Britain goes it alone in the Middle East?

On Sunday, the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee published a report urging the British government to talk with “moderate” elements in Hamas, expand an arms embargo against Israel and make upgraded relations with the latter conditional on concrete steps towards a two-state peace deal. This comes after the British government decided to establish contact with members of Hezbollah’s “political wing” in March.
Palestine UK Report

BEIRUT, July 28, 2009 (MENASSAT) — The committee, made up of 14 members of Parliament, monitors British foreign policy and makes recommendations, to which the British government must respond within 2 months.

The report recommends seeking Hamas’ cooperation, as a means to undermine the group’s platform. "We further conclude that the credible peace process for which the Quartet hopes, as part of its strategy for undercutting Hamas, is likely to be difficult to achieve without greater co-operation from Hamas itself," the report said.

It also points out that it makes little sense to engage Hezbollah but not Hamas. "We further recommend that the government should set out the relevant differences between the cases of Hezbollah and Hamas that lead it to conclude that engagement with moderate elements within Hamas is not currently worth attempting."

Partial arms embargo welcome

The report praised a partial arms embargo against Israel, specifically of British-exported parts for Saar 4.5 naval vessels, in light of alleged war crimes committed in Gaza,. Earlier this month, Britain had tried to play down the arms embargo, preferring the vague claim that licenses for certain exports had been revoked, because they constitute a “contravention” for the terms of sale. Only when pushed to clarify, “”The British Embassy [in Tel Aviv] said licenses could be revoked where there is a risk that ‘arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression.’’

In the same vein, the report strenuously avoids specifying the reasons for the embargo—Israel’s misuse of armaments against civilians in contravention of international law.

“We welcome the Government’s investigation into Israel’s use of UK-sourced military items during its campaign in Gaza. We conclude that it is regrettable that
components supplied by the UK were ‘almost certainly’ used in a variety of ways  by Israeli forces during the most recent conflict in Gaza, and that this constitutes a failure of past Government arms export control policy. We recommend that the  Government should continue to do everything possible to ensure that this does not  happen again.”

The Foreign affairs committee urged the government to expand the embargo and “specify any end-use restrictions which it places on exports of components for unmanned aerial vehicles for incorporation in Israel for onward export.”

Israel ‘upgrade’ conditional

In addition, the committee urged the EU to  “make any ‘upgrade’ of its relations with Israel conditional on Israel halting practices which are prejudicial to the achievement of a two-state solution. This could be through a settlement freeze and an easing of Israeli restrictions on access into Gaza. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government should specify the conditions that the EU is setting for Israel for securing the ‘upgrade’ in relations.”

The harshest language in the report urges the government to take a stand whether Israel committed war crimes in Gaza. “We recommend that in its response to this Report the FCO should state whether it considers that violations of the laws of war were committed during the December 2008/January 2009 conflict in Gaza and southern Israel.” The committee also condemned as “unacceptable that Israel continues to deny unrestricted access for humanitarian assistance to Gaza. We further conclude that there are indications that Israel is seeking to use its control over the transfer of humanitarian and other supplies into Gaza partly for political objectives.”

Diplomatic persuasion failed with Israel; US shift offers potential

While the UK has seemingly plotted a more independent and sober line in the Middle East since the beginning of the year, the committee’s report suggests that Britain still couches any shift in policy within the framework of the Quartet’s goals and looks to Washington for guidance.

At the beginning of the report’s “conclusions and recommendations,” the committee devotes a paragraph to Israel’s position:  “We conclude that rocket fire from Gaza by Hamas and other Palestinian groups on civilian targets in Israel is unacceptable. It generates the risk of a renewed escalation in violence, and constitutes a central obstacle in the way of Israeli willingness to move forward towards a two-state settlement. We therefore conclude that the British Government is correct to support Israel’s goal of bringing rocket fire from Gaza to an end.”

The committee also concludes “that the apparent shift in the US approach to Israel under President Obama constitutes an important and potentially effective change in the external pressures facing the country.” Taking this a step further, the committee suggests that “efforts at diplomatic persuasion have to date been ineffective in securing Israeli compliance with a number of Quartet demands.”  But the report does not mention any further non-diplomatic sanctions to secure Israeli compliance, aside from the partial arms embargo.

The report also coincided with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s announcement that the UK should talk to moderate members of the Taliban. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also made similar suggestions, indicating that Britain—which faces less pressure at home from right-wing pro-Israeli groups than Obama’s administration-- may be coordinating the new policy of talking to groups classified as “terrorists” with the United States.

Israel accused UK and EU of ‘interference’

The same day the British foreign affairs committee issued its findings, the Israeli government lashed out at Britain and the EU for funding “Breaking the Silence’s” activities—a group of former Israeli soldiers who recently testified that violations of humanitarian law were committed in Gaza. "For a government to fund political activities in a foreign democratic country, whether that activity is pro or against the government of that country is very strange," said an Israeli official. "It's a very strange interference."