Is UK policy shifting on Israel?


On 13 October 2014, the British House of Commons supported the recognition of the state of Palestine by the astonishing margin of 274 votes to 12.  The text of the motion passed was


“That this House believes that the government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution.”


The opposition Labour Party supported the motion and 189 of their MPs voted for it.  The governing Conservative Party gave its MPs a free vote and 42 of them voted for recognition; the vast majority abstained, only 6 voting against.


This was a backbench motion and its passing is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the policy of the present government, which is to recognise a Palestinian state “when it can best help bring about peace” (see statement by former Foreign Secretary William Hague to the House of Commons in November 2011).  However, if a Labour government were elected in May 2015, UK recognition of Palestine is on the cards.



Unprecedented criticism of Israel


The margin of victory in the vote was astonishing but even more astonishing was the unprecedented criticism of Israel from MPs on all sides of the House in the 4-hour debate that preceded the vote.  45 MPs made speeches during the debate, 38 of them in support of the motion.


For many years, mainstream politicians in Britain of all parties, bar a small number of dedicated supporters of Palestine, have adhered to the principle that talking tough to Israel would jeopardise the “peace process” and the possibility of a two-state solution.  This principle was maintained despite the fact that Israel’s relentless colonisation of the West Bank including East Jerusalem (which is a war crime under Article 8.2(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute of the ICC) has rendered the creation of a viable Palestinian next to impossible.


But, in this debate, it seemed as if recent events – Israel’s failure to make any serious proposals during the Kerry initiative, its murderous assault on Gaza this summer and recent announcements that thousands more settler homes are going to be built – had given MPs licence to speak their mind about Israeli actions and to admit the truth that, unless external pressure is brought to bear on Israel, it will not withdraw from the occupied territories and allow a viable Palestinian state to come into existence.


This view was expressed most forcibly by former Labour Foreign Minister Jack Straw, who said:


Israel has been occupying Palestinian land for nearly 50 years. … In the last 20 years … it has compounded that failure by a deliberate decision to annex Palestinian land and to build Israeli settlements on that land. There are now 600,000 such Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israelis are seeking to strangle East Jerusalem by expropriating land all around it, and two months ago, they announced the illegal annexation of a further nearly 1,000 acres of land near Bethlehem. The Israeli Government will go on doing this as long as they pay no price for their obduracy.”


And he argued that “the recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel will add to the pressure for a negotiated two-state solution, and may help to bring that prospect a little closer to fruition”.  273 other MPs agreed.


It will take a great deal more pressure – serious economic sanctions, for example – to persuade Israel to permit the creation of a Palestinian state.  However, it seems that many MPs have now abandoned the fantasy that it can be done simply by direct negotiations between Israel and Palestinians without external pressure being applied to Israel.



Reflecting a shift in British public opinion


Commenting on the vote on Israeli radio, the UK’s Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould described the vote as “significant”, because, he said, it reflected a broader shift in British public opinion on Israel in the wake of the conflict in Gaza over the summer and announcements of settlement construction.


Dramatic evidence of this shift was given in the debate by Sir Richard Ottaway, a senior Conservative MP and the current Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons.  He said that he had been a supporter of the state of Israel before he became a Conservative and has close family connections with Israel.  He told MPs:


“… I have stood by Israel through thick and thin, through the good years and the bad. I have sat down with Ministers and senior Israeli politicians and urged peaceful negotiations … and I thought that they were listening. But I realise now, in truth, looking back over the past 20 years, that Israel has been slowly 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, mainly because it makes me look a fool, and that is something that I resent.”


He ended by saying:


“I have to say to the Government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people.”



Balfour Declaration


Winston Churchill’s grandson, Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, spoke in support of recognition.  He reminded the House that the Balfour Declaration, made by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917, not only endorsed “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” but went on to state that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.  In something of an understatement, he admitted that “ninety-seven years later, the terms of the Balfour declaration are clearly not upheld with respect to the Palestinians”. 


Liberal Democrat MP David Ward was more forthright, declaring that “in the light of the Nakba and everything since” that promise to the people in Palestine “seems like a sick joke”.


In fact, Britain never had any intention of honouring its promise to the people of Palestine.  Balfour himself wrote in 1919 that “the four Great Powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder importance than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”.



Former Minister Sir Alan Duncan speaks


Sir Alan Duncan has been a Conservative MP for over 20 years and until last June he was a minister in the current government.  He spoke in the debate in favour of recognition.  The next day, he delivered a speech on Israel to the Royal United Services Institute in London, which included the following:


“The continued expansion of settlements demonstrates that the occupier has little or no intention of ending that occupation or of permitting a viable Palestinian state to come into existence.”


“Settlements are illegal colonies built in someone else’s country. They are an act of theft, and what is more something which is both initiated and supported by the state of Israel.”


“Anyone who supports illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian land is an extremist who puts themselves outside the boundaries of democratic standards.”


“In the past, the world has taken a clear stand on illegal territorial expansion … . We sent an army to repel Saddam Hussain’s claim to Kuwait. We are imposing sanctions on Russia for their annexation of Crimea, and their subterfuge in Eastern Ukraine. But there is no punitive action taken against Israel for their persistent annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It is a cruel irony that Russia’s embrace of Crimea might be said to enjoy a modicum of popular consent: whereas the unpunished Israeli land grab in Palestine most certainly does not.”


No mainstream British politician has criticised Israel’s treatment of Palestinians so harshly in the past generation.



Will there be a shift in British policy?


It remains to be seen if the unprecedented criticism of Israel from mainstream British politicians leads to a shift in British government policy.


Recently, the recognition of Palestine has become an issue in EU states other than the UK.  Eight states that are now members of the EU – Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia – took this step in 1988 long before they joined the EU.  However, on 30 October Sweden became the first state to recognise Palestine while a member of the EU (and the 135th state in the world to do so).  In addition, on 22 October the upper house of the Irish Parliament supported recognition unanimously and it is reported that there will be a vote on the issue in the Spanish Parliament in the near future.  It is possible that a number of EU states, including the UK, will take this step in concert.


Recognition of Palestine is a matter for individual states.  Trade relations with Israel are within the competence of the EU and policy changes in this area have to be agreed by all member states.  As it happens, on 1 January 2015 the EU is due to introduce a ban on the import of dairy products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the West Bank including East Jerusalem (and in the Golan Heights).  The EU has deemed these products to be unregulated (since it doesn't recognise the Israeli agricultural ministry's authority in the occupied territories) and therefore they do not comply with the EU’s import standards.


A few EU states support a ban on the import of all settlement goods into the EU.  Ireland, for example, has been arguing for such a ban since 2011.  That would be the next logical step for the EU: since it regards these entities as illegal, it should not be encouraging their expansion by allowing EU citizens to purchase goods produced in them.



David Morrison

3 November 2014