Hopes for a resumption of the peace process are at a particularly low ebb in Palestine. President Abbas (right) is refusing to meet Trump’s ‘peace’ envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt because he believes Trump cannot act as ‘honest broker’ between the Israelis and Palestinians.
And who can blame him when the American vice-president Mike Pence is on record as saying “we don’t want to be a broker. A broker doesn’t take sides, but America is on the side of Israel.”
The Palestinians believe Trump threw away their most important negotiating chip when he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The refusal of all countries (including the US since George Bush Snr) to recognise Jerusalem and move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been the one act of international solidarity putting pressure on the Israelis to reach a settlement.
Now Trump is asking the world to wait for his peace plan. Palestinians can be forgiven for asking why should they hang about for a US peace plan when it’s already obvious he is playing them for fools? It’s just yet another delaying tactic, in their view, to give the Israelis time to steal more of their land and build more “facts on the ground”.
With so much scepticism about America’s good faith we have to conclude that America cannot – at least in the short term – resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict for the very reason that Pence gave. The responsibility falls to European countries such as the UK or France to take the lead.
William Hague started to square up to the task when he said in 2011 that the UK accepts the case for recognition of Palestine and will announce it at a time when it “when it can best help bring about peace”.
Many believe there has been an unacknowledged change of policy. Some trace it back to an angry showdown in 2012 between William Hague and MPs from Conservative Friends of Israel who accused him of being part of a ‘bigoted’ Foreign Office plot against Israel (Simon Walters, Mail on Sunday Political Editor 4 March 2012). Some say that Downing Street blocked the Foreign Office’s recognition plan.
But now, seven years later, Boris Johnson is still saying the UK will recognise Palestine and he’s still waiting for the right time to “play his card”. The analogy with a card game is seen by many as insensitive – while others point out that even in a game of cards you can hold on to a trump for too long.
The fact is there have been many opportunities to recognise Palestine “when it can best help bring about peace” and they have all been missed. They are missing one now. There has never been a better time for the UK to ‘play its card’. The situation cries out for a European initiative.
That is not going to come from the EU itself – as it would require a unanimous vote by all 28 members. So it must come from individual states. France said it would recognise, but Macron now feels he would be too exposed on his own. Many smaller European states – Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Slovenia – are lining up to recognise Palestine as soon as one of the major powers leads the way. In view of the UK’s history as the country that issued the Balfour Declaration and ruled over Palestine for 26 years, the responsibility falls to us.
Nearly two-thirds of LFI MPs supported the recognition of Palestine
In October 2014 the House of Commons voted 274-12 in favour of recognition. Opinion polls show overwhelming public support among those that have an opinion. The only voices against are coming from the Friends of Israel groups in Parliament or from the Prime Minister.
Little is known about the membership of Conservative Friends of Israel. They used to claim to have 80% of Conservative MP on their books. It may be less now, but not much less. There were only 40 Conservatives among the MPs who voted in favour of recognition.
The House of Commons vote was a catalyst for Labour Friends of Israel. They did not change their policy, but they rebranded their image. After years in which they had never used the P-word except in reference to “Palestinian terrorists”, they launched a campaign with the slogan “For Israel, For Palestine, For Peace”.
This helped them in a recruitment drive which saw their numbers increase from 29 to 77. But it came at the expense of accepting a lot of MPs whose views were very different from the Israeli government and indeed from their sister party in Israel, the Israeli Labour Party.
Of the 77 MPs now listed on the LFI website as ‘supporters’ more than half (39) voted in favour of Palestinian recognition in the last House of Commons vote on the subject in October 2014. Many of the remainder were not actually MPs at the time of the vote, so in fact nearly two thirds of LFI members who were able to vote (39 out of 61) voted in favour of recognising Palestine.
There is no reason why LFI should not join in a campaign for recognition. But Labour Friends of Israel has never pretended to be a democratic organisation. An executive committee lays down the policy line.
Recognition will remove a roadblock on the way to peace negotiations
It may seem like an uphill struggle to campaign for recognition when the Government and the majority of Conservative MPs are still apparently opposed, but it is a hill that has to be climbed.
Recognition is the simplest achievable goal, entirely within the powers of the UK government, involving no consultation with other states, costing no money, promised many times in the past.
No one pretends that a UK decision to recognise Palestine will make any immediate difference to the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, but it will remove a major roadblock on the road to peace.
Once Palestine is recognised as a state, legally on the same footing as Israel, it will be so much harder for a British government to justify UK trade with illegal Israeli settlements, to allow UK companies to build the walls, to arm the soldiers, to supply security equipment for the Israeli army of occupation.
On the other hand if we fail to win the battle for recognition, it is difficult to see how we can make progress in any other area. It is a small step, but it will open the gate. That is why the Israelis are trying so hard to prevent it. But we recognised Israel in 1950. It’s now 2018.