AN ACTIVIST wears a Palestinian/Union Jack flag outside the Houses of Parliament before Monday’s vote on Palestinian recognition..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LONDON – Despite the massive size of the vote favoring Palestinian statehood, 274 voting for and just 12 against in the historic Commons vote on Monday night, the UK government has been quick to point out that it will not result in any change in policy and that Britain will only recognize a Palestinian state at a time of its choosing and when it will “best help bring about peace.”
The vote, which many MPs noted was purely symbolic and most crucially nonbinding, had been distorted by an unprecedented decision of the opposition Labor Party to order its members to support the recognition resolution despite the motion being backbench business, while the Conservative government had told its ministers and MPs to abstain, effectively party sources said, rendering the vote meaningless.
And that message was reinforced on Wednesday during Prime Minister’s Questions when David Cameron was asked whether he agreed with Palestinian UK representative Manuel Hassassian who had said that now was the time for the UK government to “listen to its democratically elected parliament and to take decisive political action by recognizing the State of Palestine and upholding its historical, moral and legal responsibility towards Palestine.”
Cameron told the Commons that he looked forward to the day when Britain will recognize the state of Palestine but, he emphasized, “it should be part of the negotiations that bring about a two-state solution.
That is what we all want to see – a state of Israel living happily and peacefully alongside a state of Palestine – and that is when we should do the recognition.”
A spokesman for Conservative Friends of Israel put the figures into perspective. He said that 286 MPs of the 650 in the House of Commons took part in the vote, putting it at only 44 percent participation.
Of the 303 Conservative MPs, 39 voted in favor of the motion, meaning only 12.8% of Conservatives voted in favor of the motion. Some 87% of Conservatives did not support the motion. Conversely, 75% of Labor MPs voted in favor of the motion.
For pro-Israel Labor MPs, especially members of the shadow cabinet who disagreed with their party’s stance, it was especially difficult as they had been ordered to “turn up and vote.” Over a quarter refused, in an unprecedented protest at a policy change that had been imposed by party leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander which had neither been agreed within the party nor even discussed by the shadow cabinet.
Those defying their party whips included Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, Shadow International Development Secretary Jim Murphy, Shadow Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves who is vice chairwoman of Labor Friends of Israel and Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Ivan Lewis.
A party source indicated it reflected a significant concern within the Labor Party at the lack of balance shown by its leadership during the recent Gaza conflict and also their decision to impose a “threeline whip” demand that they attend the Palestinian statehood vote.
A senior shadow cabinet minister confided to The Jerusalem Post that it was “totally unacceptable to suggest that the UK should recognize a Palestinian state when half the territory is controlled by a fundamentalist, terrorist organization. This motion will change nothing and make a two-state solution less rather than more likely.”
The vote, however, is major boost to those who have frustratingly over many years supported the Palestinian cause with few tangible results, and inevitably it has dismayed both most in Israel and a significant part of Britain’s Jewish community.
Pro-Palestinian campaigners have for many years felt the Labor Party was in the grip of the pro-Israel lobby and, though few dared say it in public, the Jews. And the recent party leaderships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both of whom were impartial on the Israel-Palestinian issue but were close “friends of Israel” was never spoken about publicly but irked some of the Palestinian lobby.
Jewish communal leaders in Britain have said privately they will now take account of the parliamentary vote and see to what degree it is reflected among the general public rather than just the vociferous supporters of Palestinian statehood.
But without doubt it changes the parameters in which the pro-Israel lobby and the Jewish community will continue to press the government to resist calls to take action against Israel’s policies, especially on settlements and in times of conflict such as recently over Gaza.
More worryingly are fears that an emboldened Palestinian lobby will now press ahead with its campaign for BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Several of the MPs participating in the debate have previously called for an arms embargo, or called for the suspension of the EU-Israel Association agreement.
Others have demanded that all products from the West Bank should be banned from sale in the UK, and companies trading with or in Israel should be shunned.
The only factor which may intervene will be the growing proximity of next May’s general election. When most politicians focus their attention on keeping their place in Parliament and in the uncertain atmosphere created by the rapid advance of UKIP, few MPs will be interested in fighting for causes abroad when matters on the domestic agenda are far more likely to win them crucial votes.