WCIA Chief Executive Susie Ventris-Field introduced the speaker – Sir Vincent Fean KCVO.
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Sir Vincent Fean is a former British diplomat who held a number of positions including British Consul General to Jerusalem and Ambassador to Libya, and also served as Chair of the Balfour Project until 2022. Sir Vincent continues to act as a Trustee of the Project.
The aim of the Project is to find a solution to the Israel–Palestine question that guarantees justice, security, and equal rights for both Israelis and Palestinians. In particular, the Project strives to achieve three goals: a) highlight the historical role played by Britain in the 19th, 20th and early-21st centuries in shaping Israel, in light of the Balfour Declaration and subsequent British policy, b) support Palestinians and Israeli to build a peaceful future based on equal rights, justice and security, and c) work towards the UK Government’s recognition of the State of Palestine.
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The speaker set the tone for his talk from the start by being very pragmatic about the issue at hand. The inescapable reality, he asserted, is that “Israel is a fact”. One cannot, therefore, campaign to establish a Palestinian state without acknowledging the existence of the State of Israel.
Furthermore, and perhaps somewhat pessimistically, noting that over 200 Palestinians and almost 30 Israelis were killed between January and August 2023, Sir Vincent foresees that “we are not going to see peace… soon”. There are many reasons for this, both historical and contemporary.
The speaker first and foremost highlighted Britain’s failure to ensure that the Balfour Declaration’s second promise (highlighted in bold below) be kept:
Whilst successive UK Governments have striven to ensure the establishment and survival of a national home for the Jewish people, Fean underscored that in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War (colloquially referred to as the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” across the Arab World), the rights of Christian and Muslim Palestinians in the region have steadily eroded.
He also underscored the damage done by the current hard-line right wing Israeli coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and the influence of once fringe – now influential – politicians and civil servants who stand for “gradualist and accelerated” Zionism. The coalition, which has endeavoured to exclude Palestinians from playing a role in Israeli politics, has pursued a policy of allowing illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank to continue expanding and annexing the territory.
The UK Government eventually condemned the annexation in 2020, following a cross-party petition signed by 127 MPs to impose sanctions on Israel for the illegal settlements, though no further action was taken. During his talk, Sir Vincent impressed upon his audience that in his opinion, the Sunak regime could do more to put pressure on Israel but is highly unlikely to do so since Whitehall appears to follow (almost habitually) the example set by the White House’s foreign policy towards Israel. Indeed, the Biden administration, and the Trump administration before it, have done little to nothing in the way of condemning Israel’s increasingly expansionist settler colonialist policy on Palestinian territory – a stance largely emulated by their UK counterparts. As it stands, it appears that the UK Government, unless pressured by forces outside of the British–American political sphere, is unlikely to make any radical changes in policy.
The UK is not only reticent to impose sanctions upon Israel due to the inherent political risk of taking a foreign policy stance on Israel that directly contradicts US policy. The UK has committed to signing a landmark deal that is set to deepen economic, technological and military ties with the State of Israel. Quoted on the State of Palestine Mission website, Palestinian Ambassador to the UK Husam Zomlot described the deal as “an abdication of the UK’s responsibilities under international law and the UK’s unique historic responsibility for the Palestinian issue.”
Complicating the matter further, is the political moratorium the international community appears to have placed on solving the Israel–Palestine issue due to the prioritisation of other crises across the globe. It appears that policymakers in the West are more interested in the war in Ukraine, and even in the Arab World it seems that Palestine is taking a back seat in favour of the recent conflicts in Yemen and Sudan. The sense of urgency surrounding the need to find a long-lasting solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine appears to be waning, despite a clear escalation in tensions. Sir Vincent made a point of noting the irony in this waning sense of urgency, commenting that in his opinion, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Israeli annexation of the West Bank are largely analogous, insofar as they are both examples of states breaching the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Most worryingly, the former diplomat noted that the West’s inconsistency in condemning and taking action against such invasions is a concern for small states in the Global South that are worried about neighbouring countries invading. Are we only taking sides against Russia because its war with Ukraine is on our doorstep? How would we act if China decided to invade Taiwan – would we act at all? Would we intervene if war for water resources took place on the Kyrgyz–Tajik border, or would that viewed as beyond our sphere of influence? What about Azerbaijan’s recent military intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh leading to the displacement of over 40,000 ethnic Armenians?
In the first three decades of the 21st century, we have already witnessed conflicts around the world that have killed hundreds of thousands, destroyed national infrastructures, crippled once stable and prosperous economies, and weakened longstanding political alliances. Francis Fukuyama’s globally renowned thesis put forth in the End of History – that is, that wars will become fewer and further between after the defeat of communism and fascism and the spread of political and economic liberalism across the globe – has been contradicted time and again. Britain’s inconsistent policy on these conflicts, however petty or justified they may have been, is, as Sir Vincent asserted in his talk, likely to push smaller states towards forming alliances other global hegemonic powers that are perceived as more sympathetic to the insecure states’ interests – something which will only weaken Britain’s influence on the global stage in the future.
Moving on to whether it is in Israel’s interests to recognise the Palestinian state, the former Chair of the Balfour Project was direct – a resounding “yes”. For Israel, its interests lie in security, and strong relations with its immediate neighbours and the wider international community. Increasingly deleterious relations between Israel and Palestine will only result in further attacks on Israeli territory and deaths of non-military targets. More annexation means more international condemnation and a steady deterioration of Israel’s image abroad, especially across the Muslim World which extends beyond the Middle East and North Africa into Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. A mending of Israel’s relations with Palestine will only improve the current situation on the ground and improve the image of the current Israeli regime in the eyes of the all-important Gulf states (those that have yet to sign normalisation agreements such as the Abraham Accords), potentially leading to normalisation of relations and future diplomatic and economic ties.
For the UK, should governments continue to let the issue “fester” this will not only contradict its own political values, but potentially remain a sticking point to future relations with Israel’s neighbours.
Looking forward, Sir Vincent remained hopeful that future governments will take the issue more seriously, recognising Palestine as an independent state, and taking a harder stance on Israel’s military raids and annexation.