Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Commonwealth, Israel and Palestine

On 11 March 2013 Queen Elizabeth formally signed the “Commonwealth Charter” - a document setting out for the first time 16 core values shared by the peoples of the Commonwealth and their governments.

The Commonwealth is an aspect of contemporary life that most people know little about. Perhaps the Commonwealth games, interspersed every four years between the Olympics, might occasionally raise a flicker of interest, but as for the background or purposes of the organization itself, there is little general knowledge or interest. And yet the Commonwealth has the potential to exert an enormous power for good on global politics. Judging by the charter just signed by Queen Elizabeth as its head, and endorsed by the 54 governments who are members, the organization also has the collective will to do so. What it has so far failed to demonstrate, and may still lack, is the drive to provide positive leadership on the world stage in favour of the core values it professes.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 nations most of whom, but not all, were once part of the British Empire. All of them, however, regardless of their individual constitutions, agree to recognize the current British monarch as head of the association. The members have a combined population of 2.1 billion people, almost a third of the world’s population. What unites this diverse group of nations, beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, are the association’s values of democracy, freedom, peace and the rule of law.

Essentially, these are the basis of the 16 core values now enshrined in the charter. They include a commitment by Commonwealth leaders to uphold democracy and human rights (“we are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination”); to advance international peace and security (”we reiterate our absolute condemnation of all acts of terrorism in whatever form or wherever they occur or by whomsoever perpetrated”); to promote tolerance and respect, freedom of expression, the rule of law, good governance, to protect the environment, provide access to health, education and food for all, promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, and recognise the positive role of young people in promoting these and other values.

The Commonwealth is not a political union, but an intergovernmental organization in which countries with diverse social, political and economic backgrounds are regarded as equal in status. Alongside shared values, Commonwealth nations share strong trade links; trade with another Commonwealth member has been shown to be up to 50 per cent more than with a non-member.

Five countries are currently seeking membership of the Commonwealth. Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority (PA) are among them – though, as part of former British mandated Palestine, both would have a stronger claim than, say, Mozambique or Rwanda, which are members, or Algeria which has applied to join.

Could a stated intention to apply for membership of the Commonwealth by both Israel and a sovereign Palestine be a positive factor in the process of negotiating a solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute?

One organization that would probably support the idea – way off the map though it might appear at the moment − would be the 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. Over the years the IBCA has developed close links with the British and Commonwealth embassies. Regular meetings, addressed by prominent politicians, diplomats and academics and attended by many members of the diplomatic corps, have fostered a continuing dialogue between representatives of Israel and the nations of the Commonwealth.

And indeed Israel may quite recently have come close to applying to join the Commonwealth. 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.’”

Perhaps right now it should be. With renewal of the peace process looming – fostered, perhaps, by President Obama’s forthcoming visit to the region and a new Israeli government about to take office with peace on the agenda − some new idea is needed to burnish the old, old arguments. 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 could make a reasonable case for aspiring to most of them – though the same could not be said of Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza, an essential element in any future sovereign Palestine. However, it is the PA, as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” that is the acknowledged negotiating partner – and what within the Palestinian body politic might follow any peace agreement is anybody’s guess.

The offer of future membership of the Commonwealth to both Israel and a new sovereign Palestine would provide a new element in any peace negotiations – a previously unconsidered framework within which the two states might flourish, for it would incorporate acceptance of the peace agreement 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.

It’s a thought.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 17 March 2013:

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