Hugh Robertson succeeded Alistair Burt as Minister for the Middle East in october 2013

Hugh Robertson succeeded Alistair Burt as Minister for the Middle East in october 2013

By Justin Cohen

Britain’s new Middle East minister has claimed some of Israel’s friends take the “wrong approach” in constantly justifying the country’s actions and should put more pressure on it to make compromises for peace.

Hugh Robertson’s comments came during a forthright interview with the Jewish News, in which he stated his “enormous sympathy” for Benjamin Netanyahu’s position on negotiating with Hamas and insisted it would be “impossible” for Britain to deal with any new Palestinian government featuring the group while it still supports terror.

He insisted the timing of the reconciliation arrangement had been “unhelpful” – marking the UK’s first public criticism of the arrangement – but claimed that Jerusalem had similarly taken damaging steps, including the announcement of new settlements.

In his first interview in the role with the Jewish media, Robertson said he agreed “100 percent” with British envoy to Israel Matthew Gould’s warning that Israel risked losing friends over its approach to settlements.

He added: “I think there has been a real temptation in the past for friends of Israel to justify the actions of the Israeli Government to the British people. I know it’s difficult and involves unpalatable compromises, but friends of Israel should be trying to persuade the Israeli government to make compromises.

“If this can be achieved, the economic benefit to Israel and the wider region would be enormous. It’s something I feel strongly about. I hear people who say they are friends of Israel providing all the reasons why they shouldn’t be doing all of this, constantly justifying [the country’s policies], and it’s quite the wrong approach. Friends of Israel should be helping it to find a way through this and deliver an agreement.”

But BICOM’s Dermot Kehoe took issue with the remarks, saying the organisation “does not recognise [the minister’s] description of most friends of Israel, who strive to promote a two-state solution and the importance of achieving a negotiation peace agreement”.

Netanyahu and John Kerry attend a joint press conference at the Israeli Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on Dec 5, 2013.

Netanyahu and John Kerry attend a joint press conference at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on Dec 5, 2013.

And Conservative Friends of Israel director Stuart Polak said: “Friends of Israel should make no apologies for the important part they play in standing up for the only democracy in the region, as well as supporting Israel as it makes the necessary compromises for peace.”

The minister, who succeeded Alistair Burt last October, expressed hope that the suspension of peace talks was no more than a “pause” and warned that the likely consequences of a final breakdown in talks – the Palestinians applying for international recognition and further settlement announcements – would make a two-state solution all the more difficult.

Rather than the two sides indulging in the “blame game”, he said: “I would encourage both sides to have a real look at themselves and see what more they can do to bring about a peace process.”

The UK wanted the Israelis to release the final agreed batch of prisoners and not announce more settlements, he said. To the Palestinians, Britain had made clear “there are many things they have done that are unhelpful”.

And Robertson had a clear message on Hamas – which remains proscribed in the UK. “If Hamas was part of a future Government and it remains a supporter of terrorism, that would make it impossible for this country, as things stand, to support that government.”

Two weeks after Israel’s UK Ambassador claimed British and international funding was “enabling” the Palestinian Authority to make payments to terrorists by swelling its general coffers through aid, he roundly denied the charge.

“The British Government does not support terrorism,” he said. “This is sometimes bandied around, but it is not the case.” Pressed on the issue of the payments, he instead turned again to settlement, saying: “But by the same token, Israel is building settlements that are illegal. We’ve got to break out of this blame game where each side throws rocks at the other.”

While BICOM described the minister’s comments on terrorist payments as“disappointing”, Polak said: “The PA freely admit, and are proud of the fact, that they pay salaries to terrorist prisoners. The British Government ought to be challenging them on this horrific practice, not simply brushing it under the carpet. As a friend of both Israel and the Palestinians, it should condemn this.”

The interview also covered Iran’s nuclear plans. Robertson insisted Britain was fully aware that it was sanctions that brought Tehran to the table, “so we are not going to give up our best card until we have got real and substantive movement from the Iranian regime where we need it”.

He also moved to allay the concern of some of Israel’s supporters about what Parliament’s refusal to intervene in Syria said about its readiness to act if required against Iran. He said: “There were very particular circumstances around the Syria vote that won’t necessarily be replicated if there was another situation. We’re nearing the end of this parliament so we’ll have a different set of parameters driving any vote.

“This country has not been shy about involvement where we’ve believed this country’s national interests and the wider interests are served by intervention. Anybody who thinks that one vote signalled the end of UK intervention is wrong.”