Tread softly

On his trip to Israel this week, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has an opportunity to establish trust and credibility with Israelis and Palestinians.

William Hague 311 (photo credit: AP)
William Hague 311
(photo credit: AP)
British Foreign Secretary William Hague began a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday. His arrival presents considerable opportunities for Britain to play a role in the search for peace. But the recent history of such “first visits” has not always been a happy one. In this part of the world, even slight misjudgments in tone or approach can quickly sour relations. And a reputation for being hostile or failing to understand one side’s core concerns is difficult to correct, however unfairly it may have been earned.
Hague will doubtless have been briefed on Britain’s reputation as a hub for the international campaign of delegitimization against Israel.
And, fairly or not, few in Israel distinguish between the actions of civil society in Britain and the attitude of the British government. Closing this gap in trust will be crucial.
On the flip side, the politician who establishes trust with both sides early on can then develop influence.
A balanced relationship of genuine trust is critical. From my experience, both during my time in Parliament and now at the head of BICOM, Israel tolerates criticism and listens to advice far more readily from those that understand its legitimate core concerns. The PA and the Arab world too are likely to see Britain as more significant if they believe the UK has leverage and trust with Israel and is working in concert with, rather than in competition with the US. A third party that appears to have no influence on the ground is not much use to anyone.
Israelis will be listening hard this week for Hague to affirm his commitment to a solution in which a Jewish and democratic Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable, independent Palestinian state which accords its people their dignity and rights.
Such a position would bring Britain into line with US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
TUESDAY WAS the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration – a commitment by a British foreign secretary to a “national home for the Jewish people,” and the catalyst for a period in which Britain played a crucial role in the establishment of modern Israel.
This visit would be a fitting opportunity to restate that commitment.
Those of us dedicated to a two-state solution know it can only be achieved by the sides themselves. Israelis understand Britain’s consistent commitment to direct negotiations, even when it means that Israel has to make tough decisions. And they share a desire for the situation in Gaza to be improved.
But the ongoing smuggling of weapons, the indiscriminate fire of rockets on Israeli citizens and – perhaps more than anything else – the plight of Gilad Schalit are constant reminders of the dilemmas Israel faces in pursuit of peace. Recognition that the key to changing Gaza’s situation lies with Hamas would go a long way in Israel.
Restating, too, the government’s commitment to address the question of universal jurisdiction would be a positive step. There is an urgent need to get back to constructive dialogue on British soil about these issues without the threat of prosecution in the air.
There is, of course, much to celebrate.
Despite the best efforts of the boycotters, divesters and sanctioners, Hague can be proud of new agreements on scientific cooperation, and between the British and Israeli film industries. These are clear affirmations that Britain believes in dialogue.
Israelis appreciate that Britain has taken a consistently tough line on Iran, and has made preventing it acquiring nuclear weapons an international priority.
The fourth sanctions resolution is working, but all options for further action must remain on the table.
Hague has an opportunity to establish trust and credibility with Israelis and Palestinians this week. It will mean taking clear, fair positions on the major issues, and sticking to them. But since he will be dealing with both sides’ dreams as well as their realities, he might bear Yeats’s advice in mind, and tread softly.
The writer is Chief Executive of BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre).