Could the UK lead the way in breaking the peace process impasse?

Could the UK lead the way in breaking the peace process impasse?

Could the UK lead the way in breaking the peace process impasse?
Destroyed buildings stand amid the rubble in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, Feb. 3, 2024. (Reuters)
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Freedom from the shackles of the need to be elected, and perhaps even an acknowledgment that it is unlikely there would be a Conservative government after the next general election, might have done UK’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron a world of good in terms of his approach to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
It was only to be expected, in light of the dangerous volatility in a Middle East on the brink of a wider war, that the region would be high on the list of British foreign policy priorities. But there are signs that in his new political role, Cameron is ready to lead a new and much bolder effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and, equally important, one that distinguishes itself, at least for now, from Washington’s position.
To begin with, Cameron has become a frequent visitor to the region, including trips to Israel and Palestine, which has made Britain’s presence there more visible. But he has now also grabbed the headlines with a groundbreaking speech in which he departed from the usual formula of generic and abstract support for a two-state solution. He went further by stating that the Palestinian people would need to be shown “irreversible progress” toward actually achieving this.
More crucially, he said: “As that happens, we — with allies — will look at the issue of recognizing a Palestinian state, including at the United Nations.”
Is one of these allies he referred to the US? In diplomatic terms, this speech was a bombshell. Not surprisingly, he chose the very sympathetic Conservative Middle East Council as the venue to test the waters for what would be a sea change not only in terms of British policy toward the conflict but, as Cameron implied, also on the part of other countries.
Being cognizant of the fact that London does not often take a stand independently of Washington on an issue that is central to US domestic and foreign policy, especially during an election year, this might suggest that the Biden administration, itself exasperated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing coalition partners, has agreed, at least tacitly, to the UK going ahead with a policy that could remove one of the major obstacles to achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
On the other hand, if there is no American support for the policy, which one should doubt, it might mean that the UK and some of its European allies are recognizing that it is in their best interests to bring to an end this seemingly endless conflict that is harming their interests in the region and causing far-reaching social-political repercussions within their societies.
In recent years the UK has neglected to develop any encompassing strategy on the Middle East. Until recently, the reduced importance the current government attached to the region was demonstrated by its tilt toward the Indo-Pacific. It ignored the destabilizing political undercurrents in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and mainly concentrated on trade.
For instance, the UK cut £90 million from its budget for conflict prevention in the Middle East, and despite a number of Middle Eastern states still having high regard for the training provided by the British military, most of the region views the country as having a waning diplomatic influence.
Attempting to make a distinction between political and economic relations and social-political implications was clearly artificial from the outset.

In his new political role, David Cameron is ready to lead a new and much bolder effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yossi Mekelberg

Considering that the UK exports more to the Middle East than to China and India combined; that the Gulf countries are the sixth-largest market for British goods; and that inward investment to the UK from the region is crucial to ensure its overseas investment figures remains in good shape, political developments are simply too important for the UK to ignore.
But the economic angle is only one facet of the importance of the Middle East to the UK. Its proximity and demography also hugely affect political and security considerations, including efforts to curb extremism, safeguard energy supplies and contain Iran’s adventurism.
The very idea that as a major power the UK could scale down or downgrade the Middle East and North Africa region in its list of priorities was irresponsible to begin with, and the events that have followed Oct. 7 serve as a rude awakening to this fact.
Admittedly, for reasons that are difficult to fathom, the UK, despite its colonial past and the responsibility it must bear for some of the underlying ills that ail the Middle East, among them the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is respected and perceived as conducting a more sound and even-handed approach than the US, one that reflects a better understanding of the intricacies of the region.
That does not negate the fact that some of the reasons for the UK becoming a less influential power in the world have been self-inflicted. Firstly, successive British governments overstated the “post-Cold War dividend” and made major cutbacks to the nation’s armed forces, which have become over-stretched in their attempts to fulfill the country’s global commitments while lacking the required resources.
Secondly, the ill-advised Brexit continues to undermine the UK’s influence on the world stage. The withdrawal from the EU, combined with the reduced military capacity, have led to an over-reliance on America’s military and diplomatic prowess in Britain’s attempts to remain relevant, which has proved to be a double-edged sword.
Leading the way in recognizing a Palestinian state could be a game changer in advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and thereby also contributing to regional stability. The importance of recognizing Palestine as a state prior to the start of peace negotiations lies in the fact that it would rectify the problem of the anomaly and asymmetry in talks between an internationally recognized state, Israel, and a non-state representative of the Palestinian people, the Palestine Liberation Organization.
If the international community genuinely supports a two-state solution, recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be a move in the right direction. Negotiations could then revolve around the specific details of borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements, without Palestinian statehood remaining a pressure point for an Israeli diktat of the nature of a peace agreement.
It would require also that Palestinian negotiators be pragmatic and realistic about what compromises Israel can and cannot deliver.
Cameron’s bold statement, should it become official British policy, and there is no guarantee of this, could not only prove to be an invaluable contribution by the UK toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would also announce the return of British policy to the heart of global politics by playing a leading role in efforts to grapple with one of the most intricate and hitherto intractable issues in world politics.
Whether this will also be a moment for the US, especially during an election year, to follow, or even encourage the UK to take the lead, in recognizing Palestine as an independent state, and in so doing create a new momentum for peace, remains to be seen.

Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House.
X: @YMekelberg

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