British MPs and the Palestine Vote: Political Wrangling With No Diplomatic Impact

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Thousands of protesters march through Whitehall in central London, to call for an end to Israeli military action in Gaza and 'justice and freedom' for Palestine, July 19, 2014.Credit: AP

The British parliament is expected Monday to vote for a motion recognizing an independent Palestinian state. The move is only symbolic; it does not oblige the British government in any way.

Still, it is causing turmoil in the main opposition party, Labour, where a group of senior members, including front-bench shadow ministers, are claiming that the motion contradicts long-standing British foreign policy, including that of Labour governments. They say it is largely motivated by local political considerations.

Two years ago, Britain abstained from a UN vote recognizing Palestine as a nonmember observer state; the official position remains that such recognition should be the fruit of a peace agreement with Israel. 

The motion was submitted by a group of pro-Palestinian MPs, led by the head of Labour Friends of Palestine, Grahame Morris, who earlier this year had to apologize for comparing Israel to the Nazis. It was approved by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander. Labour chief Ed Miliband is backing Alexander, but senior party members who support Israel have complained that they were not consulted and have asked to be allowed to stay away from the vote.

Miliband has been under increasing fire in recent weeks as the party stagnates in the polls and because few Britons, even Labour supporters, see him as a suitable prime minister. He has been struggling to stave off a split in the party over the Palestine issue.

In an unprecedented move, Miliband has crafted a strategy under which shadow cabinet members would stay away from the vote rather than defy the party line, a step that could force them to resign. Many Labor MPs are indeed expected to keep their distance.

The whips of the parties in the governing coalition — the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats — do not expect their members to attend the vote, and the chief Conservative whip, Michael Gove, one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in British politics, has advised his party’s MPs to stay away and minimize the symbolic effect of the motion’s passing.

Despite Gove’s efforts, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s low profile on the issue and the low attendance expected, the vote is still drawing a great deal of attention. This is partly due to lobbying by Labour Friends of Israel, which is trying to amend the motion to say that recognition of Palestine should only come after “the conclusion of successful peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.”

The motion’s supporters who say the amendment empties their resolution of meaning countered with an amendment of their own: Recognition would be “a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution.”

Meanwhile, British and European Jewish organizations have further complicated things by launching their own initiatives, calling on MPs to either oppose the motion or support the amendment. This lobbying was not coordinated with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which preferred to play down the vote rather than fight it. 

A passed motion would have very little impact on Britain’s foreign policy, if at all, but it would have a whole lot to do with local politics. At Britain’s general election in seven months, the political future of dozens of Labour MPs who hold slim margins in their constituencies could be in the hands of Muslim voters. They fear that not voting to recognize Palestine could keep these voters at home or shift them to other parties.

Muslim voters, however, do not have similar weight in constituencies that are crucial to the Conservatives, and Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed with his election strategist, Lynton Crosby, that if the party courts the Muslim vote, it stands to lose many traditional right-wing voters who are already leaning toward the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, UKIP. 

During the Gaza conflict this summer, Cameron withstood pressure from his Liberal-Democrat coalition partners who called on him to condemn Israel’s actions. He was eventually forced to accept a statement by the Liberal-Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable that during an escalation in Gaza, the government would consider suspending export licenses for British arms to Israel.

That statement, too, had little meaning (and Israel purchases very few arms from Britain anyway), but it was another sign of how the Israel-Palestine conflict is a sensitive issue in local British politics. On Monday, when parliament votes in favor of recognizing Palestine, we’ll witness another political statement with local significance but no real diplomatic impact. 

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