From the November-December 2014 issue of News & Letters
London—You could be forgiven for being surprised at the recent UK Parliament vote last month, with a sizable majority, to recognize Palestinian statehood. After all, when the Palestinians won a hard-fought campaign for recognition at the UN last year, Britain joined a chorus of nations ambivalent or hostile to their efforts.
Look beneath the surface, however, and it becomes clear that the British government has little intention of putting words into action. “I’ve been pretty clear about the government’s position and it won’t be changing,” said Prime Minister David Cameron, who abstained from the vote and ordered his ministers to avoid turning up at the Houses of Parliament. Arms exports to Israel will presumably continue, as will moves to deny the Palestinians a voice at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Yet despite the non-binding nature of Parliament’s decision, Britain’s unique relationship with Israel may mark this as a significant turn of events.
“The vote matters,” claimed Ramzy Baroud, editor of the Middle East Eye, in an article for the magazine Toward Freedom. “It matters because the British government remains a member of the ever-shrinking club of Israel’s staunch supporters. Because the Israeli arsenal is rife with British armaments. Because the British government, despite strong protestation of its people, still behaves towards Israel as if the latter is a law-abiding state with a flawless human rights record.”
The symbolic value of recognition may therefore represent something more vital in British society—it could be a reflection of growing public opposition to Israeli actions against Palestine.
Indeed, over 100,000 protesters marched through the streets of London in August to protest Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. That same month, a survey found that the British public were more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians than their French or American counterparts: 30% of respondents said they sympathized with Palestine, with just 12% backing Israel and the rest undecided.
Whilst the bulk of support for the Palestinian cause was espoused by those identifying with left-wing politics and the Labor Party, the poll showed a corresponding rise of sympathy even amidst Conservative circles. A surprise example came from within the Prime Minister’s own government, when a Foreign Office minister, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, resigned over the British response to Israel’s Gaza offensive, denouncing it as “morally indefensible.”
In a subsequent interview Warsi also attacked UK arms exports, stating that “it appalls me that the British government continues to allow the sale of weapons to a country, Israel, that has killed almost 2,000 people, including hundreds of kids, in the past four weeks alone. The arms exports to Israel must stop.”
Not everyone agrees. The Labor Party is suffering through its change in policy towards Palestine. After instructing MPs to vote in favor of the Palestinian state, opposition leader Ed Miliband has found donations to his party drying up as pro-Israeli sponsors desert.
Whatever the case, the British decision to officially recognize Palestine, outside of the intransigence of David Cameron’s government, remains noteworthy.
Yet unless this amounts to real action on the ground, including an arms embargo and allowance of Palestinian membership within the ICC, such a move may prove ineffectual. To again quote Baroud, “Britain remains a party in a bloody conflict where Israel is still carrying out the same policies of colonial expansion, using western—including British—funds, arms and political support. Only when Britain fully and completely ends its support of Israel and financing of its occupation, and works diligently and actively towards correcting the injustice it had imposed on the Palestinians a century ago, one could consider that a real change in British policies is finally taking hold.”