Saturday, 18 October 2014

A very British compromise

The vote by the British House of Commons on October 13 urging the government to recognise the state of Palestine was followed, predictably enough, by a great deal of Palestinian triumphalism and not a little Israeli shroud-waving. Closer examination of the vote, however, and the circumstances surrounding it, indicate that neither is really justified.

There was, of course, a great deal of behind-the-scenes activity in the run-up to the debate – one of the few that backbench members of parliament are allowed to initiate during each parliamentary session. The original motion, proposed by Labour MP Grahame Morris and put forward by the Backbench Business Committee, was “That this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.”

By common custom backbench debates in the House of Commons are usually followed by a free vote – that is, members are under no instruction from their party leaders about which side of the debate to favour. Ahead of this particular debate, however, the leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, initially issued what is known as a “three-line whip” – in other words a positive order to all 257 Labour MPs. This required all those who were actually present for the debate to vote in favour of the motion. 

But this was a highly unusual, not to say unprecedented, parliamentary step to take. Normally, a three-line whip represents an instruction from the party both to be present in the House of Commons and to vote as the party requires. MPs who disobey lay themselves open to be severely reprimanded, or even worse. On this occasion, though, the Labour leader was virtually inviting all members of his party who opposed the motion to absent themselves from the debate. 

Miliband’s instruction led to a near revolt not only among Labour backbenchers, but also by more senior members of the party. Dozens who opposed the motion on principle indicated that they would not attend. To avoid an embarrassing rebellion, Miliband compromised, and the projected three-line whip was replaced by a milk-and-water “one-line whip”, which results in nothing more than a slap on the wrist for any members who ignore it. 

Compromise number one. 

In addition, Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, together with other senior Labour MPs, intervened in the heated situation by tabling an amendment to the original motion. This proposed that the recognition of Palestine should be within a "negotiated two-state solution" – a key sticking-point among those planning to absent themselves from the debate. Labour MP Grahame Morris, who had initiated the debate, indicated that he was prepared to compromise, and accepted the proposed amendment. 

Compromise number two.

So in the event, the motion that was debated ran: 'That this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.'

That, it must be acknowledged, is a very different kettle of fish from simply recognising the state of Palestine. In short, what 274 British MPs voted in favour of was negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians with the objective of securing a two-state solution, and a belief that if the British government recognised the state of Palestine this would, in some way, contribute to the desirable outcome.

The former part of that proposition would not be faulted by the Israeli government or, if opinion polls are to be believed, by some 60 per cent of the Israeli public. According to a recent poll even some 30 per cent of Palestinians would endorse it. However, the latter part is highly debatable. The poll reveals that the vast majority of Palestinians want the whole of mandate Palestine “from the river to the sea” in Palestinian hands – in other words, they endorse Hamas’s objective of eliminating the state of Israel. It also shows that Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by much of the Western world including the EU, is more popular among Palestinians than the PA. In any open parliamentary election held in the “state of Palestine” Hamas is likely to emerge the victor. The result would be to turn the West Bank into another Gaza – an extended launching pad for rockets and mortars to be fired indiscriminately into Israel – and inevitable further conflict.

The controversial nature of the Commons debate, no less than the circumstances surrounding it, resulted in only 286 MPs voting on the motion out of a total of 650. Ultimately, 193 out of 257 Labour MPs voted in favour, 39 out of 303 Conservatives, and 39 out of 56 Liberal Democrats – scarcely a ringing endorsement of the motion.

In the event, therefore, the whole episode is considerably less earth-shattering than supporters of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and his current tactics are claiming. Intent now on by-passing peace negotiations, Abbas is openly seeking to gain global recognition of a state of Palestine within the boundaries pertaining on the day the Six-Day War began on June 5, 1967. As far as the West Bank is concerned, those are simply where the armies of Israel and Jordan happened to be positioned in 1948 when hostilities ceased in the Arab-Israel war. They were recognised as temporary in the 1949 Armistice Agreements: “No provision of this Agreement shall in any way prejudice the rights, claims and positions of either Party hereto in the ultimate peaceful settlement of the Palestine question, the provisions of this Agreement being dictated exclusively by military considerations.”

It is factors such as this which render it essential that any resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue follows negotiations by the parties concerned, and are not the result of unilateral declarations by the PA, or recognition by outside parties of a so-far non-existent state of Palestine.

If compromise marked the initiation of the debate, it was also evident after the event. Even the Labour party, which backed the motion, interpreted the vote in a way that would not bind their hand were they to win the next general election and form the government. Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander wrote that the motion “does not commit Labour to immediate recognition of Palestine.”

Nor does the motion change British government policy. As Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood made clear during the debate: “The UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time most helpful to the peace process, because a negotiated end to the occupation is the most effective way for Palestinian aspirations of statehood to be met on the ground.” In other words, the government may note the vote, but will do nothing about it until it is good and ready.

All in all, the whole affair, and its outcome, typify the very British art of compromise.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 October 2014:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 October 2014:

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