MPs are on the verge of backing a historic parliamentary vote that would call on the British government to unilaterally recognise the state of Palestine. Politicians on both sides of the deeply divisive issue believe that the motion will be passed after Ed Miliband instructed his MPs to back it.
The resolution, due to be debated on Monday, also has the support of most Liberal Democrat MPs and a number of Tory backbenchers who have so far been given a free vote on the issue. Government ministers are expected to abstain.
While a vote in favour of Palestinian recognition would only be symbolic and not bind the Government it would nonetheless have profound international implications.
Last week Sweden became the first major EU country to announce that it intended officially to recognise the Palestinian state much to the fury of the Israeli Government, which called in the Swedish ambassador for a public reprimand.
The Israelis have always maintained that recognition should only follow a negotiated agreement between both sides, and it is understood that a senior member of the Israeli cabinet has directly lobbied senior Labour politicians not to back the motion.
Labour’s support for the motion also concerns Israel because it fears it could be a precursor to a future Labour Government following Sweden’s example and recognising Palestine.
The current UK position set out by the former Foreign Secretary William Hague is that Britain “reserves the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace”.
But in a letter to The Independent a group of retired diplomats, including two former Consul-Generals to Jerusalem, have urged MPs to back the motion.
“This is a rare opportunity for MPs to assist the government to take a historic decision by conveying the feeling of the country on a non-party issue which is both open and important,” they wrote. “We hope that they will seize it.”
The motion, which will be debated as part of backbench business, has been proposed by the Labour MP Grahame Morris who said he felt it was “time to shout out loud that this should be done”.
“Not only is statehood the inalienable right of the Palestinian people, but recognizing Palestine will breathe new life into a peace process that is at an impasse,” he said.
The motion states: “This House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the State of Israel.”
However several members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet are expected to defy the party whip and also abstain from the vote after heated behind the scenes arguments about Labour’s position.
One described the party’s stance as “mad” and predicted it would cause deep divisions between pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian factions within Labour. Two Shadow Cabinet Ministers are officers of Labour Friends of Israel.
“We should not be taking a position on this and whipping the vote,” they said. “I for one will be staying away.”
A senior cross-party group of MPs, including Jack Straw and Alan Duncan, intend to introduce an amendment that would add the words “contributing towards a negotiated settlement”.
Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander wrote on a blog post the he believed the motion to be compatible with Labour’s current official policy on Palestinian recognition.
“Labour’s consistent support for the principle of recognising Palestinian statehood, as part of continuing steps to achieve a comprehensive negotiated two state solution, is why we will be voting to support the principle of Palestinian statehood when the House of Commons debates the issue on Monday,” he wrote.
Alan Duncan, who also supports the motion from the Conservative side, said: “There is no peace process at the moment and there is no reason to seek Israeli permission for Palestinian recognition. It is their right and we should feel a moral duty to support it.”
But the Conservative MP Guto Bebb, who is opposing the motion and has laid down an amendment stating that recognition should only come “on the conclusion of successful peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority said that motion as stood “contradicted common sense”.
“The motion is completely contrary to UK Government policy,” he said. “How can you recognise a state when the borders of that state have not been agreed?
“This is profoundly unhelpful to the peace process.”
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We continue to believe that negotiations toward a two-state solution are the best route to meeting Palestinian aspirations in reality and on the ground.”
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