by Nick McAlpin
In Europe, Brexit will undoubtedly come to define recently elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tenure. In the Middle East, however, his leadership of the Conservative Party may soon see the UK government align itself even more firmly with Israel and further hamper Palestinian national aspirations. This is due to a combination of increased ideological affinity within the new frontbench for Israel and economic necessities brought about by Johnson’s willingness to follow through with a no-deal Brexit.
Upon taking up office, Johnson’s frontbench appointments were constrained by two main factors. Firstly, he had to ensure that his team, and particularly his Cabinet, were staunchly pro-Brexit enough that he, and those voters who are tempted by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, could trust them to help take Britain out of the European Union.
He equally faced strong opposition from some corners of his own party; his election prompted several front-bench – including Cabinet – resignations. Although it is likely that most of these MPs would have been sacked anyway, their resignations removed any temptation for Boris to keep his enemies close and bound to collective responsibility.
Consequently, the Johnson team heavily features figures from the right of the Tory party – the wing of the party with which he is usually associated, and which shares many of his views, especially on Brexit. The right of the party—Boris included—are also generally even more pro-Israel than the average Conservative MP is. In fact, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggested that Britain’s new PM “may be the most pro-Israel prime minister in history.” As a student, he volunteered on a kibbutz, and he has received praise from the Conservative Friends of Israel for “his instrumental role… in both the landmark Balfour Declaration celebrations and the first-ever official Royal visit to Israel.”
However, Boris is not the only “passionate Zionist” on the frontbench. In fact, all four Great Offices of State are now occupied by committedly pro-Israel MPs. Two of these ministers, Sajid Javid and Priti Patel, are arguably amongst Israel’s biggest supporters in Parliament. In 2017, Javid, whom Boris promoted from Home Secretary to Chancellor, crafted a plan to crack down on councils who choose to boycott Israeli goods. In the same year, he flatly refused to apologize for the Balfour Declaration, and instead declared that Britain “will celebrate it with pride.”
But it is perhaps Priti Patel whose actions grant her the mantle of most pro-Israel MP, if not in Parliament then certainly within the Conservative Party. In November 2017, Patel was ousted as International Development Secretary by then-Prime Minister Theresa May, after she broke protocol to attend 12 secret meetings with high-level Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After these meetings, Patel enquired about giving foreign aid money to an Israeli army field hospital in the illegally occupied Golan Heights. As a result, many in the media accused Patel of running her own foreign policy in the Middle East. Furthermore, prior to this, she had temporarily frozen slightly over a third of the UK’s total annual aid to Palestine. That Boris brought Patel back on board, particularly with such a massive promotion, means that the most passionate of Zionist voices will now be heard at the very top of British politics.
Nevertheless, it is not just the depth of the natural, ideological Zionist sentiment at the heart of the Cabinet that will push London ever closer to Tel Aviv. Johnson’s commitment to leaving the European Union by Halloween, with or without a deal, means that he and the UK must strengthen the Special Relationship with Donald Trump’s United States. This is to ensure a speedy and favourable trade deal with Washington in the event of a no-deal Brexit, so as to mitigate the economic impact of losing access to the Single Market.
The old Etonian already maintains a warm relationship with Trump, who has announced since Johnson’s election that the duo are working on a “very substantial trade agreement.” But trade deals are notoriously tricky, and Trump is more likely to cooperate with a Britain that sticks closely to his foreign policy. With such a profoundly Zionist Cabinet behind him, it is conceivable that we might see Boris move the British Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as a pragmatic means of stroking Trump’s ego.
This is highly plausible as a concession, since it does not stray too far from Boris’ stated position, and Trump has repeatedly made Israel’s importance to him well known. Johnson previously referred to Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy as “a ‘moment of opportunity’ for peace,” and has opined that Britain might also “play that card… when we make further progress.” Christians United for Israel suggest that Boris is most likely to move the embassy to West Jerusalem, but will not recognise the entire city as Israeli. This will avoid totally alienating the Civil Service by completely tearing up long-standing foreign policy.
What exactly “further progress” entails may well be significantly downscaled compared to what it would have meant without the challenges posed by Brexit. That said, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights is much less probable, as there is no convenient religious excuse to use as a justification in the media. With a potential Jerusalem embassy move, it is easy to simply claim that the new embassy site is simply a recognition of the Jewish people’s spiritual connection to the city, thereby obscuring the very real consequences for Palestinians.
As for Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, the so-called “deal of the century,” Johnson has thus far remained silent. Little progress has been made with the deal and it will surely continue to prove extremely unpopular, both domestically and internationally. For this reason, it is improbable that the current UK government will lend its support to the deal. For now, passing no comment is the new PM’s best tactic for keeping Trump on side. Since the pair’s relationship is currently good, there is no need for such an overture. If anything is later required, the embassy move is the least politically expensive bet. Nonetheless, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, where Trump has become desperate to advance his peace deal and the UK and U.S. are struggling to conclude a suitable trade arrangement, anything is possible – especially with Boris.
For Palestinians and their allies wishing to reduce the potential damage of a Boris Johnson premiership, there are currently two key opportunities. Most obviously, if all you care about is the rights and wellbeing of the Palestinian people, opposing a no-deal Brexit is crucial to alleviating much of Britain’s dependency on the USA, and therefore its possible need to placate Trump with concessions over Israel. Moreover, applying sustained pressure on Boris Johnson over Priti Patel’s alleged second breaking of the ministerial code might be enough force him to remove her from the Cabinet, thereby eliminating her influence over the upper echelons of British politics.
The damage Britain’s new Prime Minister might do to the Palestinian people is likely to be ignored as Brexit dominates the agenda. Nevertheless, on the global level, this may prove his most significant—and dangerous—legacy.
Nick McAlpin is a freelance journalist and Cambridge UK Masters scholar on the University of Cambridge’s MPhil Social Anthropology programme. He writes about Middle Eastern and British politics and social movements, with a focus on Palestine. Nick can be found on Twitter @NickGMcAlpin.