An impressive 138 states have so far recognised the state of Palestine. Yet, there are many notable absentees on this list and symbolically, perhaps one of the most important is still missing - Britain.
On Monday 13 October, the British Parliament can make one small but baby step towards a British recognition of Palestine. The House of Commons will for the first time ever vote to on this issue. A motion has been tabled by a number of backbench members: “That this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.” Sadly, the vote is not binding on the government who can decide just to ignore it. Nevertheless, if a majority of the 650 members of Parliament turn up and vote for this motion, the moral and political pressure on the Cameron government would be immense. The Prime Minister has made a thing of respecting Parliamentary decisions, not least last year when Parliament rejected his plans for military strikes against Syria.
Britain failed in its duty as the mandatory power in Palestine, before leaving, tail between its legs and washing its hands of all responsibility.Chris Doyle
The biggest challenge is that the Conservative part of the governing coalition opposes the motion. It argues that the time is not right echoing the US State Department’s wording of it being ‘premature.’ Back in 2012 when Palestine applied for non-member observer status at the United Nations, the British government left its position open until the last moment. The then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, accepted the right of Palestine to statehood but emphasised that this should only be achieved through negotiations. Britain would recognise Palestine if there was a Palestinian agreement to return to negotiations without preconditions, and that it would not join certain international agencies, in particular the International Criminal Court (ICC). President Abbas refused so Britain abstained in one of the low points of British Middle East policy under the Cameron administration.
Yet these conditions now appear semi-obsolete. The Palestinians did enter into negotiations without preconditions and refrained from signing up to the ICC.
A blatantly anti-Palestinian amendment has also been tabled only permitting statehood after negotiations. Leaving it to negotiations allows the Israeli government to have an perpetual veto over a Palestinian state. The anti-Palestinian groups argue that Palestinians should not be encouraged to take unilateral actions ignoring the 550,000 plus elephants in the room, the Israeli settlers. Israel almost daily is carrying out unilateral actions that have actual and serious impact on Palestinian lives, restrict their movement and take their land and resources. Further delays mean that Uri Ariel, the housing minister and a passionate advocate of annexing the West Bank, will get his way and increase the population by 50% by 2019. Despite all the rhetoric about the two-state solution, Netanyahu confirmed his opposition to a meaningful two state solution during the Gaza war when he made it clear that there would be no sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank.
The anti-Palestinian groups claim that recognizing the Palestinians a state will actually encourage violence. They seem unwilling or refuse to realize that it has been the denial of rights that has driven this conflict. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman even tries to claim that this recognition would encourage Palestinians to abandon negotiations, a nonsensical argument given that every Palestinian leader knows that recognition will not see Israel forces relocating inside Israel and that, it will still control every facet of their lives in the Occupied State of Palestine. Such a small step will have little bearing on whether to negotiate or not.
Britain has made myriad promises to rulers and peoples in Middle East over the last century. Sadly most of them have been broken. Its record has not been a proud one. Every Arab knows that Britain and France carved out their own colonial Middle East map after the First World War and simply glossed over conflicting promises made to Arab leaders and the Zionist movement. Britain failed in its duty as the mandatory power in Palestine, before leaving, tail between its legs and washing its hands of all responsibility.
This is a running sore in Britain’s relations with the Arab World. It effects even perceptions of its role in the strikes on ISIS in Iraq. This is an opportunity for Britain to unshackle some of the burden of its past. The majority of the British public support this and with elections in May of next year, politicians will consider voter intentions as they vote.
If Britain were to recognize Palestine, as the new Swedish government has now promised to do, it would have powerful symbolic value. Britain was the mandatory power, the author of the Balfour Declaration. Without question other EU states would follow suit, possibly France. Francois Hollande, the French President, ran his Presidential election campaign with a pledge to recognise Palestine. A PLO source was optimistic the French might make an announcement within days.
None of this will change the reality on the ground. Palestine is a state under occupation, fragmented and under siege. Israel is not going to give up its colonial settlement project. But it will reinforce the message that Israel is losing friends, that it is becoming isolated internationally and that it risks becoming a pariah state unless it commits to genuine negotiations in good faith.
A strong showing in the British Parliament can deliver that message. Much will depend on how many Members of Parliament turn up. It looks like the Labor party and Liberal Democrat leaderships will back the motion, as will the smaller parties. The Conservative leadership will oppose the motion, claiming it is not “the appropriate time.” This begs the question, when is that time and how long Palestinians have to wait? It has been over 66 years since the nakba started. It is time for Britain to take that baby step and welcome Palestine to the brotherhood of nations. It talks about supporting a two-state solution but does it really support it?
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
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