Visiting British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu butted heads publicly on Wednesday over whether Israeli settlements hinder the peace process.
Speaking before Government Press Office cameras ahead of their meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Netanyahu welcomed Johnson and said he looked forward to visiting London later this year to celebrate the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, which laid key diplomatic groundwork for Jewish statehood.
Johnson recalled the time in his youth when he worked in a kibbutz and joked about his “not-very-substantial contribution to the Israeli economy back then.” On a serious note, he went on to say that Prime Minister Theresa May and the rest of the UK government are “rock-like supporters of Israel.”
“What we want to see is an Israel that is at peace with its neighbors,” said Johnson, who had just come from meetings with Palestinian officials in Ramallah. “I should remind you that the policy of my government is for a two-state solution, which is what we want to achieve and help to bring about in a modest and humble way. And obviously we want to help remove the obstacles to that.”
He then briefly changed the topic, stating that Israel has “an absolute right to live in security, and the people of Israel deserve to be safe from terrorism. That’s our absolute priority.”
Jerusalem and London cooperate in various areas to “ensure the stability of the entire region,” Johnson said, only to return to the thorny issue of settlements. “And of course we must also try to remove obstacles to peace and progress, such as the settlements, which you and I have discussed before.”
The foreign secretary then addressed plans between Israel and the UK to negotiate a new free trade agreement, following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union last year. He hailed growing bilateral commercial ties: “We have the fastest growing Aston Martin dealership anywhere in the world here in Israel. We’ve done some fantastic export deals with you. But you’ve also greatly contributed to our economy.”
Netanyahu spoke up again, saying that he and Johnson evidently agree “on most things but not on all things.” The reason peace has been elusive for 100 years is not the settlements, he insisted. “It’s the persistent refusal to recognize a nation state for the Jewish people in any boundaries. If you want to solve a problem, go to the core of the problem.”
Posting a photo with Netanyahu from the encounter later on his Twitter account, Johnson called his conversation “friendly & frank.” He also related that the discussion focused on the two-state solution, trade and “concern over illegal settlements.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Johnson had toured settlements with the leftist group Peace Now.
He also traveled to Ramallah for meetings with the Palestinian leadership.
“The policy of our government in the UK is absolutely unchanged,” Johnson told reporters in Ramallah, standing next to Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki on a podium near a “State of Palestine” seal.
“We remain committed to a two-state solution, to that vision, for the resolution of this conflict. You know, I really think it is possible,” he said.
Johnson criticized Israeli settlement building in his comments in Ramallah, but also spoke out against Palestinian violence.
“There is of course the need for the Israeli people to feel that they can live in security without the fear of terrorism and violence,” he said.
During an interview with Israel’s Channel 10, he indicated that the US administration was concerned by Israel’s recent expansions of West Bank settlements.
“So I think the very clear message that I got from the press conference between Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and President Trump [on February 15] is that I think there is anxiety in the White House, as there has been for a long time, about the pace of settlements and illegal settlements on the West Bank.”
The UK has “not deviated from our traditional view that a two-state solution is the way ahead,” he said. “We really want to encourage that. And we do think that settlements are illegal and get in the way of it.”