UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak embarked on a round of high-stakes Middle East diplomacy with an echo of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, saying that Israel is facing “its darkest hour” and telling Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu: “We want you to win.”
(Bloomberg) — UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak embarked on a round of high-stakes Middle East diplomacy with an echo of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, saying that Israel is facing “its darkest hour” and telling Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu: “We want you to win.”
Sunak was speaking alongside his counterpart ahead of their closed-door meeting on Thursday, as the UK prime minister joined a procession of foreign leaders visiting Israel in a bid to prevent the conflict from widening. Sunak said he welcomes Israel “taking every precaution” to avoid harming civilians in Gaza and that the UK is boosting aid.
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“We absolutely support Israel’s right to defend itself in line with international law, to go after Hamas, to take back hostages,” Sunak said. Netanyahu said this “will be a long war and we will count on your support.”
Sunak will go to Saudi Arabia later Thursday, his office told reporters in London. With the death toll mounting in Gaza amid an Israeli bombardment that followed Hamas’s incursion into southern Israel this month, Western leaders are seeking to avoid the conflict sucking in other countries. That’s especially after a blast at a hospital Tuesday in Gaza that Palestinian officials said killed hundreds. Israel and Hamas have issued rival claims about who was responsible.
Sunak’s Israel visit follows others by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday and US President Joe Biden on Wednesday. French President Emmanuel Macron has said he will travel to the region “as soon as I consider that we have a useful agenda and very concrete actions to drive forward.”
The prime minister told broadcasters British intelligence is still working to establish who was behind the blast at the Gaza hospital, and said it is important to avoid “jumping to conclusions.”
Hamas — designated a terrorist group by the European Union, the UK and the US — blames Israel for the explosion, while Israel’s army says the hospital was struck in a failed missile attack by militants from the Islamic Jihad group. Anti-Israel protests broke out in several major cities around the region.
There are also complicated domestic politics for Sunak to navigate. The Israel-Hamas conflict has led to a surge of reports of anti-Semitic incidents, as well as those of Islamophobia, the Metropolitan Police has said. UK Security Minister Tom Tugendhat alluded to that when he said Thursday British intelligence still hadn’t reached a conclusion on who was responsible for the hospital explosion.
“We’re going to be getting this right because the cost in terms of the loss of a peace opportunity or increased community tensions in the UK is too high of a price to pay,” he told Times Radio.
At a regular briefing in London, Sunak’s spokesman Max Blain said that seven British nationals have been confirmed killed in Hamas’s brutal attack on southern Israel earlier this month, and that it is feared some of the nine missing Britons may also be dead.
Sunak declined to be drawn on whether he would support a ground invasion by Israel into Gaza. “We have to remember that it is Hamas, the terrorist organization, that embeds itself in the civilian population and they should be held accountable for that,” he told broadcasters.
In a sign of the delicate political balance nations are trying to take on the Israel-Hamas conflict, on Wednesday both the UK and Russia abstained on a UN Security Council resolution calling for “humanitarian pauses” to deliver aid to Gaza, which was vetoed by the US but backed by the 12 other members.
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is also touring the Middle East, starting in Egypt on Thursday. He will press the Egyptians to open the Rafah border crossing from Gaza to allow foreign nationals to leave.
“It is in no one’s interests — neither Israeli, Palestinian nor the wider Middle East — for others to be drawn into this conflict,” Cleverly said in a statement.
The foreign secretary is also expected to visit Qatar to discuss helping British nationals to leave the narrow strip of land between Israel and the Mediterranean. A stopover in Turkey will focus on the nation’s connections with Hamas’s leadership in order to prevent violence spiraling in the region.
(Updates with Sunak’s comments from sixth paragraph.)
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