Tuesday, October 14, 2014

One small step - but an important one

 MPs at Westminster have voted overwhelmingly for recognition of a state of Palestine. The vote does not mean any immediate change in British government policy, but the government cannot ignore it. The vote reflects a seismic shift in public opinion set off by the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, and increased awareness of the effects of Israeli blockade and occupation.

Though a minority of MPs have a good and principled record on Palestine, others must have considered the effect, if any, on their election prospects next year, before deciding to turn this into a majority. Yet only a dozen MPs opposed - six Tories, six Democratic Unionists from Ulster, and one Liberal Democrat. 

For the Palestinians, the price has been high, in blood and suffering, and the reward is limited.  It of course calls only for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and says nothing about the Right of Return. The state it recognises has yet to be achieved in practice. Israeli occupation forces control people's movements in the West Bank, the Palestinian parliament is unable to meet, and Palestinian police cannot stop the IDF's raids on homes or halt the rampages of settlers.

For the Israeli government and its lobbyists, the Commons vote is a serious rebuff, and a rebuke for its consistent policies of taking away the territorial basis of Palestinian statehood, and relying on its allies internationally to block recognition.   We might note however that an impressive array of prominent Israelis wrote to British MPs at the weekend supporting the call for recognition, though their Labour Party didn't.

Though this vote was one small step for humanity, it was an important one, not least for British Labour.  In 1983 the Labour Party withstood the tide of feeling over Lebanon and massacres at Sabra and Shatila, lining up alongside Shimon Peres and Israeli Labour to oppose the invitation to Issam Sartawi of the PLO to address the Socialist International. When they failed it was left to Abu Nidal's gunman to silence Sartawi.

This motion from Labour's Grahame Morris was supported by Labour leader Ed Miliband - whose mother incidentally is a supporter of Jews for Justice for Palestinians. Grahame Morris said it was right to take the “small but symbolically important” step of recognising the Palestinian right to statehood.

Although there were the usual whinges from some quarters and attempts to play down the vote's importance from others, it is clear that the result  upset the Israeli government and gratified Palestinians.
Warning his government that it should not underestimate the significance of the British vote, Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the US said it was more important than the Swedish government's decision to recognise Palestine.  “Britain is a member of the UN security council. The Palestinians are going to the UN in November and they want at least nine votes in the security council (to force Israel to commit to a timeline for withdrawing from the West Bank). There is a chance America will abstain, but a lot of it is up to us. “Britain is one of our closest friends and allies, and still 274 parliament members supported the (non-binding) movement, with only 12 objecting". 

Dr Hanan Ashrawi, an elected Palestinian MP and executive member of the PLO, said: “On behalf of the Palestinian people and its leadership, I would like to thank everyone who worked to bring about this vote. The recognition of Palestine and its people is both a principled decision and a significant step towards justice and peace.”

She continued: “Our right to self-determination has never been up to negotiations. The recognition of Palestine is not contingent upon on the outcome of negotiations with Israel and certainly not something we will trade for; this claim is not only unfair, but immoral.”

“This vote sends the right message to the British government and the rest of Europe – it will enhance the European voices calling for the recognition of the state of Palestine and will create the right environment for the international community to grant the Palestinian people legal parity and rights.

“We would like to thank the British people, the thousands who lobbied their members in parliament, and the religious leaders, trade unions, artists, and civil society at large who stood up in the name of justice. We would also like to thank those Israelis who courageously called upon the British parliament to recognise the state of Palestine.”

In London, Bernard Regan of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who is also a leading member of the National Union of Teachers,  commented on Facebook (extracts):

" The vote in Parliament for the recognition of a Palestinian state was overwhelming 274 For - 12 Against.Of course it does not bind the Government to any form of action but it reflects the sea change in attitudes amongst the public about the plight of the Palestinians and the actions of the Israeli Government.

"No one should be starry eyed about this - but it is an important statement about recognising the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination. No one should have illusions that this will make the Israeli Government buckle and rush to the negotiating table but it will be a breach in the wall if Britain - hitherto an uncritical supporter of Israel and backer of the United States - breaks ranks and translates this expression of opinion into political practice - ending the arms sales for a start.

"This vote belongs to the Palestinian people - it belongs to all those who have been campaigning over the decades inside historic Palestine and internationally. In Britain the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has been an important contributor to this process - as Richard Burden said - the views of trade unions and bodies like PSC were important in shifting public opinion.

"It's a cliché but of course we now have to step up the campaign including giving support to those inside Israel who courageously opposed the war on Gaza and protested against the Government of their country.

"Let's celebrate this moment - without deluding ourselves and then let's get on and build the mass campaign. Solidarity with the Palestinian people."

I'll drink to that.

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