The Government is under renewed pressure to fix a date for the the UK to recognise Palestine after a special three-hour debate in the House of Lords on Thursday June 7 called by the former Liberal leader David Steel.
Of the 29 peers who spoke, 20 called on the Government to go ahead with the long-promised recognition of the state of Palestine. Only four made any attempt to defend the Israeli government.
The heaviest criticism came from Lord Steel himself and from senior Conservative peers, including Michael Ancram, the party’s former deputy leader, and two former Conservative ministers.
Unlike the House of Commons where the Speaker tries to balance every speaker critical of Israel by calling an MP who is a Friend of Israel, the House of Lords debate was overwhelming and unrelenting in its criticism of the Israeli government.
Lord Steel said he hoped that the recent slaughter of 62 Palestinians in one day in Gaza would awaken the international conscience in the same way that the 1960 Sharpeville massacre led to the ultimately successful campaign against apartheid in South Africa.
Michael Ancram, now sitting in the Lords as the Marquess of Lothian, scorned not only Israeli actions against the Palestinians but also the UK’s failure to condemn them.
“What worries me is the West’s reaction: concern, yes, but condemnation, no. I do not believe that it does anyone any favours to stay our tongue. ”
In a long statement to the Commons about the killings in Gaza the Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, described them as “extremely concerning” but appeared to avoid using the word “condemn”.
David Steel ended his speech by calling on the Government to “recognise the state of Palestine without further delay” – a point that was taken up by most of the subsequent speakers, whether Conservative, Labour, Liberal-Democrat or crossbench.
Lord Ray Collins, the Labour speaker in the Lords debate, also backed recognition and challenged the minister: “Who do the Government not recognise Palestine now – and if not, when?”
The debate coincides with a new initiative launched by the former UK consul-general in Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean, now chairman of the Balfour Project Trust, with Open Bethlehem and other organisations to lobby the UK and EU governments on recognition.
In the Lords the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad, responded to the debate by saying that the position of the Government remains the same as it has been since 2011: “We will formally recognise the state of Palestine when we believe it best serves the cause of peace”.
The word ‘formally’ acknowledges the fact that the UK Government has been committed to recognition in principle since 2011 and is theoretically just waiting for a good time to announce it.
But as the UK has missed any number of opportunities to announce it – when the Kerry talks broke down in 2014, when Sweden recognised in 2014, when France said they were going to recognise in 2015, when the Security Council passed resolution 2334 in 2016 – most people have concluded that recognition is being blocked by Downing Street.
Lord Ahmad also urged Israel to stop its plans to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar and its primary school following the visit to the village by the Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt last week.
The Israeli High Court gave the go-ahead for demolition from the start of June but nearly 60 UK MPs have visited the village and 67 have so far signed Early Day Motion 1167 which calls on the UK to put meaningful pressure on the Israeli government to abandon its plans.