A vote against a Palestinian state is a vote for terrorism
Updated: See below
One of the central tasks of democracy is to give peaceful routes to the expression of grievance. Today, MPs will have an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to that principle when they vote on the recognition of a Palestinian state.
Almost everyone says they support a two-state solution in the Middle East. But whenever any action is taken to actually secure a Palestinian state, all sorts of reasons are suddenly raised against it.
The people who self-define as supporters of Israel insist the vote would actually makes a Palestinian state less likely. As the Board of Deputies of British Jews said yesterday, "its likely effect is to retard the negotiations, actually setting back the cause it seeks to promote". Instead of symbolic votes recognising the Palestinian state, efforts should go into resuming peace negotiations, they argue.
But peace negotiations are a dead end under the current balance of power. Worse: they have become a shield for Israel to hide behind while it makes an independent Palestinian state impossible. Typically, big issues like settlements and the right to return are left on the table until the end, when the two sides' implacability makes all the other negotiations meaningless. But during that time Israel can at least say it is in negotiations, while it changes the reality on the ground to its advantage.
During the last peace negotiations, secured by John Kerry, Israel approved a record 14,000 new settlements, to add to the 550,000 existing settlers in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Even Washington lost patience.
It is already difficult to see how a viable Palestinian state could be created from the current situation. The occupied territories look like a Jackson Pollock painting, a mess of alien dots making sovereignty next-to impossible.
There is no peace process. There are occasional discussions, during which Israel continues to redraw the map. If condemnations from London about settlements or disproportionate military responses had any effect they would already have done so.
Then came Israel's summer offensive, when it killed 2,200 people, injured 10,000 more and destroyed 20,000 homes. It reduced Gaza to rubble.
Of course, there were rockets fired by Hamas, although these were little more than fireworks against the impressive resilience of Iron Dome. There was also the murder of three Israeli boys which precipitated the Israeli response. But these factors did little to justify what followed – a collective punishment which was so brutal and lacking in compassion or reason that it alienated those remaining supporting of Israel in European capitals.
More than anything, it revealed a singular failure of moral imagination by Israeli leaders. It showed what really happens when you let the Israeli right do what it pleases: it hardens its position.
A vote for a Palestinian state would be symbolic, but it adds to the 134 states which have already recognised Palestine. It builds momentum following a similar decision by the new centre-left government in Sweden. It will eventually shift policy in Europe over the flow of goods to Israeli settlements.
It strengthens Mahmoud Abbas' hands as he tries to join UN institutions like the international criminal court. If you do not believe in Hamas, if you think firing rockets into civilian areas is a war crime, then you must support the legitimate efforts by Abbas. There is no other game in town. Every obstruction to Abbas is a de facto expression of support for Hamas.
What other option is there for Palestinians? They are bombed, shot at and starved. Their options are either to accept it, place their hopes in Abbas and the international community, or support a more violent response from Hamas. We have to show them that the peaceful route works. We have to show that the international community is on their side. Anything else is an invitation to terrorism. To claim otherwise is to expect them to accept slavery and humiliation.
Britain holds a particular responsibility in this regard. Our historic exit from the Middle East and the lands we once held as a mandate state gives us additional relevance, even if we cannot substantiate that with modern-day influence. Our role as America-lite in the Middle East makes it more noteworthy when we break ranks.
During the 2012 UN vote on a Palestinian state, Britain decided to abstain. Now it can correct that cowardly and short-sighted mistake, which looks all the more pathetic given Israel's behaviour over the summer.
This is the time to push for further change, as the atrocities of the summer are still fresh in people's mind. MPs' mailbags are bursting with outrage over the shelling of civilian areas, the killing of children and the repeated attacks against buildings known by Israeli forces to be sheltering families. A little commented on difference this summer came in the form of Daily Mail coverage, whose coverage became extremely critical and explicit. Disgust at Israel's behaviour was suddenly being expressed by the housewives of Middle England.
The summer offensive also hardened Labour's position. Ed Miliband has shown unusual courage in deciding to whip Labour MPs on the issue. It was brave to back the backbench effort by Labour MP Grahame Morris, Tory MP Crispin Blunt, and Lib Dem MP Bob Russell. It's even braver to impose a three-line whip.
For some Labour MPs this amounts to a de facto Labour change of policy and a demand for loyalty on what is ultimately a moral issue. Pro-Israeli Labour MPs like Ian Austin, Louise Ellman and John Woodcock have signed an amendment calling for recognition of Palestine to be delayed until the "conclusion of successful peace negotiations".
Those Labour frontbenchers who feel they are unable to support the plans are being told to stay away. Liberal Democrats will overwhelmingly support the motion.
Tory MPs – but not frontbenchers – are being given a free vote. They are expected to mostly oppose the motion, but we should not underestimate how many were affected by the summer's military campaign. Many were horrified by images of dead children and finally lost patience with Israeli resistance to international criticism. They are being marshalled by prominent Tory critics of Israel, including former party chairman Baroness Warsi, former international development minister Alan Duncan, former Foreign Office minister Hugh Robertson, and former lord chancellor Ken Clarke.
"There is a lack of political will and our moral compass is missing," Warsi told the Observer yesterday. "There are no negotiations, there is no show in town. Somehow we have to breathe new life into these negotiations, and one of the ways we can do that is by recognising the state of Palestine."
She's right. There is no justification for not supporting a Palestinian state now. Arguments that it is counter-productive hold no weight. The status quo is counter-productive. Any effort to turn the tides is worth pursuing. This summer categorically demonstrated that.
We either show a legitimate route to statehood, or we force Palestinians towards terrorism. For Israel's benefit, as well as the people of Gaza and the West Bank, MPs should vote for a Palestinian state today.
MPs voted by 274 to 12 to "recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel" as part of a "contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution", a majority of 262.
It was a long, well-argued and passionate debate, but Richard Ottaway, chairman of the foreign affairs select committe stood out in particular.
"I have been a friend of Israel long before I became a Tory. I have stood by Israel through thick and thin. But I realise now that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world international public opinion.
"The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life. Under normal circumstances I would oppose this motion. But such is my anger over the behaviour of Israel that I will not be opposing it. I have to say to the government of Israel – if it is losing people like me it is going to be losing a lot people."
Former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind said:
"For me the most important question is what practical benefit would passing this resolution make? It might make us feel good. But recognising a state should only happen when the territory in question has the basic requirements of a state. And through no fault of the Palestinians that is not true at the moment and it seems to me that the resolution before us is premature as we do not have a Palestinian government."
Former international development minister Alan Duncan responded:
"Refusing Palestinian recognition is tantamount to giving Israel the right of veto.
"Recognising Palestine is not about recognising a government. It is states that are recognised not governments. It is the recognition of the right to exist as a state – it is not about endorsing a state that has to be in perfect working order. It is the principle of that recognition that this House should pass today."