Israel could be in breach of a major trade and human rights agreement connecting Tel Aviv with Europe, and the British government doesn’t seem to care. This is unsurprising. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be waving the Israeli flag over every city, town, village and hamlet in the West Bank before the British establishment raises a finger, and it will take the Palestinians of Gaza being driven into the sea for Israel’s crimes to count as “real”. Even then, many in British politics and will probably simply shrug their shoulders, as they did when the de facto defender of Israel and the Gulf States in Westminster — who also happens to be an under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office — brushed off a praiseworthy and very pertinent Parliamentary question in just eight words. Would the Foreign Secretary, a Liberal Democrat MP asked, “hold discussions with his EU counterparts on the compatibility of recent sentencing decisions by the Israeli judiciary with the human rights standards set in the EU-Israel Association Agreement?” Conservative minister Tobias Ellswood had the task of replying. His job description quite possibly reads thus: “Must be capable of dismissing curtly any and all ethical concerns around foreign policy on a daily basis.” As he does whenever any MP, peer or journalist asks a question, Ellswood just dismissed this one out of hand. “We have no plans to hold such discussions,” was his answer in its entirety.
So is Israel in breach of that agreement? In essence, the EU-Israel Association Agreement is a trade deal, but it has three headline “considerations” that form the essential premises. The third of these is that “the principles of the United Nations Charter, particularly the observance of human rights and democracy… form the very basis of the Association.” The deal was negotiated by the European Union and has as signatories most of Western Europe, notably Greece, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, alongside the overall European Community. This is not, therefore, a deal that is solely up to the European Union to decide upon; review the scribbled signatures on the document and you may decipher that of former Conservative MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who signed on behalf of Britain in his then capacity as Foreign Secretary. It is our deal as much as the EU’s, and the terms are clearly not being adhered to by the State of Israel.
In fairness, most British trade deals include homilies to human rights, and these sections of the contracts are routinely ignored. We have trade deals with the Gulf and North African states, and so on, and none are enforced on human rights grounds. Indeed, the presence of a trade deal, and the sparkling commercial growth that comes with them, is usually the single biggest barrier to spreading human rights that Western countries create for themselves. Who cares about civil liberties when the pounds and Euros are flowing?
With Israel, though, it may be different. There is still a public debate about the way that Israel conducts itself. When Saudi Arabia executes dissidents, few people say that the government in Riyadh is simply trying to protect itself (which is, in a very broad sense, true). When Vladimir Putin annexes land that is not Russian, the world protests. When the Israeli authorities and their agents act immorally and illegally (including possible war crimes and crimes against humanity), we forgive and allow wiggle room. It is infuriating to watch.
The EU-Israel Association Agreement takes as its inspiration for ethical matters the UN Charter. Apologists for Israel’s excesses will already be on edge; ask charlatan Netanyahu and he will snort that the charter is a bastard document not worth the paper it is written on. He believes, as many right-wing Israeli politicians do, that the UN is part of a global conspiracy to besmirch his country. He forgets, of course, that when the UN Charter was written in 1945 the nascent organization would go on to provide Israel with the nearest thing it has to a legal basis for its existence. So if the Israeli prime minister wants to contest the rules laid out in the EU-Israel Association Agreement, he will also — presumably — be contesting the right of his own country to exist.
The terms of the UN Charter clearly put Israel in breach of the EU agreement. Article One reads that “the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” must form the underlying basis for the international pact. Chapter XI covers the rights of people not living in “self-governing territories” and says that “the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount” and UN member states “accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories.” There is a tedious argument to be had that the Palestinian Authority constitutes a government for Palestine, ignoring, amongst other matters, that the legitimacy of a government comes from its ability to secure its own people and its own borders. In Palestine’s case, both of these responsibilities lie with the occupying power, Israel, meaning that in that sense alone, Chapter XI applies to Israel’s conduct.
The list of charges against Israel is now too long to mention in detail, and is probably well known to those who read articles on the MEMO website. What is worth saying is that MPs should keep asking questions of the Foreign Office ministers who routinely dismiss the concerns of constituents who believe that Israel is breaking international laws and conventions, as well as agreements such as the EU-Israel trade deal. It may feel like bashing heads against a brick wall, but it needs to continue. As the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has pointed out, the EU co-operates with Israel to an extent not seen with many other partners. The legal and moral illegitimacy of this preferential treatment is clear; the legal basis for it should now be under serious scrutiny.