A Symbolic Vote in Britain Recognizes a Palestinian State
By STEPHEN CASTLE and JODI RUDORENOCT. 13, 2014
LONDON — Against a backdrop of growing impatience across Europe with Israeli policy, Britain’s Parliament overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution Monday night to give diplomatic recognition to a Palestinian state. The vote was a symbolic but potent indication of how public opinion has shifted since the breakdown of American-sponsored peace negotiations and the conflict in Gaza this summer.
Though the outcome of the 274-to-12 parliamentary vote was not binding on the British government, the debate was the latest evidence of how support for Israeli policies, even among staunch allies of Israel, is giving way to more calibrated positions and in some cases frustrated expressions of opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance toward the Palestinians.
Opening the debate, Grahame Morris, the Labour Party lawmaker who promoted it, said Britain had a “historic opportunity” to take “this small but symbolically important step” of recognition.
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“To make our recognition of Palestine dependent on Israel’s agreement would be to grant Israel a veto over Palestinian self-determination,” said Mr. Morris, who leads a group called Labour Friends of Palestine.
Richard Ottaway, a Conservative lawmaker and chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said that he had “stood by Israel through thick and thin, through the good years and the bad,” but now realized “in truth, looking back over the past 20 years, that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion.”
“Under normal circumstances,” he said, “I would oppose the motion tonight; but such is my anger over Israel’s behavior in recent months that I will not oppose the motion. I have to say to the government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people.”
The breakdown of negotiations over a two-state solution, continued Israeli settlement building and the bloody conflict in Gaza all appear to have jolted Europe’s politicians, including Sweden’s new prime minister, Stefan Lofven, who this month pledged to recognize Palestine, the first time a major Western European nation had done so.
The conflict in Gaza also gave new impetus to efforts to pressure Israel through a campaign to boycott some goods made in West Bank settlements. And it helped fuel a surge in anti-Semitic episodes across Europe this year amid concerns that opposition to Israeli policies was allowing anti-Jewish bias to take root in the European mainstream.
Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said that moves like the British resolution and Sweden’s recent statement “make conflict resolution much more difficult” by sending Palestinians the message that “they can achieve things” outside negotiations. Israel, the United States and most of Europe have long insisted that the only path to Palestinian statehood is through bilateral negotiations.
Mr. Hirschson said “there’s no legal weight behind” the British resolution and that it “contravenes the policy of all three” British political parties, including Labour, but acknowledged that it “sours” relations with a longtime and staunch ally.
“I don’t know how much of it is about Britain-Israel relations, or various different Israel-Europe relations, and how much of it is about Britain-Arab relations,” Mr. Hirschson said in a telephone interview. “Europe is in a way playing to the Arab world. Europe is in terrible economic condition, and they have to trade with the Arab world.”
Prime Minister David Cameron’s government opposes recognizing a Palestinian state at this point, and the parliamentary debate and vote are not likely to change British policy. But the issue is being debated in a growing number of capitals.
Romain Nadal, the French Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Monday that France “will have to recognize Palestine,” but he did not specify when the official recognition would take place.
The last conflict in Gaza “has been a triggering factor,” Mr. Nadal said. “It made us realize that we had to change methods.”
The European Union recently condemned Israel’s decision to expand settlements and on Sunday the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, pledged 450 million euros, or about $568 million, for the reconstruction of Gaza. The European Union has spent more than €1.3 billion in the Gaza Strip in the last decade.
Britain’s parliamentary debate comes amid pressure for a boycott of goods from Israeli companies operating in the occupied West Bank. One Labour Party lawmaker, Shabana Mahmood, recently joined protesters in lying down outside a supermarket in Birmingham selling such goods, forcing it to close temporarily.
“The problem is that we are drastically losing public opinion,” Avi Primor, the director of European studies at Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union, told Israel Radio on Monday. “This has been going on for many years, and became particularly serious after the talks failed between us and the Palestinians after nine months of negotiations under Kerry, and even more so after Operation Protective Edge.”
That referred to failed efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the peace process and Israel’s military operations in Gaza in the summer.
If Sweden does recognize Palestine — and there is no timetable as yet — it will become the first big nation in the European Union to do so, although some East European countries did so during the Cold War, before they joined the union.
In 2011 a motion calling for recognition of Palestine won the support of Spanish lawmakers, though the government has not followed through on that vote.
In that same year the “State of Palestine” applied to become a member of the United Nations and, although that effort failed, in 2012 it successfully obtained the lesser status of nonmember observer state. The Palestinians leveraged their new status in April to join 15 international treaties and conventions, which helped bring about the breakdown of the latest round of peace talks.
Separately, 134 of 193 United Nations member states have extended diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine.
In Britain, where elections loom next year, Israel’s policies have become politically sensitive. In 2011, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, laid down official policy saying that Britain reserved the right “to recognize a Palestinian state at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace.”
But over the summer, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, said that Mr. Cameron was “wrong not to have opposed Israel’s incursion into Gaza” and rebuked him for his “silence on the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel’s military action.”
Stephen Castle reported from London, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem. Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting from Paris.