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Editorial: A foolish and cowardly abstention


Britain's abstention at the UN on a vote to enhance the status of the Palestinian people was an act of moral cowardice and a grave tactical error. It is easy to see the logic.

The Government wanted to appear neutral – which is why the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, spoke of the UK's "strong support for the principle of Palestinian statehood" – while not irritating the United States or Israel. That circle cannot honestly be squared.

Most of the world did not even try; 138 nations voted for a change which, polls suggest, the great majority of Britons support. Before the vote, Mr Hague said that if the Palestinians met certain conditions – if, for instance, they stopped demanding a freeze on all Israeli construction of settlements in the West Bank before agreeing to resume direct talks – then Britain would vote in favour. But such a condition was disingenuous. About half a million Jews now live in more than 200 settlements which are illegal under international law. This is one reason why the Palestinians decided to take the UN route to advance their cause.

Their belief is that enhanced status will strengthen their negotiating position on a host of questions, including the status of Jerusalem. Whether or not it has this effect, working through the UN represents a new departure for the Palestinians and one that deserves to be encouraged. Their President, Mahmoud Abbas, described the UN vote as issuing "a birth certificate for the State of Palestine". As such, it is a step towards the two-state solution which is a prerequisite of any sustainable peace.

It is true that there is much for the Palestinians to do themselves before statehood becomes a reality. The split between the West Bank and Gaza, between Fatah and Hamas, is debilitating for both, and much more progress is needed in human rights and the rule of law. But in abstaining in this emblematic vote, Britain sent a hypocritical and discouraging message to a budding state that deserves our support. It is a message that we could have cause to rue.