Britain’s House of Commons voted in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state late Monday in a move that will not alter the government's stance on the issue, but that carries symbolic value for Palestinians in their pursuit of statehood.
Lawmakers in Britain's lower house of parliament voted by 274 to 12 to pass a non-binding motion stating: "That this House believes that the Government should recognize the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution."
Britain does not classify "Palestine" as a state, but says it could do so at any time if it believed it would help peace efforts between the Palestinians and Israel. Government ministers were told to abstain and the non-binding vote will not force Britain to recognise a Palestinian state.
Nearly 50 MPs were in the chamber to hear pro-Palestinian Labor Backbencher Grahame Morris open the four hour debate which he said was a chance for the UK to atone for its historic mistakes – a clear reference to the Balfour Declaration.
He and party colleagues knew in advance that with the unprecedented backing of the Labor party – as traditionally the political parties do not tell MPs which way to vote in what is supposed to be backbench business – his motion calling for the British Government to recognise a Palestinian State would be passed, probably by a substantial majority.
Several senior pro-Israel Labor party MPs including a number of members of the shadow cabinet – angered by the decision of party leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander to order Labor backbenchers to back the Morris motion by issuing a ‘three line whip’ - were understood to be ready to defy the instruction and abstain on the vote which was due at 10 p.m. UK time, midnight in Israel.
Former Labor Foreign Secretary Jack Straw successfully moved a manuscript amendment which stated that recognition of a state should be agreed as a ‘contribution’ towards a two state solution. He said if Israel had its way and recognition should be delayed until an agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinians, that - in effect - would amount to giving Israel a veto over Palestinian statehood.
The Palestinians, he reminded the Commons had no say or veto over the establishment of the State of Israel.
A counter argument was put forward by another former Foreign Secretary the Conservative Party’s Malcolm Rifkind who told MPs that it was not possible to recognize a state which has no boundaries, no army, nor a government. The Palestinians he said, currently have two administrations and simply did not qualify for ‘recognition’.
Also he noted wryly, Britain did not recognize the State of Israel until 1950 when its borders and government and been well established.
An amendment which had been proposed on an all party basis by members of the Conservative and Labor Friends of Israel and which would have made recognition conditional on the successful conclusion of a two state solution negotiation, was not selected by the Commons Speaker John Bercow.
As a result MPs were instead faced with a choice of voting for recognition “as a contribution” towards peace or voting against. Many Conservative MPs - who along with the Government Ministers were given a ‘free vote’ by their party managers – stayed away – in effect abstaining.
A leading supporter of Israel Guto Bebb summed the political choice he faced in an article in Monday’s Daily Telegraph
, pointing out that regardless of the vote, the British Government’s position would not change and international opinion would not be swayed by a few squabbling MPs on Britain’s opposition benches.
He suggested that he and his Conservative colleagues should stay away from the vote whilst the Labor Party “turns the Commons chamber into its own policy forum”. And with it being the first day back from a recess, many MPs appeared to have taken a similar decision rendering the voting figures relatively meaningless.
That argument however was countered by Jack Straw, who made clear the symbolism of the vote regardless of how it was achieved was far more important and the message to all beyond the UK would be very clear.
Both the government Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood and the Labor Shadow spokesman Ian Lucas were due to address MPs during the debate, with the Minister expected to say that the UK wanted to see the establishment of a viable Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.
But he was due to tell MPs that only through a negotiated process and an end to the occupation could Palestinian statehood become a reality. As far as the current government was concerned they would choose when it was the most appropriate time to grant recognition and that would be when they considered it would best provide for a full peace.
The vote therefore was expected to give the Palestinian lobby both in the UK and further afield a feeling of historic victory but being symbolic and non binding, as Grahame Morris noted, it would not change the facts on the ground.
Only if the Labor Party were to be successful in next May’s general election, would they be in a position to implement the Commons vote and judging by the latest opinion polls it would be anybody’s guess in the current political climate as to who might take over in 10, Downing Street. But at present it appears more likely that David Cameron with his more balanced approach to the Arab-Israel conflict will be there and he will – in all probability just ignore last night’s vote as he has done on the three other occasions backbench votes have resulted in defeats for his government’s policies.