UK’s historic vote signals a shift in politics over Israeli-Palestinian conflict
It’s described as symbolic, but it still represents a sea change. On Monday, the UK parliament voted overwhelmingly to recognise a state of Palestine – a vote that isn’t binding and changes none of the harsh realities on the ground for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
It was put forward as a backbench motion but then picked up a lot more traction through backing from the Labour party, which compelled its parliamentary members to vote in its favour. In the end, 274 British politicians supported the resolution, with 12 against, although about half of the 650-strong parliament dodged the issue by abstaining.
That this small step belies a bigger shift is evident in the powerful speech made by British Conservative MP Richard Ottaway during the parliamentary debate on the vote. Describing himself as a long-time friend of Israel and supporter through “thick and thin”, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said: “Under normal circumstances I would oppose this motion. But such is my anger over the behaviour of Israel that I will not be opposing it. I have to say to the government of Israel – if it is losing people like me it is going to be losing a lot of people.”
Of course, Israel’s latest military assault on Gaza was a major factor in shifting the dynamics of support over this conflict – a dynamic that was already changing following Israel’s military attacks on Gaza in 2008/9 and again in 2012, and the war in Lebanon in 2006. But this summer’s war, during which almost 2200 Palestinians were killed, over 10,000 were injured and some 20,000 homes were levelled to the ground, brought a flow of public complaints to British politician mailbags, highlighting that the UK’s official take, pushed by the ruling coalition, was significantly out of kilter with the public mood.
Popular sentiment was a large factor in the Palestine vote, too, as politicians received bulging mailbags urging a “yes” vote on 13 October – in quantities unusual for a foreign policy issue, thus prompting the observation that the conflict had become a domestic issue; a factor affecting support for a politician.
But an equally significant component of this shifting momentum has been Israel’s continued expansion of illegal Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Ottoway, the Conservative parliamentarian, said as much in his speech – referring to Israel’s announcement in early September that it planned to annex over 950 acres of Palestinian land to build a new settlement.
That, he said, “has outraged me more than anything else in my political life. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent”. According to campaigners for the Palestine vote, this has been a growing sentiment: a mounting frustration at supporting Israel and two-state negotiations, but then watching a hard-right Israeli government repeatedly torpedo talk and pursue its own agenda on expanding settlements (there are now some 550,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem). Politicians who have consistently backed two-state talks are feeling like they’ve been taken for a ride.
Meanwhile, the Labour party under Ed Miliband’s leadership has pursued a different stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than did former leaders Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. In his first conference speech as party leader in 2010, Miliband said that Labour should “strain every sinew” to end the siege of the Gaza strip and described Israel’s attack of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla as “so wrong”. Back then, the shift was clocked within the party, as a senior member of Labour Friends of Israel told the Jewish Chronicle: “It’s going to be a challenging few years because we do not have a Labour leader who is pro-Israel in the way we had before.”
In 2011, the Labour party cemented this shift by supporting the Palestinian bid for recognition at the UN – a bid that was accepted at the UN in 2012, with support from 138 out of 193 member nations, although the UK abstained.
One of the elements informing the Labour leader’s approach is a “veering away from Atlanticism”, according to Chris Doyle, director at the Council for Arab-British Understanding. By this analysis, Miliband is less of a blindly dedicated follower of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Such a reading is consistent with the Labour party’s opposition to joining US-led military action in Syria in 2013, which scuppered a parliamentary vote in favour of such action.
British pollsters have until very recently been predicting a Labour win in the country’s national elections next year – which would put a party with a stated policy of recognising Palestine in power. Already, Monday’s parliamentary vote to recognise Palestine is expected to add to the momentum of European nations pursuing the same step: France, Denmark and Finland are all planning to vote on the subject. Talk of symbolism and tiny steps and empty statehood may be true, but at the same time, political dynamics in Europe are tangibly shifting away from the status quo policies that have helped to hold the Israeli occupation in place for 47 years.
Photo credit: Supporters of Palestine hold a Palestinian flag in front of the British Parliament during the debate as to whether the UK should recognise Palestine as a state on 13 October, 2014 (AA)