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UK rejects Israel 'apartheid' label in new trade and security pact

UK also commits to confronting 'anti-Israel bias' at UN Human Rights Council in deal struck ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to London
People walk past projections of the flags of Israel and the British Union Jack displayed on the walls of the old city of Jerusalem on September 10, 2022, days following the death of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (AFP)
People walk past projections of the flags of Israel and the British Union Jack displayed on the walls of the old city of Jerusalem on September 10, 2022, days following the death of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (AFP)

The UK government has agreed to oppose the use of "apartheid" to describe Israel's treatment of Palestinians as part of a new "strategic partnership" between the two countries.

In an agreement signed in London on Tuesday, the UK government also pledged to confront “anti-Israel bias” in international institutions, including at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

The deal, signed ahead of a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beginning Thursday, was agreed in London by British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.

The agreement, titled "The 2030 Roadmap for UK-Israeli Bilateral Relations", is primarily aimed at deepening "economic, security and technology ties" between the two countries and cooperating to tackle "the scourge of antisemitism" and geopolitical issues facing the region, including Iranian influence.

"As we approach the 75th anniversary of UK-Israel relations, our Roadmap will allow us to fully take advantage of the opportunities in areas of mutual interest, including tech, trade and security," said Cleverly, in comments following the publication of the report.

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'It seems noteworthy and remarkable that the UK government pushes ahead with this now, given that we are really on the cusp of the worst constitutional crisis ever'

- Yair Wallach, researcher

"The UK and Israel also stand together, defiant in the face of the malign influence of Iran in the region, and against the wider scourge of antisemitism."

The agreement included a commitment to "tackling the disproportionate focus on Israel in the UN and other international bodies, including attempts to delegitimise it or deny its right to self-defence".

It said: "The UK and Israel will work together to tackle the singling out of Israel in the Human Rights Council as well as in other international bodies. In this context, the UK and Israel disagree with the use of the term ‘apartheid’ with regard to Israel."

A number of human rights groups, including B'tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have in recent years - following similar statements by Israeli and Palestinian activists - determined that the term applies to the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Last year, Michael Lynk, the UN's special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, who reports to the Human Rights Council, said in a report that the treatment of Palestinians "satisfies the prevailing evidentiary standard for the existence of apartheid".

The deal added that the UK opposed a UN General Assembly request to the International Court of Justice for an opinion on Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories, saying that it "undermines the efforts to achieve a settlement through direct negotiations between the parties, which remains the only viable path to a lasting peace".

The UK government also expressed its opposition to "Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions [sic] campaigns", an apparent reference to the BDS Movement which seeks to pressure Israel to comply with international law in the occupied territories.

The deal said: "Such campaigns are at variance with UK government policy, and not only unfairly single out Israel and undermine efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and reconciliation, but can contribute to the deplorable rise of antisemitism in the UK. The UK is committed to ending any such campaigns by public bodies, including through legislation."

The press release accompanying the report added that Cleverly would raise the issue of rising violence in Israel and the occupied West Bank, which has seen at least 86 Palestinians and 13 Israelis killed since the beginning of the year.

Yair Wallach, a senior lecturer in Israeli studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, said it was "remarkable" that the UK decided to sign the deal at time when Israel is gripped by turmoil over government attempts to limit the power of the judiciary.

"It seems noteworthy and remarkable that the UK government pushes ahead with this now, given that we are really on the cusp of the worst constitutional crisis ever [in Israel]," he told Middle East Eye.

He noted that a number of Israel's other traditional allies had put some distance between themselves and the new Israeli government, which includes figures from the far-right of the Jewish settler movement who have called for the "wiping out" of Palestinian villages.

"Considering the relatively mute and cautious note that Netanyahu received in Berlin and Paris and that he's not invited to the White House... that they choose to push ahead at this moment is quite extraordinary," said.

MEE contacted the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for a comment about the deal, but had received no response at time of publication.

'International legitimacy'

Israel is currently experiencing a political crisis that has pitted Netanyahu’s far-right government against the country’s civil society, academic and business elite, as well as former government ministers and military figures.

Proposed government reforms would allow lawmakers to scrap supreme court rulings with a simple majority vote, among other changes

The prime minister is himself currently on trial for corruption, and the reforms could enable him to evade conviction or see his case dismissed.

Netanyahu's visit to London is expected to provoke protests, both over the government's ongoing repression of Palestinians and the judicial reforms.

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Ahead of the visit, more than 1,300 Israeli intellectuals and artists signed a letter calling on the British government not to "cooperate" with Netanyahu and not to hand him "international legitimacy".

Writers David Grossman and Dorit Rabinian, filmmakers Amos Gitai and Uri Barbash and artist Tamar Geter were among the signatories, along with many other academics, researchers and lawyers.

"During this state of emergency, which is tearing apart the army, the police and civil society, Netanyahu is trying to meet with the leaders of the West to create a representation of international legitimacy for his rule," read the letter, which was published on Tuesday.

"We appeal to all the democrats in Britain and they are called to publicly support the fateful struggle of democratic Israel."

Fears are also growing that there could be a wider outbreak of violence in April when Passover, Easter, and Ramadan all overlap.

CIA director William Burns recently said current tensions in the West Bank bear an "unhappy resemblance" to the Second Intifada.

The threat of an uncontrollable outbreak of violence prompted JordanEgypt and the US to initiate de-escalation efforts in recent months, but it remains unclear if they will be able to contain the violence amid continuing Israeli attacks. 

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