The new chief Palestinian diplomat in the UK discusses antisemitism, engagement terms with Hamas and unwittingly reveals some common ground with Likud party members
It was an hour and a half into our interview that Husam Zomlot’s voice cracked, quite suddenly, with emotion, over a memory of his grandfather’s advice about Jews.
“I was raised by a grandfather. His name is Shehada,” he said.
“My grandfather taught me when I was little. He would take me to places to pray.
“He taught me, ‘Husam, Judaism is the closest to Islam.’
“He taught me to look up to Judaism, that if you want to eat, go and eat with a Jew, because they have the same habits and rituals.”
The most senior Palestinian diplomat in the UK is an affable, courteous man. He speaks animatedly, waving his arms and slapping a nearby coffee table as he punctuates his points. This — and the slight quiver to his lip as he remembers the man who raised him — gives his demeanour a strongly Mediterranean quality.
At one stage he becomes so animated he produces a case of slim cigarettes and swiftly lights one up in the middle of our conversation.
This was no act of discourtesy; it was almost medicinal, an imperative ingredient of any lively discussion about the Middle East.
We were speaking before a weekend of violence in Gaza and southern Israel left 29 people dead.
On Hamas, Dr Zomlot is categorical. The Palestinian people, he says, spent decades in a protracted, violent conversation among themselves before deciding to pursue what he terms a “solutionist” agenda.
That means following the international rulebook, the system of treaties and conventions that emerged after the Second World War — and Hamas should be no exception.
“Hamas is part of the Palestinian national fabric and must be integrated in our political system,” he says, not ruling out the possibility of it eventually joining the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the body representing all Palestinian factions for which he acts as envoy in the UK.
“Our political system adheres to our international commitments and so should Hamas.
“If we call for international law and international resolutions to be implemented, we’d better adhere to it ourselves.”
Dr Zomlot was posted to London late last year after being ejected from the United States when Donald Trump closed down the PLO’s representative office in Washington, DC.
Insiders say he is one of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s favourites and a future leadership candidate.
He was enough of a recognised figure in the Palestinian movement a decade ago to attract Jeremy Corbyn, then a backbencher, to his 2010 wedding.
So why offer his first UK newspaper interview to the JC?
One sign emerged an hour into the conversation, when he was asked about global efforts to boycott Israeli goods and services: he wants to talk about the hatred of Jews.
“Antisemitism, my friend, is absolutely real, abhorrent, and must be eradicated. And there is no ‘but’ and there is no ‘if’,” he begins.
“Nothing hurts the Palestinian cause more than antisemitism, because it conflates things.
“And in our opinion, nothing will help the cause of fighting antisemitism more than peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
But he then insists that supporting a boycott of Israel is not antisemitic: “The idea of boycott is not an idea tailored at clashes and hitting each other and hurting our bodies; it’s hurting our pockets.
“And we are with the idea of hurting the pocket, not the body.
“We do not want to see blood. We mean it.
“We want a bloodless raising of the cost of illegality.”
He also repeats the Palestinian Authority’s line that there is no way they will accept tax payments collected by Israel from Palestinians under the terms of the Oslo Accords. The Israeli cabinet decided earlier this year to deduct payments it says the PA makes to prisoners and their families who were jailed in Israel for terror charges — a process dubbed a “martyr’s fund” by some.
Dr Zomlot says it is “nonsense and racist” to suggest the payments are a motivation for violence: “It does serve a major, major social purpose, social goal.
“I prefer that the Palestinian Authority takes care of these kids. You’re talking about children that, with this very minimal money might buy books and laptops and they might have a better future, and our experience is that they do.”
The chief culprit for all the Palestinians’ woes, he says, is the victor of April’s Knesset election.
When, at two o’clock in the morning the day after Israelis voted, Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on stage at Likud headquarters to proclaim victory, a fifth term of office secure, his ecstatic supporters were chanting, “He’s a magician”.
Without prompting, Dr Zomlot uses precisely the same language about the Israeli Prime Minister.
“I think he has managed to be a very effective magician,” he says. “What do magicians do, with the help of Trump? They distract you. The real work by a magician is to do this illusion so the actual object you’re looking at — it has disappeared.”
Pushing the metaphor to its fullest, he mimics the Israeli Prime Minister waving a wand in the air, casting each Palestinian argument away in succession: “So, abracadabra, gone are half a million Palestinians in east Jerusalem. Hey presto, refugees have disappeared. There no longer are six million refugees scattered all around Palestine and they are no longer holding their keys. Hocus pocus, there is no occupation.”
The Israeli public, he says, has been “tricked, illusioned”, and talk of a powerful Iran pushing the Palestinians far down the Arab world’s agenda is “another magicking away of the issues by Netanyahu. Some major parties, some major countries see Iran as a major threat. Which is a fact.
But does that mean these very countries have abandoned the Palestinians? That’s what Netanyahu argues. No.”
As for Mr Netanyahu’s photo opportunity last October in Muscat with the Sultan Qaboos Bin Said? “We know that Oman has some ‘extra-marital affair’ with Israel since the Seventies. Some relations have been happening for a long, long time.”
Dr Zomlot’s new job in London reflects Mr Abbas’s strategic pivot in a world with few viable options remaining: the Palestinian President believes Britain, not the United States, can help deliver a final agreement with Israel and a two-state solution in the Middle East.
“We call for Britain to take a leading role to help create a multilateral, international peace-making mechanism,” Dr Zomlot says.
“The US failed because the conflict is international and it requires international resolution, and the UK is uniquely positioned to create the alternative.”
His pitch sounds a little like the Quartet, the ill-fated peace-making effort once backed by the US, UN, Russia and the European Union.
There were great expectations a decade ago when Tony Blair took charge, but it soon found itself dealing not with meaty issues like West Bank settlements or the vexed question of Jerusalem but local authority disputes and sewage treatment. Mr Blair stepped down in 2015.
Dr Zomlot says the Quartet was an “excellent idea” but that a lack of cooperation from the United States and Israel turned it into a “one-tet”. The next incarnation, which the UK must create, should carry the power to enforce its decisions.
But, he adds, Britain must start by formalising a House of Commons motion to recognise the State of Palestine based on its 1967 borders.
To have full relations only with Israel while supporting a solution that would see it existing alongside an independent Palestine is “almost licence for [Israel] to encroach, as has happened.”
“If you really believe in the two-state solution, either you derecognise Israel and then you say ‘I’m not going to recognise the two sides until a final agreement’, or you recognise the two sides as an incentive towards and a confirmation towards the intention of the policy.
“We prefer the second.”