Palestinian statehood: How the UK can show itself in a bold and principled light

By voting to recognise Palestine, MPs would display Britain's willingness to make up its own mind
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The Independent Online

Tomorrow, Parliament will vote on whether to recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. I believe it is high time that the United Kingdom fully endorsed that principle.

The vote will not be binding on the Government and will not on its own bring about the official recognition of the state of Palestine. It does, however, offer the opportunity for Parliament to take a stand on what is a fundamental issue of principle in the peace process.

It is a stand that for too long we have refused to take. When the Palestinians achieved observer status at the United Nations in 2012, Britain was one of 41 countries to abstain. This put us in the clear minority of the General Assembly, who approved the application by 138 votes to nine. Predictably, both Israel and the United States voted against Palestinian recognition.

Year after year, the Palestinians are urged to be patient. Statehood, just like borders and true independence, they are told, must be worked out only as part of negotiations with Israel.

But there are no negotiations.

After the latest round of failed talks, conducted in good faith and with extraordinary tenacity by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Palestinians find themselves hardly any further forward than when they went to the UN in 2012 – in fact, they are in a worse position. Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are now an even bigger obstacle.

And all the while, in trumpeting the supposed peace process, we have continued to allow what ought to be permanent principles to be sacrificed for what were supposed to be temporary realities in Palestine. The Israeli position is that the Palestinians ought never to take any unilateral action, while at the same time Israel refuses to contribute in any meaningful way to the very bilateral negotiations that they trumpet as the only option.

It is the politics of the long grass and it is time we recognised it for what it is – a smokescreen that allows for further dissembling.

Indeed, at the same time as condemning the Palestinians for taking unilateral action by seeking statehood, the Israeli government continues its own unilateral expansion of settlements into the occupied West Bank. Far more than recognising Palestinian statehood, it is the continued and state-sponsored transfer of illegal Israeli settlers on to land which rightfully belongs to Palestine that poses the gravest and potentially existential threat to the two-state solution.

The logic that statehood should only be dealt with through negotiations also demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of its nature. Palestinian statehood is not a gift for anyone – be it Britain, the US or Israel – to award. Rather, it is a right to recognise. Or at least it should be.

Just as we did not seek permission from the Palestinians when we recognised the state of Israel, neither should we bow to Israeli opposition to recognising the state of Palestine.

 

Similarly, just as we continue to recognise Israel without accepting the legality of their post-1967 borders, so too we can recognise Palestine without knowing exactly what its eventual perimeter will be.

The recognition of statehood is not the final word in the Israel/Palestine dispute, but the starting point in allowing the Palestinians to conduct future negotiations with Israel as equals. Far from pushing Israel away from the table, recognition should be used as a spur to bring them back to it. It is the easiest thing in the world to agree with a principle. But without the deeds to bring those principles into reality, they serve little tangible purpose and result in no actual advancement of the process we wish to support.

Everything the Palestinians want and are entitled to – a state of their own, the right to move freely within their own land, equality before the law, and the end of the longest occupation in modern international relations – are principles that we as a country support. But that support for the principle always seems to run aground on the debate about the process by which they can be achieved. It is talks about talks about talks.

Turning principle into reality, however, is a powerful act. You only have to look at the reaction to the announcement of the new Swedish government that it intended to recognise Palestine to see what a fuss it can cause. The Swedish ambassador to Israel was immediately summoned and strong, terse statements were issued both by the Israeli Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

It is time for the British Government to stand up for the principle affirmed by the Swedes.

Indeed, Britain, more than any country, owes it to the Palestinian people to actively support their efforts to achieve recognition. Ever since the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British government has been committed to the creation of an independent state for Palestinians. Yet that goal slips further away with each passing year. We have been reneging on our promise for long enough.

As much as it is about the Palestinians' place in the world, so too the vote speaks to the place that Britain seeks to claim for itself in the international community. Taking steps to recognise Palestine would be the sort of bold, progressive and principled action that would drastically raise the standing of the UK in the Arab world. It would demonstrate that we are prepared to form our own judgements and forge our own bilateral relations without deferring to others.

The Middle East peace process has been a cycle of hope and despair for more than a generation. It currently gives much more cause for despair than hope. Yet through all the ups and downs it is the process that assumes centre stage, with principles discussed as if they are just points on a list to work through.

In the absence of any immediate or realistic expectation of that process being once again resuscitated, it is about time that principles were afforded the prominence they merit.

Sir Alan Duncan is MP for Rutland and Melton, and an international development minister

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