Britain went the way of Sweden last week when the British Parliament approved a motion recognizing, in principle, an independent Palestinian state. The large majority in favor of the motion belied the fact that over half of the Parliament, almost the entire governing Conservative Party, absented themselves from the House of Commons, thus avoiding the embarrassment of voting against a motion which many probably support, but which is opposed at this moment by UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
The response from the Jewish community and the Israeli government unsurprisingly bordered on the hysterical. It included all of the keywords which have come to be expected on such occasions, such as racism, anti-Semitism, Islamic influences in the UK.
Writing in this paper last Friday, British columnist Melanie Phillips used the term “perfidious Albion” as she reminded the readers of Britain’s past attitudes toward the Jews in Palestine during the Mandate period.
Phillips, a British journalist residing in London, has spent much of the past decade building her reputation as one of the staunchest critics of the growth of Islam in Western Europe, while at the same time demonstrating her support for the right-wing settlement policies of the present Israeli government.
One of the first responses to the British decision was from Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Yair Shamir, who quoted his father the late prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, saying that it was all down to anti-Semitism, which he claimed was once again determining European policy toward the Jewish state. Yitzhak Shamir, it should be remembered, did not have fond memories of Britain. He was on the British wanted list in the pre-state days when he was active in the Lehi and Etzel organizations which fought against the British Mandate government in the run-up to independence.
The Israeli government, and particularly its prime minister, were quick to remind anyone who isn’t tired of hearing the same mantra over and over, that the real threat is not the Palestinian problem, but the Iranian nuclear threat, the rise of extremist and fundamentalist Islam, the instability of the surrounding region – just about everything other than the actual issue which was raised in Parliament, namely Palestinian independence and statehood.
But let’s not be naive about it. There is a dangerous rise in anti-Semitism and racism, some of it spurred on by radical Islam, in Western Europe, including those places which were once seen as constituting the bastions of free and egalitarian debate, such as the House of Commons and the university campuses. The discourse has become even more extreme in the immediate aftermath of the bloody results of the most recent Gaza war.
Israel has indeed become a convenient whipping boy for many of the “new” anti-Semites. One only has to read the brilliant expose penned by the emeritus British chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, that appeared in The Wall Street Journal just a few weeks ago, for insight into the changing atmosphere in Western Europe. He skillfully depicts the growing links between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel, links which make it increasingly difficult to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel by those opposed to occupation and settlements, and the activities of anti-Semitic groups operating throughout Western Europe.
Anti-Semites have been only too happy to walk into the open back door of groups and organizations which are critical of Israel. The latter, many of which do not see themselves or wish to be depicted as anti-Semites, can only blame themselves for being tainted as such, as they have done far too little to stem the tide, and have not come out strongly against the type of statements, declarations and innuendo which have emerged in recent months as part of the Israel debate.
Most of the 270 members of Parliament who supported recognition didn’t vote in favor of a Palestinian state because they are anti-Semites, racists or Israel delegitimizers.
Certain individuals that took part in the debate did however make unacceptable comments and speeches. That the speaker of the House of Commons did not call the anti-Semitic speakers to order is to the shame of the body over which he presides, just as it is to the shame of university vice chancellors and rectors who, while not supporting anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli incitement on campus, choose to remain silent rather than take action to ensure free and open campuses.
Most of the 270 members of the British Parliament voted to recognize a Palestinian state because they, like almost the entire world, believe it is time that the Palestinians had the same right to independence and self-government that we, the Jews, fought for and have proudly defended for the past 66 years. Following both Sweden and the UK, it is likely that most other Western European countries, will support similar motions during the coming year or two. It is only perhaps surprising that it has taken so long for these states to come out in favor of Palestinian statehood, given the almost universal rejection of continued Israeli control of the West Bank.
While Israel and the US succeed, time after time, in preventing the Palestinian representatives at the UN from putting forward a motion for independence, it is unlikely that this can be put off much longer, even in the face of Israeli threats to cease negotiations (what negotiations?), withhold tax payments, close the borders even tighter or to undertake other punitive measures. If and when it does come to a formal vote at the UN General Assembly, there is little doubt that the proposal will receive almost unanimous support from all of the UN members states.
Implementing Palestinian statehood means that the big issues – such as Israel’s security, the continuation of settlement activity, the status of Jerusalem, international recognition of Israel as a bona fide state of the Jewish people, the right of return – have to be addressed in practical, rather than ideological, terms. The famous “painful compromises” have to be implemented rather than left as slogans hanging in the air. We have all had well over 20 years to resolve these issues, discussing them in minute detail and ad nauseam at numerous Track I and Track II negotiations and discussions. We are all fully cognizant of what needs to be bartered for what.
Each side is as guilty as the other in ensuring that the peace spoilers, be they the terrorists on one side or the settlement builders on the other (and there is no moral equivalence between these two vastly different activities) use every opportunity to destroy attempts at reaching conflict resolution, whenever the smallest window of opportunity beckons.
Sooner or later there will be a Palestinian state. It will be recognized by the UN in the same way that Israel was recognized back in November 1947. Simply labeling all those who support Palestinian statehood, including Western democracies which are proud of their liberal values, as anti-Semites and racists, is a diplomacy of self-denial which avoids the key issues. Until the issue of Palestinian statehood is resolved, Israel will become ever more isolated within the international community, as an increasing number of countries follow the path taken by Sweden and the UK in recent weeks.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.