Theresa May’s Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited Downing Street last week, and it appeared, for the most part, to be an unconstructive exchange between two leaders with very different priorities.
Mrs May took the opportunity to condemn Israel’s proposed settlement building on Palestinian territory, whereas Mr Netanyahu called for a tougher international stance on Iran in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Republic’s recent ballistic missile test.
The meeting between the two leaders took place just hours after the Israeli parliament passed a bill that would retroactively approve Israel’s building of 4,000 settlement homes on privately owned Palestinian land.
The bill has been strongly condemned by Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesperson for Mahmoud Abbas, the President of Palestine: “This is an escalation that would only lead to more instability and chaos. It is unacceptable. It is denounced and the international community should act immediately.” Similarly, Nikolay Mladenov, the UN’s special representative for Israeli-Palestinian issues, strongly urged Israel not to move forward with the bill.
Settlements aside, Israeli/UK business remains stronger than ever. Trade relations between both countries are positive and are steadily growing in both directions. Bilateral trade is worth £5 billion a year and has doubled in the last decade. The UK is Israel’s second largest trading partner after the US. And, technological, pharmaceutical and military collaboration between both sides remains strong.
However, strong trade collaborations don’t equate to meaningful diplomatic discussions. Mrs May’s condemnation of Israel’s proposed illegal settlements was met with a sharp nudge eastwards towards Iran. Mr Netanyahu claimed, “Iran seeks to annihilate Israel. It seeks to conquer the Middle East. It threatens Europe. It threatens the West. It threatens the world. And it offers provocation after provocation.” He then added: “That’s why I welcome President Trump’s assistance of new sanctions against Iran. I think other nations should follow suit, certainly responsible nations.”
Theresa May is cautious of Iranian actions post-nuclear deal, Mrs May’s spokeswoman said: “We share concerns about that test. It was discussed at the UN and we made clear our position…with regard to the specific agreement relating to the nuclear weapons…it’s important that it is very carefully and rigorously policed, but we should also be clear that it has neutralised the possibility of the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons for more than a decade.”
However, Mr Nethanyahu was unable to convince Mrs May of the full extent of the threat of Iranian influence in the region as he sees it. Mrs May might have been more sympathetic if the Mr Netanyahu had been less hyperbolic and more realistic about the perceived threat of Iran. Surely, a more measured analysis of Iranian influence in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Gulf, allied with a response to the recent ballistic missile test and less of a focus on Iranian regional hegemony would have produced a more constructive dialogue? As a result, Mrs May was less than forthcoming on the Iranian issue, a position that other European leaders are likely to follow.
Perhaps Mr Netanyahu’s trip Westwards over the Atlantic will prove more fruitful. President Trump has described the nuclear deal as “the worst deal I’ve ever seen negotiated.” So, at least the Prime Minister’s concern about Iran won’t fall on deaf ears.
Moreover, the insubstantial meeting between parties seems a worryingly representative feature of the kind of dialogue that represents the two-state solution. Whether the lack of progress can be attributed to insecurity within the region, an absence of statesmanship, mistrust between Israel and Palestine or a reluctance of the international community to pull its weight, these kinds of talks emphasise the need for a complete paradigm shift. Complex disagreements and conflicts of interest deserve more than a rushed diplomatic visit and rather some hard graft and constant re-evaluation.
It seems unlikely that Mr Netanyahu’s invitation to return to the UK later this year to mark the 100th anniversary of Arthur Balfour’s declaration of UK support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland will mark the beginning of a new paradigm shift. Let’s hope it will come sometime in the near future.