UK government says ‘no current plan’ to move embassy in Israel to Jerusalem

The new UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (AFP)

Peter Oborne

Middle East Eye  /  November 2, 2022

Downing Street U-turn comes after ex-prime minister Liz Truss had pledged to review location of embassy in Tel Aviv.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has dumped plans to shift the country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In a shock development, a Downing Street spokesperson told foreign journalists at a press briefing on Wednesday that the controversial plan to shift the embassy had been dropped.

A spokesperson told Middle East Eye “there are no current plans to change the location of our embassy”.

The spokesperson did not say whether an official review into the potential move, set in motion by Rishi Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, had been abandoned.

However, MEE understands from Conservative Party sources that Downing Street would not have been so emphatic if the inquiry was ongoing.

MEE also understands that UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly warned strongly against moving the embassy.

The Palestinian ambassador to London, Husam Zomlot, welcomed the news, remarking: “The question about the location of the UK’s embassy should never have been asked in the first place.”

Some will see the decision as the latest in a series of U-turns by Sunak, who has been prime minister since 25 October, following his change of heart about whether to attend the COP27 summit in Egypt.

During the contest to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative leader, Sunak was 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.”

As exclusively revealed by MEE, the British government already holds land in the Talpiot neighbourhood of Jerusalem, known as the Orange Plot, earmarked for decades as a possible embassy site.

Change of heart 

The statement by Downing Street came hours before Sunak spoke at an event co-organized by the Board of Deputies of British Jews to mark the second anniversary of the normalization agreements, known as the Abraham Accords, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.

The event was attended by ambassadors to the UK from the four countries as well as ministers from the UAE and Bahrain.

Sunak said: “Today we send a clear message about our commitment to the accords and all they represent. The accords have kick-started a new era of relations in trade, tourism, security, and more and this is the dividend of diplomacy.

“This would have been impossible just a few years ago, but it does show how we can transform peace and stability in the region. The UK is committed to working with you all to take this initiative from strength to strength.”

Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl last month urged Truss, Sunak’s predecessor, to press ahead with moving the embassy to Jerusalem at a reception attended by the then-prime minister at the Conservatives’ party conference, organized by the pro-Israel lobby group Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI).

Van der Zyl told the audience: “We are really hopeful that the government is going to move the embassy, like America, to Jerusalem – the capital of Israel.”

Sunak’s volte-face comes as a blow to the CFI. As MEE revealed, James Gurd, the director of CFI, went to the trouble of sending a briefing note to MPs making the case for a move along with a “suggested casework response” for MPs to send to constituents.

But plans for the change ran into opposition from religious leaders. The Archbishop of Canterbury told MEE of his concern about “the potential impact of moving the British Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before a negotiated settlement between Palestinians and Israelis has been reached”.

In an unprecedented move, senior Muslim figures in Jerusalem wrote to King Charles expressing their “deep concern” about the consequences of moving the embassy from its current location.

One Kuwaiti MP, Osama al-Shaheen, also warned that such a move could scupper the free trade agreement between the UK and the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – which includes Kuwait – due to be signed by the end of the year.

The Downing Street change of heart was welcomed by Conservative Friends of Palestine. A spokesperson told MEE: “We welcome the news that common sense has prevailed, and that the prime minister is becoming aware of the sensitivities involved and legal issues surrounding the matter.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told MEE on Wednesday: “Just contemplating moving the British embassy to Israel was rash and reckless, akin to tossing a hand grenade into a volcano. Britain was messing with the future of Jerusalem, perhaps the most contested city on earth.

“It returns Britain to the long-standing international consensus that the fate of Jerusalem must be decided through negotiation, leading to a solution that is inclusive of all stakeholders, Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish – rather than one single party,” he added. 

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