Leading article: A symbolic sign of support for the Palestinians

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The Independent Online

For such a traditional Tory as William Hague, the admiring biographer of William Pitt the Younger, the Foreign Secretary is conducting a far-from-traditional Tory foreign policy. It is less deferential to the US than might be expected, more assertive in the Balkans, among other places, and more independent-minded towards the Middle East.

Mr Hague's reported decision to upgrade the Palestinian representative office to a full diplomatic mission is a sign of this. It is a symbolic gesture. But symbols can be important, and the action and the timing have raised hackles in Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Israel, especially as Britain's move brings it into line with other European countries that have already done the same.

Israel's annoyance with Britain will be tempered by the knowledge that granting the Palestinian representative ambassadorial status is not the same as recognising Palestine as a state. Several Latin American countries have taken this step. No European country is ready to go so far, for good reason. In the absence of any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, it is not clear that this move would be of practical benefit to anyone.

Broader international recognition of Palestinian statehood cannot be ruled out indefinitely, however, as some of Mr Netanyahu's ministers realise. The Labour Party's Benjamin Ben-Eliezer recently said he would not be surprised were "the whole world" to recognise Palestine within a year, if the logjam continued. This is an exaggeration. Support for Israel remains rock solid in the US. Rather than "the world" turning against Israel, a more likely prospect is a growing divergence of opinion between Israel-plus-America and the rest.

Such a prospect need not worry Israel while America remains the world's paramount power. The problem is what happens if, or when, this is no longer the case. Thinking Israelis are aware of the long-term folly of pursuing a policy of stalling peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and indeed of undermining them. The same cannot be said, alas, for their Prime Minister, who remains fixated on short-term political goals.

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