Comment: Britain’s moral responsibility to Palestine
This week the Palestinians will make representations for statehood to the UN. Britain should support them.
By Professor Kamel Hawwash
This week the eyes of Palestinians, Israelis and literally millions of people will be focused on the United Nations security council as it deliberates the case for the admission of Palestine as a full member of this international club of nations. Will the American representative Susan Rice raise her hand to veto the request and what will Britain's stance be?
When Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and president of the Palestinian Authority completes his address to the UN general assembly, expected to take place on September 23rd, he will be calling for the admission of Palestine as a full member state of the United Nations.
He will make the case that when the United Nations resolution 181 was passed in 1947, it was for the establishment of two states in historic Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab and with the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area under international protection. Israel has existed since 1948 but the Palestinians are still without a state with four million living under military occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and more than four million others living as refugees in countries as far apart as Lebanon and Brazil.
The Palestinians have been negotiating with Israel since the 1991 Madrid conference and despite many attempts to reach a peace deal the Palestinians have lost hope that this is possible without a major change to the dynamics of the political situation.
The last few years have seen Israel move more to the right politically in successive elections, the latest of which brought Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu to power in a coalition that includes the right wing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman from Yisrael Beiteinu. As Israel lurches to the right its desire for peace reduces by the day and its pursuit of policies of creating facts on the ground including the construction of more settlements increases.
The election of Barack Obama as US president in 2008 brought new hope as he undertook to bring the two sides together and looked forward to welcoming Palestine as a full member of the United Nations in September 2011. However, since his speech negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have been limited to a two week period after which the Palestinians walked away as Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction.
Netanyahu has imposed five conditions for peace: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital and Israel to keep settlement blocks; no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a Palestinian state must be demilitarized and that the treaty must be an end to the conflict. The Palestinians have refused to return to negotiations unless there is a freeze on settlement construction and that a clear framework is established for these.
During this time the Palestinians have continued to build the institutions judged necessary for a state under the premiership of Salam Fayyad. There is recognition by the International Community that the Palestinians have made great strides in this area and that Palestine now meets the institutional requirements for a state.
With this achievement, the recognition of Palestine as a state by over 120 countries and with negotiations completely stalled, the Palestinians have turned to the UN for recognition of their state on the 1967 borders.
The reaction of Israel to this move is perhaps unsurprising and the USA's promise to veto this move is also unsurprising as it has an inglorious track record of vetoing resolutions in the Security Council on Israel's behalf. But why does Britain hesitate in supporting this move?
Successive British governments have been clear in their support for a two state solution. They see the settlements as illegal and East Jerusalem as occupied territory. In his speech to the Palestinians on Friday the 16th of September, Abbas confirmed that he will be asking for admission of Palestine as a full member state of the United Nations on the 1967 borders. He further confirmed that the remaining issues will need to be negotiated with Israel before a peace treaty can be signed. Therefore the two positions seem compatible.
At a meeting before Abbas's speech, foreign office minister Alistair Burt confirmed to a group of representatives of Arab organizations that Britain had not taken a position on this matter and would not do so until it had seen the actual text. He also confirmed that Britain was working to convince the two parties to return to negotiations but that each had to move from its current position. There is clearly now no prospect of a return to negotiations before the vote later this week.
The Middle East is going through the Arab Spring and the Arab Street will be watching the events at the UN with bated breath. Israel is becoming more isolated by the day and needs critical friends to save it from its current government's actions which have created major rifts with Turkey and Egypt.
The Israeli lobby in the United States will not accept anything but a veto at the UN and Obama is now looking at the next elections and would not want to anger it. In vetoing the admission of Palestine to the UN the United States' reputation and standing in the Middle East will be further eroded.
It was interesting to see Jack Straw, former Labour foreign secretary come out in support of the UN move by the Palestinians. The current British government should listen to his advice and vote for the admission of Palestine as a full member state of the UN. By doing this Britain will enhance its reputation and influence in the Middle East and at the same time continue to work to bring the parties together for the necessary negotiations.
The Palestinian people have waited for over 63 years to achieve their rights and Britain with its historic role during the British mandate in Palestine has a moral responsibility to help them achieve them. It will not do this by sitting on the fence and abstaining.
Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian academic with the University of Birmingham and vice-chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
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