Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006, pages 13-14

United Nations Report

Britain’s New Foreign Secretary Only “Reluctant” to See Israeli Transgressions

By Ian Williams

Britain’s ambassador to the U.N., Emyr Jones Parry (r) with Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett at U.N. headquarters in New York, May 9, 2006 (AFP Photo/Stan Honda).

WHEN MARGARET Thatcher was British prime minister, she was quite prepared to defy her best friend Ronald Reagan on issues pertaining to Israel. Of course, it may have had as much to do with the $20 billion arms deal Mrs. T had signed with the Saudis as with any attachment to international law, but it was a position consistent with long-term British policy—at least until recently.

I remember well a member of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. coming to me and asking about the then-Conservative foreign secretary, “Malcolm Rifkind is Jewish, isn’t he?” I confirmed his suspicions, only to be asked, “So why does he keep voting against us on Israel?”

I hazarded a reply on behalf of the right honorable member. “Well, perhaps he thinks he is a British member of Parliament, representing British interests, and what’s more he represents a Scottish constituency and Scotland is even more sympathetic to the Palestinians than the rest of the country.”

Robin Cook, although Labor, also represented an Edinburgh constituency, and he maintained the same firm principles on the Middle East—which may be why he was ditched by Tony Blair, who is without doubt the most pro-Israel prime minister Britain has had.

With Cook out of the way, the UK began to abstain on Middle East resolutions that the U.S. vetoed in the U.N. Security Council. What’s more, it broke up the EU consensus—since the Germans, for example, for historical reasons, could hide behind a European consensus, but could not be seen as more anti-Israel than Britain once London had broken away on the issue.

As we have seen over Iraq, Blair is eager to accommodate Washington on almost every issue, but he also is more pro-Israel than any of his predecessors. Even so, the UK has firmly upheld the applicability of U.N. resolutions on the territories—not least, perhaps, because it was the British ambassador to the U.N. who drafted Resolution 242.

Now the new British foreign secretary has gone a step further away from former principles. “Unilateral action by the Israeli government is...very much second best,” Margaret Beckett told Parliament. “We would be reluctant to see such unilateral action.”

That “reluctant”—even if it is a clarion call by Washington’s, admittedly abysmally low, standards—is a significant backing away from previous British adherence to U.N. decisions. Usually, people of high moral standing are much more than “reluctant” to see wholesale theft and breaches of international law—they oppose them, at the very least verbally, but preferably with legal, diplomatic and economic sanctions. Indeed, as we have seen in the case of Arab states, even unsubstantiated allegations of international law-breaking are met with military sanctions.

On the other hand, Foreign Secretary Beckett may have been inadvertently honest. The international community is indeed “reluctant” to see Israeli actions. Indeed, too often, it covers up its eyes and pretends that it cannot see them.

At the end of June, following yet another outstanding example of Israeli bestiality in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Mission to the U.N. sent a letter to the Security Council—which, it noted, was the 266th such missive since the Israelis tore up the road map and reinvaded the Palestinian areas in 2000. The letter added that 3,926 Palestinians had been killed in Israel’s subsequent military campaigns. (It did not add, but I shall, that that is more people than died in the World Trade Center.) Of course, those incursions in 2000, and all Israeli operations in the Palestinian Authority area since, are in blatant defiance of Security Council resolutions.

The Palestinians in effect pointed out that the Israelis think they can get away with their behavior, which in Gaza is pretty much like lobbing shells into a barrel, precisely because the Security Council has done nothing to enforce its previous decisions. Even when the apartheid South African regime set up Bantustans, it did not shell and bomb the populations it had fenced off in them.

It is true that the Russians, British and others have protested to Israel about its indiscriminate and reckless attacks on the Palestinian areas—but the silence from Washington is deafening. The reason the Security Council will not act, of course, is that Israel has a copper-bottomed guarantee of a veto to protect it from the consequences of any actions.

A Legal Refresher Course

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of the legal position. The state of Israel owes its existence to a 1947 U.N. General Assembly resolution which partitioned the former League of Nations mandate of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, while making Jerusalem international territory under U.N. supervision.

Resolution 181 only barely passed, and even though it was certainly immoral, since it handed over large Arab populations and territory to the Jewish state, it was legal. Strangely, since then, the U.S. often has been defeated in the General Assembly, and we now hear that Assembly resolutions are not binding—which would cast doubt on both the existence of Israel and the waging of the Korean War, both conducted by their authority.

That resolution also is why, with the exception of a few paid-for Central American delegations, no country maintains an embassy in Jerusalem. Both East and West of the city are still legally awaiting the U.N. to come and run them!

It is a sign of either the moderation or the foolishness of the Palestinian negotiators that they have never insisted on the 1947 partition boundaries as the starting point for negotiations, but rather cited Security Council Resolution 242 as the basis, which referred to territories occupied beyond the Green Line in the 1967 war.

The exegesis of 242 borders on the theological because, in the English version, there is no “the” in front of “territories” from which the Israelis were told to withdraw. However, the consensus, reinforced by many subsequent resolutions, is that Israel should indeed pull out (and from the Golan Heights as well), although negotiations about the armistice line would allow for some give-and-take adjustments to what was, after all, the place where the contending armies stopped in 1948 rather than any rational boundary.

Resolution 242 did not establish international law. It simply restated that, under the U.N. Charter and existing international conventions, the annexation of territory acquired by war was illegal—but it stated firmly that this was what Israel had done. Since then, countless resolutions have reinforced that, and pointed out that Israeli settlements on those territories are illegal.

Israel carried on creating “facts” with the settlements, and did so again with its annexation wall. Ironically, or typically, Israel’s supporters argued against the International Court of Justice verdict on the illegality of the wall by claiming that it was not intended to be a boundary, but was merely a security fence. They hardly succeeded in convincing themselves, and it is clear now that the wall was and is an attempt to stake out a claim for Palestinian territory—and the crucial aquifers beneath it.

So, rather than Margaret Beckett being “reluctant” to see a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, she should more properly be indignant at yet another Israeli annexation.

In this Alice Through the Looking Glass world, the Palestinian government and people are being told that they must recognize Israel’s existence and cease all violent acts, while Israel itself has flouted every promise it has made to the Palestinians, the Americans, and the Quartet, and while not one Israeli administration has yet to unequivocally promise recognition of a Palestinian state, let alone cease its endless assassinations, bombings, shellings and intrusions.

The Palestinians insist that negotiations start on the basis of what is due to them under international law—which the Israelis have never overtly accepted—and successive American administrations attack them for being unreasonable.

This recidivist behavior by the U.S. and Israel is doing immense damage to the fabric of international society and law. Across the world governments and groups, including terrorists, draw popular support by contrasting condoned Israeli law-breaking with Washington’s pompous pontifications on law and order—and the tacit acceptance of U.S. and Israeli positions by Britain and the EU.

Pro-Israel groups complain about the amount of time and attention the U.N. spends on the Palestinian issue, and cite it as discrimination, but the effective implementation of the resolutions on the Middle East is crucial for the credibility of the United Nations and international law—and thus for every citizen of the world. 

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations.

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