And why Britain is one of the few countries that can help in the Israel-Palestine conflict
Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, Tuesday 9th June 11.30 am
Attempts by Government ministers to justify their continuing refusal to recognise Palestine are looking threadbare after MPs raised the issue at Foreign Office questions last week.
The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond did not challenge the statement by aid minister Desmond Swayne that “the Palestine Authority is now ready for statehood” when it was put to him by Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman.
He even forgot the Foreign Office rule and called the country “Palestine” in his reply instead of the officially preferred “occupied Palestinian territories”.
The main reason he gave for witholding recognition was that it would be “throwing away ..an opportunity that the European Union has to exercise leverage collectively by holding out the prospect of recognition or non-recognition as a way of influencing behaviour”.
This overlooks the fact that nine of the 28 counties in the EU have already recognised Palestine (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Malta, Romania, Estonia and Cyprus).
It overlooks the fact the fact that 137 countries in the UN (out of 193) have already recognised Palestine.
It also overlooks the fact that the House of Commons has voted by 274 to 12 to recognise Palestine.
But the main factor it overlooks is that there is very little leverage in holding out the prospect of “recognition or non-recognition” when it’s pretty clear it’s only a matter of time before we recognise.
If we say a country should be given statehood and is “ready for statehood” and we already call it “Palestine”, then we are close to recognising Palestine as a state. All that is missing is the diplomatic nicety of conferring the recognition by accepting the credentials of its ambassador at the Court of St James.
The other reason the Foreign Secretary gives is one of timing. “We will recognise Palestinian statehood at a time that we judge contributes most to the delivery of a settlement”, as he said at Foreign Office questions this week,.
This seems to imply that the decision is already taken and it is just a question of when to announce it. But he has already passed over several opportunities to say it is the right time to recognise, notably the collapse of the Kerry talks in April 2014.
Palestinians could certainly be forgiven for concluding that Hammond is playing a game with their national aspirations and wants to postpone recogntion as long as possible.
Certainly he sometimes gives the impression of hiding behind the US. He repeated his mantra this week that the “United States … is the only power that has any leverage over Israel” and we should be pressing for “a new, American-led initiative”.
He must surely know by now that this will not happen. Even if President Obama wants one, he could not get another peace mission through Congress.
In any case the EU does have leverage over Israel. The EU is Israel’s biggest trading partner. A third of Israel’s trade is with the EU (while only a fortieth of the EU’s trade is with Israel). The EU’s most generous trading agreement is with Israel, giving it duty-free access to the world’s largest market on condition that it respects human rights and democratic values.
If the EU enforced this human rights clause, suspending tariff reductions until Israel reversed its settlement programme, they could make progress overnight. But this would require a unanimous vote by all 28 members. As well as hiding behind the US, Hammond hides behind the EU, calling for “collective action” when he knows it is unlikely to happen.
The truth is that the only countries in a position to make a difference in the Israel-Palestine conflict are Britain, France and other leading EU countries and the first small step in that direction would be for Britain to go ahead – with or without other European powers – and recognise the state of Palestine.