UK Should Drop the Double Standards and Say an Unequivocal Yes to UN Recognition of Palestine

28/11/2012 09:28 GMT | Updated 27/01/2013 10:12 GMT

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.