LONDON - New British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is facing a tough challenge to outline and promote Britain’s policies in a Middle East that is more divided than ever but many say they hope he will prove a more solid and steady presence than his predecessor.
Even while serving as health secretary for six years, Hunt showed an interest in foreign policy and particularly the Middle East, including taking strong stances on the Palestinians’ situation and Hezbollah.
Hunt is known to support a stronger line on Hezbollah than current UK policies. He has explicitly called for an outright ban of the group to be considered rather than the current position, which differentiates between Hezbollah’s political and military wings. While it is unclear whether Hunt intends to overturn Foreign Office policy on Hezbollah, his appointment is a sign to those who support stronger British action against the group.
“Hezbollah’s beliefs are outrageous, disgusting and should be condemned at every opportunity. I deplore the group in its entirety,” Hunt said in a statement carried by his constituency website. “The UK government has long held the view that elements of Hezbollah have been involved in conducting and supporting terrorism and, as a result, proscribed Hezbollah’s External Security Organisation in 2001, and, in 2008 proscription was extended to include the whole of Hezbollah’s military apparatus.”
“A decision to proscribe an organisation is done on the recommendations submitted by law enforcement agencies, security services here and intelligence services overseas. However, it is crucial that we constantly monitor these groups and individuals involved in them and review the use of proscription as a means to take action where we see fit,” the statement added.
Hunt expressed “disappointment” about the decision by US President Donald Trump to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“It is the UK view that it is unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region. The British Embassy to Israel is based in Tel Aviv and there are no plans to move it,” Hunt said.
The UK position on the status of Jerusalem is clear: It should be determined in a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and Jerusalem should ultimately be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian states, he said.
Hunt’s position on Israel and the Palestinian territories are more nuanced, with many wondering what this means for British foreign policy. Hunt has spoken up for the Palestinians, most recently over Israel’s plans to demolish Palestinian villages in the West Bank, including the Bedouin encampment of Khan al-Ahmar. He has also spoken out against the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Another issue on which Hunt’s position appears ambivalent is Syria. He has spoken out against Syrian President Bashar Assad, including describing Assad’s campaign to take control of Eastern Ghouta as “brutal” but went on a 3-day visit to Syria in 2007 courtesy of the British Syrian Society, which is headed by Assad’s father-in-law Fawaz al-Akhras.
Even though this was years before the start of the Syrian conflict, Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International’s UK campaigns manager, noted that “mass torture was a reality in 2007 as it is now.”
Hunt is not known as being a rebel or for having unorthodox views, unlike his predecessor Boris Johnson. He is expected to take a conventional approach to being foreign secretary. This means that he is likely to avoid gaffes such as Johnson’s comments before parliament on the case of jailed British-Iranian journalist Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in which Johnson appeared to inadvertently back the Iranian case against her.
This also means that Hunt will work to rectify some of the mistakes made in the past, not least securing Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release.
However, for a Britain that remains divided on Brexit, Hunt’s focus will not be on the Middle East but the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. Post-Brexit, the United Kingdom will look to secure trade deals with numerous countries outside the European Union, not least in the Middle East. Much of that will depend on Hunt ensuring good relations with Britain’s allies in the region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have expressed keenness on new trade agreements with the United Kingdom.
In his first official statement as foreign secretary, Hunt acknowledged the scale of the task that he was facing. “This is a time when the world is looking at us as a country wondering what type of country we’re going to be in a post-Brexit world,” he said, “and what I want to say to them is that Britain is going to be a dependable ally, a country that stands up for the values that matter to the people of this country and will be a strong and confident voice in the world.”
Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London. You can follow him on twitter @mahmudelshafey
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.