Comment: Palestine vote will define Britain’s role in the Arab Spring

This article was originally published on September 22nd 2011. The question of Palestinian statehood goes to a vote at the UN general assembly again tomorrow, on November 29th 2012.

By Ian Dunt

Anyone who tells you they support the Arab Spring but not Palestine's bid for statehood is a fraud. It is an untenable position which defeats even the murky logic of foreign policy.

Foreign policy is always a hotbed of contradiction and hypocrisy, but this is one step too far. We accepted it when William Hague praised democracy movements in the region while refusing to comment on the Saudi dictatorship. We looked the other way when David Cameron celebrated Egypt's liberation with a plane-load of arms dealers. And we restricted ourselves to a few grumbles when the government allowed the Saudis and Bahrainis to attend an arms sale in east London while singing the praises of human rights.

Genuinely held principle and hard-headed strategy always make uneasy bedfellows. Traditionally, leftists have interpreted these discrepancies as evidence of a basic corruption in the West's foreign policy. It's an understandable assessment, but not an accurate one. What looks like hypocrisy is usually the presence of idealism within practical limitations.

But you have to draw a line somewhere, and the vote on Palestinian statehood is a good place to do it. President Barack Obama's appalling and imbecilic speech at the UN yesterday employed his usual eloquence for an argument which he will refute with his own actions. Obama praised the Arab Spring – "a vendor lit a spark that took his own life, but ignited a movement" – and yet he pledges to veto an attempt at Palestinian statehood. It is an act of supreme moral and political poverty. The president's complete capitulation to the Israeli lobby is depressingly predictable, but it still stings to hear his capacity for language used against that which he claims to support.

We are now forced to wait and see if Britain will find the bravery to back up its own professed support for change. The Foreign Office refuses to state how it will vote. There's no such reluctance from other European states, most of whom have openly expressed their intention, even if it's just for 'non-member state' status through the general assembly. Labour is pushing for a 'yes' vote, saying the Palestinian case is "strong". Even Jack Straw, the foreign secretary who presided over the Iraq war, is lobbying MPs for change.

Meanwhile, reports have emerged that Hillary Clinton is arranging secret meetings between Cameron and Tony Blair. We can have little doubt what angle the former prime minister will take. While he pushed for George Bush to support a two-state solution, his guiding political principle is of subservience to America's whim, which, in any practical sense, is Israel's whim. They want to delay, to muddy the waters, to find another route. But there is no reason to do so. This is a unique moment to secure lasting change, change which would protect us against terrorism in the future by removing at least some of the injustice committed daily against the Arab people.

The arguments against Palestinian statehood are so weak it is demeaning to even address them. The US says that a vote will make no difference on the ground. If it's so irrelevant there's no need to veto it. The US says peace can only come through negotiations with Israel, but this is just a euphemism for perpetual slavery. Even on the most basic, widely held demand – that Israel stops building settlements – it is intransigent and unmoveable. Israel has no interest in negotiation and makes no effort to pretend that it does, but at least it is honest. Even as it condemns the settlements, Washington vetoes any effort to take action against them at the security council.

These events constitute a historic turning point for the Middle East. If America vetoes the bid it will have lost any right to preside over talks as an impartial third party – a role that was laughable years ago but which will now clearly be impossible. It will be one further step into irrelevance for a country whose power and influence is on the wane. It will make terrorist attacks considerably more likely, as the US demonstrates to the Palestinian people that the reasonable, incremental and peaceful demands of their moderate politicians will be dismissed out of hand.

Britain does not have to join America down this road. It can serve the old power block of Washington and Tel Aviv or commit to the tide of history and support the Palestinian bid.

The cheering crowds celebrating Britain in Libya give a small indication of what can be achieved with a little vision and commitment, of what we can do if the Foreign Office sees the moment of change for what it is. We have an opportunity to turn a region that is rightfully suspicious of us into one which considers us a supporter in its quest for freedom and self-determination.

Foreign policy is a competition of idealism and practicality. This is one of those rare occasions when both arguments point in the same direction.

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