Parliament votes to recognise Palestine: what is going on?

Neil Rogall takes a closer look at this week’s symbolic decision by MPs.

MPs in the House of Commons debating the Palestine motion proposed by Grahame Morris MP

On Monday night, 13 October, a remarkable vote took place in the British parliament. A motion calling on the government to “recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution” was passed by 274 votes to 12.

On closer inspection the vote is less impressive. Less than half the MPs in the House of Commons voted, and most Tories stayed away. Government ministers were ordered not to vote. The motion has no practical or direct effect on government policy. But it was still a symbolic turn of events, and as a symbol it has several meanings and layers.

Let us recall some history. It was a British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, who in 1917 authored a declaration promising a “national home for the Jewish people” in another people’s country. It was the British colonial government that murdered 20,000 Palestinians during the 1936-39 uprising. The British state has actively supported Israel for its entire existence. For the House of Commons to break ranks with Israel in this manner is extraordinary and unexpected.

Labour’s change of direction

The motion was proposed by backbench Labour MP Grahame Morris, chair of Labour Friends of Palestine. Labour leader Ed Miliband supported the motion and issued a one-line whip on Labour MPs, essentially a recommendation that they turn up and vote for it.

This is a surprise. Ever since 1948 the Labour Party has been staunchly pro-Israel and sees the Israeli Labour Party as a sister organisation. The most vociferous support for Tony Blair’s disastrous war on Iraq came from Zionists in Labour (some of whom defied the whip and voted against this week’s Palestine motion).

So why did this about turn take place? Obviously and on first sight, it is a reaction to this summer’s murderous Israeli onslaught on Gaza. The vote reflects shifts in popular opinion: in particular, the spread of the Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions campaign and the huge demonstrations in support of Palestinians have put pressure on official politics. And this reaction against Israel’s war did not come out of the blue: it builds on patient work of solidarity activists over many years – organising visits to Palestine, setting up twinning campaigns, and so on. This has generated a wider understanding of Palestine that simply wasn’t there a decade ago.

But the vote reflects more than that. You can see this in some of the parliamentary speeches. Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, spoke movingly about his visit to Palestine and the suffering of people he witnessed first-hand. Former foreign secretary Jack Straw attacked the Israeli stranglehold on East Jerusalem. Straw argued against the position of successive British governments (including his own) that Palestine should only be recognised at the end of successful negotiations – this effectively gave Israel a veto over Palestinian recognition, he said.

You can also hear it in the words of Tory MP Richard Ottaway, chair of the foreign affairs select committee and friend of Israel, who spoke at the debate but abstained on the motion. “Looking back over the past 20 years, I realise now Israel has slowly been drifting away from world public opinion,” he said. “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. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent.” This is beginning to feel like a real shift in ruling class opinion as well.

Problems with the “peace process”

There are problems with the parliamentary vote, however, that we shouldn’t brush under the carpet. Grahame Morris made clear that his motion was about getting the “peace process” between Israel and Palestinian Authority back on track after it collapsed earlier this year. He attacked Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for declaring in July that a “sovereign” Palestinian state will never happen. But he added that he wants to strengthen the “moderate political leadership” of the Palestinians – meaning Abu Mazen’s corrupt and craven regime. Straw’s amendment to the motion, which was accepted by Morris, underscored this by adding the words “as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution” – a move designed to appease pro-Israel MPs.

This is where we have to stop, take a deep breath, and note another dynamic at play. The reality is that there is no peace process. The Oslo Accords of 1993 have been a disaster for the Palestinian cause. Since the “peace process” started Israeli settlement building has increased dramatically. The apartheid wall has been built around the West Bank, corralling Palestinians into bantustans. The process allows the US to keep firm control on all the diplomatic levers. As a means of liberating ordinary Palestinians, it is a complete fraud.

One glaring aspect of that fraud is the way that the Palestinian Authority polices its people jointly with and on behalf of Israel. Over the summer the PA worked tirelessly to stop the spread of solidarity with Gaza. It is increasingly authoritarian and increasingly distrusted by the Palestinian people.

This explains why some supporters of the Palestinian cause have denounced this growing recognition of a Palestinian state. Respect MP George Galloway acknowledged the “good intentions” of those supporting the motion but abstained on the vote. In a statement he said: “I cannot support this motion as it accepts recognition of the state of Israel, does not define borders of either state or address the central question of the right of return of the millions of Palestinians who have been forced to live outside Palestine.”

In a similar vein, Ali Abuminah, editor of the Electric Intifada website, criticised the declaration by Sweden’s new prime minister Stefan Löfven that he would recognise a Palestinian state. Abuminah argues that such diplomatic recognition legitimises Israel’s right to exist, and thereby violates the right of return of the millions of Palestinians who don’t live in the West Bank or Gaza.

Shifts at the top and action on the ground

The worries raised here are important. Recognising the Palestinian Authority will not stop the day-to-day arrests and killings by Israel and its proxies. It will not improve the conditions of ordinary Palestinians one iota. This is why Palestinians have not been celebrating in the streets at this news.

But the parliamentary vote will nevertheless be a boost for the wider Palestinian solidarity movement in Britain. It helps delegitimise Israel and undermine its propaganda. Yoav Haifawi from the One Democratic State group in Israel described the vote as “a small step in the right direction”. He added: “The ‘two state solution’ is not a political program that the Zionists plan to implement but an illusion that they sell the world in order to legitimise the eternal occupation of the West Bank. By demanding that Israel stands up to its words, its allies may expose some of the Israeli lies.”

The vote also raises interesting questions about what is going on behind the scenes. Does the ruling class in the West no longer see Israel as so important? Certainly the US and Europe have other allies in the Middle East, such as the Gulf States and Sisi’s Egypt. These Arab regimes care nothing for Palestinian rights. But any weakening of Western support for Israel opens up a space for popular mass struggle in Palestine. If that happens, it will come despite and against the Palestinian authority.

Meanwhile we can use these shifts at the top to strengthen our actions on the ground in support of genuine Palestinian liberation. We can use the vote to demand deeper changes in British policy. We can exploit the space it opens up to widen support for BDS. We can ramp up the pressure to break Israel’s siege of Gaza, rather than merely reconfigure it as this week’s United Nations conference in Cairo seeks to do. And we can demand that the British government ends its military collaboration with Israel and imposes an arms embargo against a country built on the dispossession of the Palestinian people.

• Thanks to Miriyam Aouragh and Sybil Cock for comments.

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