LONDON - The British parliament voted Monday in favor of a non-binding motion to recognize the state of Palestine, in a majority vote of 274-12.
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The vote, which followed a debate that lasted nearly five hours, has no practical significance since it does not oblige the British government to change its current policy of recognizing Palestine only after a peace deal is reached between Israel and the Palestinians. The vote passed thanks to the Labour Party's mobilization, as well as the Conservative Party's virtual absence from the vote.
Outside the Palace of Westminster over the course of the debate, a small group of Pro-Palestinian demonstrators held a banner saying "Time to start giving back what we had no right to take" – a reference to the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which the British government committed itself to establishing a "national home" for the Jewish people in Palestine. Inside, many of the speakers in the debate, in which over 50 members of parliament asked to participate, mentioned the Balfour Declaration as well, and with it what they saw as Britain's special responsibility to solving the Israel-Palestine conflict.
At the start of the debate, Speaker John Bercow announced that an amendment proposed by pro-Israel MPs that the recognition of Palestine would be postponed until after a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has been reached. Pro-Israeli organizations have vigorously lobbied MPs to support the amendment without success. Israel's ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, decided to lower profile and did not give interviews regarding the vote, in an attempt to ensure that no official acknowledgment by Israel would downplay the importance of the vote.
The debate was opened by Grahame Morris, the head of the Labour Friends of Palestine lobby group, who tabled the motion and said that "recognition of Palestine does not mean causing any harm to Israel. The opposite, it is for Israel's good as well."
Most MPs of the Conservative Party and the government's ministers abstained from participating in the debate, regarding it as an internal Labour party affair, while many of Labour's senior MPs were absent as well. Junior Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, Tobial Elwood, presented the government's position saying, "the United Kingdom will recognize a Palestinian state only when we judge it will help the purpose of peace."
Those Conservatives who did participate in the debate were split. One of the Conservatives who announced that he would be voting in favor of recognizing Palestine despite his party's position, was Nicholas Soame, the grandson of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hero, Winston Churchill.
A former foreign secretary of the Conservative Party, Malcolm Rifkind, one of the most veteran Jewish MPs, said that the "premature" recognition would mean "just 24 hours of public relations," but would have no effect on the ground in the Middle East.
Another long-serving Jewish MP and a fierce critic of Israel, Labour's Gerald Kaufman, said that it was not acting "in a Jewish way," that its actions are encouraging anti-Semitism and that British recognition of Palestine would be "a game-changer."
Labour's shadow Middle East minister, Ian Lucas, expressed his party's support for the motion, but also emptied it of practical significance by saying that "it was a matter for the government to decide when to recognize."
Many of the MPs spoke in favor of Israel, but also criticized the Likud government's policy. Richard Ottaway, spoke of how he "supported Israel before I was a Conservative" and made an impassioned Zionist speech at the end of which he said that "Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion" and that the recent decision to annex land in the West Bank "Makes me a look a fool as an Israel-supporter." He said he would not be voting against the motion though "I am not yet convinced it (Palestine) is fit to be a state" and added that "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."
Nearly all the speakers, including those who supported the motion, acknowledged Israel's right to exist in security. George Galloway, the MP who refuses even to share a platform with Israeli citizens was absent from the debate and said he would not be voting for the motion to recognize Palestine as it recognized Israel as well.