Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Israel-Palestine: the Commonwealth connection

The Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 53 nations most of whom were once part of the British Empire, is indubitably a force for good in this wicked world, but dynamic or proactive it can scarcely claim to be. Perhaps the time has come for it to adopt a somewhat bolder approach to world politics.

The member states of the Commonwealth span the globe and have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, almost a third of the world’s inhabitants. What unites this diverse group of nations are the association’s values of democracy, freedom, peace and the rule of law, and the fact that, regardless of their individual constitutions, all recognize the current British monarch as head of the association. Alongside shared values, Commonwealth nations share strong trade links.

The Commonwealth's objectives were first outlined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, which committed the organization to promoting world peace, representative democracy, individual liberty, equality, opposition to racism, free trade, and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. To these, were added in 1979 opposition to discrimination on the basis of gender, and in 1989 environmental sustainability. In short, the Commonwealth is strongly in favor of motherhood and apple pie (and all credit to them for it) – a position finally encapsulated in the “Commonwealth Charter”, signed by Queen Elizabeth in March 2013.

It was in 1884 that Lord Roseberry, later a British Prime Minister, first dubbed the British Empire “a Commonwealth of Nations”, but the designation “Commonwealth” remained in the background until 1949, when India achieved independence. Although the new state became a republic, the Indian government was very keen to remain in the Commonwealth – and the Commonwealth, unwilling to lose the jewel in its crown, found no difficulty in changing the rules of the club. Henceforth membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British crown. Commonwealth members were to be “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.”

Since then, fully independent countries from all parts of the globe have flocked to join the Commonwealth, all with some historic connection to the now defunct British Empire – until two other nations, with absolutely no such ties, applied to join. Once again the Commonwealth demonstrated a flexibility remarkable in bureaucracies and, by sleight of hand, further amended the rules to allow first Mozambique, and a few years later Rwanda, to join. Applications and expressions of interest in joining the Commonwealth continue to arrive from countries like Yemen, Algeria, Madagascar, Senegal, East Timor, Cambodia and South Sudan.

Back in 2012 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee considered the “Role and Future of the Commonwealth”, and in general welcomed the idea of the organization extending its membership – always provided a stringent selection procedure was maintained.

“We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members,” reads the final paragraph of their report, “and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth 'family', closely adhering at all times to its principles and values.”

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority – or a sovereign Palestine, if or when this comes to pass – would, if they applied to join the Commonwealth, certainly meet the criterion of “historic ties with the British Empire”. In point of fact, both have, in the past, expressed some interest in the possibility. Israel even boasts an “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the Commonwealth.

And indeed Israel may quite recently have come close to applying to join. It was only in 2007 that the Jewish Journal reported:  “As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations. Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomats said those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”

Not then, perhaps, but how about right now – with the peace negotiations soon to suffer the seismic shock of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s “framework agreement”? Shrill voices from both Israeli and Palestinian camps, knowing nothing but fearing the worst, and intent on rejecting whatever it is that Kerry may eventually propose, are already creating a cacophony in the media. One thing is virtually certain: Kerry’s document will make no mention of the Commonwealth.

Traditionally the Commonwealth secretariat has done nothing to foster interest in joining the organisation. It has restricted itself to considering applications from nations eager to enjoy the considerable benefits that come with membership – and sometimes to expelling members who have transgressed its principles. The Israel-Palestine situation provides the opportunity for a more proactive approach. This is a moment for the Commonwealth to think laterally - to intervene in an intransigent world issue and exercise a positive and powerful influence for good. What the Commonwealth could do is issue a clear invitation to both parties: “As soon as you have reached some sort of deal in the current peace negotiations, join us. We will welcome you into our family of nations.”

Whatever Israel’s traditional enemies might assert, there is no doubt that Israel’s core values precisely match those of the Commonwealth. The Palestinian Authority – shorn of the malign Hamas régime that dominates the Gaza strip – could make a reasonable case for aspiring to most of them. An offer by the Commonwealth of future membership to both Israel and Palestine would provide a new, and previously unconsidered, framework within which the two states might flourish – for it would incorporate acceptance of both states by a swathe of nations from every continent, the assurance of new markets and flourishing trade relations for both parties, and membership of an association dedicated to democracy, freedom and peaceful co-existence.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 February 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 February 2014:

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