David Miliband has railed against the government's policy on the Middle East, telling the Huffington Post they have "no position" on Palestinian statehood and warning he is not at all optimistic about the peace process.
Miliband, who retired from frontline politics after losing the Labour leadership to his younger brother in September 2010, rarely comments publicly on international or domestic issues but told Huff Post UK "I really care about this".
Speaking after a OneVoice event with former US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell held at Chatham House where he admitted the Brown government had made mistakes during the peace process, the former foreign secretary said the UK was wrong to abstain from the Palestinians' bid for statehood at the UN.
"A generous interpretation of the government's policy is that they haven't got one, in that they kept very 'mum' about the position. I think they technically haven't had an abstention position, I think they've no position."
Labour's position on statehood was outlined by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in a recent letter to William Hague. Alexander urged the foreign secretary to "be willing to support the recognition of Palestinian statehood as part of continuing steps to achieve a comprehensive two state solution". Does David Miliband support that?
"I am a loyal Labour backbencher. Whatever Douglas said in his letter I strongly support."
There's a reason for his lack of optimism. The elder Miliband brother warned as Israel gets richer - despite the recent protests against rising prices and the cost of housing, which he believes were about the "squeezed middle" - there is less impetus to solve the peace crisis.
"It's a country which feels more secure and feels more prosperous and there's less of an imperative about the Palestinian issue as a result. Now the long- term threats from an absence of a solution I think are very powerful.
"You don't want to be an isolated part of a dangerous region. They're [Israel] obviously isolated in the region because of the reality in the last 60 years. Now, part of the argument is about why that's happened. But it's also about ‘how do you get out of it’? As it happens, I believe Israel's best security and other interests are served by a two state solution, not by its absence."
And with Israel’s prosperity there is also the issue of Gaza falling off the international agenda. Miliband admits that it’s no longer seen as "hot news": "I think that in some ways thanks to the UN debate, the issue of a two state solution, whether it's not viable, who's blocking it has held its place on the agenda. I think what has got off the agenda is Gaza, which nobody talks about unless there's people being killed, which is a very dangerous state of affairs.
"I mean within Western but I think also Arab media, Gaza is just not seen as hot news anymore. And the only time it sees to pop up is when there are skirmishes and killings."
The former foreign secretary is not a comfortable interviewee, staring at the floor and fiddling with his wedding ring while speaking. But he is clear about the possibilities for the peace process, and about the impossibility of negotiating with Hamas at the moment.
"Everybody wants a viable Palestinian state. Everybody recognises there's one negotiator for the Palestinian people: that's the elected Palestinian president. Everybody also recognises there's a reality that Hamas exists and you can't wish them out of existence. But what George [Mitchell] says is importantly there's an entry to talks. And what I was saying is that the Arab peace initiative should be the entry to talks."
There are also regrets. During the debate with Mitchell, who resigned as US Middle East peace envoy in May, Miliband admitted Gordon Brown's government had missed an opportunity to act on "very serious discussions" between Israel and Palestine before the election of President "We didn’t do enough, I don’t think, before January 2009, to consolidate, publish, institutionalise those discussions."
He urges the international community not to "underestimate its position", adding that the peace process should not be left to the US: “I would be very supportive about trying to think hard about how do you internationalise the effort...
"And I don’t think that’s an anti-American position. I think it’s a recognition of America’s role in the world and the pressures upon it. Now, that’s especially the case given that history isn’t going to stop for the next 14 months while America decides who its next president is going to be."
But the overall impression was decidedly less positive: Mitchell said he was “less optimistic" about a resolution between Israel and Palestine.
"I said to President Abbas and I said to chairman Arafat ‘there’s not a single shred of evidence that you can cite to me to suggest that the longer you wait, the offers are going to get better.
"The 1948 partition plan is not now on the table, and never again will be. In my judgement what they’ve got to do is to sit down and negotiate.
"The longer this goes on, the less optimistic one must be because the opportunities for both are going to decline. Israel faces very, very serious challenges. There is a sense of calm and opportunity now. But if history’s any guide, it will not last."
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