British lawmakers voted resoundingly Monday in favor of a Palestinian state, in a debate unlikely to change government policy but laden with political symbolism.
The ayes carried the vote with 274 votes, against only 12 nays. Opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who is Jewish, voted in support of the motion.
Prime Minister David Cameron and other government leaders abstained, and more than half of the 650 Commons members did not participate in the vote.
The initial motion that was debated declared: “This House urges the government to recognize the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel.” It was subsequently amended to add the phrase “as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution.”
The House of Commons debate (full text here) was watched around the world after Sweden drew anger from Israel this month for saying it would recognize Palestine.
The motion was initiated by backbencher Grahame Morris from the main opposition Labour party, who said Britain had a “moral responsibility” to act because of its history as colonial power in the region.
The vote was especially symbolic given that Britain was the mandatory power in Palestine from 1920-1948, when the State of Israel was founded, and that Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917 was a significant milestone en route to the revival of Jewish statehood.
Although it has no binding effect, some of its supporters said they hoped it would place pressure on Israel to change its polices on the Palestinians. “The fact of the Israeli’s intemperate reaction to the very prospect of the House passing this resolution is proof that it will make a difference,” said Labour’s former foreign secretary Jack Straw during the debate. “The only thing that the Israeli Government understand, under the present demeanour of Benjamin Netanyahu, is pressure. What the House will be doing this evening will be to add to the pressure on the Government of Israel. That is why they are so worried about this resolution passing. Were it just a gesture… they would not be bothered at all. They are very worried indeed because they know that it will have an effect.”
“It’s absolutely clear that Israel-Palestine relations are stuck at an impasse, as is our foreign policy,” Morris said, opening the debate.
“Both of these impasses must be broken. We hear a great deal of talk about the two-state solution but today, through validating both states, members will have the opportunity to translate all of that principled talk into action.”
Conservative lawmaker Nicholas Soames — grandson of World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill — said that “to recognize Palestine is both morally right and is in our national interest.”
In what the Guardian described as “possibly the single most important contribution in an emotional debate,” Sir Richard Ottaway, the Conservative chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said the Netanyahu government’s recent annexation of land in the Etzion Bloc area of the West Bank had cost Israel his support. He said he had long been a supporter of Israel — “I was a friend of Israel long before I became a Tory. My wife’s family were instrumental in the creation of the Jewish state.” But, he went on, “I realize now Israel has slowly been 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. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent.”
Ordinarily he would have opposed the motion, he said, adding that he was not convinced Palestine was fit to be a state due to its refusal to recognize Israel. But “such is my anger with the behavior of Israel in recent months that I will not be opposing this motion. I have to say to the government of Israel: if it is losing people like me, it is going to be losing a lot of people,” Ottaway said.
The vote is non-binding as it was initiated by a backbencher.
Members of the government, which backs a two-state solution, abstained from the vote.
Prime Minister Cameron’s official spokesman said: “We think that… you should do everything you can that’s supportive of a successful and sustainable outcome based on a two-state solution.”
During the debate, the government’s Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood said that a Palestinian state would only be recognized at the appropriate moment. “The aspirations of the Palestinian people cannot be fully realised until there is an end to the occupation… and we believe this will only come through negotiations,” Ellwood said. “Only an end to the occupation will ensure that Palestinian statehood becomes a reality on the ground. The UK will bilaterally recognise a Palestinian state when we judge that it can best help bring about the peace.”
The leaders of Morris’s party, Labour, said that MPs who were in the Commons when the vote took place had to back it.
However, a number of high-profile figures were reportedly uncomfortable with the motion and did not show up.
Neither Cameron nor Labour leader Miliband was in the Commons chamber for the start of the debate, but Miliband arrived later and voted for the motion.
An online petition paving the way for the debate attracted more than 111,000 signatures, Morris said.
Before the debate, a handful of protesters gathered in pouring rain outside the Houses of Parliament, where they had erected a giant banner saying: “Yes Vote for a Palestinian State.”
“If there is a state, the aggression would stop and the healing could begin,” said one of them, Eddie Clarke.
“We feel this parliament has a duty to vote for it.”
The Palestinian Authority estimates that 134 countries have recognized Palestine as a state, although the number is disputed since several recognitions by what are now European Union member states date to the Soviet era.
Britain abstained in 2012 from a vote in the United Nations on giving the Palestinians the rank of observer state, which was granted over the objections of the United States and Israel.
Morris sought to persuade lawmakers that statehood for Palestine through negotiation was not the best way forward.
“To make our recognition of Palestine dependent on Israel’s agreement would be to grant Israel a veto over Palestinian self-determination,” he said.
But Malcolm Rifkind, Conservative foreign secretary between 1995 and 1997, argued that the Palestinians lacked the basic structures needed for a state due in part to political splits between Hamas and Fatah.
“Recognizing a state should only happen when the territory in question has got the basic requirements of a state and through no fault of the Palestinians, that is not true at the moment,” he said.
Rifkind warned that voting for the motion could “make ourselves feel important” while exacerbating existing problems.
AP contributed to this report.