Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stonewalled pressure to recognise Palestine from MPs of all parties at question time in the Commons on Tuesday December 2 – and stuck to William Hague’s formula that the Government will recognise Palestine “at a time of its own choosing”.
Labour’s Michael Connarty reminded him that Parliament had voted by 274 to 12 in favour of recognition with some 40 Conservative MPs and 40% of Labour Friends of Israel voting for the motion: “What will it take to get this Government to stand up, do the right thing, get out from under the shadow of the USA and speak for the UK Parliament?”
The Minister for the Middle East, Toby Ellwood, caused controversy when he said he issue was when to ‘play the recognition card’: “We can only use this card once, and we need to use it sensibly. We need to bring parties back to the table.”
Richard Burden asked him “how it would sound to a Palestinian to hear him say that recognition of their right to self-determination is a card to be played” and Lisa Nandy asked “how many more children have to die before the Government decide that it is the right time to play the card”.
Philip Hammond sprang to the defence of his minister, saying that recognition was “a tool to be used in trying to bring about the peace settlement” and claiming that the UK is supporting “US-led efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to negotiations” – though there has been no sign of talks since April when Netanyahu torpedoed the John Kerry negotiations with his deliberately ill-timed announcement of new settlements.
It was no clearer by the end of question time whether or when the UK will take the small step of conferring diplomatic recognition on the State of Palestine – a measure which has no practical consequences or cost and is of purely symbolic value.
If it was just a question of when to ‘play the card’, Britain’s former Consul-General in Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean, has persuasively argued the time would surely have been after the collapse of the peace talks. The Israeli election on March 17 means now is an even better time for the UK to ‘play the card’. Israeli voters need to know whether the UK is actually going to do something or whether they can continue their 47-year-old occupation of Palestine with impunity.
The Foreign Secretary gave a total of three reasons for inaction: apart from the issue of when to ‘play the card’ with best effect, he was also waiting for the unspecified “US-led efforts” to restart negotiations and thirdly there was “much work to do before Britain is going to be ready to recognise Palestine” – though there was no explanation of what work he had in mind.
In the end it is a chicken-and-egg argument about whether, as Lisa Nandy said at question time, recognition is a contribution to meaningful negotiations or a consequence of them. Palestinians say recognising them as a state will help level up the playing field for negotiations.
At the Palestine debate on the previous day the Minister for the Middle East had also said that recognition would have to wait for talks to start, as though they were imminent: “We want to use recognition to assist the strategic process. As parties return to the table, now is not the right time to make that decision, because it would have consequences.”
The Foreign Secretary did however hint at a tougher UK negotiating stance, saying that the Israelis will have to freeze settlement building (“there will have to be a cessation of settlement activity while the process is ongoing”) and the talks cannot take existing settlements as a starting point.
“We will not allow the fact of illegal settlements to define the shape of an eventual settlement. We cannot allow one of the parties to this conflict to build themselves into a position to dictate the eventual peace. Settlements can be built and settlements can be removed, but every settlement that is built is illegal and it cannot be allowed to stand immovably in the way of the peace process.”
Palestinians have never insisted that settlement buildings should be physically removed and in Gaza it was the Israeli army that destroyed settlements as they withdrew – but the fact that the Foreign Secretary says settlements “can be removed” must be intended as some kind of warning to the Israelis.
Foreign Office questions Tuesday December 2nd
Question 4. Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the vote by the House on 13 October 2014 on recognising Palestine as a state alongside Israel.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): This weekend marks 67 years since the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 181, which recommended a two-state solution, and it has been 21 years since the Oslo peace accords, so it is no wonder that Parliaments and citizens around the world are calling for debates and for leadership in implementing plans that were devised and agreed decades ago. However, British recognition of Palestine must be not just symbolic but strategic and used in the wider context of securing that solution.
Michael Connarty: I think I half-thank the Minister for that answer, because really he has not done anything, and nor have this Government, to recognise what Parliament has said. By 274 votes to 12 we called for recognition. Some 40% of Labour Friends of Israel voted for that recognition, as did 40 Conservative Members of Parliament. What will it take to get this Government to stand up, do the right thing, get out from under the shadow of the USA and speak for the UK Parliament?
Mr Ellwood: Well, I ask the Member what is the right thing. We can only use this card once, and we need to use it sensibly. We need to bring parties back to the table. This Government share Parliament’s commitment to recognising a Palestinian state, but as a contribution to a negotiated two-state solution. We are in the process of getting people back around the table. That is what John Kerry is committed to, and that is what should happen next.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I accept what Michael Connarty said about the Back-Bench debate, and I think it was unfortunate that the Government did not ask more Members to be here to express those views. I take the view myself that if we are going to get peace, the overall position is that a recognition of Palestine has to come at the same time as an overall peace agreement. Do the Government agree that that is the best way forward?
Mr Ellwood: I pay tribute not only to the debate that took place in this Chamber but the debate that took place yesterday called by Grahame Morris and prompted by an e-petition signed by over 100,000 constituents. We do pay attention to these issues. Bilateral recognition would not end the occupation. Without a negotiated settlement, the occupation and the problems that come with it would still continue. That is why, at the stage we are at now, we must invite people back to the table, and I hope this will happen very soon.
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): The Minister said that the Government can only play this card once. After the horrific events in Gaza over the summer and the recent violent clashes in the West Bank and Jerusalem, will he tell this House how many more children have to die before the Government decide that it is the right time to play the card to give the Palestinian people an equal seat at the negotiating table, and recognise that recognition of the Palestinian state is a contribution to meaningful negotiations and not a consequence of them?
Mr Ellwood: I hear what the Member says, but if she had attended yesterday’s debate she would be aware that the whole world is concerned about this. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, has said, “Is this what we do—reconstruct and then it gets destroyed, reconstruct and then it gets destroyed?” We must bring people to the table to make sure that there is a long-term solution to the problems and so that we do not see another Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defence or Operation Protective Edge. That requires both sides to come together, and there is much work to do before Britain is going to be ready to recognise Palestine as a state.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Will the Minister consider for a minute how it would sound to a Palestinian to hear him say that recognition of their right to self-determination is a card to be played, any more than how it would sound to an Israeli to say that recognition of Israel is a card to be played? What is he actually doing to talk to European partners to secure recognition and not to put the day off?
Mr Ellwood: Forgive me if my comment sounded flippant—that was not my intention at all. Anybody who attended the debate yesterday, or indeed the debate that took place in this Chamber, will know of my personal commitment to working with people on both sides. I spent some time in Israel. I visited Gaza and saw the destruction with my own eyes. I should also underline the commitment that Britain is making to the reconstruction; that was outlined when I attended the conference in Cairo. I say again that it is important that given where we are in the process, with John Kerry about to embark on a new round of talks, that is what we should allow to take place at this very moment.
- Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to help bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to peace talks.
- David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the likelihood of a two-state solution emerging in the Middle East.
Philip Hammond: The UK is fully supporting US-led efforts, working with the Egyptians, to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to negotiations aimed at achieving a lasting peace. We are also working with European partners, especially France and Germany, to support that US-led process.
Jim McGovern: Illegal Israeli settlements are causing friction, to say the least, and they are a roadblock in the peace process. What is the Secretary of State doing with his EU counterparts to challenge this and to make sure that there are no roadblocks?
Mr Hammond: The settlements are illegal. We condemn them, and every time a new one is proposed, we make that view known to the Israeli Government. But I have gone further than that, and I repeat today that we have to be clear that we will not allow the fact of illegal settlements to define the shape of an eventual settlement. We cannot allow one of the parties to this conflict to build themselves into a position to dictate the eventual peace. Settlements can be built and settlements can be removed, but every settlement that is built is illegal and it cannot be allowed to stand immovably in the way of the peace process.
David Mowat: The Secretary of State has talked about the preference for a successful peace process, but actions speak louder than words. The 1,000 acre land-grab around Bethlehem in September surely indicates that Israel does not really have the serious intention of allowing a two-state solution. Given that, should we not be thinking about how we are going to recognise Palestine?
Mr Hammond: This is not an excuse, but a great deal of domestic politics is involved in this issue. The 1,000 acres that my Member Friend mentioned have not, as I understand it, been developed in any way; it was simply a designation. It is unacceptable, but it is a political statement, and we have to make sure that it does not stand in the way of an eventual two-state solution.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): For nearly half a century, on and off, I have heard Ministers say that they are committed on behalf of the British Government to justice for Palestinians, yet the situation has deteriorated for Palestinians over that time—it is has certainly not improved in any way. Would recognising a Palestinian state not show a genuine commitment on behalf of the United Kingdom that we want justice for Palestinians, as well as ensuring that the state of Israel is secure?
Mr Philip Hammond: The Member’s timeline merely serves to underscore how complex, difficult and intractable the problem is. Our commitment to a two-state solution is loudly expressed at every opportunity—no one can be in any doubt about it—but, as Toby Ellwood has made clear, recognition is a tool to be used in trying to bring about the peace settlement all Members ardently desire.
Mr Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): In this Question Time, Members have mentioned official Palestinian media and TV, and the Palestinian Authority. Effectively, they are talking about the apparatus of a Palestinian state. Surely calls for peace should be heard with equal respect for both Israel and Palestine. Is it not time the UK Government followed this House of Commons and gave recognition to the Palestinian state, which would be the first stage of the two-state solution?
Mr Hammond: This is a bit like groundhog day. The Government will recognise a Palestinian state at a time of our choosing. We will choose that time on the basis that it is designed to deliver the maximum possible impetus to the peace process.
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): The Israeli Knesset will soon vote on the Jewish state Bill, which would deny national rights to Israeli’s minorities, remove Arabic as a national language and assert that Israeli’s identity as a Jewish state comes before its nature as a democracy. At a time when tensions between Jews and Arabs are running high, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is wrong for the Government of Israel to press ahead with that discriminatory piece of legislation?
Mr Hammond: That is a piece of legislation before the Israeli Parliament, but I can tell the Member that we are always opposed to discriminatory legislation. Depriving people who are resident within a state of their citizenship and discriminating against them with regard to language will never be conducive to the peaceful co-existence that I think virtually everybody seeks for Israel and Palestine.
Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that public opinion in the UK is moving strongly against Israel because it is morally indefensible to support a state that has policies of ethnic cleansing and apartheid?
Mr Hammond: I am not sure that I agree with the Member’s characterisation of the reasons, but I agree that public opinion is moving against Israel in a country that has traditionally been understanding of the Israeli position. We have made the point strongly to Israeli Ministers and politicians that they are losing the argument and public opinion not only in Britain, but in Europe and, perhaps more importantly for them, in the United States.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): What will be the effect on the Palestinian media of the renewed Israeli policy of demolishing the houses of offenders, thus making their families homeless and punishing the entire family for the crimes of one person? Is not that inhumane, and ought it not to be stopped?
Mr Hammond: We do not approve of the collective punishment strategy and make our views on that very well known on every possible occasion. I cannot give the right Member an analysis of the impact on the Palestinian media, but I can see exactly where he is coming from. We will continue robustly to oppose policies of collective punishment.
Allegations of incitement
- Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the effects of incitement to hatred in the Palestinian media on prospects for a peace settlement in that region.
Philip Hammond: I am aware of recent provocative material published in parts of the Palestinian press. We deplore incitement on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and we are clear that inflammatory language and images damage still further the already fragile prospect of peace settlement.
Mrs Ellman: Official Palestinian Authority TV has praised as martyrs the terrorists who mowed down civilians on the streets of Jerusalem and the terrorists who killed rabbis and others at prayer in a Jerusalem synagogue. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this is about perpetuating hatred and violence rather than promoting peace?
Mr Hammond: Yes, and we do not hesitate to raise these instances of incitement with the Palestinian Authority. I spoke to President Abbas last night and raised these issues with him while at the same time thanking him for his personal robust condemnation of the synagogue attack in West Jerusalem. We have to raise these issues whenever they occur, but we should also praise robust responses by leaders of the Palestinian Authority when they make them.
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): None of us would condone the incitement of hatred, and there is no doubt that there are people on each side who make matters worse, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that illegal settlements, extra-judicial punishments and discriminatory laws also make the search for a peace settlement much harder?
Mr Hammond: Yes, we are clear that settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law and, perhaps even more importantly, deeply unhelpful to the prospects of a peace process. We urge the Israelis on every opportunity to cease the settlement programme. If we are to move forward into peace talks, which I fervently hope we can do in the coming weeks and months, there will have to be a cessation of settlement activity while that process is ongoing.