The Palestinian leadership on Tuesday lauded a symbolic 274-12 vote late Monday night in Britain’s House of Commons to recognize Palestine as a state, saying it was an important step toward acceptance among Western countries and as a member state in the United Nations. It called on the British government to follow Parliament’s lead.
British Prime Minister David Cameron abstained.
Only 286 of the 650 members of the House of Commons were present during the vote, which Labor MP Grahame Morris had called. Prior to the vote, Cameron’s spokesman said foreign policy would not be affected, whatever the outcome.
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the vote would “enhance the prospects of peace” in the Middle East.
PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo called on the British government to endorse the move by voting in favor of a Palestinian state in the UN Security Council.
The United Kingdom is one of the council’s 15 members, and as a permanent member, it has veto power.
Abed Rabbo said Britain was “obliged more than any other country to vote in favor of a Palestinian state because of its responsibility for the continued suffering of the Palestinian people since the notorious Balfour Declaration.”
Nabil Sha’ath, a senior Fatah official and former PA foreign minister, said the vote would have a positive impact on the positions of Europe and the efforts to persuade Security Council members to support the Palestinian stance.
Sha’ath also predicted that the vote would have “legal and political repercussions” with regard to the boycott of Israel, as well as settlements and Israeli “assaults” on Jerusalem.
He expressed hope that other EU countries would follow suit.
Fatah’s top representative in the West Bank, Azzam al-Ahmed, said the vote marked the “beginning of the awakening of the British and international conscience.” He said it was high time that the world endorsed a “moral stance toward the Palestinian people in order to end the historic injustice done to them.”
Israel, meanwhile, dismissed the diplomatic significance of the symbolic vote by refusing to dignify it with a formal response from Jerusalem.
Instead, its embassy in London issued a statement.
“There should be no illusion that a unilateral call for premature recognition of Palestine advances peace in any way whatsoever. It fails to address the real obstacles to peace, including the Palestinian insistence on a ‘right of return,’ which undermines the very concept of two states for two peoples, as well as the need for genuine security arrangements to prevent further mass attacks on Israeli civilians,” the statement read.
“Sending a message to Palestinians that they do not need to make hard choices for peace, and to Israelis that their concerns are of no import, only undermines the efforts of those working to bring about a real and lasting change,” it added.
The United Kingdom does not recognize Palestine as a state, preferring to see it born out of a negotiated two-state solution that ends all claims and ensures an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
France holds a similar position.
But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday that if there were no possibility of renewed negotiations, Paris “would not shirk its responsibilities” and would recognize the Palestinian state.
“From the moment when we say that there are two states, there will be recognition of a Palestinian state. That goes without saying; it’s logical,” Fabius said. “The only question [is] the modalities and how to do it in the most efficient way. What we want is not something symbolic, but something that is useful for peace.”
Over the past few days, top officials around the world, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have called for renewed talks, but at present there is no plan to jumpstart the frozen peace process.
Most of the speakers in the fourhour House of Commons debate expressed support for the Palestinian cause, starting by saying, “I am a supporter of Israel but...,” before launching into a catalogue of complaints about Israel’s policies.
Former Labor foreign secretary Jack Straw, along with former Liberal Democrat party leader Menzies Campbell, amended the resolution to make it acceptable to more MPs by suggesting that any recognition be “a contribution” to the peace process.
During his own speech, Straw pointedly reminded lawmakers that while the Israel camp wanted to stave off recognition until negotiations with the Palestinians had been completed, his amendment aimed to secure such recognition beforehand for the simple reason that he felt it wrong that Israel could have a veto over Palestinian statehood by refusing to end the negotiations.
Countering Straw was another former foreign secretary, Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind, who argued that recognition could not be granted to an entity that had no borders, no army and no government. And until the Palestinians sorted themselves out, he said, he didn’t think it made much sense to grant them the recognition they were seeking.
He wryly remarked that Britain had not recognized Israel until 1950, two years after it declared statehood.
Sir Gerald Kaufman, a Jewish but strongly pro-Palestinian Labor MP, accused Israel of not acting in “a Jewish way,” adding that its actions actually encouraged anti-Semitism.
Two senior backbenchers also made their mark on the debate.
Sir Richard Ottaway, who chairs the foreign affairs select committee, spoke movingly of how he was a lifelong supporter of Israel but would support the recognition motion because of his dismay at events during the Gaza conflict. His Labor predecessor, Mike Gapes, also declared himself a friend of Israel but said he would vote for the resolution because moves toward recognition would help stop fundamentalists from taking over the region.
While there were some pro-Israel speeches from the Conservative benches, Tory MPs, with a couple of exceptions, decided not to follow up by voting against the motion.
Instead they joined the vast majority of their party colleagues in abstaining, in an attempt to render the vote valueless.
One Conservative lawmaker, Mike Freer, resigned on Tuesday over the vote. Freer, the sole parliamentarian representing the heavily Jewish constituency of Finchley and Golders Green, labeled the motion “backbench business.”
“Govt policy on two state solution remains best hope for lasting peace,” Freer tweeted after the resolution was passed.
The outcome of the vote surprised few seasoned observers of the Westminster political scene. It showed there had been a considerable shift toward the Palestinian camp within the House of Commons, a shift that was somewhat accelerated by the recent Gaza fighting. Still, it was not a true reflection of the entire house, as only those Conservatives who support Palestinian statehood actually voted.
For political reasons, the Labor opposition, led by Ed Miliband and shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, have chosen to support the idea of Palestinian statehood.
Cynics believe there is a simple explanation: With a closely fought general election less than seven months away, trying to secure some of the country’s estimated three million Muslim voters – many in key marginal constituencies – makes political sense.
Nonetheless, several Labor MPs disagreed with their colleagues, and in a major public display of revolt, a quarter of the shadow cabinet decided to abstain.Reuters contributed to this report.