British Prime Minister Theresa May publicly criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his comments about Israel last week. Kerry’s statement came days after the United States abstained from a UN Security Council resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements.
Kerry’s speech on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was unusually sharp by U.S. standards, referencing America’s history of racial segregation to describe the Israeli occupation and even referencing the “Nakba” with empathy, something no other high level U.S. official has ever done. Kerry also took aim at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he blames for the failure of peace talks in 2014, calling his government the “most rightwing coalition in Israeli history.”
In a highly unusual rebuke of America’s top diplomat, Theresa May’s spokesperson called Kerry’s comments “inappropriate” and even attacked the secretary of state for suggesting settlements were a major obstacle to peace. The U.S. State Department responded bluntly, saying the Obama administration was “surprised” by May’s statement, since Kerry’s speech covered a range of issues. The State Department also noted that the UNSC resolution was “in-line with the UK’s own longstanding policy and its vote at the United Nations last week.”
Britain played a key role brokering Security Council Resolution 2334 behind the scenes. The resolution prompted a swift backlash from a furious Netanyahu, who summoned the ambassadors of countries that supported the motion and threatened to cut funding from the UN. Trump, meanwhile, said Kerry’s speech proved the Obama administration was treating Israel with “disdain and disrespect,” and urged Israel to “stay strong” until he takes office in January.
Seizing on this partisan reaction, May’s public criticism was an unorthodox attempt to rekindle Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States. In a post-Brexit world, the British government is increasingly isolated from Europe and far from a priority for the incoming U.S. president. After his November win, Donald Trump spoke to nine other world leaders before speaking with May. During that conversation, he offered a highly unusual and casual invitation to the British PM to visit the United States, simply saying: “If you travel to the US you should let me know.” A few weeks later, Trump caused even more frustration within the British government, when he suggested far-right UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who led the charge on Brexit, should be the UK’s ambassador to the United States.
May’s statement is strikingly out of touch with the European position on Kerry’s speech, specifically, and on the Israel-Palestine conflict, more generally. Germany, for example, welcomed Kerry’s statement, while France will be convening a Middle East peace conference in January, much to Israel’s chagrin.
Trump will embolden the dangerous, pro-occupation, and anti-peace elements of Israel’s expansionist far-right. By implicitly supporting these policies, May’s overtures to the most unqualified and uninformed U.S. president ever will put Britain on the wrong side of history when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict.