In its two-day online conference entitled “in search of the rule of law” the Balfour Project assembled a stellar list of lawyers and politicians to answer the questions: “Can international law prevail in Israel/Palestine, and if so, how? Can a rights-based approach makes a just, lasting political solution more likely?”
The lawyers, starting with Baroness Hale, the former President of the Supreme Court, followed by Professor Michael Lynk, Philippe Sands QC and Michael Sfard, left no one in doubt that international law was the indispensable basis of any just peace in the Middle East.
But it was the politicians – or to be more exact the ex-politicians – who provided some fascinating insights into why the leaders of the UK and indeed almost all Western governments find it so difficult to uphold the law.
Dominic Grieve (above) , the former Conservative Attorney-General, explained the thought process in the mind of MPs: “What is the point of sticking oneself out on a limb on an issue where one’s own position is unlikely to be critical if you can’t bring [along with you] the one country that has shown in the past [that it is capable of bringing about change]?”
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“The reality of politics, the disturbed conditions that prevail in the Middle East and a sense that Israel for all its faults is a genuine, and wishes to be a genuine ally, and shares many of our democratic principles even if it is not applying them [properly], means the UK, while it is willing to apply private pressure, is reluctant to apply a level of public pressure which may lead to a rupture in relations.
“It’s true that the Israelis enjoy a substantial lobby interest group in the UK, but then other countries do as well. I don’t think that is unique. I think it’s a combination of [the lobby] and the fact that the US is overwhelmingly the only power that is capable of bringing about change, but is unwilling to do it.”
Jack Straw calls for French-German-UK initiative on Israel/Palestine
Jack Straw, the former Labour foreign secretary, agreed with this analysis, but saw a way around it.
“It’s a big issue for the British government about whether or not it can depart from the US position on particular issues. Traditionally, regardless of which party is in power, British governments have tried to work closely with the US.”
He cited the case of the “E3 initiative”, when the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK started tripartite negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme in 2003 without the involvement of the US and with the active hostility of the then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Eventually President George Bush was persuaded to back the talks which were then joined by Russia and China, leading eventually to the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015. “This is a very good example of where we, working with the French and Germans, could shift American opinion.
“It’s my view – and the view of sensible Conservatives – that we should work trilaterally with the French and Germans on the model of the E3 initiative. There is no reason we couldn’t use that model to further our proposals with the US to try to kickstart a peace process in Israel/Palestine.”
Jack Straw also shed an interesting light on the differences between the US and the UK. He said the power that the Israeli lobby was able to exercise in the US was “astonishing by any European standards” and it was caused partly by the “sharp contrast” in laws on election spending between the US and the UK.
In the US, where there is no effective control of election spending, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will only back candidates who give unconditional support to Israel and if any candidates speak out against Israel’s unacceptable actions, “they are subjected to a barrage of campaigning ads to undermine their position and cut their vote”.
“This is reinforced by the way the media report the conflict In the mainstream US press – you have Israel on one side and a terrorist organisation on the other, so the Palestinians are [portrayed as] a bunch of terrorists.”
“There’s a really serious aspect of this. Fatah is quite explicitly being marginalised not only by its political competitors in the occupied territories, but also as part of a concerted campaign by Netanyahu and his faction,” he said.
He says there is ‘a pretty well authenticated Faustian pact between Netanyahu and his factions and Hamas’ and quotes an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz claiming that ‘Hamas and Netanyahu have been cooperating for years’. He cites ‘lots of talk regarding cash-filled suitcases’ coming from Israel to Hamas to fund its military build-up.
“If Netanyahu can prove himself to be the strong man protecting Israel’s security, he may be able to literally get out of jail. Hamas needs it because it’s their way of insinuating that they are the true representatives of the Palestinians and so marginalising the Palestine Authority and Fatah.”
Read the Balfour Project’s conference statement