The debate about Israel’s annexation of West Bank territory is not just about the future of Palestinians and Israelis. It is also a debate about the fate of the international order itself. In formulating its response, the British government faces one of its first major foreign policy tests since leaving the European Union. Upholding the ailing two-state solution and the international rules-based order are core parts of the UK’s foreign policy. How the government chooses to respond will be an important affirmation of the United Kingdom’s role on the international stage and the values that will guide its post-Brexit foreign policy in the years to come.
With the encouragement of the United States, the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, has pledged to formally annex up to thirty percent of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. Such a move risks eroding whatever path may still exist for achieving an end to the decades long conflict based on the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state at peace with Israel. In the absence of a viable two state solution there will be no easy alternatives for equal rights for both peoples in one state. Open-ended conflict will bring with it additional risks for regional stability, in particular for neighbouring Jordan which is urgently ringing alarm bells, and block the full potential of Israeli-Arab normalisation.
As the Prime Minister has warned, any decision by the Israeli government to annex Palestinian territory will contravene international law. Its prohibitions on the acquisition of occupied territory is a central pillar of the multilateral system which the UK has a vested interest in upholding. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has framed this international architecture as a core component of UK foreign policy and prosperity.
The UK took a hard line against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Four years later, Boris Johnson urged us to “remind ourselves of the enormity of what happened and redouble our determination to stand up for our values and uphold international law.” Since then, his government has continued to voice its support for international rule of law, most currently in opposition to China’s efforts to bring Hong Kong under its direct rule. As Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab emphasised in relation: “at every step, the right approach for the United Kingdom, as a matter of principle and also of effectiveness, is to call out behaviour that is contrary to international law.”
A failure to provide an adequate response to Israel’s annexation could undermine British efforts to enforce international norms of behaviour elsewhere and harm its strategic interests around the world. A lacklustre response could tempt other actors who harbour their own territorial ambitions – such as Russia in eastern Europe or China in eastern Asia. This would come at a time in which the current global system is already under considerable stress, not least as a result of the Trump administration’s unilateralism.
Formal annexation is not inevitable, so the UK must continue to focus on deterrence. More must be done urgently to expand upon Raab’s warning that annexation “cannot go unchallenged”. The government should be clear that annexation will come with a cost to bilateral relations.
Over the past year, the government has begun laying the foundations for its post-Brexit relationship with Israel. It should caution that its ability to further grow bilateral relations will be compromised by Israeli actions that challenge core UK foreign policy interests. Separately, the British government must take seriously the prospect that bilateral agreements signed with Israel could benefit its settlement project. It has made clear that its new Trade and Partnership Agreement with Israel excludes the occupied territories. But further assurances are needed that all other existing and future agreements similarly exclude Israeli settlements and their residents – such as the UK-Israel convention for the avoidance of double taxation.
At a time in which Israel is erasing the pre-1967 ‘Green Line’ between Israel and the occupied territories, enforcing the UK’s full and effective non-recognition of Israeli settlements is more important than ever. This should include banning all goods and services linked to Israel’s settlement project. Alongside this, the government must fully support international accountability mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) which is in the preliminary stages of investigating potential Israeli and Palestinian war crimes in the occupied territories.
UK leadership is badly needed and can make a difference. The Israeli government is still factoring its cost-benefit calculations and has yet to fully commit to de jure annexation of the West Bank. A strong and decisive response against Israeli annexation would send an important signal of the UK’s continued commitment to a two-state solution and willingness to act in defence of international norms. Now is the time for Global Britain to step up in defence of its core international principals and lead by example.
This article is part of CMEC's "Annexation: Brittania Waives the Rules?" opinion series. The views expressed are those of the author alone.
Hugh Lovatt is a policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and its Israel/Palestine Project Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Programme.
His most recent publications include Rethinking Oslo: How Europe can promote peace in Israel-Palestine and Gaza’s fragile calm: The search for lasting stability. He is regularly interviewed or quoted in international media, including by AFP, Reuters, Newsweek, France24, and Al Jazeera. Lovatt also co-developed an innovative online project mapping Palestinian politics.
Lovatt studied Arabic at the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University as well as at the Institut Français du Proche-Orient (IFPO) in Damascus. He then went on to earn an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, where he majored in Anthropology. Lovatt is Chairman of the Brussels-based European Middle East Project (EuMEP).