Britain’s parliament voted the other day to recognise the state of Palestine. The decision will not change anything on the ground in the West Bank or Gaza. Nor is it binding on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government. Yet, this was an important moment and not just because of Britain’s deep historical connections with Palestine. The debate opened a window on what Israel’s friends now think about the enduring impasse in the Middle East.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not had a good year. He was blamed by the US administration for wrecking its latest attempt to reassemble a peace process. In truth, there were obstinacies and obstacles on both sides, but publicly and privately, US officials identified Israel’s land grabs in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank as the principal cause of the breakdown.
Only this month, Philip Hammond, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, said he “deplored” plans for more than 2,000 additional homes for Israeli colonists in occupied East Jerusalem. France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius said it put in question Israel’s oft-stated commitment to negotiated peace. Europeans have come to see colony expansion as a strategy calculated to destroy fast-fading hopes for a two-state agreement.
The summer war against Hamas had the solid support of most Israelis. For its friends abroad, the manner and scale of the military assault on Gaza was baffling and counterproductive. It attracted widespread international opprobrium for no identifiable strategic gain. The death of 2,000, mostly civilian Palestinians, and the bombing of United Nations schools were rightly judged to be disproportionate. Israel lost 70 soldiers. For what gain? Yuval Diskin, once head of the Shin Bet security service, told Germany’s Der Spiegel that Israel had turned itself into “an instrument in the hands of Hamas”.
A temporary military success was more than offset by the political gains that accrued to Hamas and the damage inflicted on the Palestinian National Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. European governments had backed Abbas’s initiative to forge a joint administration with Hamas as a prelude to serious peace talks. Now they speculate that the Gaza operation was Netanyahu’s attempt to wreck any accommodation.
These episodes have not undercut the fundamental commitment of allies to Israel’s right to live in peace and security. They have drained patience and trust and led many to believe Netanyahu prefers a permanent state of war to a difficult peace. Yet, the alternative to two states, as I have heard often during visits to Israel, is one state that comes to resemble apartheid South Africa.
Israel has lost its international audience. When Netanyahu warns about the nuclear threat from Iran, even those who worry deeply about Tehran’s intentions respond with a weary shrug. The warnings are seen as a diversion — an effort to distract from his refusal to accept a Palestinian state rather than a clear-headed assessment of a present danger. This cannot be good for Israel.
Such was the backdrop to last week’s vote in the House of Commons. The occasion added lustre to the reputation of the politicians — something too rare these days. The hyperbole and rancour of everyday partisanship made way for reasoned argument. Israel had lobbied hard against the motion. It was soon obvious it had lost its best friends.
Sir Richard Ottaway, the Conservative MP, explained that his wife’s family had been instrumental in the fight for the creation of Israel: “I was a friend of Israel long before I became a Tory.” And yet, “to be a friend of Israel is not to be an enemy of Palestine”. Voicing anger at the land grabs, he concluded with sadness: “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.”
The Israeli argument, echoed as it was by a handful of supportive MPs, is that the process of recognising Palestine as a state, which began in the United Nations General Assembly two years ago, is a brake on peace. Statehood is a prize to be “earned”. To concede it now would be to reduce the pressure for Palestinians to make tough compromises.
Tel Aviv’s intransigence
There was never great logic in this. As several MPs pointed out, the formulation offers Israel an extraordinary veto over the choices of other sovereign states. Even if this once made tactical sense, the proposition has been robbed of reason by Netanyahu: Palestinians cannot be denied statehood because of Israel’s intransigence.
Jack Straw, a former Labour foreign secretary, caught the irony. If pressure needed to be applied on anyone, he said, then it should be on Netanyahu. On Palestinian statehood, Straw quoted the words in 2011 of William Hague, then Cameron’s foreign secretary: “The UK judges that the Palestinian Authority largely fulfils the criteria for UN membership, including statehood.”
The vote was 274 for recognition and 12 against. Cameron had told 100 or so government ministers to abstain. He has an election next year. Other MPs stayed away. But 136 of the 193 members of the UN, including most recently Sweden, have now accepted Palestine for what it is: A state. Britain will surely follow soon enough. Netanyahu may rage at the prospect, but Israel should have nothing to fear. The surest guarantee of its security is peaceful coexistence with a Palestinian state.
— Financial Times