Tag: Palestine; Parliament

Nothing changes, but everything changes after recognition vote

recognisepalestine

MPs voted in favour of the UK recognising Palestine by an unexpectedly large majority of 262 after a five-hour Commons debate called by Easington MP Grahame Morris. Commentators were quick to dismiss it as “merely an expression of Parliament’s view” that will not commit the Government because it was “only” a backbench debate.

But although the vote is not binding on the Government, it is clear that MPs have changed their views and it is only a matter of time before the Government will have to change its policies. And, although recognition is a minor issue and will not directly affect the lives of Palestinians, there is a good chance that this decisive vote will lead to stronger steps that will begin to put real pressure on the Israelis. The 274-12 vote came about because of a deep underlying shift in MPs’ attitudes to Israel, caused by their shock at the brutality of the Gaza war and their huge postbags of letters from constituents demanding action.

It emerges from the vote that:

  • Half the MPs listed as supporters of Labour Friends of Israel voted in favour of recognising Palestine despite last-minute pleas from senior Israeli politicians to vote against.
  • 40 Conservative MPs – including some members of Conservative Friends of Israel – backed the recognition motion and the Conservative Home website reported that ‘support for Israel is slipping away’.

Ed Miliband put a ‘one-line whip’ on the vote – meaning that MPs could either vote for the motion or abstain – but 80% of his MPs and 21 of 26 members of his Shadow Cabinet voted for the motion. MPs received a huge number of emails – 57,808 through the Palestine Solidarity Campaign website alone – from their own constituents urging them to attend the debate and vote for recognition. This represents a sea-change in both parties.

Conservative Friends of Israel, who are strongly opposed to the recognition of Palestine, claim to have 80% of Tory MPs on their books (242 of 303), but in the event only six Conservatives voted against. Part of the reason may have been that CFI, realising they were going to lose, encouraged their supporters to stay away from the vote – in the hope that the motion would be approved without a physical division where MPs are counted through the voting lobbies. That would mean that the motion would be declared ‘carried’ but no one would know exactly how many or which MPs had voted for or against the motion.

This plot was foiled by two MP who supported recognition but shouted ‘no’ when the Speaker called for ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ and acted as tellers for the ‘noes’ – without which the Speaker would have been obliged to call off the division. Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn rose on a point of order after the division to explain that he and Batley & Spen MP Mike Wood volunteered as tellers “to ensure that democracy could take place and that Members could record their vote, because those who were opposed to the motion declined to put up tellers”.

If the two ‘no’ tellers are included there were 195 Labour MPs voting for recognition – more than twice the current total of MPs who support Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East. While it has been Labour Party policy since 2011 to support the recognition of Palestine, first by the UN and now by the UK, there was no obligation on MPs to turn up for a backbench debate and the numbers were another indication of the rapid fall-off in uncritical support for Israel on the Labour benches. Coalition ministers were told to abstain, but Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs were free to vote as they liked.

Although only 40 Conservatives voted for the motion, this was a big increase from the 10 or 15 known to support the Palestinian case in the past.

The real surprise was the number of Conservatives who abstained because they were disillusioned by recent actions of the Israeli government. Typical was the distinguished chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Sir Richard Ottaway who told the Commons that he had stood by Israel through thick and thin for 20 years but was outraged by the recent Israei annexation of Palestinian land and “such is my anger over Israel’s behaviour in recent months that I will not oppose the motion”.

It was the highest ever attendance at a backbench debate (other than the European referendum debate which was whipped) and out of a total of 43 speeches, only six were from opponents of recognition, with the result that Conservative MPs who have previously been reluctant to express their support for the Palestinian case spoke with passion and eloquence, as though a gag had been removed.

In the event there were 195 Labour MPs supporting the motion, 40 Conservatives, 28 Liberal Democrats, nine Scottish and Welsh nationalists and four Northern Irish (2 SDLP, 1 Independent, 1 Alliance). The noes were six Conservatives, five Ulster Unionists and one Liberal Democrat. Other than the 140 MPs on the “payroll” vote of ministers and ministerial aides who are expected to abstain in backbench debates, the number of MPs who abstained or were absent was 220.  Even if they had all voted ‘no’ (and a number have said they would have voted ‘yes’ but could not be there) opponents of recognition would still have had only 232 votes against the 278 votes in favour of recognition.

Baroness Warsi, who resigned from the Government in August in protest at the strongly pro-Israeli policy, said at the time that many of her ministerial colleagues and most of the officials in the Foreign Office agreed with her, but policy came from a small group at the top. There was a natural majority not only in the country, but also in Parliament and in the Foreign Office for the recognition of Palestine, but “you’ve a small group of politicians who are keeping a close grip on this and who are not allowing public opinion, ministerial views, parliamentary views and the views of the people who work in this system.”

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Cameron rejects Commons’ vote

David Cameron lost little time in pouring cold water on Monday’s vote in the Commons, telling Liberal Democrat MP David Ward during Prime Minister’s questions, that Palestine will not be recognised until “negotiations that bring about a two-state solution”.

This is precisely what the House of Commons rejected by voting by 274-12 on Monday that Britain should recognise Palestine without any preconditions and without waiting for peace talks – because, as Grahame Morris said in his introduction, there were no peace talks and no prospect of peace talks, so this would give the Israelis a veto on UK policy and recognition should be a matter for the UK alone.

Negotiations broke up on April 29th after nine months of fruitless of talks when the Israelis announcement yet another illegal settlement in Palestinian East Jerusalem and there is no likelihood of talks restarting at any point in the near future.

David Ward (Bradford East) (LD):

The Palestinian ambassador, Mr Hassassian, has described Monday’s vote on the recognition of the Palestinian state as “a momentous vote”. Indeed it was. He has also said:“Now is the time for the UK government to listen to its democratically elected parliament and to take decisive political action by recognising the State of Palestine and upholding its historical, moral and legal responsibility towards Palestine”.Does the Prime Minister agree?

The Prime Minister:

Of course, I look forward to the day when Britain will recognise the state of Palestine, but it should be part of the negotiations that bring about a two-state solution. That is what we all want to see—a state of Israel living happily and peacefully alongside a state of Palestine—and that is when we should do the recognition.

Although the parliamentary motion is not binding on government, the hope is that it will encourage other European countries to announce recognition of Palestine – France and Ireland are known to be considering it – to create a bandwaggon effect after the announcement by the new Swedish government earlier this month that they will recognise Palestine.

Already 135 countries (out of 193) recognise Palestine, including many EU states, and the main exceptions are the major West European and North American countries.  Even without the support of the British government, the British Parliament may inspire other countries to follow suit.

But the more important effect of Monday’s vote is that many MPs have voted in support of Palestine for the first time and this may embolden them to go on to give their support to the Palestinians on other issues, such as discouraging or banning trade with the illegal settlement or putting economic pressure on Israel to stop building more settlements.

For Palestinians recognition will make no visible difference – except that a small well-fortified building in East Jerusalem will take down a sign saying “British Consulate-General” and put up a new sign saying “British Embassy to Palestine”.

For the first time the House of Commons has demonstrated its support for the Palestinians’ case and the Palestinians’ hope – and the Israelis’ fear – will be that they will do so again on an issue which will have more than a symbolic effect on the long-running conflict.

Highlights of Debate on Motion to recognise Palestine as a State

A Backbench debate on Monday 13 October 2014 was secured by Grahame Morris MP  “That this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. An amendment was proposed by Jack Straw to add ‘as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.’ This amendment was accepted.
The amended motion was carried 274 votes for, 12 against.
Highlights from the debate 
Grahame M. Morris: As the originator of the Balfour declaration and holder of the mandate for Palestine, Britain has a unique historical connection and, arguably, a moral responsibility to the people of both Israel and Palestine. In 1920, we undertook a sacred trust—a commitment to guide Palestinians to statehood and independence. That was nearly a century ago, and the Palestinian people are still to have their national rights recognised. This sacred trust has been neglected for far too long. As the Lady has just said, we have an historic opportunity to atone for that neglect, and take this small but symbolically important step.
Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I understand the Government’s position, but they should listen to the voice of this House. Virtually everybody who has spoken—not just lefties waving placards in Trafalgar square, but virtually every Conservative MP—has said that now is the time to recognise the justice of the Palestinians’ case.
I have nothing but respect and support for the state of Israel. I think that all of us are very philo-Semitic. But the [Israelis] have to open their hearts. They have to start relaxing controls in and out of Gaza. They have to start relaxing controls at the Bethlehem checkpoint and they have to stop the settlements. There has to be some way forward. We have to recognise, however naive this may sound, that we are part of a common humanity.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): this country has a special duty here. It is easy to try to duck that duty. We are the authors of the Balfour declaration and we were the occupying power. Anybody who goes to the Middle East knows—I am sure that the Minister would agree with me on this—that the views taken by the British Government and the British people run powerfully in the region. We should set an example. Yes, 135 countries have recognised Palestine and yes, we are behind the curve in this matter, but it is not too late for us to set an example to Europe and the rest of the world and show that we believe in equality and fairness in international statecraft as much as we believe in our own country.
Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): What entitles the United Kingdom to withhold a recognition that is the birthright—the long overdue birthright—of each and every Palestinian child? It would be shameful not to take the step of recognition now, when it would make a real difference.
The United Kingdom was a midwife at the birth of Israel and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. That means an aspiration to take a lead in world affairs. We should take that lead now on this vital issue through a decisive vote of the British House of Commons.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): There The recognition of Palestine by the British House of Commons would affect the international situation. It would be a game changer. I call on both sides of the House to give the Palestinians their rights and show the Israelis that they cannot suppress another people all the time. It is not Jewish to do that. They are harming the image of Judaism, and terrible outbreaks of anti-Semitism are taking place. I want to see an end to anti-Semitism, and I want to see a Palestinian state.
Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Their illegal occupation of land is condemned by this Government in strong terms, but no action follows. The Israelis sell produce from these illegal settlements in Palestine as if they were made or grown in Israel, but no action follows. The Israeli Government will go on doing this as long as they pay no price for their obduracy.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I received an e-mail today from a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem. He described some of his life under occupation in East Jerusalem and he asked me to say this tonight: “I want to see light at the end of the tunnel, but I really want to see light at the end of the tunnel; I don’t want to see a train coming at me from the other end.”
Sir Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): I have stood by Israel through thick and thin, through the good years and the bad. I have sat down with Ministers and senior Israeli politicians …. and I thought that they were listening. But I realise now, in truth, looking back over the past 20 years, that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion.
The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life, mainly because it makes me look a fool, and that is something that I resent.
Under normal circumstances, I would oppose the motion tonight; but such is my anger over Israel’s behaviour in recent months that I will not oppose the motion.
I have to say to the Government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people.
Sir Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Recognition of statehood is not a reward for anything; it is a right. The notion that it would put an end to negotiations, or somehow pre-empt or destroy them, is patently absurd; Palestine would still be occupied, and negotiations would need to continue, both to end that occupation and to agree land swaps and borders. Refusing Palestinian recognition is tantamount to giving Israel the right of veto.
A lot of people feel intimidated when it comes to standing up for this issue. It is time we did stand up for it, because almost the majority of Palestinians are not yet in their 20s. They will grow up stateless. If we do not give them hope, dignity and belief in themselves, it will be a recipe for permanent conflict, none of which is in Israel’s interests. Today, the House should do its historic duty.
Mike Wood (Batley and Spen) (Lab): We will be voting tonight for the recognition of a Palestinian state. That is not just about recognising the inalienable right of Palestinians to freedom and self-determination but about Israel’s need to be saved from itself. What Israel is looking at in a one-state solution is a continuation, year after year, of war and violence such as we have seen building in the past 20 years. The Israelis have just finished a third incursion into Gaza in 10 years. Are we suggesting that every two years another 1,500 people should be killed and another 100,000 people rendered homeless as a continuation of the process of driving everybody who is not Jewish out of what is considered to be greater Israel?
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): What I do not understand is why the Palestinians should have had to pay such a terrible price for the creation of the state of Israel, where it was believed that security could be created, or why the Israelis believed that the brutal expulsion and continued suppression of the Palestinians would ever lead to the sense of security that they seek.
Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): There are moments when the eyes of the world are on this place, and I believe that this is one of those moments.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): , three years ago at the United Nations, the then Foreign Secretary said that Palestine met the conditions and was ready for statehood. How long do they have to wait?
Mr Tobias Ellwood, Middle East minister: The UK will bilaterally recognise a Palestinian state when we judge that that can best help bring about peace. The UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time most helpful to the peace process, because a negotiated end to the occupation is the most effective way for Palestinian aspirations of statehood to be met on the ground.
The UN estimates that it could take 18 years to rebuild Gaza without major change. It says that Gaza could become unliveable by 2020. If the underlying causes are not addressed, it risks becoming an incubator for extremism in the region.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab), shadow Middle East minister:  The Labour party supported Palestinian recognition at the UN and we support the principle of recognition today, because we believe it will strengthen the moderate voices among the Palestinians who want to pursue the path of politics, not the path of violence.
It is crucial, at this time when help is needed, that President Abbas receives support for the political path he has chosen. We need to support President Abbas to follow the path of peace and not the path the terrorists of Hamas inflict on the people of Israel, Labour believes that, amid the despair today, we need to take a dramatic step.
Labour urges the Government to listen to the House of Commons—listen to the voices on the Conservative Benches, the Liberal Democrat Benches, the Labour Benches, all the Benches—and give Palestinians what they have as a right: statehood. This it not an alternative to negotiations; it is a bridge for beginning them.
Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): This year’s conflict in Gaza shows how unequal the two sides are. There were some 1,462 civilians killed on the Palestinian side and seven on the Israeli side. All of those are a personal disaster for the victims’ families and are regrettable, but we can see from the numbers the scale of the imbalance in this situation.
Given the imbalance, Palestinian statehood would not harm Israel in any way, but it would give some support to the Palestinian people.
Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): In line with our traditional policy, we should recognise the Palestinian state as a reality. We would not be granting it anything; we would simply be recognising a fact.
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Every day that the establishment of the Palestinian state is postponed merely guarantees the continuation of the conflict, with more innocent people losing their lives. We owe it to all those who have lost their lives on both sides, and those whose lives are constantly at risk, to bring this tragedy to an end by recognising the Palestinian state without further delay.
Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I believe that time has come. We need to support the vast majority of Palestinians who believe in peaceful coexistence with Israel, and face down the violent minority by showing them that non-violence and a willingness to negotiate can help get them somewhere.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It is the British people who have taken up this cause, with more than 50,000 e-mails sent to MPs over the past two or three weeks. The Labour movement [has been on a journey] from being very sympathetic to Israel as a country that was trying to achieve democracy and was embattled, to seeing it now as a bully and a regional superpower. That is not something I say with any pleasure, but since the triumph of military Zionism and the Likud-run Governments we have seen a new barbarism in that country.
The motion is a positive step, but my constituents wish to see more. They would like us to stop supplying arms to the Israelis when those arms are being used for the occupation and to kill people in Gaza. They would like us to stop importing goods from illegal settlements—illegal under international law. They cannot understand why, if the settlements are illegal, the goods should not be illegal as well.
Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): In the recent referendum in Scotland. … we did not ask the people of England, Wales or Northern Ireland whether they wish Scotland to stay. We accepted that it was the right of the Scottish people to decide. The same principle should be applied to Palestine. This is not an issue for the Israelis to decide, even if they want to. It is not an issue for negotiations. It is an issue for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian people alone.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): If we are serious about a two-state solution, 65 years is too long to wait for recognition of Palestine. Even if only to provide parity of dignity—the basic dignity of having one’s nation state recognised—we should recognise it. The time for excuses is over; we should recognise Palestine today.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): According to the UN, during this summer’s conflict, a total of 2,131 Palestinians were killed. Of those, at least 1,473 were civilians—young, innocent civilians, in many cases. On the Israel side, 66 Israeli defence force soldiers were killed, and five Israeli civilians. I do not believe that that response is proportionate. Israel has lost the moral high ground in the way it acted.
We should demand the same standards of Israel as we do of any democratic state Some of the acts committed by Israel were clearly unacceptable. Why was it necessary to blow up Gaza’s only power station, leaving already stretched hospitals to rely on generators? Why was it necessary to bomb hospitals and schools, when, as we saw, the threat of loss of life to Israeli civilians was small in comparison? By adding to the suffering of the Gazan people, the Israeli Government have lost the support of the House, and it should cause them great concern.
It is important that moderates in the debate such as me should speak out if we are turning against support for Israel.
Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Over the past weeks my in-box has been flooded with hundreds of letters from my constituents. Their strength of feeling is undeniable, their arguments are heartfelt, and their conviction is deep-seated—and for good reason. I share those arguments and that conviction.
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): This House has a duty to support Palestinian statehood. The Palestinian claim to statehood is not in the gift of a neighbour—it is an inalienable right of the Palestinians, and tonight we should speak up on their behalf. There are times when this House has to send a message—when this House has to speak. I believe that the will of the British people is now to support Palestinian statehood
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): if we are to tell Arabs across the region to reject extremism, rockets, bombs and massacres that are deliberately aimed at killing defenceless civilians, we must also do more to support the moderate, democratic, pluralist leaders, such as Mahmoud Abbas, who have painstakingly pursued the diplomatic path towards peace and self-determination.

New minister needs to act to revitalise peace talks

Ideal opportunity to warn UK business

not to trade with illegal settlements

New Minister’s Middle East interest
Eight of the last ten Middle East Ministers have been former chairmen of Conservative Friends of Israel or Labour Friends of Israel, so the appointment of Hugh Robertson as the successor to Alistair Burt in the most sensitive post in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office breaks new ground.He is knowledgeable about the whole Middle East and has visited Syrian, Lebanon and Jordan in 2009, Israel and the West Bank in 2008, Israel, Jordan and Syria in 2007, Oman in 2006 – but always as a guest of the Conservative Middle East Council, not the CFI.

CMEC is not a campaigning organisation, but when it does express a view it is significantly more sympathetic to the Palestinians than CFI or the Conservative Party – as in November 2012 when it issued a statement urging the UK to vote in favour of Palestinian statehood and not to “stand on the sidelines as a passive spectator”.

Membership of CFI or CMEC does not predetermine how a Middle East minister will act in office, as Alistair Burt demonstrated by showing personal sympathy for Palestinian protestors against the wall in Nabi Saleh and against the demolition of Bedouin villages in Khan Al Akhmar.

By the same token the appointment of Hugh Robertson does not necessarily prefigure a more robust UK policy towards the present Israeli government – which is badly needed – but it does mean that we have a Middle East minister who understands both sides of the conflict equally well and – we hope – will not be held prisoner by a reluctance to offend.

His first job should be to issue country-specific guidance to UK business not to trade with or invest in illegal settlements in the West Bank. Guidance has long been promised by Alistair Burt and, if it is deals specifically with the dangers of doing business with Israel’s illegal settlements it could help revitalise the Israel-Palestinian peace talks at the very moment when they look doomed to failure.

In a little-reported speech to Bar-Ilan University the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu played his old trick of placing an impossible new condition in front of the Palestinian negotiators which will inevitably lead to the collapse of the talks.

In this speech he said: “Unless the Palestinians recognise the Jewish state and give up on the right of return there will not be peace.”

It’s not enough that the Palestinians have recognised Israel, which is an 80% Jewish state, since 1992. Now Netanyahu’s new threat is that there will be no peace until the Palestinians recognise Israel “as a Jewish state”.

To understand why this is impossible it is important to remember that there are three types of Palestinians, those who live in Palestine (4 million), those who live in Israel (1 million) and those who live as refugees in neighbouring countries (6 million).

Palestinians who live in Israel already suffer legal discrimination from a secular Israel and fear that recognising Israel “as a Jewish state” would lead to their expulsion or forced transfer.

Palestinians who live in refugee camps hold on to the hope of realising their individual right to return to their property in Israel (or receive compensation) as guaranteed in several United Nations resolutions.

The PLO negotiators, representing all Palestinians, not just those in Palestine, are neither willing nor able to negotiate away these rights.  They are not theirs to negotiate.

Netanyahu knows this and has put forward this impossible demand so that he can blame the Palestinians when the talks end without agreement in May.

In the same speech Netanyahu argued that the occupation of the West Bank and the growth of settlements could not be the cause of the conflict, as the conflict started before the settlements.

This is disingenuous. The Palestinians’ have stated that their only aims in the peace talks are an end to the Israeli military occupation and the establishment of an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The occupation and the settlements are the main obstacle.  President Abbas has made it clear that once there is an agreement, there will be no further claims on Israel.  “Signing the agreement will signal the end of the conflict.”

Clearly the main threat to the peace talks are the 410-horse-power Caterpillar D9R bulldozers, specially designed for the Israeli army, that are demolishing Palestinian villages and building new Israeli settlements while the talks are under way.

The Israeli strategy is to talk slow and bulldoze fast. Then there will be too little Palestinian land left for an independent Palestinian state to be viable.

The US will never stop the Israelis.  The EU will never agree.  It’s up to countries like Britain and France to put pressure on Israel to reach a settlement.

The first step has to be focused on the root cause of the trouble – the settlements – and Hugh Robertson has a golden opportunity in the planned rewriting of the Overseas Business Risk Register to write in guidance that explicitly advises UK business not to trade with or invest in settlements.