October 14, 2014

In Blog

Last night, British MPs voted 274 to 12 to recognise the State of Palestine. The abstention rate was high—just 286 of 650 MPs voted—in part because in accordance with convention government ministers abstained, and in part because the Labour leadership demanded that those of its MPs who showed up vote ‘yes’ (and thus, a substantial minority did not show up), and in part because most Tory MPs were absent.

By my count, the vote broke down as follows.* Of 56 Liberal Democrat MPs, 29 voted, 28 in favour of recognition. Of 257 Labour MPs, 194 voted, unanimously in favour of recognition. Of 303 Conservative MPs, 45 voted, 39 in favour of recognition.

What are the implications?

First, the Labour leadership officially endorsed recognition, as did a large majority of Labour MPs. Second, while Liberal Democrat ministers abstained, the party supports recognising Palestinian statehood, as did nearly every Liberal Democrat MP who voted. Third, most Conservative MPs abstained, while those who voted overwhelmingly favoured recognition (by 39 to 6—or what Ha’aretz hack Anshel Pfeffer describes as a ‘split’). The high Tory abstention rate is difficult to interpret, although the editor of the leading Conservative Party website takes it as evidence that ‘support for Israel is slipping away’. Taken together, and despite the high rate of Tory abstention, the vote demonstrated strong support for recognition of Palestine that crossed party lines.

Throughout the debate, anger at Israel’s relentless settlement of the West Bank, cruelty in Gaza and rejection of the international consensus two-state solution was palpable. Before and during the discussion, MPs took turns to swat away the tired line, reiterated last week by the Obama administration, that international pressure on Israel harms the peace process. The notion that recognition of Palestinian statehood ‘would put an end to negotiations’, one former Tory minister declared, ‘is patently absurd’, while ’refusing Palestinian recognition is tantamount to giving Israel the right of veto’. Israel’s ‘illegal occupation’ and ‘illegal settlements’, a former Labour minister insisted, can be reversed ‘only by actions, not simply by words’:

The only thing that the Israeli government… under Bibi Netanyahu understands is pressure.

Particularly striking was the sight of MPs with strong pro-Israel voting records taking the stand to explain their support for recognition of a Palestinian state. ‘I was a friend of Israel long before I became a Tory’, Conservative MP and chairman of the influential foreign affairs select committee Sir Richard Ottaway began, and ‘I have stood by Israel through thick and thin’. 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.

‘I have to say to the Government of Israel’, he concluded, ‘that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people’.

Indeed, the significance of last night’s vote is, as the Economist suggests, ‘as an indication of where British, and European, sympathies increasingly lie’. It came just a few days after Sweden’s prime minster announced that his country will recognise the state of Palestine, and in the context of increasing EU frustration and Latin American assertiveness with Israel.

Israel is well aware of its isolation, which explains its fanatical hostility to United Nations and international legal involvement in resolving the conflict. ‘On the matter of borders’, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak lamented, ‘the entire world is with the Palestinians and not with us’.

For supporters of a just peace in the Middle East, this isolation is both cause for hope and a clear strategic cue. As it stands, last night’s vote was a powerful symbolic gesture; if Palestinians and their supporters act swiftly to capitalise on it, and build on growing international momentum for concrete measures to support the Palestinians and pressure Israel, it can become an important step towards victory.

Recognise Palestine, End the Illegal Siege, Dismantle the Illegal Wall, Enforce the Law.

A mass nonviolent movement of Palestinians mobilised behind these demands, and reinforced by the unparalleled energy, creativity and experience of the solidarity movement abroad, would win.

 That is the message of last night’s vote.


* My count, based on the official voting breakdown, differs from those published by the principal Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour aligned blogs. I can partly explain this—Conservative Home seems to have annexed Labour MP Chris Williams to the Tories, for example, while Liberal Democrat Voice has apparently overlooked several Lib Dem MPs who voted for recognition—but, whoever is correct, the difference is too slight to alter the overall picture. If I have understood correctly, if one includes the tellers the vote becomes 278-12. (Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Mike Wood were forced to act as tellers for the NOES, despite themselves supporting AYE, after the NOES refused to put up tellers from their own side.)