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UK's Royal Society of Arts apologises over trade event attended by Israeli ambassador

RSA says it has opened an investigation into its hosting of event promoting UK-Israel trade ties also attended by UK deputy prime minister
Pro-Palestinian protestors outside London's Royal Society of Arts gathered to oppose a trade conference organised by Israeli embassy to encourage investing in Israeli start-ups (Areeb Ullah/MEE)

The Royal Society of Arts in London has said it is investigating how an event promoting UK-Israeli trade ties, which was attended by Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely and British deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden, was allowed to take place on its premises. 

A spokesperson for the RSA told Middle East Eye that organisers had not disclosed the "full event details in advance" and apologised to "anyone affected and upset" by Thursday's event, which was also addressed remotely by Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

"An event is being held at the RSA today by an external client who did not disclose the full event details in advance. The RSA neither condones nor endorses this event. We are an apolitical organisation and have launched an internal investigation," a spokesperson told MEE.

"We apologise extensively to anyone affected and upset by this today and will ensure that robust measures are put in place in the future to ensure this will not happen again."

Internal emails seen by MEE showed that the RSA had apologised to staff members upset by the event and advised them to contact human resources if they wanted further support.

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Crowds of protesters carrying Palestinian flags gathered outside Thursday's event in central London, watched by dozens of police officers. The London Metropolitan Police said it had made one arrest of a man who protested from inside the venue.

The Restart Il. Economy London summit, held with support from the Israeli embassy, aimed to encourage investments in Israeli start-ups following the 7 October Hamas-led attacks in southern Israel in which about 1,200 people were killed.

Since then, Israel has waged war against Hamas in Gaza, killing more than 18,000 people in a campaign in which its armed forces have faced accusations of war crimes from human rights and humanitarian organisations and UN agencies.

Hotovely's appearance at the event came hours after she said in an interview with Sky News that Israel would not accept a Palestinian state. Asked whether Palestinians would have a state in a peace settlement, Hotovely said: "Absolutely no."

According to a schedule seen by MEE, the UK’s deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden attended the event as a "guest of honour". The UK's trade attache to Israel, Matthew Salter, and Ian Austin, who is the prime minister's trade envoy to Israel, were also there.

The UK government had not responded to MEE's requests for comment at the time of publication.

In a social media post promoting Dowden's attendance, the Cabinet Office said he had told the event: "From our shared history and shared values flows so much shared enterprise.”

The UK government has remained supportive of Israel in its war against Hamas despite widespread calls for a ceasefire.

But David Cameron, the UK's foreign secretary, on Thursday announced plans to ban individuals responsible for settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank from entering the UK, following a similar plan by the European Union.

"Israel must take stronger action to stop settler violence and hold the perpetrators accountable," Cameron said in comments posted on social media.

Industry leaders from Israel’s tech sector, including Yossi Matias, a vice president at Google, were also in attendance at Thursday's event.

Matias's appearance came a day after workers at Google held a vigil outside its London offices condemning the tech giant's continued cooperation with Israel following the death of a former Palestinian Google intern in Gaza.

MEE understands that the RSA told staff they could walk out if they were “uncomfortable” with the Israeli embassy event taking place at the venue.

Protestors chanted 'shame on you' at attendees of an event promoting trade to Israel
Protestors chanted 'shame on you' at attendees of an event promoting trade with Israel (Areeb Ullah/MEE)

The RSA Union, which represents workers in the society, said it "stood in full solidarity with the Palestinians" and "appalled" that the RSA was hosting senior dignitaries from the Israeli government. 

"Many staff made the decision to leave the building upon learning about the event," said the RSA Union in a statement. 

"To witness the RSA, an organisation with a stated vision of enabling 'people, places, and the planet to flourish', endorsing and profiting off the back of an ongoing genocide, is absolutely shameful, and is unfortunately an illustration of the depths the organisation has sunk to in the last year under the leadership of CEO Andy Haldane." 

Following the event, writer Joanne Limburg said she had "resigned her RSA fellowship" in response to the society hosting the Israeli trade event. 

Salma, who found out about the event hours before it was due to take place, said she was shocked the RSA had hosted the event.

“This type of event does not fall within the ethical standards of the RSA, especially given that Isaac Herzog addressed this delegation today,” she said.

“Herzog is a man who believes the entire nation of Palestine is responsible for October 7. That is collective punishment. That is a war crime.

"British investors should not be investing in Israeli businesses when genocide, apartheid, and war crimes are taking place. This country has a proud history of standing up to apartheid, and we need to remind these investors of that history.”

Yael Kahn said she joined the protest to oppose Herzog and attempts by the UK government to continue “business as usual” with Israel.

“Herzog supports genocide, and I can't stand to allow this man to be given a platform now as Israel kills children in Gaza,” Kahn told MEE. “The British government can't continue business as usual with Israel when it's committing a genocide."

Dozens of protesters stood outside the RSA, with some waving Palestine flags and beating drums to disrupt the conference.

The crowds shouted “Shame on you” at attendees as they left the venue.

Hours after the protest began, police told attendees that they had enacted public order powers to move them to a side street where they continued to demonstrate noisily.

The UK has promoted close business ties with Israel in recent years.

Earlier this year, the countries agreed to a strategic partnership in which the UK pledged to confront “anti-Israel bias” in international institutions, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

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, as well as including cooperation to tackle antisemitism and on regional geopolitical issues.

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