British recognition of Palestine would carry a powerfully symbolic message


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British recognition of Palestine would not itself change a single fact on the ground in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. But it would carry a powerfully symbolic message, which is why Palestinian leaders in Ramallah strongly hope it will happen and the Israeli government is equally concerned that it should not.

Recognition would be an important public reinforcement of Britain’s long-held policy in favour of the end of Israeli occupation and a Palestinian state, based on the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, alongside Israel. Those campaigning for recognition also hope to stiffen the resolve of the wider EU, Israel’s biggest trading partner, to use more leverage to secure a peace agreement. 

Opponents argue that recognition should only follow a negotiated agreement. But the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - and many European leaders as well as some in the US administration - are deeply sceptical about the prospects of such agreement with the current Israeli government and believe they could be fatally undermined by Israel’s relentless expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. In the face of this, Mr Abbas sees diplomatic pressure as a vastly preferable alternative to the armed struggle which he has consistently opposed.

Which is why Mr Abbas secured a victory in 2013 when the UN General assembly voted to award the Palestinian Authority Vatican-style “non member observer” UN status, giving it the right to sit on various UN bodies and to pursue claims through the International Criminal Court, which it has threatened to do unless the Security Council sets a three year deadline for Palestinian statehood. 

A Commons vote for recognition - though very welcome to Palestinians - will not bind the UK government. Of EU countries, apart from newly committed Sweden, only Cyprus, Malta and - during the cold war - the eastern bloc have recognised Palestine. But as well as influencing other EU members, British recognition would be especially symbolic. Having from 1917 to 1948 ruled what was then mandatory Palestine - now Israel and the 22 per cent of the land on which the international community, including Britain, is committed to seeing a Palestinian state - it bears a historic responsibility to help resolve the conflict.