Former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss was reportedly mulling moving the British embassy to Jerusalem. Richard Pater argues the move, though largely symbolic, would correct a longstanding historical anomaly and reward one of the UK’s closest allies.
Responding to a question at a leadership hustings hosted by Conservative Friends of Israel, then (leading) candidate Liz Truss said she would consider moving the British embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Lest people think it was a one off, Truss told Prime Minister Lapid on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September that the idea was ‘under review’.
The idea has received significant attention (and critique) in the UK. Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP have all signalled their opposition. Several public figures have also come out against the move including Church leaders and two former Conservative Party Foreign Ministers William Hague and Alan Duncan. In a letter to the Financial Times Duncan noted that, ‘Far from being a straightforward administrative step, it would mark a fundamental shift in UK foreign policy and would put at risk the entire balance of argument and justice in the region.’
UK-Israel ties are at an all-time high. According to Number 10, Truss and Lapid also discussed ‘the huge opportunities to boost cooperation between the UK and Israel on strategic priorities, including defence, cyber security, trade and green technology.’ Truss also committed to deliver a free-trade deal between the UK and Israel. According to Politico, the free trade deal was one of 149 pledges Truss made during her leadership campaign (curiously Politico did not include the embassy move among them).
Traditional UK policy has used the 1947 UN Partition Plan as a crutch to suggest (as the plan did) that Jerusalem should be ‘Corpus Separatum’ – a separate entity detached from both a Jewish and Arab State. (The plan was rejected by the Arab states and Palestinian leadership and never implemented). The longstanding UK position has been restricted to copy and pasting denouncements on settlement activity and keeping the two state solution as the desired end goal, until the Israelis and Palestinians reach a negotiated solution on the city’s future. For some reason, this principle does not stop the British from maintaining a Consul General in East Jerusalem that serves the Palestinians. Surely it would make more sense to either have representatives in both East and West Jerusalem, or in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. In light of this, the current situation appears contradictory.
Lessons from history
Britain has a mixed record when it comes to Jerusalem. In 1917 General Allenby deliberately dismounting from his horse to enter the Jaffa Gate on foot (unlike the visiting Kaiser Wilhelm two decades earlier who sandblasted the walls so his horse and carriage could enter the ancient city). He declared the city open to all faiths and creeds, as he liberated the city from Ottoman rule. That was soon supplemented by the Balfour Declaration and the start of the mandate period. Yet relations deteriorated. With the discovery of oil in Iraq in 1927 Haifa’s port replaced Jerusalem becoming more strategically relevant to the Empire. This also led to the Brits showing greater favour to the Arab world. Relations deteriorated further a decade later with the infamous White paper that restricted Jewish immigration in the lead up to the Second World War, the later imposition of Bevingrad, Operation Agatha and the bombing of the King David hotel.
Zionism and the Embassy Question
Among the central tenets of Zionism appear two competing ideas. The first, to paraphrase Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion is that ‘it doesn’t matter what the outside world says, but rather what we do’ Therefore, what matters is not the location of the embassies of our diplomatic allies, but rather that Jerusalem serves as the State of Israel’s capital – the seat of government, the parliament, and the Supreme Court. Indeed, Jerusalem is already the country’s default venue for hosting foreign leaders and engaging with high level diplomacy. I have personally been privileged to see three British Prime Minister (Blair, Brown and Cameron) visit Jerusalem and hold formal meetings with the prime minister of the day and, as guest of honour, address the Knesset.
The second tenet is that the raison d’etre of Zionism is for a Jewish State to find its ‘place among the nations.’ Accordingly, recognition is crucial. It appears that every country has the right to be able to declare where its capital city is and subsequently have it recognised by the family of nations. Thus any step that conforms to that recognition is greatly appreciated by Israelis.
UK Middle East Policy
Even accepting that Jerusalem may be a unique case, no one reasonable disputes that West Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital in any future deal with the Palestinians (even Palestinian negotiators have accepted this). Therefore, it is completely possible for the UK to make the move whilst the excellent wordsmiths in the FCDO find the language to reinforce their clarion call for Israelis and Palestinians to directly negotiate a solution that would also include the future of East Jerusalem. The UK could at the same time underscore the importance of the holy basin, (that was occupied by Jordan until 1967) and take the opportunity to note the profound connection for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as well as the right to freedom of access and worship for all. This axiom was first established under the British Mandate and has been faithfully upheld by Israel.
In a broader sense, moving the embassy could mark a new level of UK regional engagement. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israel has entered into a series of multilateral partnerships involving new Arab partners and other allies such as India and South Korea. There is no reason why the UK cannot also use their regained post-Brexit independence to initiate new areas of cooperation with their closest regional allies; Israel, Jordan, UAE, as well as encourage Oman and Saudi Arabia.
With Truss’ resignation on Thursday and the Conservative Party holding a new leadership race one cannot imagine the prioritisation of any foreign policy initiative in the near future, especially in light of the country’s economic, energy, and now political crisis.
However, if one were looking for a muscular, unilateral post-Brexit announcement that distinguished the country from the European Union and enunciate an independent foreign policy, then this is worth considering. The move, though largely symbolic, would correct a longstanding historical anomaly and reward one of the UK’s closest allies.
For keen visitors to Jerusalem today, there are numerous buildings that testify to the UK’s presence. One such building, the YMCA (opposite the King David hotel) was inaugurated in 1933. At the opening ceremony, it was (by then) Lord Allenby who said, ‘Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten, and international unity fostered and developed.’
If the Embassy does move, may it evoke a similar message. Perhaps the UK might even consider finally moving the embassy next May, to celebrate Israel’s 75th Independence Day.