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The British Parliament voted for an Israeli policy change

The importance of the vote is less about the wording and the formal policy and far more about the message it sends

Chris Doyle

Published: Updated:

For the last few weeks, trying to work up enthusiasm among Palestinians, British Arabs and supporters of Palestinian rights for a Parliamentary vote to recognize Palestine has not always been easy. “It will never happen, Chris.” “The Zionists control it.” “They will never vote in favor.” These were just some of the responses reflecting a defeatist attitude and ironclad erroneous belief that the Israel lobby controls British politics.

So the overwhelming vote in favor of the motion on the evening of October 13must have come as a shock. Parliament voted 274 in favor to just 12 against. It had followed patient lobbying, internal disputes within the parties and some compromises. Formal recognition may be some time away but the chances of EU states doing so has dramatically increased.

Having worked with British politicians on the issue of Palestine for over twenty years, I am totally convinced that such a vote could never have passed until the last few years

Chris Doyle

Others point out rightly that this was just a symbolic vote and not binding on the government. Similarly what was the point of recognizing a state that did not in reality exist on the ground? Palestinian is a state under occupation, a state divided with a people largely in exile. These arguments should not be ignored. This was a micro step forward and of course needs to be overtaken by far more serious measures to roll back the Israeli occupation and end the blockade of Gaza.

Yet the importance of the vote is less about the wording and the formal policy and far more about the message it sends, about how much British politics is changing and by extension European and even American attitudes.

Change of emphasis

Having worked with British politicians on the issue of Palestine for over twenty years, I am totally convinced that such a vote could never have passed like this until the last few years. The Labour party vote was key. New Labour would never have voted in such a way under the leadership of Tony Blair nor even under Gordon Brown. During the New Labour period it was made clear that supporting Israel and joining the Labour Friends of Israel was beneficial to a young politicians career. The leadership of Ed Miliband has ushered in a change of emphasis. Miliband should take some credit for having opposed the Israeli land invasion of Gaza this summer (he feels that many have not appreciated his stance) as well as the principled decision dating back to 2011 that Labour backed recognition of Palestine at the United Nations.

But just as significantly, major members of the Labour party leadership have visited the West Bank and even Gaza. The sight of the huge settlement projects, the demolition homes, the apartheid-style division of Hebron as well as the blockade of Gaza is hard to justify and tells a compelling tale. Nearly everyone I have taken to Palestine admits to being shocked.

The Conservative party is more divided. Only 39 (12.8%) of Conservative MPs voted although, if you take out the Ministers who were unable to vote, the percentage figure shoots up. Yet Conservatives also have noticed a sea change in British public opinion they cannot ignore.

Yet also within the passionate and largely well-argued five-hour debate were positive contributions of many who in the past, might have been described as pro-Israeli. Some of these voted in favor. The most dramatic intervention without doubt was that of Sir Richard Ottoway, the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and someone “who has stood by Israel through thick and thin.” Yet he protested: “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.” If the Israeli ambassador watches any part of the debate it should be this part, and clips should be circulated throughout Israeli political circles.

To reinforce the message, on October 14, Sir Alan Duncan, until July the minister in charge of international development in the Middle East, made one of the most impassioned and forceful denunciations of Israeli settlement building heard in Westminster: “Occupation, annexation, illegality, negligence, complicity: this is a wicked cocktail which brings shame to the government of Israel. It would appear that on the West Bank the rule of international law has been shelved. This illegal construction and habitation is theft, it is annexation, it is a land grab – it is any expression that accurately describes the encroachment which takes from someone else something that is not rightfully owned by the taker.”

Israel-is-losing-friends message

The Israel-is-losing-friends message is also a message the British government is pushing. The British Ambassador in Israel Matthew Gould argued “Israel lost support after this summer’s conflict, and after the series of announcements on settlements. This Parliamentary vote is a sign of the way the wind is blowing, and will continue to blow without any progress towards peace.”

The anti-Palestinian lobby is on the back foot. Many tried to ridicule the debate and diminish its importance by simply not turning up. The Israeli ambassador refused to do interviews although in private let senior politicians and church leaders know in no uncertain terms how virulently Israel opposed the motion.

Israel says it sends a “worrying message” that will encourage Palestinian defiance and keep them away from negotiations. However, Israel is picking up all the wrong messages. The message it is unwilling to receive is that Israeli policies are seen as the key obstacle to peace not Palestinian. For too long Israel has basked in a comforting protective diplomatic blanket, shielded from real pressure. Those days may be coming to an end.

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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.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.