Month: October 2014
Settlements ‘can be demolished’
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has finallly said what no government minister has dared say before – that Israel’s settlement-building programme is not only undermining the peace process but “is intended to undermine the prospects of the peace process”.
This strips away the pretence that the Government believes Israeli prenier Benyamin Netanyahu is sincere when he says he supports the two-state solution and wants peace.
If building settlements is intended to undermine the peace process – and Netanyahu has approved three new settlement expansions in East Jerusalem since the end of the 50-day War in August – then it is clear that Netanyahu does not prioritise peace.
In an unexpected intervention during Foreign Office questions Mr Hammond said new settlement building “will not be allowed to define” the final border between Israel and Palestine and pointed out that buildings “can .. be demolished” if they are on the wrong side of the line.
He adopted a stronger tone than his junior minister Tobias Ellwood who earlier tried to downplay the issue, saying merely that the Government “discourages” further settlement building because it “makes it more difficult for Israel’s friends to defend it” and added that “we do not want people to be distracted by the settlements.”
Labour MP Huw Irranca-Davies asked the junior minister to reconsider his comment that settlement-building was “a distraction” and Liberal Democrat MP David Ward asked him how many illegal settlements would have to be built before the Government took action.
At that point the Foreign Secretary intervened to say that he knew exactly what his junior minister had been trying to say earlier on. “The settlements are illegal and building them is intended to undermine the prospects of the peace process. We must not allow that to happen.
“These are buildings; buildings can be transferred and demolished. Where these buildings are built must not be allowed to define where the final settlement line can go. We must be very clear about that.”
Even after this intervention Mr Ellwood insisted that: “We do not want the settlement issue to hog the wicket here. We need to focus on the humanitarian efforts. We do not want to be distracted by the settlement issue.”
He preferred to dwell on the reconstruction conference in Cairo, which he had attended, and the £20 million the UK had pledged to help kick-start Gaza’s recovery after the 50-day War.
But Mr Hammond’s plain speaking puts the settlement issue back at the heart of the dispute between the UK and Israel – and also questions the integrity of the Israeli prime minister.
This parallels the line taken by the US State Department who recently refused to meet the notoriously hawkish Israeli defence minister while he was in Washington and have repeatedly condemned the latest settlement-building announcements. State department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has not ruled out countermeasures.
The Government issued revised guidance last December that they would “no longer encourage or support” UK businesses trading with illegal Israeli settlements, but the Foreign Secretary’s comments suggest that tougher measures may finally be on the way.
They are unlikely to go far enough for former Conservative aid minister Sir Alan Duncan who suggested last week that British politicians should treat any Israeli MP who supports settlements – which is practically all of them – as an extremist.
“Anyone who supports illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land is an extremist who puts themself outside the boundaries of democratic standards. They are not fit to stand for election or sit in a democratic parliament and they should be condemned outright by the international community and treated accordingly.”
MPs voted in favour of the UK recognising Palestine by an unexpectedly large majority of 262 after a five-hour Commons debate called by Easington MP Grahame Morris. Commentators were quick to dismiss it as “merely an expression of Parliament’s view” that will not commit the Government because it was “only” a backbench debate.
But although the vote is not binding on the Government, it is clear that MPs have changed their views and it is only a matter of time before the Government will have to change its policies. And, although recognition is a minor issue and will not directly affect the lives of Palestinians, there is a good chance that this decisive vote will lead to stronger steps that will begin to put real pressure on the Israelis. The 274-12 vote came about because of a deep underlying shift in MPs’ attitudes to Israel, caused by their shock at the brutality of the Gaza war and their huge postbags of letters from constituents demanding action.
It emerges from the vote that:
- Half the MPs listed as supporters of Labour Friends of Israel voted in favour of recognising Palestine despite last-minute pleas from senior Israeli politicians to vote against.
- 40 Conservative MPs – including some members of Conservative Friends of Israel – backed the recognition motion and the Conservative Home website reported that ‘support for Israel is slipping away’.
Ed Miliband put a ‘one-line whip’ on the vote – meaning that MPs could either vote for the motion or abstain – but 80% of his MPs and 21 of 26 members of his Shadow Cabinet voted for the motion. MPs received a huge number of emails – 57,808 through the Palestine Solidarity Campaign website alone – from their own constituents urging them to attend the debate and vote for recognition. This represents a sea-change in both parties.
Conservative Friends of Israel, who are strongly opposed to the recognition of Palestine, claim to have 80% of Tory MPs on their books (242 of 303), but in the event only six Conservatives voted against. Part of the reason may have been that CFI, realising they were going to lose, encouraged their supporters to stay away from the vote – in the hope that the motion would be approved without a physical division where MPs are counted through the voting lobbies. That would mean that the motion would be declared ‘carried’ but no one would know exactly how many or which MPs had voted for or against the motion.
This plot was foiled by two MP who supported recognition but shouted ‘no’ when the Speaker called for ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ and acted as tellers for the ‘noes’ – without which the Speaker would have been obliged to call off the division. Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn rose on a point of order after the division to explain that he and Batley & Spen MP Mike Wood volunteered as tellers “to ensure that democracy could take place and that Members could record their vote, because those who were opposed to the motion declined to put up tellers”.
If the two ‘no’ tellers are included there were 195 Labour MPs voting for recognition – more than twice the current total of MPs who support Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East. While it has been Labour Party policy since 2011 to support the recognition of Palestine, first by the UN and now by the UK, there was no obligation on MPs to turn up for a backbench debate and the numbers were another indication of the rapid fall-off in uncritical support for Israel on the Labour benches. Coalition ministers were told to abstain, but Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs were free to vote as they liked.
Although only 40 Conservatives voted for the motion, this was a big increase from the 10 or 15 known to support the Palestinian case in the past.
The real surprise was the number of Conservatives who abstained because they were disillusioned by recent actions of the Israeli government. Typical was the distinguished chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Sir Richard Ottaway who told the Commons that he had stood by Israel through thick and thin for 20 years but was outraged by the recent Israei annexation of Palestinian land and “such is my anger over Israel’s behaviour in recent months that I will not oppose the motion”.
It was the highest ever attendance at a backbench debate (other than the European referendum debate which was whipped) and out of a total of 43 speeches, only six were from opponents of recognition, with the result that Conservative MPs who have previously been reluctant to express their support for the Palestinian case spoke with passion and eloquence, as though a gag had been removed.
In the event there were 195 Labour MPs supporting the motion, 40 Conservatives, 28 Liberal Democrats, nine Scottish and Welsh nationalists and four Northern Irish (2 SDLP, 1 Independent, 1 Alliance). The noes were six Conservatives, five Ulster Unionists and one Liberal Democrat. Other than the 140 MPs on the “payroll” vote of ministers and ministerial aides who are expected to abstain in backbench debates, the number of MPs who abstained or were absent was 220. Even if they had all voted ‘no’ (and a number have said they would have voted ‘yes’ but could not be there) opponents of recognition would still have had only 232 votes against the 278 votes in favour of recognition.
Baroness Warsi, who resigned from the Government in August in protest at the strongly pro-Israeli policy, said at the time that many of her ministerial colleagues and most of the officials in the Foreign Office agreed with her, but policy came from a small group at the top. There was a natural majority not only in the country, but also in Parliament and in the Foreign Office for the recognition of Palestine, but “you’ve a small group of politicians who are keeping a close grip on this and who are not allowing public opinion, ministerial views, parliamentary views and the views of the people who work in this system.”
We should not use euphemisms to describe what is happening in Palestine. We should use words like ‘theft’, ‘apartheid’, ‘criminal’, ‘extremist’. That’s the view expressed by Conservative MP and former minister Sir Alan Duncan in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute on Tuesday 14 October 2014.
“Illegal construction and habitation is theft, it is annexation, it is a land grab – it is any expression that accurately describes the encroachment which takes from someone else something that is not rightfully owned by the taker. As such, it should be called what it is, and not by some euphemistic soft alternative.
“Settlements are illegal colonies built in someone else’s country. They are an act of theft, and what is more something which is both initiated and supported by the state of Israel.
“It is no exaggeration to say that many settlers are state-supported militia, defying international law, driving out the rightful inhabitants from their land, and creating an illegal economy at the expense of those who have been cruelly displaced.
“No settlement endorser should be considered fit to stand for election, remain a member of a mainstream political party, or sit in a Parliament. How can we accept lawmakers in our country, or any country, when they support lawbreakers in another? They are extremists, and they should be treated as such.”
David Cameron lost little time in pouring cold water on Monday’s vote in the Commons, telling Liberal Democrat MP David Ward during Prime Minister’s questions, that Palestine will not be recognised until “negotiations that bring about a two-state solution”.
This is precisely what the House of Commons rejected by voting by 274-12 on Monday that Britain should recognise Palestine without any preconditions and without waiting for peace talks – because, as Grahame Morris said in his introduction, there were no peace talks and no prospect of peace talks, so this would give the Israelis a veto on UK policy and recognition should be a matter for the UK alone.
Negotiations broke up on April 29th after nine months of fruitless of talks when the Israelis announcement yet another illegal settlement in Palestinian East Jerusalem and there is no likelihood of talks restarting at any point in the near future.
The Palestinian ambassador, Mr Hassassian, has described Monday’s vote on the recognition of the Palestinian state as “a momentous vote”. Indeed it was. He has also said:“Now is the time for the UK government to listen to its democratically elected parliament and to take decisive political action by recognising the State of Palestine and upholding its historical, moral and legal responsibility towards Palestine”.Does the Prime Minister agree?
Of course, I look forward to the day when Britain will recognise the state of Palestine, but it should be part of the negotiations that bring about a two-state solution. That is what we all want to see—a state of Israel living happily and peacefully alongside a state of Palestine—and that is when we should do the recognition.
Although the parliamentary motion is not binding on government, the hope is that it will encourage other European countries to announce recognition of Palestine – France and Ireland are known to be considering it – to create a bandwaggon effect after the announcement by the new Swedish government earlier this month that they will recognise Palestine.
Already 135 countries (out of 193) recognise Palestine, including many EU states, and the main exceptions are the major West European and North American countries. Even without the support of the British government, the British Parliament may inspire other countries to follow suit.
But the more important effect of Monday’s vote is that many MPs have voted in support of Palestine for the first time and this may embolden them to go on to give their support to the Palestinians on other issues, such as discouraging or banning trade with the illegal settlement or putting economic pressure on Israel to stop building more settlements.
For Palestinians recognition will make no visible difference – except that a small well-fortified building in East Jerusalem will take down a sign saying “British Consulate-General” and put up a new sign saying “British Embassy to Palestine”.
For the first time the House of Commons has demonstrated its support for the Palestinians’ case and the Palestinians’ hope – and the Israelis’ fear – will be that they will do so again on an issue which will have more than a symbolic effect on the long-running conflict.