the exact words of her predecessor, James Cleverly, that “the UK will recognize a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the objective of peace”. She continued: “Bilateral recognition in itself cannot deliver peace or end the occupation.”

She then added an extra twist: “Peace will not be achieved by symbolic measures.” In other words, the “symbolic” diplomatic recognition of Palestine by 138 out of 193 member states of the UN can have no possible value for the furtherance of peace.

Leaving aside the conclusion that “when the time is right” is simply code for “when Israel says it is right” (meaning never), what other reason might there be for this refusal to follow a move that is consistent with the government’s own declared policy? 

Revealing response

One of the minister’s recent written answers is revealing. She evokes non-recognition of Palestine to justify the UK’s refusal to support the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In her reply to MP Crispin Blunt on 31 March, Milling presented an extraordinary piece of casuistry: “The UK is a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and we respect the independence of the court. In this instance we do not consider that the ICC has jurisdiction as the UK does not currently recognize Palestinian statehood.” 

So regardless of the ICC having firmly decided that it did indeed have jurisdiction, the UK government’s own refusal to recognize Palestine is deemed sufficient grounds for undermining the ICC’s remit.

On this occasion, Milling neglected to add Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s insulting comment in April 2021, revealingly included in a letter to Conservative Friends of Israel, that “the ICC’s decision gives the impression of being a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s”. 

However, the evocation of friendship to neutralize criticism of Israel does make an appearance in the minister’s reply on 21 March to MP David Jones, when he asked for the government’s assessment of the recent finding of the UN special rapporteur that Israel practices apartheid.

The minister responded: “We do not agree with the use of this terminology. Any judgment on whether serious crimes under international law have occurred is a matter for judicial decision rather than for governments or non-judicial bodies. As a friend of Israel, we have a regular dialogue on human rights. This includes encouraging the government of Israel to abide by its obligations under international law and do all it can to uphold the values of equality for all.”

MEE reached out to Milling for a comment, but received no response by the time of publication.

Patchwork of evasions

So here we have a seamlessly interconnected patchwork of evasions. Given that the proper body for such a judicial decision can only be the ICC, it is thus with breathtaking insouciance that the minister decides to evoke it as cover for repudiating findings of apartheid, only to casually dismiss it in the matter of investigating war crimes against Palestinians. 

This level of textual detail is useful in highlighting the vacuity and hypocrisy of the government’s position. The minister’s words illustrate the extent to which its overriding preoccupation is with neutralizing evidence from human rights bodies and deflecting challenging questions from well-informed parliamentarians.

While shameful, none of this will surprise anyone familiar with the UK’s kneejerk support for Israel and disregard for Palestinian rights. They have, after all, a long history. Even in the unlikely event of the government choosing to take a more robust stance on Israel’s human rights abuses, or deciding to submit to the will of parliament and recognize Palestine, it knows full well what vituperation, abuse and pressure would ensue. 

This would come not only from Israel itself, showing that the much vaunted “friendship” is a one-way track, but also from its powerful apologists and advocates within the UK. Rather than resist these pressures, the government prefers to stick with inane pieties about peace and dialogue, which no one believes – and meanwhile, to continue to do precisely nothing about the relentless ethnic cleansing, land theft and apartheid that is demonstrably happening in front of its eyes. 

Perhaps the ultimate triumph of Israeli hasbara is that its apologists faithfully and robotically bleat out the official cover story that has served for the past three decades: that of a two-state solution, even when the Israeli prime minister openly rejects it, and of direct negotiations, even when the Israeli foreign minister has said they will not happen. Such incongruity between rhetoric and reality does not appear to trouble our government.

As shocking evidence mounts of Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, and the airwaves resound with calls for accountability under international law, could we hope that this atmosphere might lead to questioning the impunity granted to Israel? With the ruling party replete with Conservative Friends of Israel and an opposition front bench likewise full of Labour Friends of Israel, I would not count on legal and ethical consistency emerging from the UK government any time soon. The only hope for change lies with civil society and the global grassroots movement for Palestinian rights.

Gwyn Daniel is a UK psychotherapist, trainer and writer; she is a member of the UK Palestine Mental Health Network and a patron of the Palestine Trauma Centre which works in Gaza