The 180-degree turn in the Government’s policies on Palesttine, which Mrs May started in December last year, was completed this month with the ditching of William Hague’s 2011 promise to recognise Palestine “at a time of our choosing”.
The first hint came with the unexpected announcement of a three-hour debate on “Israel Palestinian talks”on July 5th. Although backbenchers constantly clamour for a debate on Palestine, the Government has not allowed a debate in its own time for at least ten years.
The Government played it very low key with the U-turn announced not by the Foreign Secretary but by the newly appointed Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt. Even he did not make it in his speech, but in his response to an intervention from a prominent member of Conservative Friends of Israel:
Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Does the Minister agree that any recognition of a Palestinian state before direct peace talks between the two states, Israel and Palestine, would not only be counterproductive but would damage a long-term two-state solution?
Alistair Burt: It is not the UK Government’s intention to recognise a Palestinian state; we believe it should come in due course, at the conclusion of the talks to settle the issue, and I do not believe that position is going to change.
The policy for the last six years – set out by William Hague when he was Foreign Secretary in November 2011 – has been that the UK accepts that Palestine is ready for statehood and agrees to recognise it in principle, but will not announce it until “a time of its choosing” which would be “when it can best help bring about peace” or “when it will have the maximum effect”.
This formula has been repeated endlessly over the last six years, but the Government missed every opportunity it was presented with – when the Kerry talks broke down in April 2014, when the House of Commons voted 274-12 in favour of recognition in October 2014, when France said it would recognise Palestine in January 2015.
In fact the pledge may have been a dead letter since William Hague was ambushed at a private meeting of Conservative Friends of Israel in March 2012 when – according to the Mail on Sunday – “the normally ice-cool foreign secretary exploded with rage during an angry showdown with 30 MPs who accused him of being part of a ‘bigoted’ Foreign Office plot against Israel”.
The official UK policy remained, however, to nudge and prod the United States to take a more robust line against the Israeli government’s frequent breaches of international law and if necessary vote against the US at the UN Security Council.
The new policy announced by Alistair Burt to recognise Palestine only “at the conclusion of talks” means essentially that the UK will only do so when Israel itself recognises Palestine – which puts the UK in the position of being an even more unconditional supporter of the Israeli government than the US.
This led to a number of exchanges in the Commons:
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Given the Minister’s comments, it seems that that position has moved and that recognition is being ruled out until the end of talks on a peace process rather than being something that the Government would be able to do at any time?
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): Let me urge the Minister and the Government to seize the moment we are now offered by the Balfour centenary to throw our support behind Palestinian statehood.
When violence and extremism are rising on all sides, when hard-liners are assuming increasing control, when the humanitarian crisis is getting even worse, and when all eyes are on an American President whose grand plan for peace exists only in his mind, we need the British Government, more than ever, to show some leadership and to show the way towards peace—and recognition of Palestinian statehood would be one significant step in that direction
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): We have never said—no one has ever said—that recognition of Israel should be a matter of negotiation. Israel is recognised as a matter of right, and quite rightly so, but if we believe in even-handedness between Israel and Palestinians, that same right must apply to Palestinians.
As usual in a debate about Israel-Palestine, there were far more MPs who wanted to speak than could be fitted in, so many of them could only make interventions.
The Speaker usually tries to call the same number of “pro-Israeli” and “pro-Palestinian” speakers (even though there are far more who would like to make “pro-Palestinian” speeches) and he succeeded this time with ten “pro-Israel” and 10 “pro-Palestine”.
But eight of the first 11 speakers were “pro-Israeli” and seven of the last nine were “pro-Palestinian”, so with MPs subject to shorter time-limits towards the end of the three hour debate the “pro-Israeli” MPs were on their feet for longer.