UK MPs’ ‘Yes’ to Palestine – no earthquake, but certainly a tremor

Now that the Parliament of the former mandatory power has endorsed Palestinian statehood, it may become harder for Israel to stave off similar moves elsewhere

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (front, center) speaks during a debate in the Houses of Parliament, Friday, September 26, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Parliamentary Recording Unit)
British Prime Minister David Cameron (front, center) speaks during a debate in the Houses of Parliament, Friday, September 26, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Parliamentary Recording Unit)

British MPs’ overwhelming 274-12 vote to urge their government to recognize a Palestinian state is no diplomatic earthquake. But it is certainly a tremor — and it could expand into a major fault that makes it increasingly difficult for Israel to argue against such unilateral moves.

The House of Common’s vote — urging David Cameron’s government to “recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution” — will not change official British policy vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue will likely be discussed in the press for a few days, pro-Palestinian activists will celebrate their victory as an important affirmation of an idea whose time has come, and Israeli officials will condemn the move as premature and unhelpful. But there will be little if any immediate concrete diplomatic fall-out.

Prime Minister Cameron didn’t show up at the vote, and sought to shrug it off as pretty inconsequential. “I’ve been pretty clear about the government’s position [on Palestinian statehood] and it won’t be changing,” his spokesperson said before the discussion had started Monday.

And staunch friends of Israel in the Conservative Party are adamant that nothing has changed. “The [British] government supports a return to negotiations by Israel and the Palestinians and is not in favor of Palestinian unilateral moves at the UN or elsewhere,” said Stuart Polak, director of the Conservative Friends of Israel. “That a few, extremely partisan Labour MPs, with the help of [party chairman and opposition leader] Ed Miliband and the hapless Labour front bench, can engineer a win in a vote like this, does not change anything in British foreign policy. This is a backbench debate and vote and will not change government policy.”

Yet some Israeli officials privately acknowledge their unease about the Parliament of so important a country — the former mandatory power in Palestine — unilaterally endorsing Palestinian statehood, especially after the new government in Stockholm announced earlier this month that “Sweden will recognize the State of Palestine.”

The successful motion, proposed by MP Grahame Morris and discussed in the House of Commons’ Backbench Business Committee, is non-binding, yet it could set off a domino effect across Europe, according to officials in both Ramallah and Jerusalem.

“Regardless of the non-binding nature of the vote, it will have a significant impact on the British government’s policies and upcoming decisions on Palestine,” senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi stated earlier this week, a sentiment she repeated after the motion had passed.

“There is indeed reason to worry,” a senior Israeli diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Monday. “Not because it’s going to be translated into actual government policy, but because it’s a public opinion setter. It does create a trend, somehow.”

The decision does have the potential to eventually change UK policy, the senior official added, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Had it failed, it would have strengthened those who urge the government against supporting the Palestinians’ unilateral steps and to push them toward negotiations with Israel instead,” he said. “But it succeeded, and now it could have the opposite effect.”

In Britain’s pro-Israel camp, the vote is being insistently described as being of marginal importance — as merely a moral victory for the Palestinian cause that has little if any significance outside the confines of British party politics.

“This is more significant in terms of domestic policy than it is for British foreign policy,” said Toby Greene, director of research at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM), an independent pro-Israel think tank. “Its impact on British government policy is limited. It doesn’t reflect government policy, and it won’t form government policy.”

The vote is ‘at best is expression of the views of backbenchers. It doesn’t necessarily means it has a majority in the parliament itself’

Greene was also not too worried about the British vote leading other European countries to follow suit. Generally, the EU likes to maintain some degree of unity on this kind of thing, he said. “Though Sweden has indicated that it wants to break ranks, there is no consensus among leading EU states in favor of recognizing Palestine outside of an agreement with Israel. I don’t expect that to change in the immediate future.”

David Burrowes, a British MP who belongs to the Conservative Friends of Israel, decided to skip the vote and instead spend some time touring the Holy Land as a guest of the Israel Allies Foundation. Sure that the opposition would win the vote anyway, he felt that it was more important to show support for Israel on the ground than to cast a vain “no” vote in London.

“One shouldn’t underestimate that it’s got a strong campaigning edge to it,” Burrowes said about the success of the pro-recognition motion. But Prime Minister Cameron has been very clear about the government’s position, he added. The fact that a group of opposition MPs could push through a motion doesn’t alter the government’s course, he said.

Yet the current coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will not govern forever. Ahead of the May 2015 general elections, most polls see a slight lead for Labour, making Miliband a serious bet for prime minister.

Miliband, who voted in favor of Monday’s motion, could enshrine recognition of a Palestinian state as official government policy, the Conservatives’ Burrowes asserted. “He’s willing to sacrifice long-term issues [such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] at the altar of political expediency,” the rival MP said. “If he becomes the next prime minister, yes, there will be great pressure on him, and perhaps a mandate for him to move things like Palestinian recognition.”

The motion ‘does not commit Labour to immediate recognition of Palestine’

Perhaps so. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, last week in an article reiterated his party’s support for the “principle of recognising Palestinian statehood.” Yet Alexander also took pains to emphasize that Monday’s motion in parliament “does not commit Labour to immediate recognition of Palestine, or mandate the UK government to immediately bilaterally recognise the State of Palestine.”

Elaborating, he went on, “The timing and the mechanism by which Palestinian recognition takes place will continue to be matter decided by an incoming Labour Government.

“We have made clear previously that steps taken by individual governments outside of a wider international process won’t contribute to meaningful progress in negotiations towards a two state solution.”

Confused? We’re meant to be.

A historical rectification of the Balfour Declaration?

Since Britain is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and one of the three largest powers in the European Union, decisions by its Parliament, even if not binding, ostensibly carry more diplomatic weight than, say, declarations by the government of Sweden.

Could the House of Commons’ endorsement of Palestine inspire other major European countries to follow suit? France has long been toying with the idea of unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state, but has so far refused to do so, despite the Palestinians’ best lobbying efforts. (Paris might “at some point” recognize Palestine, a government spokesperson said last week.)

Germany has made plain that it will not take such a step in the absence of a peace agreement. “There needs to be mutual recognition,” Chancellor Angela Merkel once said, in promising never to recognize a Palestinian statehood without Israel’s agreement.

In 2012, London abstained when the UN General Assembly voted on granting “Palestine” non-member state status. “The only way to give the Palestinian people the state that they need and deserve, and to give the Israeli people the security and peace they are entitled to, is through a negotiated two-state solution,” London’s Ambassador to the UN Sir Mark Lyall Grant said at the time. That has been UK government policy ever since. (Fourteen EU member states voted in favor of the Palestinians’ resolution, while only one — the Czech Republic — opposed).

The UK is historically much more connected to this region than most other European countries, a fact the Palestinians are seeking to capitalize upon. A yes vote, the PLO’s Hanan Ashrawi had said ahead of the debate, “would be the first clear step taken by the UK as part of the process of historical rectification of the disastrous consequences of the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate over Palestine that ended in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel.”

But most Israeli and British observers reject any connection with the 1917 Balfour Declaration – in which London said it viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” — or the British Mandate.

“Israel-UK ties are not based on or formed primarily by the history of Britain in the region,” said BICOM’s Greene. British policy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, he added, is generally determined by what the UK government considers to best serve the interest of peace and stability: support for a negotiated peace process and getting behind the US as the leader in that process.

“The UK has tended to avoid symbolic and declarative posturing,” he said, “in favor of practicable help for Palestinian state building on the ground and support for an American-led top-down approach to peacemaking.”

Time will tell if that position holds after Monday’s night’s strong show of British legislators’ support for Palestine.

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