Statements by UK officials during the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas did little to inspire confidence among Arab partners and their publics, most of whom expected Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to do more than reach for worn-out idioms. There is a growing expectation that as Global Britain emerges from the shadows of the EU and seeks to deepen economic ties and sign trade deals, especially with partners old and new, it will also develop a more robust foreign policy.
However, in the case of the Israel-Hamas conflict, it left many partners feeling disappointed – even disillusioned – as it offered nothing new. Nevertheless, all is not lost. There are ways in which the UK government can step up and not only change or refresh its tired old narrative, but also take practical steps to lower the likelihood of a further round of conflict and support wider efforts to address some of the key issues.
In a recent interview, Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot, called on the UK government to do more than simply offer words of support for the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and re-state its commitment to the two-state solution. He set out a number of key actions the UK government should take, including recognizing the state of Palestine; ending imports from settlements; permitting the Palestinian Authority to use international mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), to hold Israel accountable for its actions; and pushing (with Palestinians) for an international momentum to implement existing international resolutions, rather than negotiating them. It is unlikely, however, that the UK will be taking such measures anytime soon – even if it ought to.
Zomlot was not the first Arab ambassador to express disappointment with the UK government’s ‘same old’ response to the latest round of conflict. In fact, it is fair to say that among Arab diplomats, expectations of Global Britain were set considerably higher than just pushing out carefully calibrated messages, at best, and empty words, at worst.
Since leaving the EU, the UK government has sought to strengthen its ties with the Middle East, which has led its regional partners to expect a more decisive forward-leaning foreign policy on key issues, such as Palestine. It can no longer hide behind EU indecision and fudge. As one Arab diplomat confided, ‘all eyes are on the UK right now and we expect more.’ At the same time, it is clear that for a new generation of diplomats and, more importantly, for Palestinians, the time for platitudes has passed. It is no longer enough to say nice things or even strike a tone of balance. If the UK hopes to retain any of its fast-fading credibility and ability to influence its partners, it needs to stop talking and take action.
There is one immediate step the UK could take and that is to send a cross-parliamentary fact-finding mission to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. This would not only support the ceasefire, but also advance and advocate for a new diplomatic push. Sending a cross-parliamentary group, which includes members from both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, would ensure that UK domestic politics stays out of the equation, making leading ministers and shadow ministers less likely to ‘grandstand’ on the issue.
Moreover, the British parliament – as opposed to UK governments – is a broadly respected institution among Palestinians and Israelis and would therefore have a very good chance of conducting an honest and open mission. Of course, deploying such a mission would require acquiescence from Israel and the Palestinians, but London could call upon the US and other major partners to pressure both parties to comply.
This is not a novel idea by any means, and earlier such missions and commissions have left those involved with an unsavoury aftertaste. However, an independent mission alongside a renewed diplomatic initiative could help strengthen efforts to break the cycle of violence –as long as its remit includes considering the conflict’s root causes. While the Biden administration takes time to respond and invest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the UK government could take the lead and demonstrate, not only to Washington but also its partners in the Middle East, that it remains a major international player with a lot to offer.
There are a number of ways in which a UK fact-finding mission could contribute towards turning the current ceasefire into something more durable and sustainable.
First, it would support the pause in hostilities, as deploying an international team to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza would require close coordination with the authorities to create time and space for the mission to complete its work.
Second, it would help establish not only the causes of the recent round of conflict based on witness evidence, but also better understand the immediate and cumulative impact on all parties and on the prospects for a resolution.
Third, it would provide independent and detailed first-hand knowledge and insight into conditions in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel, which would help establish facts and also help support a wider diplomatic move.
Fourth, it could provide a foundation for an early warning system to offset another round of conflict – as an interim measure – and charge the international community with responsibilities to intervene accordingly.
Lastly, a fact-finding mission would itself create a mechanism to channel communication between Israel and the Palestinians at this critical time. As such, it would be both a catalyst for, and an integral part of, a new international effort to resolve the crisis and end occupation.
Whether the UK will step up and take the lead remains to be seen.