Between Israel and Palestine: reflections on a House of Commons debate

MPs shouldn't allow themselves to be scared off talking about Palestinian rights.

Gwyn Daniel
21 February 2017

A checkpoint in Hebron - image, Adam Ramsay

On 9 February 2017, the House of Commons debated the following motion:

That this House reaffirms its support for the negotiation of a lasting peace between two sovereign states of Israel and Palestine, both of which must be viable and contiguous within secure and internationally recognised borders; calls on the Government to take an active role in facilitating a resumption of international talks to achieve this; welcomes UN Security Council Resolution 2334 adopted on 23 December 2016; and further calls on the government of Israel immediately to halt the planning and construction of residential settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories which is both contrary to international law and undermines the prospects for the contiguity and viability of the state of Palestine.

The motion was a model of clarity and the MPs who sponsored the debate were extremely well prepared and persuasive. On the surface this was a debate in which a predictable range of diverse views was expressed. Impassioned and well informed speeches were made about the dire effects of settlement expansion on the lives of Palestinians as well as its damage to the viability and contiguity of any future Palestinian state. On the opposing side, Israel’s status as a British ally was emphasised and its conduct justified in terms of the threat that Palestinian violence poses to the Jewish state.

However, a close look at the Hansard text reveals more clearly the limitations of the debate, its repeated refrains and its omissions. While MPs congratulated themselves on not being straitjacketed by polarised views, they rarely sought to transcend the narrow terms of the debate itself. While being restrained in language use can clearly be helpful, what was remarkable in a debate as important as this was how constrained was the language employed to advance the various arguments. All the participants, whatever their positions, seemed to be trapped within a similarly narrow discursive frame.

Here are a few examples.

Perhaps most remarkably, there was unanimous consensus, that, as stated in the motion, two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, constitute the only possible solution. Not one MP challenged this assumption although several friends of Israel complained that the motion concentrated on the actions of one party only, the Israelis. No-one argued that one state with equal rights for all its citizens could be a just solution. It was taken for granted that Israel must continue to be a state with a Jewish majority. Even though many MPs acknowledged that the window of opportunity for two states is fast diminishing, if not already gone, none took this argument to the next logical stage – what alternatives might there be?  It is surely unusual that a debate with, at one level, such disparities of opinion about the situation and its protagonists, would have such a narrow consensus about the desired outcome. Despite all the evidence that the Israeli government has no interest whatsoever in working towards a two- state solution, everyone who spoke seemed bent on deluding themselves that it is still achievable.

The proposition that Israel has been a colonial settler state since its inception rather than only since 1967 failed to get a mention. The blander word “settlements” was always employed rather than the word “colonies” meaning that, with one or two exceptions, even the Israeli apologists in the chamber could assert their opposition to “settlement expansion”. Settlers were thus depicted as somehow an aberration rather than an integral part of the overall Zionist project, even though the current Israeli government now proclaims this position quite openly. Even then many MPs were eager to point out that settlement building was not the only, nor even the main obstacle to peace; Palestinian violence and obduracy were frequently cited as being equal contributory factors. This only highlights another extraordinary absence: any attention to the power imbalance.                                                                                       

The asymmetry of power was mentioned by only one MP, thus leaving open and largely unchallenged the contention that this is somehow a “conflict” which, as many MPs enthusiastically argued, can only be solved by “direct negotiations between the two sides”. The Palestinians, the weaker side, were criticised for “internationalising the conflict” presumably by having finally achieved a few meagre victories in the form of a handful of parliamentary votes to recognise a Palestinian state and finally a UN resolution which did not attract the US veto. The occlusion of power, the failure to define the situation clearly in terms of colonial oppression, meant that for many MPs, criticism of Israel, the dominant power, always had to be “balanced” by condemning Palestinian  violence despite the fact that resistance to occupation is allowed under international law.

Although Security Council Resolution 2334, endorsed by the majority of MPs, clearly highlights the illegality of Israel’s actions under international law, the precise question of how Israel should therefore be held to account was barely debated. While several MPs stated that the UK needed to do more than “make representations” to Israel the most that was proposed (and that by only two MPs) was that the government should not collude with illegality through any financial dealings with settlements or through the import of settlement goods to the UK and that it should prohibit dealings with charities involved in illegal settlement projects.

Equally squeamish were MP’s few references to Israel as an apartheid state. Of the four MPs who used the word, two referred to “petty apartheid”, and the boldest described “a form of” or “a creeping culture of apartheid”.

There were ten references to the Balfour Declaration, the one hundredth anniversary of which falls this year. This declaration supported national rights for the Jews who in 1917 constituted 10 per cent of the population of Palestine while denying them to the Arabs who constituted 90 per cent. Of the ten MPs, some were laudatory, some described the responsibility it continued to place on Britain, and two referred in particular to the failure to implement the second half of the declaration which states that “nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Only one referred, in this context, to the rights of Palestinian refugees. Not one MP, however, challenged the colonial premises of the Declaration itself, nor Britain’s culpability in unleashing colonisation-by-proxy in Palestine.

It is important to point out that referring to these lacunae in the debate does not mean criticising individual MPs. Many interventions were powerfully argued and impressively well informed, made by people who had visited the region and studied it closely. Several MPs demonstrated their detailed knowledge of the effects of military occupation and settler violence on the lives of individual Palestinians and their communities.  The question is rather, given these MP’s level of knowledge, strong sense of justice and solidarity for the oppressed, given the wide range of strong opinions they must represent, why did the debate so rarely move beyond the narrow parameters and assumptions of the motion itself?  

Here the role of self-censorship needs to be raised. Participants, knowingly or unknowingly, participated in what Ilan Pappé calls “the hegemonic discourse on Palestine commonly employed by the powers that be.”(“Narrating Gaza” in Gaza as Metaphor edited by Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Matar) Language use clearly influences both thought and action which is why politicians and governments alike are so keen to shape it. Pappé highlights the difference between using words like “occupation” versus “colonisation” or “peace process” versus “decolonisation” or “Israeli democracy” versus “Israeli Apartheid”. Changes in language use, he argues, create the freedom to narrate Israel/Palestine in less constrained and more emancipatory ways, thus redefining the space of thought.

What might lead our representatives to be so cautious in their language? First, the UK government’s complicity with Israel has been repeatedly demonstrated in all its bilateral dealings, its failure to condemn Israeli atrocities, and its reluctance to hold Israel to account for its breaches of international law. UN resolution 2334, drafted with British help, at last offered an opportunity for MPs to assert themselves forcefully in opposition to the Prime Minister’s shameful retreat from the momentum of international opinion. The status of this resolution has thus assumed a particular significance; the need to protect it may have organised MPs to stick closely to its premises. In this they were successful since the motion was passed without a vote.

Second, parliamentarians who support Palestine have in the past year been subjected to relentless attacks if they voice any opinions which are disapproved of by Israel. Even putting forward this motion would have attracted criticism. The Israeli government and its London embassy does its utmost to control the debate on Palestine, its terminology and its representation in the media. These bullying tactics are well known, if often unspoken for fear of further retribution and they have had powerful effects in silencing dissent. The UK government, even if it had wished to take an alternative position, has fallen compliantly into line by, among other things, condemning and trying to render illegal the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, by its recent adoption of a definition of antisemitism which includes “over-sweeping condemnation of Israel”, and by its declared intention to celebrate the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

Third, we have to look at those organisations within parliament itself which work tirelessly to control the terms of the debate, most notably the Conservative and Labour Friends of Israel. Although there is a parallel organisation in Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, it has been unable to exert as much influence and there is none within the Conservative Party in which CFI boasts an 80% membership of all Tory MPs, including many cabinet ministers.  

It is within the Labour party, however, following its election of the first party leader to unequivocally support Palestinian rights, that the most relentless pressure has been exercised. The use of accusations of anti- Semitism to silence supporters of Palestinian rights has been discussed elsewhere. Its effect on stifling criticism of Israel, and the licence it gives Israeli apologists to claim that arguing for anything other than a two-state solution or supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement means demonising and delegitimising the world’s only Jewish State has been profound.

We saw the results of such pressure in the debate of 9 February. It is a supreme irony that the person who has now driven a coach and horses through the two-state orthodoxy is one Donald Trump and we can be sure that, whatever he had in mind, it was not emancipation for Palestinians.

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