Was Monday’s Westminster vote on Palestine another milestone in the increasingly precipitous demise of Israel’s political popularity in Europe? The House of Commons vote urging the British government to recognize the state of Palestine is the latest in a series of major political statements from Britain, including scattered decisions by unions to boycott Israel and the huge demonstration in London in August against the Gaza war.
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Jerusalem would like to dismiss the vote as an insignificant nuisance.
Israeli officials will say, correctly, that it is a non-binding backbench motion and that British government policy remains unchanged. Israeli officials will also note, correctly, that the mounting wave of U.K. opposition to Israeli policies has had no discernible impact on British-Israeli relations.
Despite the boycott calls, the street protests and the demonstrations against Israeli businesses, British-Israel trade has soared to record levels.
Trade has doubled since 2009. In 2013, total bilateral trade hit $5.46 billion, up 5.7% on 2012, the previous record. In the first half of this year, trade rocketed by 28% compared to last year. Exports from Israel to Britain rose by more than 38%. Britain is Israel’s largest export market after America.
The government of David Cameron has also stood its ground diplomatically. Even as defeat loomed during Monday’s debate, Minister for the Middle East Tobias Ellwood said the U.K. government would not be bounced into recognition.
“The U.K. will bilaterally recognize a Palestinian state when we judge that it can best help bring about peace,” Ellwood told the Commons.
Monday’s vote may well have been an expression of feeling rather than policy, but can the Israeli government afford to ignore the signals coming from Westminster? Ellwood’s impassioned denunciation of Israeli settlement activity hinted at how Prime Minister Cameron must feel, after backing Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza and losing a cabinet minister in the process, to be confronted by news of Israeli moves in Gush Etzion, Givat Hamatos and Silwan – which Ban Ki-Moon told Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday are “illegal.”
The motion proposed by Labour MP Grahame Morris won the full backing of his party’s shadow cabinet – who may well be running the British government by this time next year. Labour also imposed a three-line whip for its members to support the motion – a move which almost guaranteed its victory.
“Statehood will be decided by Labour when it comes to power if it has not been decided by this government,” Shadow Minister for Africa and the Middle East Ian Lucas promised.
Matthew Gould, Britain’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, confirmed after the result that British policy on recognition remains unchanged, but warns that the issues raised by the Commons motion should not be dismissed out of hand.
“Separate from the narrow question of recognition, I am concerned in the long run about the shift in public opinion in the U.K. and beyond towards Israel,” says Gould. “Israel lost support after this summer’s conflict, and after the series of announcements on settlements. This Parliamentary vote is a sign of the way the wind is blowing, and will continue to blow without any progress towards peace.”
Last week, Gould told Oded Ben-Ami on Israel Channel 2 that without movement on the peace process, even Israel’s friends were losing heart.
“As British Ambassador to Israel, as the person tasked with building the best possible partnership between Britain and Israel, I do have a worry for the long term about the direction of public opinion in Britain and beyond Britain in the absence of progress towards peace,” said Gould.
“It’s been a very difficult summer. The impact of the Gaza conflict on British public opinion has been very difficult for Israel. Since the conflict has finished there has been a series of very difficult announcements to do with settlements. These all have an impact and long-term, I have to say as the guardian of the relationship, as someone who really cares about the relationship between the countries, I am concerned.”
The corrosive effect of Israeli government policy on foreign public opinion can be seen even in the United States, where polls show that while support for Israel remains high overall, significant gaps are appearing along gender, age and party lines. A survey this summer showed major differences in attitudes to Israel between Democrats and Republicans.
“It used to be understood that political support for Israel was bipartisan and goes across political party lines,” says pollster Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin. “The recent survey indicates that people are now looking at the issue through the prism of their political ideology.”
But Marcus Sheff, former executive director of The Israel Project in Jerusalem, says the vote was more about domestic British politics than the Middle East.
“The Labour Party in the U.K. is not where it would like to be,” says Sheff. “They had a bad party conference. Their leader Ed Miliband has taken them only two or three points ahead of the Conservative Party and they expect to be doing a lot better than that. The new U.K. Independence Party is doing spectacularly well and have made it clear that they are parking their tanks on Labour’s lawn. If Labour MPs have a fair Muslim population in their constituencies, this seems to them to be a good way of picking up support.”