Is UK policy shifting on Israel?
13 October 2014, the British House of Commons supported
the recognition of the state of Palestine
by the astonishing margin of 274 votes to 12. The text of
the motion passed was
this House believes that the government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel as a
contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution.”
opposition Labour Party supported the motion and 189 of their MPs voted for it. The governing Conservative Party gave its MPs
a free vote and 42 of them voted for recognition; the vast majority abstained,
only 6 voting against.
was a backbench motion and its passing is unlikely to have an immediate impact
on the policy of the present government, which is to recognise a Palestinian
state “when it can best help bring about peace” (see statement
by former Foreign Secretary William Hague to the House of Commons in November
2011). However, if a Labour government
were elected in May 2015, UK
recognition of Palestine
is on the cards.
criticism of Israel
margin of victory in the vote was astonishing but even more astonishing was the
unprecedented criticism of Israel
from MPs on all sides of the House in the 4-hour debate
that preceded the vote. 45 MPs made
speeches during the debate, 38 of them in support of the motion.
many years, mainstream politicians in Britain
of all parties, bar a small number of dedicated supporters of Palestine,
have adhered to the principle that talking tough to Israel would jeopardise the “peace
process” and the possibility of a two-state solution. This principle was maintained despite the
fact that Israel’s relentless
colonisation of the West Bank including East Jerusalem
(which is a war crime under Article 8.2(b)(viii) of the Rome
Statute of the ICC) has rendered the creation of a viable Palestinian next
in this debate, it seemed as if recent events – Israel’s failure to make any
serious proposals during the Kerry initiative, its murderous assault on Gaza
this summer and recent announcements that thousands more settler homes are
going to be built – had given MPs licence to speak their mind about Israeli
actions and to admit the truth that, unless external pressure is brought to
bear on Israel, it will not withdraw from the occupied territories and allow a
viable Palestinian state to come into existence.
view was expressed most forcibly by former Labour Foreign Minister Jack Straw,
has been occupying Palestinian land for nearly 50 years. … In the last 20 years
… it has compounded that failure by a deliberate decision to annex Palestinian
land and to build Israeli settlements on that land. There are now 600,000 such
Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Israelis are seeking to strangle East Jerusalem by expropriating land all
around it, and two months ago, they announced the illegal annexation of a
further nearly 1,000 acres of land near Bethlehem. The Israeli Government will
go on doing this as long as they pay no price for their obduracy.”
he argued that “the recognition of the state of Palestine
alongside the state of Israel
will add to the pressure for a negotiated two-state solution, and may help to
bring that prospect a little closer to fruition”. 273 other MPs agreed.
will take a great deal more pressure – serious economic sanctions, for example
– to persuade Israel
to permit the creation of a Palestinian state.
However, it seems that many MPs have now abandoned the fantasy that it
can be done simply by direct negotiations between Israel
and Palestinians without external pressure being applied to Israel.
Reflecting a shift
in British public opinion
on the vote on Israeli radio, the UK’s
Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould described
the vote as “significant”, because, he said, it reflected a broader shift in
British public opinion on Israel
in the wake of the conflict in Gaza
over the summer and announcements of settlement construction.
evidence of this shift was given in the debate by Sir Richard Ottaway, a senior Conservative MP and the current Chair of
the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. He said
that he had been a supporter of the state of Israel
before he became a Conservative and has close family connections with Israel. He told MPs:
“… I have stood by Israel through thick and thin,
through the good years and the bad. I have sat down with Ministers and senior
Israeli politicians and urged peaceful negotiations … and I thought that they
were listening. But I realise now, in truth, looking back over the past 20 years, that Israel
has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the
950 acres of the West Bank just a few months
ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life, mainly
because it makes me look a fool, and that is something that I resent.”
He ended by saying:
“I have to say to the Government of Israel that if
they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people.”
Churchill’s grandson, Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames,
in support of recognition. He reminded
the House that the Balfour Declaration, made by Britain’s Foreign Secretary
Arthur Balfour in 1917, not only endorsed “the establishment in Palestine of a
national home for the Jewish people” but went on to
state that “nothing
shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing
non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. In
something of an understatement, he admitted that “ninety-seven years
later, the terms of the Balfour declaration are clearly not upheld with respect
to the Palestinians”.
Democrat MP David Ward was more forthright, declaring
that “in the light of the Nakba and everything since”
that promise to the people in Palestine
“seems like a sick joke”.
fact, Britain never had any
intention of honouring its promise to the people of Palestine.
Balfour himself wrote
in 1919 that “the four Great Powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it
right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long
tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder importance than
the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient
Former Minister Sir
Alan Duncan speaks
Alan Duncan has been a Conservative MP for over 20 years and until last June he
was a minister in the current government.
in the debate in favour of recognition.
The next day, he delivered a speech on
Israel to the Royal United
Services Institute in London,
which included the following:
“The continued expansion of settlements
demonstrates that the occupier has little or no intention of ending that
occupation or of permitting a viable Palestinian state to come into existence.”
“Settlements are illegal colonies built in someone
else’s country. They are an act of theft, and what is more something which is
both initiated and supported by the state of Israel.”
“Anyone who supports illegal Israeli settlements in
Palestinian land is an extremist who puts themselves outside the boundaries of
“In the past, the world has taken a clear stand on
illegal territorial expansion … . We sent an army to
repel Saddam Hussain’s claim to Kuwait. We are
imposing sanctions on Russia
for their annexation of Crimea, and their subterfuge in Eastern
Ukraine. But there is no punitive action taken against Israel for their persistent annexation of the
West Bank and East Jerusalem. It is a cruel
irony that Russia’s embrace
of Crimea might be said to enjoy a modicum of popular consent: whereas the
unpunished Israeli land grab in Palestine
most certainly does not.”
mainstream British politician has criticised Israel’s treatment of Palestinians
so harshly in the past generation.
Will there be a
shift in British policy?
remains to be seen if the unprecedented criticism of Israel from mainstream British
politicians leads to a shift in British government policy.
the recognition of Palestine has become an issue
in EU states other than the UK. Eight states that are now members of the EU –
Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech
Malta, Poland, Romania
– took this step in 1988 long before they joined the EU. However, on 30 October Sweden became
the first state to recognise Palestine
while a member of the EU (and the 135th state in the world to do so). In addition, on 22 October the upper house of
the Irish Parliament supported
recognition unanimously and it is reported
that there will be a vote on the issue in the Spanish Parliament in the near
future. It is possible that a number of
EU states, including the UK,
will take this step in concert.
of Palestine is
a matter for individual states. Trade
relations with Israel
are within the competence of the EU and policy changes in this area have to be
agreed by all member states. As it
happens, on 1 January 2015 the EU is due to introduce
a ban on the import of dairy products manufactured in Israeli settlements
in the West Bank including East Jerusalem (and in the Golan
Heights). The EU has deemed
these products to be unregulated (since it doesn't recognise the Israeli
agricultural ministry's authority in the occupied territories) and therefore
they do not comply with the EU’s import standards.
few EU states support a ban on the import of all settlement goods into the EU. Ireland, for example, has been arguing
for such a ban since 2011. That would be
the next logical step for the EU: since it regards these entities as illegal,
it should not be encouraging their expansion by allowing EU citizens to
purchase goods produced in them.
3 November 2014