Whether he was talking sense or not there is something rather pathetic about British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s intervention in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Interviewed by the BBC during his tour of a number of Middle Eastern countries, he said:
Amidst the opportunity for countries like Tunisia and Egypt, there is a legitimate fear that the Middle East peace process will lose further momentum and be put to one side, and will be a casualty of uncertainty in the region.
Part of the fear is that uncertainty and change will complicate the process still further. That means there is a real urgency for the Israelis and the United States.
Mr Hague was reacting to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to ‘reinforce the might of the state of Israel’ irrespective of what precise changes emerge from the popular uprising in Egypt . He said ‘This should not be a time for belligerent language.’ Without action now, ‘within a few years, peace may become impossible’.
Given the mood among Israeli policy-makers just now, there is very little likelihood that Hague’s words will be heeded. The government is adopting a very defensive posture, focusing almost entirely on the potential threats and discounting any benefits that might accrue from the possible introduction of genuine democracy in Egypt.
Hague must know this and it’s perhaps no accident that he made these remarks in a BBC interview rather than at a press conference in Israel, face-to-face with Israeli government officials as it were, where British Ministers of State and Foreign Secretaries have often come off worst when making critical comments about Israeli policy. Talking at a safe distance and reinforcing his message on Twitter, where he tweeted: ‘Time for bold leadership on Middle East Peace Process from the US & equally bold steps by Israelis and Palestinians’, his remarks were probably heard more loudly in the UK than in the Middle East.
In fact, Hague’s comments were almost certainly intended, first and foremost, to have an impact within the British and European political contexts. The Guardian‘s Julian Borger suggests that Hague was responding to domestic criticism that the coalition’s foreign policy lacks clarity. His strong and forthright language certainly provided that, although it’s easy to talk about ‘bold steps’ without proposing how to overcome the obstacles that brought the recent round of talks between Israel and the Palestinians to a halt.
Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and the EU as a whole have played a weak and almost invisible role in the Egypt crisis. For the Tory side of the Coalition, this would be seen as only proving what they have always contended: that Ashton’s appointment was a mistake and that the EU is incapable of responding to such a crisis. Step forward William Hague with a succinctly articulated policy designed to show that the British Foreign Office, pursuing British national interests, provides a more effective ‘European’ response than the institution of the EU set up for precisely this purpose. This will make the party’s Eurosceptics happy, but won’t cut much ice among other member states.
It’s also interesting to note that so far, criticism from establishment Jewish groups and pro-Israel bodies in the UK has not surfaced. Hague will not have forgotten the fury of major Jewish figures in the Tory Party, especially Lord Kalms, directed at him and David Cameron at the time of the 2006 war against Hizbullah in Lebanon, when they publicly rebuked Israel for its ‘disproportionate response’. But 5 years on, in coalition with the Liberal-Democrats who have consistently adopted a more critical stance towards Israel than the other two major parties and no doubt fully aware that prominent Jews in the UK are more ready to speak out publicly against the Netanyahu government, the Tories must now feel more secure remonstrating with Israel about ‘belligerent language’.
Looked at objectively, Hague’s statements should be applauded. Netanyahu is clearly using the Egyptian crisis to kick into the long grass the already lifeless so-called ‘peace process’. At least the British government has stated unequivocally that it believes Israel should be doing precisely the opposite. But it’s very doubtful that Hague’s intervention will have any serious impact whatsoever on the actions of the Israeli government.