Reports in the press suggest the UK government is preparing to recognise Palestine as a state in its own right.
Foreign secretary William Hague is expected to tell MPs today that the coalition is in favour of Palestinians having non-member status at the United Nations.
But Israeli officials have said such a move would be unilateral, unwelcome and unhelpful. So, will an UN vote on Palestinian statehood undermine the peace process?? Or is it the only way to guarantee self-determination for the occupied Palestinians and a two-state solution to the conflict?
Below, Toby Greene, head of research for Bicom (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre), debates Richard Burden MP, chair of the Britain-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group.
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In all likelihood on Thursday afternoon the UN General Assembly will agree to the request of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to change the status of Palestine at the UN from observer entity to non-member state. Aside from the Palestinians having to print a new set of headed note paper, what will this achieve? Unfortunately, for ordinary Palestinians, the answer is very little.
The Gaza Strip will remain under the rule of Hamas, Abbas's radical, armed Islamist rivals. The Palestinian Authority which controls Palestinian population centres in the West Bank will gain no new rights or powers on the ground, something that can only be attained through agreement with Israel. Abbas knows this all too well, but he is persisting anyway. Why?
Lately he has suggested the move will help the prospects for negotiations, and that he will come back to talks once the resolution is passed. One can only hope that's true. But as foreign secretary William Hague has argued, the move seems more likely to undermine prospects for reviving the peace process.
Not negotiating with Israel has been Abbas's choice in recent years, whether due to his distrust for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government, or due his own unwillingness to make compromises, with Hamas looking over his shoulder. The move to the UN looks more like a continuing strategy to avoid negotiations and not a way to revive them. Abbas said as much in an article he wrote 18 months ago in the New York Times in which he made clear he would use Palestine's new status to try and confront Israel in international legal forums.
This strategy helps Abbas avoid the risks inherent in talks and will give him a much-needed domestic political win. But at the same time it will bolster those Israelis who argue that there is no Palestinian peace partner, and the domestic political gains will likely give way to more Palestinian frustration when the move fails to translate to real changes in the West Bank. Israel will not be forced to make concessions on the ground without its own legitimate concerns being addressed through negotiated trade-offs.
So is there an alternative to the Palestinian attempt to internationalise or legalise the conflict? There may be, and the key lies in the fact that behind the scenes, Israel and the PA have actually been cooperating in recent months to stave off a severe Palestinian financial crisis. Over the past six months Israel agreed to streamline the collection of tax revenues for the Palestinians, showed support for the development of Palestinian offshore gas, and even paid tax revenues in advance to help the Palestinians manage cash shortfalls. This cooperation is happening because most Israeli policy makers recognise the continuation of the bottom-up state building project led by Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad to be in Israel's interests. It has created a relatively calm situation in the West Bank, keeping Hamas at bay there and reducing security threats to Israel.
It is this quiet cooperation to sustain the PA that shows the way in which real progress might be made. What is needed is a de-escalation of tensions, and a period in which each side commits, publicly or privately, not to take steps which antagonise the other - whether that is expanding settlements on the Israeli side or unilateral moves in international organisations or legal bodies on the Palestinian side.
When a new Israeli government is formed early next year, there may be fresh political capital for Israel to take steps to help the Palestinians substantially develop the state building programme in the West Bank. It was widely reported in the first half of 2011 that Netanyahu was considering a package of incremental measures. Options range from giving the Palestinians wider opportunity for development in parts of the West Bank currently under full Israeli control (Area C) to the establishment of a Palestinian state in interim borders. However, Israel is unlikely to make any of these steps without Palestinian assurances that they will suspend, for a significant period of time, unilateral actions in international bodies or attempted legal actions.
The Palestinians have so far been scornful of all interim proposals, painting them as Israeli stalling tactics. This is negative and self-defeating. Any interim measures should be judged by their consistency with the end goal of making a viable Palestinian state a reality. Britain, along with EU partners and the US, can play a role by legitimising this kind of approach. Positive bottom-up progress which benefits both sides will create a more promising context for resuming final status talks. That is the route to a long overdue Palestinian state that exists on the ground, and not just on headed note-paper.
This week the United Nations General Assembly is expected to vote on upgrading the recognition of Palestine at the UN.
The UK government is saying it may vote in favour - but only if Palestinian president Abbas promises not to apply for membership of the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice. In other words, to forgo the rights other equivalent members would have. Put bluntly, it is about trying to make sure that Palestine doesn't try to ask either of these two institutions to rule on Israel's actions either in the West Bank or Gaza.
The bodies of those killed in Gaza and southern Israel over the last fortnight have barely been buried. Israeli ministers claimed they had no alternative but to strike Gaza because Hamas was firing rockets; that the Palestinians are not serious about resolving the differences between the two peoples by peaceful or lawful means.
But when president Abbas disavows the path of violence and asks the UN for no more - in fact, a bit less - than the lawful recognition Israel itself has had from the UN for over 60 years, prime minister Netanyahu threatens retaliation. The threats include tearing up existing agreements, withholding tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority and annexing settlements which have been constructed illegally in the West Bank. He does so whilst simultaneously complaining of the 'damage' being done by the Palestinians 'unilateral' move at the UN.
Going to the UN a unilateral move? Hands up anybody who can think of an institution more multilateral than the United Nations?
President Abbas, however, shows no sign of giving in to the threats and with the debate at the UN General Assembly now imminent, all the signs are that the motion to upgrade Palestine's status will be passed comfortably. In Europe support has grown with France and Spain both declaring in the last week that they will vote in favour. By continuing to back Israel in opposing the move, the US is getting itself dangerously out of step with both a changing Middle East and international opinion. Presumably, Messrs Cameron and Hague are hoping that trying to put conditions on a yes vote - like blocking access to the ICC - could get them and the US off the hook and keep Netanyahu sweet in the meantime.
It's wrong. Where else in the world would we try to suggest that a nation's membership of the UN should be dependent on their giving up access to recognised mechanisms for implementing international law? Even in that part of the world, how would Israel react to suggestions that its own recognition by the UN should suddenly become conditional on what may be convenient for the Palestinians? And what precisely are we asking the Palestinians to promise? Not to seek redress under international law for what Israel has already done - whether air-strikes on Gaza, land seizure in the West Bank or laws which discriminate against Palestinian children? Or are we asking for an open-ended promise: a permanent green light for Israel to do whatever it likes with impunity?
Proper recognition of Palestine by the UN General Assembly is not the same as peace in the Middle East, but it is a step on the road. Peace can only come from negotiations between the parties and international agreements. Many of those agreements are already there but it takes will to make them stick. British collusion in double standards does not, and cannot, help achieve that. There are first principles at stake here. If UN recognition is a matter of right for Israel, it cannot suddenly become a matter for horse-trading because the request comes from the Palestinians.
Labour and most UK opposition parties already support UN recognition of Palestine. The deputy prime minister has suggested that the Liberal Democrat wing of the UK's coalition government supports it too. 100 MPs from across seven different political parties have signed a parliamentary motion calling on the UK to vote yes at the UN General Assembly.
It's time for Britain's prime minister and foreign secretary to drop the double standards and confirm that they will do so.
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