Boris Johnson's ICC opposition allows Israel to believe it's above the law

Boris Johnson's ICC opposition allows Israel to believe it's above the law
Comment: Without the EU or any kind of substantial opposition, Tory pro-Israel policy has been allowed to run wild, and it's the Palestinians who will pay, writes Emad Moussa.
6 min read
24 Apr, 2021
The UK Conservative Party has a long and expansive history of support for Israel [Getty]
In a short letter to the lobby group Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), Boris Johnson recently criticised the ICC's investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian Territories. "We do not accept that the ICC has jurisdiction in this instance, given that Israel is not a party to the Statute of Rome and Palestine is not a sovereign state," the prime minister wrote. In the letter, the investigation was also described as "a partial and prejudicial attack on Israel".

To the Palestinians and several human rights organisations, Johnson's words marked not only a betrayal of the UK's declared position on the ICC, but also an underlying belief that Israel is above the law. 

To Israel and its allies, an investigation into Israel's actions in the Occupied Territories is unlawful given that Palestine isn't a sovereign state and, therefore, the attempt to incriminate the Jewish state can only be discriminatory and anti-Semitic. 

For Johnson, whether in a letter or spoken, words are probably just words. His personal history and impressive record of broken promises tend to support this assumption. He's a man, the Guardian once cynically commented, who lied so hard he nearly broke the constitution. 

But I'm not particularly concerned about words per se, certainly not Johnson's. It's Brexit and the Conservative Party's ideological posture on Palestine that give Johnson's words, no matter how unreliable, a very real and rather disconcerting context. 

The EU held Britain to certain moral standards regarding the conflict

With Brexit in place, certain UK policies regarding the Middle East will remain unchanged, especially those related to arms deals and security cooperation in the so-called war on terror.

What will change, however, is Britain's level of commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The British position on the fundamental issues of the conflict such as the two-state solution, settlements, human rights, and financial aid to the PA have largely been part of the overall policy of the EU. In other words, the EU held Britain to certain moral standards regarding the conflict. 

Now outside the EU, Britain is free to focus on internal national interests, sometimes at the expense of foreign policy. Fundamental to these interests is a freer, more versatile market outside the EU region. 

Economic relations with Israel's vibrant security and defence technology market, therefore, will be prioritised. As a result, morality and the rights of Palestinians will probably take a back seat. 

Palestinians don't represent an economic value to the UK and, most certainly, don't have a lobbying group on par with the Conservative Friends of Israel in the Conservative Party that can influence UK policies in their favour. 

The nearest equivalent is a group named the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC). Originally established in 1980 in response - it has been argued - to Israel's settlement expansion, the CMEC represented something of a Palestinian voice, albeit weak, inside the Conservative Party.

Read more: Israel's refusal to cooperate with ICC 'admission of war crimes', says rights group

However, evidence now suggests that CMEC lobbies primarily on behalf of Gulf states - particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE - while also receiving funds and support from those associated with these governments. 

It goes without saying that with the UAE's normalisation with Israel and Saudi Arabia's changing regional role, the economic (and political) value which these states once gave the Palestinian cause - intentionally or not - inside the Tory Party has now diminished. That has effectively stripped the few Conservative friends of Palestine from any leverage that would've helped sway the British government's policies in a meaningful way in favour of Palestinian rights. 

Ideologically, the broad Tory institution today is a Brexit institution par excellence; a populist nationalism with an inward focused trajectory. Like Trump's populism, this has put much of the Conservative Party's ideology closer in line with that of today's Israel. 

The disintegration of liberal internationalism, of which the EU is an integral part, fits the nationalist needs of Netanyahu and his cohorts. Israel historically considered the EU a hostile institution to the Jewish state. Therefore, to Israel's relief, not only has Brexit reduced the EU's influence globally, it, more importantly, helped weaken the EU position on Israel's policies in the Occupied Territories. 

The shameless Islamophobia within the Tory Party has also facilitated the aligning of Israeli and British interests

Furthermore, the shameless Islamophobia within the Tory Party has also facilitated the aligning of Israeli and British interests. Capitalising on the anti-Muslim sentiment in the party, Israel often sought to de-contextualise and reframe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: from a political issue of military occupation to a Huntingtonian clash of civilisations between the enlightened West and backward, militant Islam.

This sentiment resonates well with at least 
half the Tory members, including Johnson himself, who once argued in an article that Islam put Muslims centuries behind.

Historically, Huntington's worldview has characterised much of the Tories' legacy in Palestine since the early 20th century. It represents a linear trajectory of racist and condescending policies starting with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1947 partition of Palestine, the 1974 formation of CFI, and all the way to Thatcher's staunch support of Israel. It is no surprise, then, that most Tory PMs since have taken a pro-Israel stance, making it almost an official party guideline.

Between the Tories' pro-Israel position and Labour's silence, it's the Palestinians and their rights who will pay the price

Theresa May in 2016, for example, felt comfortable adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of anti-Semitism, practically reframing criticism of Israel along the lines of genuine anti-Semitism. She also felt justified criticising BDS and glorifying the Balfour Declaration on its centennial a year later, a trend that Boris Johnson followed both as mayor of London and, later, prime minister. 

Abiding by the liberal democratic character of our political system, post-Brexit UK will continue to maintain a facade of moral and political correctness. So, expect that rhetorics regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to remain unchanged. Lip service to Palestinians about the ICC will continue. But tangible political support is likely to be in Israel's favour. 

Paralysed by accusations of anti-Semitism, a campaign of which the CFI has been a major instigator, UK's Labour, with the exception of Labour MP Julie Elliott, remains officially silent on Johnson's comments about the ICC. Fear of anti-Semitism is rife in the party, and many are scared of facing a fate similar to that of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Between the Tories' pro-Israel position and Labour's silence, it's the Palestinians and their rights who will pay the price.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.  

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.