LONDON – Was Monday night's 274-12 vote in the British parliament in favor of a motion calling upon the government a "historic moment," as some have sought to portray it? Like most questions of this kind, only history will give us the answer.
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In the hours leading up to the vote, it certainly didn't feel very historic. There was a larger-than-usual line of people waiting for admission to the Visitors' Gallery in the House of Commons, many of them wearing T-shirts with Palestinian flags and kaffiyehs, interspersed with young men with kippot. All were standing politely together, with no feeling of anticipation or tension between them. As the wait lengthened, it transpired that the debate would take place much later than expected, as there was more urgent government business to be discussed first: Britain's preparations for the spreading Ebola virus and the implications of last month's referendum on Scotland's independence.
Most of the excitement in the House was reserved for the appearance of the United Kingdom Independence Party's (UKIP) first elected member of parliament, Douglas Carswell. The former Conservative MP – who had defected, resigned and last week won a by-election by a landslide majority – made his entrance through the public gate, before his re-swearing-in and was mobbed by the press. No, he wouldn't be voting in the Palestine debate he said, "I am a passionate supporter of Israel." Not passionate enough though to show up and vote against, it seems.
Outside parliament, a small, sodden group of pro-Palestinian activists held a demonstration with a giant banner calling on MPs to vote in favor of the motion. A second banner said "Time to start giving back what we had no right to take." This seemed to be a historical reference to the 1917 Balfour Declaration promising the Jewish people a "national home" in Palestine. A few meters from the demonstrators stood the statue of David Lloyd-George, the pro-Zionist prime minister whose government had issued the Declaration. In some Palestinian circles, they still haven't forgiven Britain, and a few of the speakers in Monday's debate mentioned the Declaration as a justification for their "historical responsibility" in recognizing Palestine.
It's an interesting comparison. The Balfour Declaration may have boosted the morale of the Zionist movement, but it hardly put the Jews on the path to statehood, which would take three more decades, a Holocaust and a War of Independence to achieve. And Britain had hardly given the Jews anything – it actually abstained in the partition vote at the United Nations in 1947, and when its soldiers left Palestine six months later, they did nothing to help the Jews defend their newborn state from the invading Arab armies.
Similarly, Monday's vote was of no more than symbolic significance for the cause of Palestinian statehood and will change nothing on the ground in the region. Even Ian Lucas, Labour's Shadow Minister for Africa and the Middle East, who was the senior member speaking on behalf of his party to support the motion, said in a rather muddled speech that it was "a matter for any Government to recognize another state at any point of their choosing." So what was the point of the motion anyway?
Nothing has changed since Balfour: declarations and parliamentary motions are all very well, but at the end of the day, the British government does what it sees as being in its best interests.
Another interesting comparison to the Balfour Declaration is the role played by prominent British Jewish politicians. One of the moving forces behind the Declaration in 1917 was Zionist cabinet minister Herbert Samuel, who would later become the first commissioner of Mandatory Palestine. At the same time, another Jewish minister, Edwin Samuel Montagu, was a fierce opponent and played a role in watering down the original wording of the Declaration.
Similarly, some of the most passionate speeches in the debate were made by Jewish MPs, encompassing the entire spectrum of political opinion. All the way from Robert Halfon, who, opposing the motion, tried to revive the old "Jordan is Palestine" cause – which even the Likud gave up on 20 years ago – to Gerald Kaufman, who, in support of the motion, accused Israel of "harming the image of Judaism" and contributing to anti-Semitism. And though he did not speak in the debate, the motion would never have made it so far without the nod from another Jewish politician, Labour leader Ed Miliband, who ensured it received an overwhelming majority with nearly 90 percent of the ruling Conservative Party absent from the vote.
And here's one last interesting comparison from 1917. Lord Balfour wrote the Declaration in the form of a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild, to be conveyed to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain. That body, the oldest Zionist federation in the world, has evolved considerably in 97 years and is now a vocal lobbying group, widely seen as representing the right-wing of Israeli politics. Two weeks ago, the ZF launched a campaign calling on British Jews to write letters to their MPs, urging them to oppose the motion or to support an amendment that would have called instead for recognition of a Palestinian state only following a peace agreement. The more mainstream Jewish organizations, stung by accusations that they had not done enough to defend Israel during the recent Gaza conflict, joined the campaign.
Had they troubled themselves to consult first with the Israeli embassy, they would have been urged to keep a much lower profile, as the Foreign Ministry's assessment was that the motion was bound to pass and therefore the less publicity it received the better. As part of this policy, Israel's ambassador in London, Daniel Taub, refused this week to give any interviews. Jerusalem was much happier with the attitude of the Conservatives, whose whips quietly advised the party's MPs to stay away.
In any event, nothing would have changed the essence of the debate. Few foreign policy issues excite as much passion as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and over 50 members had something to say in a debate that lasted nearly five hours. While there were some glaring historical inaccuracies in what was said – such as a few MPs asserting that Britain had given Israel statehood and one Conservative MP, Andrew Bridgen, lowered the tone of the debate by talking of "the power of the Jewish lobby in America" – with very few exceptions, those supporting the motion, while criticizing Israel's settlement policy, were emphatic on its right to exist in security and were coruscating on Hamas. Rarely has such a long debate on the most contentious of conflicts been held in such a sincere manner.
The result and the massive majority, as many have of course pointed out, were misleading. Less than half of parliament voted. A quarter of the Labour Party which had supported the motion, abstained and nearly all the Conservative members stayed away. On the other hand, this was a massive, nearly unprecedented turnout for a private member's motion graded "backbenchers' business." And, despite the fact that it does not oblige the British government in any way or have any diplomatic impact, the fact that so many MPs felt compelled to participate and vote is where the true significance of the debate lies. The tone of many of the speeches of MPs who have long been supporters of Israel must serve as a red warning-sign for Israel.
The point was made best by Sir Richard Ottaway, a Conservative member (who abstained). In a speech that should be compulsory reading for Israeli ministers, Ottaway described himself as "a friend of Israel long before I became a Tory" and as having "stood by Israel through thick and thin, through the good years and the bad."
"Looking back over the past 20 years," Ottaway said, "that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world 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, mainly because it makes me look a fool, and that is something that I resent."
He said he did not support the motion as "I am not yet convinced that [Palestine] is fit to be a state," but neither would he be voting against because "such is my anger over Israel’s behavior in recent months that I will not oppose the motion. I have to say to the Government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people."