Can Europe Make It?

When is symbolism enough? The UK House of Commons vote to recognise the state of Palestine

Changes are occurring in public opinion in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. But shifts are also taking place in Israel. While it suits Netanyahu to witness civilised manoeuvrings around how to keep the two state solution alive, history may be leading somewhere else entirely.

Antony Lerman
16 October 2014
Supporters for Palestine's bid for UN statehood outside Downing Street, November 2011.

Supporters of Palestine's bid for UN statehood outside Downing Street, November 2011. Rob Pinney/Demotix. All rights reserved. On Monday 13 October, the elected members of the UK parliament voted by 274 to 12 in support of the following motion: “That 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.” The vote has symbolic significance, but does it amount to anything more than that? The decision is non-binding and David Cameron made it clear from the outset that his coalition government would not change its policy. More MPs—364—stayed away than voted, so even what seems like an overwhelming expression of parliament’s opinion is, in reality, only a partial view.

Nevertheless, symbolism should not be gainsaid, especially when it reflects the very origins of the conflict and Britain’s role in it.

Symbolism counts

On 2 November 1917 Lord Balfour, the foreign secretary, wrote to Lord Rothschild expressing “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations” and promising “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Known ever since as the Balfour Declaration, Zionists expected that it would guide British policy once the Palestine Mandate was conferred on Britain by the League of Nations on 24 July 1922. But the declaration also stated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” When the Mandate terminated with the establishment of the state of Israel on 15 May 1948, Britain left behind a legacy of bitterness felt by both the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine. Although Jews got their state, they felt Britain had long since reneged on promises to facilitate its establishment. The Palestinian Arabs, who rejected the UN’s Partition Plan of 1947, which would have then given them a state, felt robbed of their land and denied the rights promised to them in the Balfour Declaration.

Despite all that has happened since then, Britain’s complex and troubling responsibility for the unresolved 66-year old conflict remains more than just a historical memory. British governments refer to that responsibility. No matter that prime ministers since Margaret Thatcher have all been very supportive of Israel, an element of mistrust of the motives for British policy lingers among Israelis. And the Palestinians, whose representative bodies eventually came to accept the principle of partition, remain acutely aware of the role Britain played in their ongoing tragedy.

So the debate in the House of Commons was freighted with a symbolism applicable to no other country that either has already recognised, or may yet decide to recognise, Palestine as a state. It was almost as if the MPs who spoke in favour of the motion were belatedly seeking to right a wrong perpetrated by the post-Second World War British government through its failure to prevent the prejudicing of “the civil and religious rights” of the Palestinians.

Hardly any MP failed to emphasise that passing the motion was essential to the success of a two-state solution. Even those few who spoke against the motion were not arguing against the principle of recognising Palestine as a state, but just against the timing. They regarded it as premature in the absence of that state coming into being as a result of the successful conclusion of negotiations.

A second reason for the vote’s symbolic significance lies in the UK’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a member of the European Union and America’s closest ally, at least when it comes to signing up for military action against Jihadi extremists. When the UN General Assembly considered Palestine’s application for non-member observer status in November 2012, 138 states voted in favour, 9 against, and 41 abstained. The US voted against, the UK and Germany abstained, but other key European countries—France, Spain, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark—voted in favour. Were the British government—current or future—to make the vote government policy, it would be seen as a further strengthening of a trend in Europe towards supporting the speedy establishment of an independent Palestinian state and would leave America without a key strategic partner in its efforts to negotiate a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict on the basis of two states, Israel and Palestine, coexisting side by side.

Palestinian responses

Naturally, the Palestinians officially welcomed the result of the vote. Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization and former Palestinian Authority cabinet minister, praised the British parliament, describing the vote in a statement as sending “the right message to the British government and the rest of Europe” and creating “the right environment for the international community to grant the Palestinian people legal parity and rights.” In Al Jazeera’s view, the Palestinians are hoping the outcome will give momentum to their plan to put a resolution before the UN Security Council. This was their original intention in 2012, but the US administration put them under heavy pressure to abandon the idea, at least temporarily.

Whether Palestinians really do “expect” that the “vote will usher in a new era”, as Hilal Khashan claims, a professor of political science at Lebanon’s American University of Beirut, does not seem to be borne out by the turmoil in Palestinian thinking about attaining full civil rights post-Gaza and a widespread feeling that the two-state solution is no longer viable. Moreover, as Ian Black and Peter Beaumont wrote in the Guardian: “Palestinian critics declared their opposition on the grounds that recognition of a state they dismiss as a ‘bantustan’ territory (a nominally independent tribal area in apartheid-era South Africa), would reinforce rather than end Israel’s occupation of the whole of Palestine, not just the areas it conquered in the 1967 war.”

The nature of Israeli opposition (and support)

Israel expressed its opposition to the vote in a deliberately low-key fashion, preferring to convey its views to British parliamentarians in private meetings rather than through heavily publicised public statements. The Jewish Chronicle reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued directions for diplomats to keep a low profile and not make media appearances or public comments ahead of the vote. It quoted officials who expressed surprise that UK Jewish and Zionist organizations, such as the Jewish Leadership Council, the Zionist Federation, BICOM and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, very publicly opposed the motion and failed to coordinate their actions with Jerusalem. “We don’t think their actions contributed to Israel’s interests in this case” said one official. “We favoured a policy of trying to draw as little attention as possible to this vote, as the Conservatives did, in our opinion very wisely, so it wouldn’t seem like a crucial decision of the entire British parliament. The ZF and other groups didn’t consult with us and their actions contributed to making this in to a much bigger issue than it should have been.”

Israel, after all, has every reason to be satisfied with British-Israel relations. As Matthew Kalman pointed out in Haaretz, “the mounting wave of UK opposition to Israeli policies has had no discernible impact on British-Israeli relations. Despite the boycott calls, the street protests and the demonstrations against Israeli businesses, British-Israel trade has soared to record levels.”

But other Israelis were not reluctant to publically express different viewpoints. On 12 October a group of more than 350 Israeli politicians, civil society activists, scientists, artists and others released an open letter to members of parliament calling upon them to vote in favour of recognising the state of Palestine. The letter states: “We, Israelis who worry and care for the well-being of the state of Israel, believe that the long-term existence and security of Israel depends on the long-term existence and security of a Palestinian state. For this reason we the undersigned urge members of the UK parliament to vote in favour of the motion to be debated on Monday 13 October 2014 calling on the British government to recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.” On the other hand, Haaretz reported that the Israeli Labour party chairman (not to be confused with the party leader), member of Knesset Hilik Bar, sent a letter to members of the British Labour Party explaining that symbolic recognition of Palestinian statehood will make peace “less, rather than more likely.” Bar called on Labour to oppose “unilateral moves” that would only make efforts towards peace less popular with Israelis.

Alternative readings

There are alternative, or perhaps complementary, readings of this vote. The most obvious is to see it as an attempt to revivify the two-state solution and, despite the fixed Israeli position that it’s an attempt to bypass negotiations, in fact to breathe life into the traditional diplomatic efforts to reach a mutually agreed peace settlement.

While the vote seeks to strengthen the Palestinian position, only the most obtuse pro-Israel groups could possibly see an anti-Israel, let alone an antisemitic agenda at work. Those who promoted it are well aware that as long as the occupation continues, the Israeli government builds more houses in Jewish settlements and the Palestinians remain divided, a viable Palestinian state cannot be brought into being. But without it, the vote seems to imply, instability is a constant and Israel’s long-term security cannot be guaranteed.

A second reading is to emphasise the significance of the vote in giving concerted voice to mounting criticism of Israeli actions, a criticism that was fuelled by public perceptions of the brutality and indiscriminate nature of Israel’s offensive against Gaza in July and August and, in the eyes of some, has reached a tipping point of sorts.

Long-term changes are occurring in public opinion in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, which increasingly sees Israel as obstructing genuine efforts to achieve peace. The journalist Rachel Shabi charts what she sees as a ‘sea change’ in attitudes towards Israel, with support leeching away even from very long-standing friends like Sir Richard Ottaway, Tory chair of the foreign affairs select committee and member of parliament: “He became, he said, a friend of Israel before he became a Tory. His commitment to the state was deep and long-held. But, he explained, Israel’s recent conduct, including the appropriation of land on the occupied West Bank, had driven him to despair. And so he could not bring himself to vote against the motion.”

Even though Cameron’s government remained aloof from the parliamentary process, the Tory minister responsible for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, who was obliged to be at the debate, denounced Israeli settlement activity in the strongest terms. The former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw, who introduced the amendment to the original motion, which added a clause describing recognition as “a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution”, clearly saw strong criticism allied to constructive strengthening of the Palestinian position as the way to exert significant pressure. As he told the Commons, “The only thing that the Israeli government, in my view, in its present demeanour under Bibi Netanyahu understands is pressure.”

The message being conveyed is that Israel needs to wake up and understand how isolated it can become. The UK’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, Matthew Gould, told Israel television that without movement on the peace process, even Israel’s friends were losing heart. “As British Ambassador to Israel, as the person tasked with building the best possible partnership between Britain and Israel, I do have a worry for the long term about the direction of public opinion in Britain and beyond Britain in the absence of progress towards peace,” said Gould. “It’s been a very difficult summer. The impact of the Gaza conflict on British public opinion has been very difficult for Israel. Since the conflict has finished there has been a series of very difficult announcements to do with settlements. These all have an impact and long-term, I have to say as the guardian of the relationship, as someone who really cares about the relationship between the countries, I am concerned.”

History seems to be leading somewhere else entirely

Symbolism and good intentions notwithstanding, I’m not persuaded that what we have witnessed is much more than a kind of surreal political and diplomatic shadow-boxing. I have no doubt that recognising Palestine as a state is the very least that British parliamentarians should do. But to anchor argumentation for it so firmly in the shifting, unstable sands of the two-state solution is to ignore the fundamental reality of the de facto, repressive, unequal single-state that now exists, controlled by the Israeli regime.

Jack Straw’s view that Netanyahu responds to pressure is only correct in the sense that the Israeli prime minister knows how to roll with the punches and emerge unscathed, fully able to continue with his project to secure control over the West Bank in perpetuity and to stymie any prospect of the creation of a viable Palestinian state. In fact it suits Netanyahu to witness such civilised manoeuvrings around how to keep the two state solution alive and to have his representatives abroad argue that, “Well, if you want a Palestinian state to come into existence, it has to be a consequence of negotiations, not a precondition”, as this give the impression that his government is still committed to such a process.

The illegal construction plans announced for Gush Etzion, Givat Hamatos and Silwan are Netanyahu’s tried and tested means of sending the message to Obama, the EU and the international community overall that colonising Palestinian territory—“biblical Israel”—is the Jewish state’s right and to question it is to question Israel’s very existence and therefore to manifest unvarnished antisemitism. This is nothing new. But even more fateful for Palestinian national aspirations is a radical and significant policy shift taking place in Israel.

America and Europe insist that negotiations over peace and two states and a permanent end to periodic offensives against Gaza is incumbent on Israel in order to help mobilize the Arab world to join the fight against ISIS and other extremists groups. The reliable, well-informed and perceptive American columnist J.J. Goldberg, writing in the Jewish Daily Forward, quotes from what he calls a potentially explosive report by the defense correspondent for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Ron Ben-Yishai, who argues that Israel is reaching the opposite conclusion.

In what Ben-Yishai “calls ‘a dramatic reversal,’ Israeli officials say that at a time of extreme instability in the Middle East, it would be suicidal for Israel to consider allowing full sovereignty in most of Judea and Samaria, even if the territory is demilitarized. Even renewing negotiations over a peace agreement is unacceptable, the Israeli officials say, because such talks would lead to deadlock, frustration and unrest on the Palestinian street. Moreover, Israeli officials express doubt that the moderate Arab states need ‘an incentive’ on the Palestinian front to motivate them to fight the jihadists, who threaten their own regimes.

“Ben-Yishai writes that Israel now seeks to ‘manage’ the conflict with the Palestinians rather than try to ‘solve’ it.”

While the result of this policy might be the easing of certain restrictions on Gaza and the West Bank, the direction of travel is clear: the status quo is Israel’s safest option, which means no risky Palestinian state, only further entrenchment of Israel’s control of the entire Israel-Palestine region. The British parliamentarians can wish for the revival of the two state solution as fervently as they like, and thereby symbolically right the wrongs of history, but history as it’s now being made looks to be leading somewhere else entirely.

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