What would a UK embassy move to Jerusalem mean for Palestine?

It would not do more damage to Palestinian resistance than it would to British politics.

British Prime Minister Liz Truss and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid hold a bilateral meeting as they attend the 77th U.N. General Assembly, in New York, U.S., September 21, 2022
British Prime Minister Liz Truss and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid hold a bilateral meeting as they attend the 77th UN General Assembly, in New York on, September 21, 2022 [File: Reuters/Toby Melville]

It is remarkable to see how Israeli leaders cosy up to bad, unpopular, or even fascist foreign leaders, hoping to strengthen Israel’s perceived standing on the global stage. In the past, we saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pursue close relations with the likes of the United States’ Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Today, we see Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s fascination with his “good friend” Liz Truss, the new prime minister of the United Kingdom.

On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in September, Lapid thanked “his good” friend Truss for “positively considering moving the British Embassy to Jerusalem”.

During her Conservative leadership campaign, Truss had promised in a letter to the Conservative Friends of Israel parliamentary group to review a move to Jerusalem and now seems to indicate that she would make good on that promise. Last week, the British prime minister declared that she is “a huge Zionist” and a “huge supporter of Israel” in a speech at an event held during the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.

Pro-Israel groups in the UK are already lobbying for the embassy move and the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews is endorsing it. Apparently, land in West Jerusalem has also been earmarked for the embassy move.

The Israeli government and its supporters have, of course, been ecstatic, as they were when Trump pledged to move the US embassy to Jerusalem in December 2017.

That pledge, according to a recently published book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, was lobbied for by American businessman Sheldon Adelson, who had donated some $20m to Trump’s election campaign. Interestingly, when Trump made the announcement, in 2017, the UK under Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May joined many other states in condemning his decision.

Today, the consequences for Palestinians if the UK moves its embassy to Jerusalem are clear. This would be yet another act by a Western country that breaches international law and UN resolutions, which have repeatedly emphasised that East Jerusalem is an occupied Palestinian territory and that Israel continues to deny Palestinians their rights to their land and to self-determination.

As with Trump’s decision, a move by the UK in this direction would have a strong, destabilising effect on Palestinian politics. It would eat away even further at the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – a governing body set up specifically to oversee a “two-state solution” of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as envisioned under the Oslo Accords. Recognition from countries like the US – and now likely the UK – for Israel’s illegal declaration of occupied Jerusalem as its capital is making a Palestinian state – as negotiated in the accords – impossible. That would make the PA an even easier target for its political opponents and popular anger.

What a UK embassy move to Jerusalem would not do is quell Palestinian resistance. The Palestinian struggle has survived decades of British and other Western support for Israel; it would survive one more illegal act violating Palestinian rights.

Perhaps less obvious are the consequences this move would have for the UK. The country stands to gain nothing from breaking with its long-term position on Jerusalem and relocating, except to satisfy fringes of the Israel lobby in the UK, as well as the Israeli government. It may even lose a free trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council, as some Arab diplomats have warned.

The move would also cement the country’s position on the wrong side of history and continue its legacy of supporting colonialism in Palestine that started with the Balfour Declaration – for which we, Palestinians, are yet to get an apology. Worse still, it would normalise toxic, illiberal politics that allows small interest groups to press for political decisions that are not in the interest of the majority of British citizens.

During her campaign for the Conservative leadership election, Truss was seeking favour not just from Israel lobby groups. According to recent reports, she received more than $250,000 in donations from people linked to the finance world. Once she became prime minister, one of her first decisions was to introduce deregulation policies and tax cuts to benefit the wealthiest in the UK.

These policies have been extremely unpopular. As a result, Truss’s approval rating has dropped to -47, worse than her predecessor Boris Johnson had at the height of the political scandals he faced. She has been seen as a “walking disaster”, her policies bringing the Conservative government “near total condemnation by expert global opinion” at a scope not seen since the British invasion of Egypt over the Suez Canal in 1956, according to one commentator.

It is no surprise that the Israeli government seeks out someone like Truss – a conservative, unpopular foreign politician – to help normalise apartheid and the decades-long occupation and illegal annexation of Palestinian territories. It is doing so in the US as well.

Ahead of the November midterm elections, Israeli lobby group AIPAC has endorsed dozens of Republican congressional candidates who have questioned US President Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election, upholding Trump’s claim that his victory was “stolen”. It has also poured millions of dollars to undermine the campaigns of progressive members of the Democratic Party. For doing so, the lobby group has been heavily criticised by members of the US Jewish community and even accused of undermining US democracy.

Recent polls show that Truss is en route to bringing the Conservative Party’s worst electoral defeat in decades, as the Labour Party has gained significant support. But for us, Palestinians, a Labour government in London may not bring good news. Just as Biden’s administration did not reverse Trump’s embassy move and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, there is fear that a UK government led by Starmer’s Labour Party would not reverse such a damaging decision by its predecessor either.

Starmer succeeded as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a pro-Palestinian politician, who became the victim of a media witch hunt questioning his fitness for office. Starmer himself believes anti-Zionism to be anti-Semitism, and supports the IHRA definition, which conflates criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism.

As the British people reel from Truss’s unpopular policies, a possible move of the UK embassy to Jerusalem should be another alarm bell. As the saying goes, a person is judged by the company they keep. If the British prime minister is being praised by an apartheid government, that is not good news for the UK.

Israel purposefully seeks close relations with foreign leaders who defy the rule of law and undermine democracy at home and abroad. It does so because apartheid is not an easy sell on the international stage and neither are violations of international law and systematic abuses of the human rights of an occupied people.

A principled political leader who upholds democratic values and serves the will of their people would not associate themselves with Israel. They would naturally stand for Palestine – for justice and freedom.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.