Today the prospects for a swift and just conclusion to the Israel/Palestine conflict are bleak. That conflict is at the root of pain and hurt in the Middle East, and anger around the world, including here. More than any other international issue, it provokes accusations of double standards. The United Kingdom can do something now to improve the prospects for peace, by recognising the State of Palestine.
Yes. It is a policy decision for our Government, which rightly recognises states, not governments. So we do not recognise any one political movement. 134 out of 193 UN member states have recognised Palestine. Pope Francis addressed President Abbas as the Head of State of Palestine during his Holy Land pilgrimage in May. Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, have both recognised, as have India, Brazil, and many more.
What do we say now?
We shall hear what the Government say in the House of Commons debate on 13 October requested by Grahame Morris MP (Easington). Last time they were asked, they played for time. Then Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament in 2011: “We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace”. I believe that moment has come. The combination of systematic illegal settlement creation – more than 600,000 settlers now in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank – and the seven-year closure of Gaza means that we need to act now to safeguard the two state solution which has been Britain’s policy aim for decades. Given the opportunity, the Palestinians can run their state. The UK told the United Nations in 2011: “The Palestinian Authority has developed successfully the capacity to run a democratic and peaceful state, founded on the rule of law and living in peace and security with Israel… Palestine largely fulfils the legal and technical criteria for UN membership, including statehood, in as far as the Occupation allows.” In 2012 the UK abstained in the UN General Assembly when President Abbas sought UN membership.
Where do the UK political parties stand?
The three UK parties with a foreign policy vision beyond the EU differ on the Palestine issue. The Conservative Leadership remains reluctant to call the loss of Palestinian lives from Israel’s latest air,sea and land incursion into Gaza disproportionate, and our prime minister’s speech in the Knesset in March played to the gallery, but his party is a broad church, with many dissenting voices. The last Labour government introduced a labelling regime enabling British consumers to decide whether to buy produce imported from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank – commendable, though there is more to do to sharpen our differential treatment of the illegal settler enterprise, with consequences beyond rhetorical condemnation. Ed Miliband vigorously opposed the Israeli ground incursion. In 2011, Douglas Alexander called upon the coalition government “to support the recognition of Palestinian statehood as part of continuing steps to achieve a comprehensive two state solution”. Consistency is all, and is what we should expect. The Lib Dems have argued in government for tougher UK/EU measures against settlements (which Nick Clegg memorably dubbed state “vandalism”), but with meagre results. There are senior voices calling for recognition as a distinctive Lib Dem policy, now and in the next Parliament.
What difference does recognition make?
Let’s start with us. We regain our balance. Britain recognised Israel in 1950, without borders and without a capital. To recognise Palestine now is to affirm that the Israeli and Palestinian peoples are equal in rights and responsibilities in our eyes, including a right to share Jerusalem as the capital of two states. Both peoples deserve and need security. Both merit a state. We will judge both states by their actions – including their respect for International Humanitarian Law (particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention, which both Israel and President Abbas have signed). Recognition formally expresses our regard for the Palestinian people, without reducing our regard for the Israeli people. We begin to rebut the charge of double standards which successive Governments have heard since the Balfour Declaration almost a century ago, and which is growing louder among our own young people in the Muslim community and elsewhere. They have a point.
To Palestinians, UK recognition renews belief that the path of non-violence and PLO recognition of Israel – indeed, continuing full security cooperation with Israel – leads to a place where Hamas cannot take them: to a state where respect for their dignity is a given, as they rely on diplomacy and democratic expression, not destruction, to gain their rights. Their responsibilities include holding early, free and fair elections.
To Israelis, UK recognition of their neighbour, Palestine, in no way alters British support for the State of Israel, and for their right to live in mutual peace and security in a tough neighbourhood. Their nearest neighbours are Palestinian. Neighbours, not fellow citizens of one unitary state – the dead end into which Israel is heading, unless Israelis, Palestinians and we work for the only viable alternative. The one-state outcome is no solution: it only makes the conflict permanent, with further discrimination in an apartheid-style system, and yet more violence – but this time with no way out.
UK recognition makes a big difference in the European Union – the biggest trading partner for both Israel and Palestine. Other EU partners, including France, Italy and Ireland, look to us for a lead, remembering our role as the Mandate Power and drafter of so many UN Security Council Resolutions aimed at creating an agreed international framework to resolve the conflict. That framework still exists, despite attempts to alter it unilaterally. The UN Security Council is the right place to re-set the framework, based on agreed resolutions and EU consensus conclusions – if the United States is willing to involve the UN properly.
Will we cut across the Americans?
UK recognition will not impair the determination of US Secretary Kerry to achieve peace. US influence with both parties is essential to reach an agreed outcome – but evidently it is not sufficient. The parties themselves, with the help of the US, the UK, Europe and the Arab states, through Saudi Arabia’s Arab Peace Initiative, must reach agreement. Compared with the US administration, under constant Congressional pressure to support Israel right or wrong, the UK has the political space to do things which the US cannot.
Don’t expect Kerry to tip us the wink that we should do it – recognition is our call. It will have real political and moral impact – which is precisely why some will say that it kills the peace process, is a card we should keep in our hand, etc. Not so. If we do not act, by the end of this Obama administration we may be speaking of the two state solution in the past tense. That will be bad for all of us.
Sir Vincent Fean served as British Consul-General, Jerusalem, 2010-14