Boris Johnson Bows to Trump on the Middle East

Eager to curry favor and win a new trade deal, the British leader seems ready to follow the United States’ lead on the Israelis and Palestinians.

By Azriel Bermant, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.
U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hold a meeting at U.N. Headquarters in New York on Sept. 24, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hold a meeting at U.N. Headquarters in New York on Sept. 24, 2019. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

On Feb. 4, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, caused a stir when he condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s recently unveiled plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said that future Israeli annexations of West Bank settlements “could not pass unchallenged,” and he reiterated the EU’s commitment to a viable two-state solution.

His statement stood in stark contrast to the way the British government has responded to news of the Trump deal. Speaking in the House of Commons on Jan. 29, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that, while “no peace plan is perfect,” the Trump administration’s plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has its “merits.” Meanwhile, the U.K. foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, described the plan as “clearly a serious proposal, reflecting extensive time and effort.”

A close look, of course, shows that Trump’s plan would certainly not help the cause of peace. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that it could turn Israel into an apartheid state. Even current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has raised concerns in the past about Israel becoming a binational state, a fate that could come to pass if Israel is given a green light to annex the Jordan Valley and all its settlements on the West Bank. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank found that about half of Jewish Israelis viewed the deal as U.S. interference in the Israeli elections next month. At the same time, supporters of Netanyahu in the Likud party have wasted no time in pocketing Johnson’s support.

Whatever damage to the Middle East Johnson’s support for the plan may cause, then, his stance is not particularly surprising. After Britain’s departure from the EU late last month, his statement may be viewed as an attempt to curry favor with the U.S. president at a time when the country is increasingly dependent on the good graces of the United States in reaching a trade deal.

Before Trump entered the White House and Brexit was a done deal, the United Kingdom had adhered closely to the position of its European partners on Israel, consistently supporting a viable two-state solution, opposing the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and backing the nuclear deal with Iran and other major powers in 2015. When Trump started making threats to withdraw from the nuclear agreement in the spring of 2018, for example, Johnson, then the British foreign minister, even joined French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in last-ditch attempts to persuade the president to remain a signatory despite Israel’s dissatisfaction with the deal. Johnson flipped positions in January this year when he called for the Iran nuclear agreement to be replaced by a “Trump deal.”

In such pronouncements, Johnson and his team are trying to balance several imperatives. The United Kingdom’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been strongly influenced by the sensitivities of the country’s moderate Arab allies. It was not that long ago that Britain was wary of having too close a relationship with Israel for fear of upsetting moderate Arab opinion.

Indeed, it was the very fact that Britain was a declining power that brought about its membership in what was then the European Economic Community in 1973. The same year, U.K. Prime Minister Edward Heath refused to supply spare parts for Israel’s Centurion tanks or provide landing rights to U.S. military supply planes en route to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The United Kingdom was cagey about being identified publicly as a supporter of Israel because of fears about damage to its strategic and commercial interests in the Arab world, when Cold War tensions were at their height and the United Kingdom was overly reliant on Arab oil. Following the White House’s reluctance under U.S. President Ronald Reagan to condemn Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher scrawled in pen on a diplomatic cable received from Washington: “The U.S. just does not realise the resentment she is causing in the Middle East.” Thatcher feared that the Soviet Union and other radical forces would gain influence in the Arab world from Washington’s readiness to support Israeli actions.

Yet much has changed in the interim. The fact that envoys from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman were present at the unveiling of Trump’s peace plan speaks volumes. The Palestinian Authority has likewise expressed its disappointment over the reluctance of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar to criticize the Trump plan. (The Arab League has now issued a public condemnation of it.) Simply put, the United Kingdom today no longer fears a backlash from its Arab friends over support for Israel and U.S. policy in the region—because those allies, too, are moving closer to the U.S. position.

The U.K.’s backing of Trump in some ways echoes its decision to go along with the Carter administration’s Israel-Egypt peace treaty signed on March 26, 1979. The Arab world was fiercely opposed to the deal, viewing it as a betrayal of the Palestinians, and even some leading officials in Britain’s Foreign Office were concerned that the peace treaty would damage British interests in the Middle East. However, then-British Prime Minister James Callaghan played a quiet mediating role behind the scenes in persuading Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to compromise with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. This was not lost on President Jimmy Carter, who thanked Callaghan for his efforts.

The Thatcher government likewise gave its support for the U.S. bombing raid on Libya in April 1986 following Libyan involvement in terrorist attacks on U.S. service members. Thatcher sought to use her support for the Reagan administration to bolster her own country’s political standing and argue for stronger U.S. engagement in the Middle East peace process. While the United States was less inclined to heed Thatcher’s arguments over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the payoff for Britain emerged in the form of U.S. action against Irish Republican Army terrorism, with its approval of the U.K.-U.S. Extradition Treaty. As Reagan pointed out in a speech that May, “rejection of this treaty would be an affront to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, one European leader who, at great political risk, stood shoulder to shoulder with us during our operations against [Muammar al-]Qaddafi’s terrorism.”

More recently, in 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair supported the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq. Although history has not been kind to Blair over his support for the invasion, there is substantial evidence suggesting that his support for the United States over Iraq resulted in Bush’s announcement in March 2003 of the Roadmap for peace based on the vision of a two-state solution.

These days, the United Kingdom is back to needing the United States’ support again. Some ardent Brexiteers have argued that Britain’s withdrawal from Europe will give it the freedom and independence to win a free trade deal with Washington, thereby strengthening the special relationship. However, this argument ignores the major concessions—including perhaps on policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—that the United Kingdom will be likely to make in order to secure such a deal.

In the cases of Callaghan, Thatcher, and Blair, the United Kingdom could at least claim that its influence counted for something, that its close relationship with the United States was taken seriously in the Middle East, and that its position in Europe gave it heft. Today, in the wake of Brexit, Britain’s international standing is further diminished. The country continues to express public support for a viable two-state solution, but its backing of the Trump administration’s Middle East plan undermines this position. Indeed, in 2020, the United Kingdom’s alignment with the United States appears to be more an expression of its diminished power than its ability to play a constructive role on the world stage.

Azriel Bermant is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.