It’s very rare for MPs to get the chance to vote on the Israel-Palestine issue. There are many debates in the House of Commons, but almost never votes. So today’s backbench debate and vote on Palestine presents a great opportunity for MPs to nail their colours to the mast.
There is a good possibility that there will be a majority – even a substantial majority – supporting motion calling on the British government to recognise the state of Palestine and, if there is, we believe it would have a huge impact in both Europe and the Middle East.
In Europe it could kickstart a process that would see all the West European countries confer recognition on Palestine and then put economic pressure on the Israelis to end their oppressive 47-year occupation.
In the Middle East it would send a signal that the West really does mean what it says about the illegality of Israeli settlements and encourage the politicians who have been advocating a constitutional and non-violent route to Palestinian self-determination.
Of course the result of the vote on a backbench motion is not binding on the government. And even if the government does confer recognition, it is not going to make any overnight difference to the lives of millions of Palestinians in refugee camps.
The only visible difference will be that a small well-fortified house in the Sheikh Jarrah suburb of East Jerusalem which has been acting as the unofficial British mission to the Palestinians will take down a sign reading “British Consulate-General” and put up a sign reading “British Embassy”.
But the emotional difference will be huge. Britain, the country that issued the Balfour Declaration, that governed Palestine from 1922 to 1948, that abandoned a country in turmoil and left the two sides to fight it out, that has been standing on the sidelines ever since, condemning Israel for its illegal settlements but taking no action, will finally have come off the fence.
There has been a huge increase in public pressure on MPs. They have received 53,000 emails asking them to vote for recognition via just one website in the last ten days. Some MPs have received over a thousand emails for recognition and only a few against.
But most MPs made up their mind earlier this year after the collapse of the peace talks in April, which even the Americans blamed on Israeli settlement building, the collective punishment of the West Bank in June and July, the war on Gaza which killed over 500 children and 1,400 civilians in August and the announcement of yet more illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land in September.
MPs who have been loyal members of Conservative or Labour Friends of Israel for decades and have never breathed a word of criticism have come to debates to say that this time Israel has gone “too far”. Many of them will be eloquent by their absence from this debate.
The Israel loyalists will still be there, pressing their amendment that recognition should not be conferred until “the conclusion of successful peace negotiations”, but of course the Israelis forced the collapse of negotiations by continually building more illegal settlements.
And in any case the recognition of Palestine by Britain is a matter for our government alone. It does not require us to consult with the Israeli government. To make it dependent on the success of the talks would mean handing over control of our foreign policy to Israel.
Ed Miliband and his shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander deserve credit for pressing the case for the recognition of Palestine, as they have done for the last four years, and for calling on his party to support the backbench motion.
There are already 135 countries that recognise Palestine, including many EU countries, and with Sweden announcing that it would recognise Palestine just last week, it’s not clear why Britain should wait any longer. It is a time for Britain to show leadership.
Andy Slaughter is Labour MP for Hammersmith and a shadow justice minister; Martin Linton is the former Labour MP for Battersea, a Guardian journalist, and works for Palestine Briefing