United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May is having a busy two weeks. In a desperately “open for business” global Britain, the right-wing Conservative party leader has met with new President Donald Trump, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and most recently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for talks in London.
Netanyahu’s quickly scheduled visit to the UK on Monday, Feb. 6 came days before a House of Commons debate on Israeli settlement building, due to take place on Feb. 9.
In dining with three of the world’s most controversial leaders in quick succession, it would appear that Theresa May is choosing dodgy alliances over ethics and so-called British values, further alienating the EU ahead of difficult Brexit negotiations.
An unlikely alliance for Palestine
Netanyahu’s trip was not met with the uproar that Trump’s planned state visit has already caused with UK-wide protests and a petition signed by over 1.8 million people, “but the popular resistance against Trump is increasing awareness of Palestine,” said chair of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Hugh Lanning.
“The public can see this alliance building between Trump, May and Netanyahu and I don’t think that will do the Israeli administration or the British government any good in the long-run, being so close to someone that is so widely opposed,” Lanning said.
“We’ve been raising the issue of the wall in Palestine for years; it should have been a global issue like the Berlin wall was, but Israel almost got away with it, that was until Trump started talking about a wall with Mexico. At London’s anti-Trump demonstration on Saturday, Feb. 4, the chant was: “Palestine to Mexico, racist walls must go,” so Trump is drawing attention to what the Israeli government is doing in Palestine. Trump is actually helping Palestine solidarity.”
Those protesting Netanyahu’s visit on Monday were met by a counter-demonstration yards away. Rows of police separating the protesters didn’t stop the mutual provocations.
Organized by the UK Zionist Federation, there were shouts of “where is Corbyn?” from the 200 strong crowd and signs welcoming Netanyahu to the UK. Loud music drowned out the voices of those speaking at the pro-Palestine protest, organized by Palestine Solidarity Campaign and attended by over 400 people.
“They [Palestine solidarity demonstrators] are shouting from the river to the sea,” a pro-Israel demonstrator who did not want to be named told me, clearly agitated, “Hamas is a terror organization, they are supporting terrorism and hate,” she said, waving her large Israeli flag higher.
“This visit shows the relationship between the UK and Israel and, because of Brexit, it will get stronger,” she continued.
Theresa walking the tight-rope
As Israel grows bolder, the UK government’s position on Israel’s settlement building has become more ambiguous. Since Britain approved the UN Security Council’s resolution 2334 urging the end of settlement building in occupied territories on Dec. 23, May has been trying to appease Netanyahu and align herself with Trump.
That same month she criticized then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s condemnation of the expansion of settlements – contradicting British policy. Next, the Tory government snubbed a Middle East peace conference in Paris in February by refusing to send an official delegation, preferring to send junior “observers” instead. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson then blocked the EU foreign affairs council from adopting the closing statement of the conference.
Before the closed-door talks with May, Netanyahu urged the British government to take action against Iran. May spoke of the UK’s commitment to a two-state solution and told Jeremy Corbyn after the talks that she made the government’s position on settlements clear. Netanyahu is reported to have told May that settlements were not an obstacle to peace.
In lieu of strong words from the UK leader, the Israeli prime minister’s visit has ensured that Thursday’s parliamentary debate on settlements will be given greater publicity than May would have been hoping for.
Indeed hours after Netanyahu’s Downing Street talks, in what smacks of a cynical test of Theresa May’s loyalty, Israeli politicians approved a bill that will retroactively recognize Israeli outposts–settlements previously illegal, even under Israeli law–on Palestinian land, a move that further legitimizes the Israeli policy of land grabbing. This move follows announcements of 6,000 new settlement units approved under the two-week old Trump administration.
Yet there are critics in the opposition.
In a statement before May and Netanyahu’s meeting, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was clear in his views on Israel’s settlement building and his support of Palestine. “Theresa May must make clear to the Israeli Prime Minister that the British government will stand unequivocally behind the rights of the Palestinian people, along with the many who support them in Israel, as well as human rights and justice across the region,” he said.
Where are the Trump demonstrators?
Why doesn’t the long-time flouter of international law Netanyahu spark the same outrage in the UK as a potential state visit by the new American president?
Back at the Palestine solidarity demonstration yesterday, an activist with the Free Speech on Israel network, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, said Trump’s actions and rhetoric have exposed long-standing U.S. positions.
“The Trump phenomenon is really terrifying but it has stripped away the velvet glove on the American imperialist project. The liberals have laid the groundwork by allowing wars, bombing, and discrimination but people can see it now because the media has turned against Trump,” she said.
“The message is out there. To come out against Netanyahu, you’ve got to understand the Palestine-Israel situation. Many British people can see where justice lies but it’s another step to put yourself out there publicly,” added Wimborne-Idrissi.
Yet some regard speaking up for Palestine is a politically risky decision, as seen in the Labour Party surrounding allegations of anti-Semitism, in the arts, online and when subject to Israeli border control.
Speaking to Mondoweiss the night before Netanyahu’s visit, psychology student Hannah Davies spoke of attending the Women’s March in London, one of the largest demonstrations in recent years with 100,000 participants, but said she wouldn’t feel comfortable in attending a protest against Netanyahu’s UK visit.
“I don’t know enough about Palestine and Israel – it’s complicated and a sensitive topic. But what Trump is doing is obvious. He discriminates against women, Muslims, and migrants – and many people belong in one or all of these categories,” Davies said.
Glyn Secker from Jews for Justice for Palestinians said he agreed while standing in a quiet spot while chants of “Free, Free Palestine.”
“Trump is against some very basic human rights and values of the general population,” Secker said, “The awareness of the violation of Palestinian human rights is much smaller by comparison because there is a vested interest in the UK media and establishment for keeping those violations under the radar, such as the trade relationship that Britain has with Israel.”
“May is an opportunist. She’s realized that Netanyahu is part of the mainstream current of Trumpism so she’s running with it,” he continued.
But as the struggles in America and Palestine become more interconnected and as the British government inserts itself as a key trader and negotiator with these two nations, this may embolden the British public. In a politically explosive time of Brexit, Trump, Netanyahu and the rise of Europe’s far-right, the word ‘resistance’ is no longer a dirty word.
Theresa May’s appeasement of two unpopular leaders could just help build British citizens’ solidarity with Palestine.