For something billed as mostly “symbolic”, the subject seems to be generating some heated, last-minute debate. On October 13, UK parliament votes on whether to call on government to recognise the state of Palestine. It isn’t a binding vote, but calls for Britain to join the 134 nations that already bilaterally recognise Palestine – Sweden being the most recent of these to do so, last week. It also consolidates the UN recognition of Palestine in 2012.
Earlier reporting on the issue suggested that the backbench motion wasn’t likely to pass in parliament. But now, the opposition Labour party has backed the proposal, compelling party members of parliament to vote in favour – which actually is in line with the party’s stated policy and its position on the UN 2012 vote. That significantly raises the chances of a yes vote, but is reported to have caused anger within the Labour party and prompted “deep divisions” across parliament.
A UK vote in favour clearly wouldn’t miraculously create an independent, autonomous and free-from-occupation Palestine on the ground. Supporters, both British and Palestinian, speak of it as a first step not a fix-all. It isn’t intended to replace internationally supported peace talks on a two-state track. It would bring diplomatic benefits: a Palestinian embassy, immunity, that sort of thing. Coming from Britain it might add to the momentum created by Sweden and encourage other Western European nations to follow suit – which might then shift dynamics at the EU over vital issues such as the flow of goods from Israeli settlements. And it is, by definition, a validation in the international political arena. And there, apparently, lies the problem.
That fits, of course, with the current Israeli government’s position – supported by the US – that recognising a state of Palestine somehow harms the peace process; that Palestine should only get statehood via negotiations. And perhaps Europe is starting to peel away from that so far tightly-held doctrine because it has become increasingly obvious that, in the current formulation, “negotiations” actually means: “Never.”
How many times are the Palestinians supposed to enter peace talks, with no preconditions, only to have Israeli governments raise the bar on what’s required? We all remember what the Palestine Papers, leaked in 2011, revealed about such negotiations: that Palestinian negotiators had offered more and more concessions, only for their Israeli counterparts to respond with a sort of: “Well, we’ll see.”
The latest round, which fell apart in April, failed so miserably that even Israel’s best friend, the US, lost patience with Israel’s apparent disdain for the process. Back then, top US sources involved in the negotiations (later claimed to be US special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, Martyn Indyk, who resigned after talks collapsed) told a prominent Israeli columnist that “the primary sabotage came from the settlements“.
In January 2014, the Israeli government announced plans to build a record 14,000 new housing units in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem – viewed as a poke in the eye of the US-led peace talks. The new homes would add to the already 550,000 and rising settlers living on occupied Palestinian land.
What these recent bilateral recognition votes set in motion, if nothing else, is an internationally upheld notion that Israel can’t have it both ways. It can’t scupper a Palestinian state, both on the ground and in peace talks, while claiming to support the notion of an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel. It can’t maintain and expand a colony of illegal (by international law) settlements in the occupied West Bank – thereby making a two-state solution nigh impossible to implement – while at the same time paying lip-service to peace talks.
And in the debate over the British vote to recognise Palestine, classic examples of “both ways” thinking are being rehearsed. For instance, here is the UK’s Conservative MP, Guto Bebb, explaining why he opposes the motion: “How can you recognise a state when the borders have not been agreed? This is profoundly unhelpful to the peace process,” he said, thereby performing an extreme contortion of logic in order to omit the obvious fact of Israel being internationally recognised – despite not declaring agreed borders with the Palestinian West Bank.
But this kind of argument encapsulates the zero-sum rationale that rightist Israel supporters seem so stuck in – the ludicrous proposition that it is an either/or scenario; that supporting a bilateral recognition of Palestine is in some way anti-Israel.
Now, after Israel’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip during the summer, during which almost 2,200 Palestinians were killed, over 10,000 more injured and 20,000 homes were destroyed, popular support for the Palestinian cause is palpably rising. In the UK, that’s shown by the unusually bulging mailbags that MPs have received from constituents, asking them to vote “yes” on October 13.
The international community remains committed both to Israel’s existence and to a resolution of the conflict based on two independent states. To join the dots of this thinking by bilaterally recognising Palestine is hardly inconsistent or a giant leap. There are all sorts of reasons – some of them historic, to do with Britain’s exit from the region it once held as a mandate state – for the country to vote in favour of this resolution. But there is one thing that should not be a factor: The UK does not need Israel’s “permission” to recognise a Palestinian state.