In a dry manner characteristic of British diplomatic tradition, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly replied to concerns raised by his country’s politicians about developments in Israel by stating that: “The UK government has not engaged Itamar Ben-Gvir in his role as minister of national security, and we have no current plans to do so.”
On the face of it, it does not sound like much of a radical change in British dealings with the state of Israel, but it might be just a small crack in what have been, up to now, extremely solid relations between the two. And it might be a cue for other countries with diplomatic, military and economic relations with Israel to distance themselves from at least certain members of the current government and its harmful policies.
The new Israeli government has already managed to deepen the divisions inside Israel, prompting hundreds of thousands to take to the streets in protest and alienating some of its closest foreign allies. What stands out about the slight, though important, shift in British policy is that this is an unprecedented warning to the Israeli government that the UK is not prepared to engage with those elements that are clearly antidemocratic and which are leading the moves to further entrench the occupation and impose collective punishment and violence on the Palestinians. Cleverly’s clarification of his government’s position provided only an incomplete answer to a letter from a group of UK parliamentarians who wrote to him toward the end of 2022, when Israel’s coalition government under the sway of the far right was formed, to “express our grave concern about the annexationist policies of the incoming government of Israel.”
Naturally, much attention is being paid to the two chief pyromaniacs, Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. The latter, who is also a defense minister, called for the Palestinian town of Huwara to be “erased” altogether following the events of last month. But this coalition government as a whole is even worse than the sum of its parts. To not engage with Ben-Gvir, considering his criminal and thuggish past and reprehensible antidemocratic and supremacist attitude, is almost self-explanatory, and it could be expected that other countries will follow suit. Cleverly may not have explicitly endorsed the MPs’ observation that “the incoming government of Israel (is) building on the policies of its predecessors which have produced a one-state reality:
Effectively, Israel controls the lives of Palestinians throughout the occupied Palestinian territory.” But for all intents and purposes, by publicly referring to a key member of this government with immense influence on developments on both sides of the Green Line, he has clearly accepted the basic tenets of the letter.
Notwithstanding the important fact that, for the first time in a long time, the British government is indicating its disapproval of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, the question is whether it will go further than this. As the security situation in the West Bank is deteriorating, especially for Palestinians, the UK could be expected to apply the same logic to others who are as culpable for depriving millions of Palestinians of their basic rights for more than 55 years. Moreover, will other countries who care for both Israeli democracy and improving the lives of Palestinians, not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza, not to mention the avoidance of widespread violence and bloodshed, be prepared to add their voices and take tangible measures to convey a similar message to the Israeli government? Thus far, the international community is taking a very tentative approach. To an extent, this derives from the fact that there are other issues higher up on the global agenda. Countries also prefer to take time before passing judgment and forming a policy toward the new realities created by this government. There is also a perceptual difficulty in terms of harshly responding to the behavior of a government that was elected democratically. However, as much as these are understandable considerations, they cannot justify inaction when the first step taken by a democratically elected government is a judicial coup in order to harm that democratic system, and whose major reasoning for this is to ensure free rein for expanding the illegal settlements, legalization of the outposts, and depriving millions of Palestinians of their human, political and civil rights.
For now, the British foreign secretary has reiterated there will be no change when it comes to bilateral relations with Israel and working closely with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, this differentiation might quickly prove to be artificial and unsustainable. At the end of the day, the UK government is fully aware that there is collective responsibility and, while for a short time it can signal its displeasure with the vile and damaging policies and actions of Religious Zionism and its leaders, it will also have to reevaluate its relations with the one who heads this government, Netanyahu. After all, Netanyahu’s administration has already decided to legalize nine outposts, not only in violation of international law, but despite widespread condemnation by some of its closest friends in the international community. This was quickly followed by the pogrom launched by Israeli settlers against the town of Huwara, during which they torched homes and vehicles in a horrific act of vandalism that Israel’s security forces failed to prevent. Police violence is also increasingly being used against Israelis who protest the damage being done to their democracy. If this does not stop, do not be surprised if right-wing elements or even the police themselves, considering the incitements against the pro-democracy protesters, use firearms against them. Should this happen, responsibility will lie entirely with the government.
It is not too late to stop the madness that is taking place in Israel and in Palestine, but doing so will take much more than not engaging with Ben-Gvir. The international community has the power and influence to do so if it acts swiftly and with a clear and united voice.