Last month, the British government was among those backing Israel's assault against Hamas targets in the Gaza strip. Days ago, it endured strong criticism at home for refusing to support the Palestinians' bid for enhanced recognition at the UN.
Yet this week, relations between Israel and Britain – a country that has consistently been one of Israel's key Western allies – have plunged to a new low.
Britain joined other European states on Monday in dressing down their respective Israeli ambassadors over Israel's authorization of 3,000 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its green-lighting of development of the so-called "E1" area, which would cut off Jerusalem from the Palestinian West Bank. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the settlements are "illegal" and cast doubt on Israel's commitment to achieving peace.
Further, diplomatic sources made it known that the UK had given thought to withdrawing its ambassador in Tel Aviv and was considering labeling produce originating from settlements in the Palestinian territories. Such a step could facilitate public boycotts and thus be financially punitive to Israel, given the UK's position as its third-largest trading partner.
But while Britain is ultimately not expected to take the diplomatically nuclear step of withdrawing its ambassador, observers were struck by the degree to which the UK and other European states acted together. France also rebuked the Israeli ambassador in Paris, and even Germany, normally reluctant to criticize Israel, expressing its “deep concern.”
“I think there is as much of an effort as possible, in general, to get an 'E3' consensus especially,” says Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator currently working as the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank.
Mr. Levy points to increasing cooperation between the so-called E3 – comprising the UK, France, and Germany – most notably last year during a UN Security Council vote over a settlements resolution, which was vetoed by the US.
“I think in general there is an attempt to come together, especially around something like this, where they are saying: 'How do convince Israel to reverse this?' or over [Israeli's] withholding of Palestinian tax revenue.”
Tentative steps by the EU's three largest states to pursue a united diplomatic front would continue, he suggests, particularly if the US “continues to be paralyzed by its own domestic politics on this issue.”
As in London and Paris, Israeli diplomatic representatives in Denmark, Sweden, and Spain were summoned for discussions about the settlement plans while the French president, François Hollande, and the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, issued a joint statement.
Speaking at a press conference with Mr. Monti, Mr. Hollande didn’t rule out tougher measures, adding, "We don't want to shift into sanctions mode. We are more focused on persuading. It's an important moment, but I appeal for responsibility."
Other options open to major European players such as Britain and France, whose foreign ministers will discuss events in the Middle East on Dec. 10, include suspending strategic dialogue meetings with Israel.
Britain recently hosted one of the meetings at the beginning of November, when Foreign Office staff and a high-level Israeli delegation discussed various issues, including preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and the conflict in Syria.
No radical shift
Levy meanwhile cautions against reading the latest diplomatic movements as the beginning of a more radical change in European foreign policy towards Israel.
“I would argue that Britain, along with other European states, has so deeply embedded itself in a position over the years that ultimately gives Israel impunity, and Israel has seen ultimately over time that there is no cost or consequence for a policy that has already put 600,000 settlers over the Green Line,” he says, referring to the demarcation line established between Israel and its neighbors after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
“This week may be a gradual shift away from that, but it does not look decisive because you are still talking about things that are in the realm of the largely symbolic and rhetorical.”