It’s a fairly well-established tradition in British politics that as things get more difficult at home, prime ministers tend to take refuge in foreign affairs – although this usually takes several years to happen. Will the same pattern play out for the current Government?
Liz Truss is certainly not short of strong views on foreign affairs. As Foreign Secretary, spoke out in support of British volunteers signing up to fight in Ukraine; today’s Sun reports that China is to be declared a ‘threat’ to the United Kingdom as part of “a strategic review of Britain’s enemies”.
Taken in that neo-Cold Warrior context, it is perhaps less surprising that the Prime Minister is reportedly considering relocating the UK’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Such proposals will doubtless have set the cat amongst the pigeons at the Foreign Office; amongst those lining up to condemn the move are the Archbishop of Canterbury and William Hague, who wrote in the Times:
“This would be a breach of UN security council resolutions by one of its permanent members, break a longstanding commitment to work for two states for Israelis and Palestinians, and align Britain in foreign affairs with Donald Trump and three small states rather than the whole of the rest of the world.”
The Trump point is interesting, because whilst it was the former president’s decision to relocate the American capital, it’s notable that Joe Biden hasn’t reversed it, which he could easily have done. So it would be truer to say that the move would “align Britain in foreign affairs with the United States”, which is perhaps less persuasive than Hague might hope.
Given how the last few weeks have played out, there would likely be little patience amongst Conservative MPs were the Prime Minister to put British interests at risk for the sake of a largely symbolic gesture toward Israel.
But to make that case, critics of the move would need to spell out what the actual costs to British interests would be, because it isn’t obvious. A bit of condemnation at the UN is, frankly, neither here nor there.
And the Middle East of the 2020s is a long way from that of the 1990s, where such a move might have been expected to elicit a united response from the Arab world. Today many of the Gulf monarchies, more worried about Iran, are more or less officially reconciled with Israel, especially after the Abraham Accords, whilst Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is in no position to make trouble over the move.
The reverse question also applies, however: what does the United Kingdom actually gain through such a move? Given the importance of the decision to the Israeli government, it seems foolish to squander it in a unilateral gesture rather than as part of some sort of deal.
Regardless, were Truss to go ahead with the move it seems very likely it would stick. Sir Keir Starmer, having put in so much work to repair Labour’s reputations with the Jewish community, would probably not choose to kick off his premiership with a symbolic slight to the State of Israel – especially not given who amongst his members would be cheering him on.