The Israeli government plan to annex parts of the West Bank deepened splits within the Jewish community and British politics this week — even though the July 1 deadline to begin annexation passed without any decision taken.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote an article for Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot on Wednesday warning that the UK would “not recognise any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed by both parties”.
Meanwhile, Israel’s incoming UK ambassador Tzipi Hotovely gave an interview to Israeli news website Arutz Sheva on Wednesday in which she doubled down on the annexation plan, saying: “The important thing is that the Israeli government never agree to Palestinian statehood of any kind as part of a deal to apply sovereignty.”
On Monday, Lord Harry Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, was among 100 Jewish legal experts to sign the latest letter from members of the community opposing annexation.
Other signatories included former Supreme Court Justices, Lord John Dyson and Lord Lawrence Collins, and leading International Law Professor Philippe Sands QC.
They argued the land Israel planned to annex was occupied under international law, and that occupation does not confer sovereignty.
Many in the community now accept there is a growing generational divide, with many younger Jews unafraid to express strong criticism of PM Netanyahu’s government and wanting to do more than just speak out on the issue.
The Board of Deputies has resolutely resisted calls from some deputies for it to take stand on the issue of annexation, even though President Marie van der Zyl has accepted that “the UK Jewish community is divided” on the issue.
The Jewish Leadership Council has also refused to be drawn on the issue, with chair Jonathan Goldstein saying he “does not believe it is the job of the JLC or any other mainstream communal organisation to take strong political opinions for or against a democratically elected government in Israel”.
Earlier this month, another letter, signed by Anglo-Jewish notables – including the philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield, the scientist Lord Robert Winston and the former Conservative foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, also suggested a watershed in relations between British Jews and the current government of Israel.
The signatories said their concerns were “shared by large numbers of the British Jewish community, including many in its current leadership, even if they choose not to express them”.
But Gary Mond, the Honorary Treasurer of JNF UK and the Vice Chairman of the Board’s Defence Division, insisted that for “most Jews in the UK, Israel has a special place in their hearts”.
He added: “Part of that feeling comprises a profound respect for Israel as a wonderful Jewish country and its democratic institutions, as well as, for many, a degree of regret that for whatever reason they cannot live in Israel themselves.
“It is these feelings that lead, I am sure, to the majority of British Jews believing that it is for the citizens of Israel, and not the diaspora, to determine Israeli policy on matters of national importance to Israel.”
Colin Shindler, Emeritus Professor of Israel Studies at SOAS and an expert in Anglo-Jewry history, told the JC: “Since the Six-Day war in 1967, fringe views over the settlement drive have now become mainstream amongst British Jews.
“According to several scholarly surveys during the last decade, 75 per cent oppose the settlements.
“They, in all likelihood, represent a consensus against annexation and reflect the views of more than half of Israelis who probably oppose annexation.
“It also signals the shrinkage in sympathy for right-wing Zionism in the community.
“The UK campaign against annexation reflects a much broader diaspora disdain for the policies of the Netanyahu mode of governance.”
In his Yediot article published on Wednesday, Mr Johnson said he believed Mr Nentanyahu’s plans “will fail in their objective of securing borders and will be contrary to Israel’s own long-term interests”.
The PM added: “I am a passionate defender of Israel… the UK has always stood by Israel and its right to live as any nation should be able to, in peace and security.
“Our commitment to Israel ’s security will be unshakable while I am Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
“So it is with sadness that I have followed the proposals to annex Palestinian territory.”
On Tuesday, Middle East Minister James Cleverly had criticised “those voices in British politics who will jump at any opportunity to bring in sanctions and disinvestment” in an exchange over Israeli annexation in the House of Commons.
The former Conservative Party chairman’s remarks came after Labour shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said that “the silence from this government has been deafening” in relation to Israel’s plans and called on the government to “commit to a ban on settlement imports and recognise Palestine as this House voted to do”.
Ms Nandy had called for a ban on West Bank settlement goods last weekend in an article for the Observer.
Her plan, which is being backed by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, suggested Britain cannot be “a silent witness” to Israel’s planned extension of sovereignty to some 30 percent of the West Bank.
But in a statement responding to the proposal, Mrs van der Zyl said she would “urge Sir Keir and the Labour Party not to go down this route”.
She said: “The tactic of BDS is divisive and seeks to strike at the very legitimacy of the State of Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy and the world’s only Jewish State.”
The Board President added: “At our meeting with Keir Starmer on 19 June, I told him that while the UK Jewish community is divided on annexation, there is far more unity on the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement.’’
Ms Nandy’s proposals won the support for the left-wing Jewish group Yachad – which also rejected claims they represented the first step towards support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
“The Labour Party’s proposal makes clear that Israel within the Green Line is a legitimate entity that should not be subject to any kind of boycott or sanction, whilst targeting the illegitimacy of annexation over the Green Line,” Yachad said in a statement to the JC.
“Annexation and BDS both seek to eradicate the Green Line. It is not a ban on illegal settlement products that would advance the BDS cause, it is annexation that would strengthen it.”
The group added: “Yachad has consistently been clear that we do not support full BDS against Israel.’’
While not offering any official comment, it is understood that senior figures within the Jewish Labour Movement also privately expressed support for Labour’s proposals.
But Paul Charney, chairman of the Zionist Federation described Labour’s proposals as “at best premature, given that Israel has not yet finalised its intentions vis a vis extending its sovereignty to areas of Judea and Samaria / the West Bank and the Jordan Valley”.
He added: “The shadow foreign secretary’s call seems to suggest an all-too-eager bias against Israel, one which in this instance, may well be detrimental to Britain’s foreign policy, as it could arguably be seen as opposing the US and its efforts in producing a peace plan which takes into account the reality on the ground of both sides.”
Well-placed sources have told the JC that there is concern among some at the Israeli Embassy in west London over the impact new ambassador to Britain Tzipi Hotovely will have on relations with the UK community.
Previous ambassador Mark Regev departed the UK earlier this month observing that British Jewry “punches above its weight” as “an example to the rest of the diaspora”.
Asked for his view on annexation, Mr Regev told the JC: “We don’t use that word when we are talking about land to which we have a legal right.”
Ms Hotovely – who has served as a Minister of Diaspora Affairs in the Likud government – has previously been outspoken in her attacks on those criticism of Israel from the outside.