On Monday 13 October, the House of Commons will vote on a motion calling for Britain to recognise Palestine. Famously, or rather infamously, the government abstained at the United Nations in 2012 on a vote to recognise Palestine as a non-member observer state even though 138 voted in favour with only nine against, including diplomatic giants such as Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.
The Labour party made much of their position that Britain should have voted 'yes.' The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, wrote to the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague that "the case made by the Palestinians for recognition is strong. This week, at the United Nations, the British Government should be willing to support the recognition of Palestinian statehood as part of continuing steps to achieve a comprehensive two state solution." In numerous speeches over the last three years, he has routinely argued to great acclamation from most Labour party supporters "statehood for the Palestinians is not a gift to be given but a right to be recognised."
Most Labour party supporters assumed not surprisingly therefore, that the Labour leadership backed recognition and that backing meant that any future Labour government would recognise.
Well this is not as clear-cut as it seems. In a blog on the LabourList website on 9 October, Douglas Alexander has outlined the party position. The Labour leadership will back the motion, which is very welcome even though the vote is not binding on the government.
Yet there is a but...! Half way through the blog, somewhat buried, Alexander argues that "The motion before the House on Monday does not commit Labour to immediate recognition of Palestine, or mandate the UK government to immediately bilaterally recognise the State of Palestine, but it does reaffirm Labour's support for the principle of recognising Palestinian statehood."
So Alexander now appears to be supporting only the 'principle' of recognition. It is not 'immediate' recognition but at some uncertain point in the future. There is no clarity as to what would trigger a Labour government to recognise or indeed what would prevent it. He elaborates, "The timing and the mechanism by which Palestinian recognition takes place will continue to be matter decided by an incoming Labour Government." This leaves it totally to the discretion of any Labour government, and some might argue, according to when it determines the political circumstances are appropriate.
Alexander then goes on to argue that "We have made clear previously that steps taken by individual governments outside of a wider international process won't contribute to meaningful progress in negotiations towards a two state solution." It seems a Labour government would not recognise Palestine on its own, only as part of a broader process of many countries recognising at the same time. In fact, he considers any single state recognising Palestine would be counterproductive, an implicit criticism of Sweden whose new Prime Minister has announced that it would recognise Palestine, albeit with no timescale announced. Israel was highly critical of this announcement and the Labour leadership was under huge pressure from the Israeli embassy not to back recognition.
It is significant that the Labour leadership backs the motion in Parliament on Monday. Hopefully many Conservative politicians will join them so that the motion is passed with the handsome majority that such a mild measure requires. If the British Parliament votes in favour it would be highly important symbolically, a strong expression of Parliamentary support for recognition from the Parliament of the state that issued the Balfour Declaration and the former Mandatory power. The government may find it hard to stand against the settled will of Parliament whilst still claiming to respect democratic values.
Recognising Palestine is a very, very small step. It will remain a state under occupation but Palestinians have waited for decades for recognition of their national rights, and it still seems that too many British politicians are prepared to make them wait even longer.