Duncan’s speech delivers a damning verdict on Israel

When a relatively important figure like Sir Alan Duncan is so expansive in his criticism of Israel, the landscape is really shifting, writes HA Hellyer

British Tory MP Alan Duncan, minister for international development, has joined the chorus of condemnation of Israel's actions against the Palestinians. Photo: Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
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Earlier this week, the British Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of recognising Palestine as a state. Perhaps even more importantly, however, was the harsh criticism of Israel delivered by a senior British politician the next day. Both these events represent something of a sea change in the UK. The question is: what will come next?

It is important to place the Parliamentary vote in context. More than 100 countries already recognise the state of Palestine. Britain is also not the first European country to take moves in that direction – Sweden has also, quite recently, expressed its intention to recognise Palestine.

It’s also not clear what effect the UK move will have on the Palestinians themselves. It does not end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It does not address the issues of Palestinian refugees, nor does it end the cycle of violence.

But the move is part of a trend, most clearly exemplified in a speech delivered the following day at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Alan Duncan is not a marginal member of British society. He served as minister of state for international development from 2010 to 2014 and is now the prime minister’s special envoy to Oman and Yemen. He is considered one of the most experienced British politicians on the region.

He is a senior member of the Conservative party, which has, for many years, been a staunch supporter of Israel. Finally, the speech he delivered was given in a particularly symbolic setting – in the heart of Whitehall, at the core of the British establishment, at the oldest think tank in the world.

The language Mr Duncan used – and the reasons why he used it – could not have been clearer: “This illegal construction and habitation is theft, it is annexation, it is a land grab – it is any expression that accurately describes the encroachment which takes from someone else something that is not rightfully owned by the taker. As such, it should be called what it is, and not by some euphemistic soft alternative.”

He was directly, openly and transparently critical of Israel, insisting that the Palestinian leadership negotiated not only in good faith, but offered everything that was needed for a sensible agreement.

In contrast, he argued, the Israeli government offered “absolutely nothing substantial” and he doubted they “ever had an intention of doing so”.

In attacking Israeli policies on the ground, particularly with regards to settlement building in the occupied territories, he made something very clear. In his opinion, there was no question that the time had come for Britain to adopt a tougher approach to Israel.

The description of Israel as “an occupier”, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as “theft”, “annexation” and “a land grab” used the same terminology as many Palestinian and pro-Palestinian intellectuals of the past few decades. In that regard, the language and discourse is not new – but it is certainly significant to hear that kind of address being given by this kind of a public figure.

His reasons were clear. Mr Duncan wants the issue of settlements to become a pariah-like topic: “Settlement endorsement should be put on a par with racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism.” If he were to succeed in that regard, it would fundamentally shift the relationship of the United Kingdom with Israel and its political order. And that is the point.

There are ramifications. Britain does not exist on its own in the international order – it has a key role in Europe, and an enduring relationship with the United States, where such criticisms would be unheard of. How this continuing British development will affect all that is not clear – but it is likely to have an impact.

The parliamentary vote is not indicative of a change of policy – but it represents something of a continuing pattern in the West to voice frustration with Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Mr Duncan’s speech, however, has the potential to be far more significant. From the heart of British political life, he’s established that a principled position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be simultaneously opposed to anti-Semitism and deeply critical of Israeli policies. With the continued intransigence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government, it’s likely he will not be the last one to make that point.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer