Pro-Israel positions likely to continue with new British landscape

First published by the Arab Weekly on 2/7/2017

British Prime Minister Theresa May

There are ques­tions with regards to what effects the snap elections have on British foreign policy towards Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, won 318 seats in parliament but that was eight seats short of the major­ity needed to allow her to form a government. She is looking for support from North Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which secured ten seats.

Although still in opposition with 262 seats, the Labour Party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, fared much better than expectations when the elections were announced in April.

An examination of the various parties’ policies on the Palestin­ian territories and Israel reveals that Labour, in its own words, is “committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution — a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine.”

It advocated “both an end to the (Gaza) blockade, (Israeli) occupation and settlements and an end to (Palestinian) rocket and terror attacks.” Significantly, Labour pledged to “immediately recognise the state of Palestine” if it formed the next government.

The Liberal Democrat’s policy on the issue was similar. How­ever, it supported recognition of the independent state of Pales­tine “as and when it will help the prospect of a two-state solution.”

The 2017 general election saw Britain’s first MP with Palestinian heritage, Layla Moran, secure a seat in parliament for the Liberal Democrats. Before the election, she spoke of how her Palestinian background made her interested in engaging in politics.

She pointed to the influence of her great-grandfather, who told her that Jerusalem was once a place “where you had Jews, Christians and Muslim communi­ties coming together, who were respectful of each other,” as quoted by the New Arab. “That’s the kind of vision I want for the world, where differences are respected and we are open and tolerant of each other’s views,” she said. “I continue to believe that a society like that is possi­ble.”

With only 12 MPs in the House of Commons, the Liberal Demo­crats will have limited influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Scottish National Party stated that it would “continue to work with international partners to progress a lasting peace settlement in the Middle East, pursuing a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine” but did not commit to recognition.

The Conservative manifesto made no mention of the conflict and neither did that of the DUP.

It will be the Conservative Party, with its longstanding policy of supporting a two-state solution to the conflict and its stance that the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal, that will rule.

However, the Conservatives’ long-standing support for Israel will only be strengthened by the agreement with the DUP. The Northern Irish party is also a supporter of Israel.

On hearing of a possible agreement, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews Jonathan Arkush said this would be “positive news” both for Britain’s Jewish community and Israel.

The DUP is staunchly pro-Israel. In the vote requesting the British government to recognise a Palestinian state in 2014, the party’s MPs opposed it.

As Britain digests the outcome of a truly extraordinary general election, one thing can be guaranteed. In the year Britain and Israel celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, despite repeated requests by the Palestinians that it should be apologising for its effects on them, Britain will continue to take pro-Israel positions.

That is, of course, unless another general election is called on account of government dysfunction and Labour wins a majority in parliament.

Mahmoud Abbas has led the Palestinians to a dead end. He must go 

First published by the Middle East Eye on 29/6/2017

The president has hit a new low, cutting the salaries and electricity of Palestinians in Gaza. The next intifada will be against the Palestinian National Authority and this should worry Israel and Abbas


Photo: A photo of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from 2016 (AFP)

The embattled 81-year-old Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been in power since 2005. His reign has not brought the Palestinian people any closer to freedom and independence, but where is he leading them to now?

Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in January 2005 following Yasser Arafat’s death under suspicious circumstances in November 2004. He is president of the state of Palestine, leader of Fatah and chairman of the PLO. He is committed to negotiations with Israel based on a two-state solution, and has been since he signed the 1993 Oslo Accords on the White House Lawn to great cheers. 

In short, he has played a hugely significant role in leading the Palestinians as a negotiator, a prime minster and a president and, while the blame for his administration’s failure can be shared among a number of key personnel, he set the overall direction of travel and must therefore carry the can for its disastrous consequences.

Under his watch, the Palestinians scored a small number of successes, including an upgrade of Palestine’s membership of the United Nations to a non-member observer state in 2012 allowing it to join several international organisations including UNESCO and the International Criminal Court. This was part of a strategy to internationalise the conflict.

Abbas may well argue that another of his successes has been the security coordination with Israel instigated under Oslo. It is one of the strongest cards Palestinians have to threaten Israel. Abbas has, however, called it “sacred”, arguing, “If we give up security coordination, there will be chaos here. There will be rifles and explosions and armed militants everywhere,”

Beyond this list, it is difficult to point to any other significant successes. On the contrary, Abbas’ setbacks and failures have put the Palestinian cause in the worst position it has been since Israel’s creation in 1948.

Peace process 

The Oslo Accords were meant to deliver a Palestinian state within five years. Twenty-four years and countless negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian side, mostly led for the Palestinians by Saeb Erekat, later, and there is no Palestinian state

And while 136 member states of the UN recognise Palestine, of the so-called international community, only Sweden has afforded this recognition to the Palestinians. Significantly, neither Israel, nor the US recognise Palestine as a state, arguing recognition should only come at the negotiation table.

The last significant attempt at peace talks, led by US secretary of state John Kerry, ended in complete failure in 2014 and was followed by Israel’s third war on Gaza in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed. As he was leaving office, Kerry laid much of the blame for failure of the talks at Israel’s door, singling out its settlement policy led by the “most right-wing” government in its history.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the Israeli electorate that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch in 2015. A significant number of his cabinet colleagues are against a state ever materialising and believe in the annexation of significant chunks of the West Bank to Israel.

Abbas remains committed to restarting negotiations with Israel and is now banking on the Trump administration to launch another initiative.

Settlements

In 1993, the number of settlers in the West Bank including East Jerusalem stood at 148,000. By the time Abbas had taken over as president, they had reached 440,000. Under his presidency, the number has risen to almost 600,000.

They live in 127 illegal settlements “recognised” by the interior ministry as “communities” and about 100 illegal “outposts”. In 2005, Israel vacated 16 settlements in Gaza under Ariel Sharon’s unilateral “disengagement” plan.

The ever rising number of settlers and settlements has for many analysts already ended the prospect of a viable Palestinian state emerging.

Relationship between PNA and Hamas

Ever since its creation in 1987 shortly after the start of the first intifada, Hamas has pursued a significantly different approach to the conflict than Abbas’s Fatah party based on the liberation of historic Palestine and the establishment of an Islamic state in the area.

Left with no hope of a just solution that brings them freedom, the Palestinian people will rise again

In 2006, it decided to combine its military strategy with participation in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections which it won handsomely. Abbas accepted the results and asked Ismael Haniyeh to form a government, which was then boycotted by the international community.

Following a bloody confrontation between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza in 2006, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza which continues to this day. The Egyptian border crossing at Rafah has effectively been closed since January 2015.

Despite many attempts at reconciliation between the two factions, the division between Hamas and Fatah remains deep. Hamas rules Gaza and Fatah rules the West Bank. The two million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip have paid a heavy price for this division.

Price paid by Palestinians in Gaza increases – again

Frustrated by a lack of progress in ending the division, but perhaps playing to the Israeli and American gallery under US President Trump, Abbas has recently undertaken several steps to pressure Hamas which may result in the formal separation of Gaza from the West Bank.

In recent weeks, he slashed the salaries paid to 60,000 civil servants in Gaza and informed Israel that the PNA would no longer pay for the electricity it supplies to Gaza which has reduced the supply to the strip to a couple of hours a day.

This hits not only ordinary Palestinians hard, it also hurts vital services such as hospitals and sewage treatment works. The PNA has also reportedly cut its funding to the medical sector depriving it of badly needed equipment and medicines.


Young Palestinians in Rafah burn Abbas’ portrait during a protest against the Israeli blockade of of Gaza in April 2017 (AFP)

However, reports that the PNA has been blocking the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza outside the strip have truly angered Palestinians everywhere.

Many that I have spoken to both inside Palestine and in the diaspora described this as “shameful”. “How can Abbas impose collective punishment on his own people while maintaining security cooperation with Israel?” one asked.

If Mahmoud Abbas thought his actions would hurt Hamas and bring it to heal, then he has once again miscalculated badly. Reports have emerged of talks between Hamas and Abbas’s arch-rival Mohammed Dahlan which could see the latter return as leader in Gaza.

And if Abbas thought his hard-line approach against Hamas would endear him to Trump and his senior advisers then his recent, frosty meeting with Jared Kushner surely confirms the opposite. The more he gives, the more Israel and its American backers led by a fanatically pro-Israel team will want.

This time his actions against Hamas may give the Americans something Israeli leaders crave: a final separation between Gaza and the West Bank. This would certainly fulfil Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet’s vision of a Palestinian state “only in Gaza” and the annexation of the West Bank, giving the Palestinians limited autonomy there.

Whatever strategy Abbas has followed is unravelling. He is leading the Palestinians to further fragmentation and separation.

It is time he admitted this and stood down. If not, then his own miscalculations could hasten the end of his rule. Even those around him that have benefited handsomely from his rule must now realise the game is up.

Left with no hope of a just solution that brings them freedom, the Palestinian people will rise again. This time it will be against their own expired leadership which has now denied babies and cancer sufferers in Gaza medical treatment for political purposes. The next intifada will be against the Muqata’a. This should worry Israel as much as Abbas.

Can the Palestinians sue Britain over Balfour?

First published by the Arab Weekly on 30/4/2017

The Balfour Declara­tion is a letter from Arthur Balfour, then the British foreign secretary, to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, dated November 2, 1917.

The critical part of this short letter said: “His Majesty’s government view[s] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use [its] best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

For Israel and many Jews around the world, the centennial anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is cause for celebra­tion. After all, the declaration paved the way for the establish­ment of a homeland for Jews in Palestine, which, 100 years on, Israel would claim has been achieved in what it calls “the Jewish state.”

Palestinians, both informally and at the official level, argued that — at the very least — Britain should use the document’s 100th anniversary to acknowledge the role it played in what the Pales­tinians describe as the nakba — “disaster.”

After all, peace has not been achieved; the Palestinians continue to exit either in exile, under occupation or as second-class citizens within Israel’s internationally recognised borders.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded an apology from Britain during his address at the UN General Assembly last September.

“We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, misery and injustice this declaration created and to act to rectify these disasters and remedy its conse­quences, including by the recognition of the state of Palestine,” Abbas said. “This is the least Great Britain can do.”

In the Palestinian diaspora, several ideas were considered, including mass demonstrations on or near November 2.

The London-based Palestinian Return Centre secured a petition on the British government’s petitions site calling on London to openly apologise to the Palestinian people for issuing the Balfour Declaration.

“The colonial policy of Britain between 1917-1948 led to mass displacement of the Palestinian nation,” the petition reads, adding that London should recognise its role during the mandate and “must lead attempts to reach a solution that ensures justice for the Palestin­ian people.”

The government’s response was that the Balfour Declaration is a historic statement for which London “does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the state of Israel.”

It further stated that “estab­lishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.”

The statement recognised that the declaration “should have called for the protection of political rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination. However, the important thing is to look forward and establish security and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians through a lasting peace.” It then reinstated Britain’s position on how peace can be achieved.

Britain plans to celebrate Balfour or “mark it with pride,” as British Prime Minister Theresa May announced. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will attend and a royal visit to Israel is planned.

In response, Palestinian envoy to Britain Manuel Hassassian said celebrating Balfour “rubs salt in the wounds of the Palestinian people.” He made no reference to the threat made at the Arab summit last July by Abbas to sue Britain in an international court for the Balfour Declaration.

The Times of Israel recently reported that the British govern­ment, which has been delaying the issue of a visa to the new Palestinian head of mission announced by Abbas, might be planning to “downgrade” the status of the diplomatic mission in London.

The prospect of the British government responding to the call from its own Parliament in 2014 to recognise the state of Palestine seems as distant as ever.

Abbas commits to more negotiations while violence escalates

The Middle East Monitor publiched my article on 15/1/2016

Abbas commits to more negotiations while violence escalates

  
Image from the Middle East Monitor
In his first speech of 2016, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas reviewed the situation facing the Palestinians and set out his approach for the forthcoming year. He started with the major achievement of 2015, the formal recognition of Palestine by the Vatican. He noted that the Pope had surprised the PA delegation by ordering the raising of the Palestinian flag during his last trip to Rome. He looked forward to further recognitions in the near future.

He did not refer to any other major achievements in 2015. However despite characterising the PA in the past as an “Authority without authority”, due to Israeli actions, this time he referred to its shear existence as a “major achievement for the Palestinian people”. He committed to not allowing it to collapse. He also committed to ending the “leaking” of Palestinian land to anyone else. He was referring to the ongoing campaign by Zionist individuals and organisations to purchase land from Palestinians through shady deals with owners. He was also possibly referring to the Greek Orthodox Church which had sold land to Israel.

As to the current situation, Abbas claimed that all Palestinian protests are peaceful but are met with brutal force. He elaborated that “a stone thrower is shot from a distance of 100 metres even if the stone only travels 10 metres, therefore not reaching the occupation’s soldiers”. This has resulted in the number of prisoners reaching 7,000, including many children some as young as ten. He warned: “It is dangerous for the young people to feel that the only option open to him is violence.”

Abbas claimed that he “will not allow the status quo to continue”. He wanted a halt to the “cancerous settlements” and reaffirmed that all settlements are illegal, including the so called large settlement blocks. He said “the settlers must leave as they did from Gaza”. He argued that that the Israelis continue to suffocate the Palestinians. “Leave us alone”, he said in desperation. His message to the Israelis was: “We are here and will not leave. We will not allow an Apartheid state. We want a fully sovereign Palestinian state.”

The PA President expressed his view that solving the conflict would end extremism and terror in the region, though he was not forthcoming with how he would change the status quo. “The Palestinians fulfil their obligations while the Israelis don’t,” he argued.

Despite all this, Abbas extended the hand of peace to the Israelis and committed the Palestinians to achieving this through “peaceful negotiations”. It is worth pausing for a moment to absorb this new term. Have the negotiations with Israel that have lasted over twenty years been anything but peaceful? Were the Israelis dragged to the negotiating table under threat of, or exercise of violence? Clearly this has not been the case; otherwise far fewer violations of international law would have been committed by Israel, including the growth of the “cancerous settlements”.

Negotiations with Israel over the past twenty two years have not only failed, they have been catastrophic. They have allowed Israel to expand settlements and to increase the number of settlers to over 600,000 in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. PLO Executive Secretary and the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat admitted this in interview withAljazeera in October 2015. He confirmed that he had given up on negotiations with Netanyahu, calling them “a waste of time”. He predicted that a decision about disbanding the PA would be made by the end of 2015. This contrasts Abbas’ promise in his recent speech not to allow the PA to collapse.

An attempt by Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to restart talks was flatly rejected by his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom, following meetings in Amman and Cairo in July and August last year. Erekat told an IPSI dialogue audience that he warned Shalom that there would be a “sea of blood” if the current impasse continued but his warning fell on deaf ears. In November 2015, US President Barack Obama concluded: “Right now, barring a major shift, the parties are not going to be in the position to negotiate a final status agreement.” With the US effectively declaring an end to its engagement, at least until the end of Obama’s reign and with most US Presidential candidates declaring that they side with Israel, the status quo, which everyone claims to be unsustainable, is set to continue for years.

In his recent speech, Abbas reminded the audience that the Arab Initiative was still on the table. That once Israel ended its occupation of Arab land and the two-state solution was implemented, 57 Arab and Muslim states would normalise relations with Israel but that “Israel refuses to consider it seriously, therefore, what do they want”?

He called for an international conference that widens the group involved in seeking a solution, particularly since the Middle East Quartet had failed. He suggested that this conference should then set up a committee to find a solution, similar to that which oversaw the Iran deal.

However, with the world’s attention currently consumed by the threat of Daesh and how it can be defeated, and President Obama seeing his second term out, prospects for an international conference are negligible. No one, apart from Abbas, talks about it.

Meanwhile, the current escalation of violence continues. The PA is helpless to stop it. It has also failed or chosen not to nurture the escalations in-order for them to become a strong, peaceful intifada that is costly to the occupier. The PA’s repeated threats to re-evaluate its relationships with Israel, including the Oslo Accords and in particular the infamous security cooperation have to this date remained threats, further eroding the credibility of the PA with the Palestinian people. The PA supports a boycott of settlement goods. However, it does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. This should be revisited as it is another peaceful and effective way of exerting pressure on Israel.

There are also no prospects of the US or bodies such as the UN, the Arab League or the Quartet intervening with an initiative unless Israel begins to feel the cost of the occupation. The Palestinians may feel that an investigation of Israeli crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2016 and joining more international bodies could pressure Israel. However, those steps are unlikely to be sufficiently costly on their own for Israel to change its ways.

when will the 2-state solution window actually close?

‘The window is closing fast on the 2-state solution’. That is a statement that most western leaders regurgitate on an almost daily basis to explain the urgency of restarting the ‘peace process’.  

But when will the 2-state solution window finally close and who will make that critical announcement? Who ever makes it, the question that follows then is what would the ‘peace process’ be about the day after the closure, when it is claimed the one-state solution’ is a not only undesirable but would spell the end of Israel as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’?

Those are important questions to ask as the EU is picking up the slippery ‘peace process’ baton  from the U.S. EU Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was recently in the region trying to kickstart the process. She has even suggested it could start with negotiations in the borders of the (illegal) settlement blocks.

  
EU Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini

How many settlers will it take to make their removal so problematic that no Israeli will agree to do it? There are now some 650,000 and the window is still open, so would it be a million before the window on 2-state solution it closes?

How many settlements and settlers in Jerusalem will it take for the possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the Capital of a future Palestine to end?

  
Will the completion of E1 in East Jerusalem lick Jerusalem out from Palestine?

Will annexation of vast swathes of the West Bank as demanded by Israeli ministers close the window on the 2-state solution?

Will the collapse of the Palestinian Authority or its resolution close the window in the 2-state solution?

  
Will the possible extension of Israrli sovereignty over Alaqsa mosque close the window on the 2-state solution?

Just when will this declaration come and has it already happened?

I have not heard anyone who recently visited the troubled area recently come back and say, based on what s/he saw and dxoerirnced that the window us still open.

The PA and western Government continue to say the only solution is a 2-state solution and since Israel continues to work diligently to scupper it, we need an authority of dome sort to define the conditions that would have to be met in order for the 2-state window to close.

When that happens, then either the status quo continues until a third intifada erupts or a fairer one-state solution than the current unequal one-state reality needs to be developed now to be implemented once the 2-state solution has gone. 

I am personally for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes, towns and villages from which they were expelled through terror in 1948. I do not care about the number of entities they return to.  

  

It is time for all the players to get real and to be honest. The 2-state solution is dead or if it isn’t then when? When it dies, what next?

What would Miliband or Cameron do if Britain was occupied?

  
Gaza devastation, 2014

In interviews with the Jewish Chronicle, Conservative  leader David Cameron and Labour Leader Ed Miliband tried to outdo each other in the depth of their friendship with Israel. They both understood Israel had a ‘duty’ to protect its citizens, and while Miliband questioned the proportionality of Israel’s response to last summer’s right cites from Gaza, Cameron had no criticism to offer.

In his Jewish Chronicle interview, Miliband defended his criticism of Israel during last summer’s Gaza conflict, saying he was right to describe the military action as “wrong and unjustifiable”. But that he was “committed to obtaining security for Israel and a viable and secure Palestinian state”.

  

In his interview with the JC on 30/4/2015 Cameron says “As PM, putting yourself in the shoes of the Israeli people, who want peace but have to put up with these indiscriminate attacks – that reinforces to me the importance of standing by Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself. 

  

He regards Israel’s actions as purely defensive as opposed to the offensive nature of Palestinian actions. He says “I feel very strongly that this equivalence that sometimes people try to draw when these attacks take place is so completely wrong and unfair. Because Israel is trying defend against indiscriminate attacks, while trying to stop the attackers – and there’s such a difference between that and the nature of the indiscriminate attacks that Israel receives. I feel that very clearly. I’ve seen it very clearly as Prime Minister and I think it’s important to speak out about it.

He “regrets the loss of life wherever it takes place, but thinks there’s an important difference” and then quotes  Prime Minister Netanyahu who said “Israel uses its weapons to defend its people and Hamas uses its people to defend its weapons.”

But both leaders spoke within a week of the British elections and chose their words carefully so as not to antagonise ‘the Jeeish Community’. But in avoiding any mention of Israel’s continuing violations of International Law and International Humanitarian Law, they were pandering to the pro Israel Lobby.

Both leaders are wary of losing funding from the pro Israel Lobby. Miliband has already felt this simply for criticising Israel albiet mildly over the Gaza war last summer. See here. Both leaders also made nauseating speeches at their party’s respective ‘Friends of Israel’ receptions.

What if Britain was illegally occupied? What would they do?

  

Miliband and Cameron see things very clearly from a British Jewish Comunity point of view but not from a British Palestinian point of view. If they did, they would side with the oppressed and occupied Palestinians.

I say to the potential Prime Ministers, imagine if Britain was occupied. Would you submit to the occupier? Would you say yes, take British land, change its demography, expell Britains, replace them with occupiers? Would you accept the occupier stealing British culture, football as a typical occupier sport, the British pint as a typical occupier drink, fish and chips as typical occupier food? 

Would Cameron or Miliband stand for British children being abducted in the middle of the night or for British women giving birth at checkpoints? Would they accept the arrest of British MPs?

Would they agree to ‘share the land’ with the occupier? Would they resist the occupier, using all possible means?

Would they not call for Boycott, Divestnentand  Sanctions against the occupier? 

I am confident that the answer to all of the questions above would be a resounding no. My confidence comes not from an idealistic stand but from recent history. It comes from a war fought thousands of miles away, when Britain sent a flotilla to endArgentina’s occupation of the Falkland Islands. It did not accept that any historic link between Argentina and the Malvinas justified its takeover by force.

The illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine is not a minor incident. For British Palestinians, it is a catastrophe, which started in 1948. Its continuation to this day is the reason for Pslestinan resistance and for rockets flying out of Gaza. The now infamous Sderot was built on the land of the Palestinuan village, Najd, which was depopulated in 1948. Its residents descendants were under Israeli bombardment, refugees in Gaza last summer.

It is true that the British Palestinian community in Britain is not as organised or as financially capable as the pro Israel Lobby. It is true that while Palestine has support from the British Public which gas not as yet been converted into Sufficuent pressure on Government to change policy. But the tide is turning. Prospective Parliamentary Candudates up and down the country have felt the pressure like no time before this on Palestine. Next time it will be even more intense.

Those MPs elected on the 7th of May and the future Government will feel the heat on this issue until a more moral and just policy on Palestine is adopted. After all Britain bares a moral responsibility to the Palestinian people. The hundredth anniversary of the Balfour  Declaration is likely to take place during the next Parliament. 

It is time the wrong was righted through immediate recognition of Palestine and sanctions on Israel with the first announcement of more illegal settlements, which will surely come.


Talk on Palestine / Israel by former UK Consul-General to Jerusalem

Transcript of talk by Sir Vincent Fean at SOAS on 20 January 2015

Israel/Palestine – does recognising both states make a difference?

My deep thanks for the opportunity to discuss the Israel/Palestine conflict, and what action we in the United Kingdom can take to advance the prospect of peace with justice and democracy in the Holy Land. As the title of my talk suggests, I believe in the two state solution which has been the basis of policy for the international community for over 25 years, which has yet to come into being, and which is in very severe danger of disappearing before our eyes. The best interest of both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, lies in peaceful coexistence between the state of Israel and the state of Palestine, on the basis of land for peace.

I believe that recognition now of both Palestine and Israel can make a positive difference to the prospect of attaining two states living side by side. I will outline a framework for genuine negotiations between Palestine and Israel under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, in accordance with international law. I will touch upon illegal settlement activity, Gaza and the role of the International Criminal Court, and the consequences that can follow grave breaches of international law, given the political will. I will cover the regional context, the vital roles of Jordan and Egypt, and the continuing relevance of the Arab Peace Initiative. I conclude with the varying approaches of our own political parties in the United Kingdom, and with a request for political action by you, if you agree with what follows.

The difference recognition makes

Before assessing what difference recognition makes to the two parties to this conflict, let’s consider what difference it makes to us – to the United Kingdom, and to the other international players. Starting with Israel, recognised as a state by the United Kingdom Government in 1950, and by the United States two years earlier. Today, Israel is recognised by the vast majority of the world community, de jure or de facto. With recognition comes parity of esteem between the recogniser and the recognised – and normally, mutual respect, acceptance, permanence. It is worth noting that in 1950, the British Government recognised Israel without agreeing its capital or its borders. For us, and for the rest of the international community, the status of the city of Jerusalem remains to be determined – which is why all foreign Embassies to Israel are in Tel Aviv, not in West Jerusalem. That situation will not change until there is a comprehensive final status agreement negotiated by Israel and Palestine, and endorsed by the world community. That remains the goal.

Back to us. Recognition of Israel has meant that we accord rights and responsibilities to that state, we maintain diplomatic relations with it, and it is permanent. Palestine has the right to the same treatment, the same rights and responsibilities, the same permanence. Recognition of Palestine will make our approach to these two states more even handed, more equitable. This is hardly a new concept. The Berlin European Council of 1999 “reaffirms the continuing and unqualified Palestinian right to self-determination including the option of a state, and looks forward to the early fulfilment of this right… which is not subject to any veto”.
There is a moral as well as a political aspect to this issue, which is why Muslim, Christian and other faith communities in the United Kingdom have taken a clear public stand. The Church of Scotland and the Quakers are prime movers. On the occasion of the Commons debate on recognising Palestine on 13 October last, Anglicans and the Catholics in the UK signalled their support for recognition of Palestine, in a joint statement by Catholic Bishop Declan Lang and Anglican Bishop Christopher Cocksworth. These clear signals matter, and their positive impact elsewhere in Europe and America will only grow. We need to change a situation where, politically, we are willing to give much needed help with building state institutions such as the Palestinian judiciary, plus development assistance to the West Bank, and desperately needed humanitarian assistance to Gaza through UNRWA, but are not yet willing to endorse the legal, non violent aspirations to statehood of the Palestinians. Instead, we spend time and effort telling them what not to do – in my time, not to go to the United Nations, not to join the International Criminal Court, etc.

The formal position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that Palestinian statehood is a matter of timing and judgment, not disputed in principle. On 9 November 2011 William Hague, then Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons
“The United Kingdom judges that the Palestinian Authority largely fulfils the criteria for UN membership, including statehood…. We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help to bring about peace”.
More than 3 years on, we are still waiting. It is time to choose.

Sweden has set an example to follow. Last October the Swedish Government recognised Palestine, for the following reasons –
to make the parties to the conflict less unequal
to support the voices of moderation in Palestine
to sustain hope in both countries at a time of increasing tensions, when no peace talks are taking place.
Sweden’s declared aim is to see Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security, with recognition creating more hope and belief in the future among young Palestinians and Israelis.

Over 130 of the 193 states belonging to the UN have recognised the state of Palestine. Their votes enabled Palestine to gain the status of statehood at the United Nations in 2012 via the UN General Assembly, and paved the way for Palestine to assert itself in the field of international law by signing the 4th Geneva Convention and, from this coming April, joining the International Criminal Court. There are two major European powers who have yet to recognise Palestine. Recognition by either of these two will persuade many more European states to follow suit. The two are the United Kingdom and France, who matter as foreign policy players in the European Union, and as Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. The impact of recognition by either will be increased if they recognise together. In addition to bringing with them like minded states – Italy, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, the Nordic states and others – they change the dynamic in the decisive area of the UN Security Council, where this issue truly belongs. With recognition, 4 of the 5 Permanent Members will take the same view of Palestinian self determination, since China and Russia recognised Palestine long ago. Arguably France is further down the road to recognition than the UK. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says that if there are no negotiations, or failed negotiations, France will “assume her responsibilities”, ie recognise Palestine.

What difference does recognition make to Palestinians? Quite a lot. It confirms the permanence, the inevitability, of their state. It confirms the wisdom of the PLO’s 1988 declaration of Statehood, in parallel with recognition of Israel, repeated in 1993 at Oslo. It strengthens the non violent PLO’s hand in the negotiations with Israel which must happen, for recognition of itself will not end the Occupation. It levels the ground somewhat for negotiations, but does not do the job of negotiations.

What of Israel? Israel is more than Mr Netanyahu’s fractious caretaker government, now in full election campaign mode against itself. I speak here with caution, since my work experience of 3 years in the Holy Land was focused on Palestinians. So what follows is more aspirational: I hope most Israelis will see recognition of Palestine for what it is: recognition that Palestinians and Israelis have equal rights, and equal need of security for their families, across a shared border, with an agreed end to the Occupation. An acknowledgment that illegal settlement construction, the closure of Gaza, house demolitions, the Wall etc have taken Israel away from Europe, and away from international law – a trend which needs to be reversed. The 17 March Israeli elections matter greatly.

A framework for genuine negotiations

For us, recognition of Palestine is necessary, but not sufficient. It is necessary, now, for our self-respect and the confidence to assert our values as well as for its positive impact on the negotiations which must follow. Israel will not be forced out of Palestine. A majority of Israelis need to see a better, safer life for their children when Palestine’s children achieve freedom with responsibilities in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. The right peace-loving people on both sides of the border need to win.

Just like recognition, the United States is necessary, but not sufficient. President Obama and Secretary Kerry are working for a peaceful solution, which will entail Palestinian sovereignty in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the full phased withdrawal of the Israeli Defence Forces from the territories occupied in 1967. Almost two years ago, John Kerry launched an exhausting personal marathon negotiating process, but the finishing line was not clear from the start. Mr Netanyahu sought to move the goalposts (sorry for the mixed sporting metaphor), and succeeded to the extent that we now speak less of the 2003 Roadmap and Palestinian statehood than we should – and less of the Arab Peace Initiative than it deserves. That is remediable – through a consensus UN Security Council Resolution, launched or endorsed by the U.S., setting out what is currently the European Union’s vision of a just peace:
a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable, secure and sovereign Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps of equivalent size and value, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and a just, fair and agreed resolution of the plight of refugees.

The outcome for Palestine should be a democratic, demilitarised state spanning Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem where the Palestinian people control their own destiny, fulfil their potential and take their rightful place in the family of nations. That means economic development, rebuilding Gaza, strong Palestinian institutions throughout their country and, yes, strong security and economic cooperation with Israel, on an equitable basis. It does not mean an ongoing Israeli Defence Force presence, which only prolongs the Occupation. It means the full, phased withdrawal of the IDF from Palestinian soil, as President Obama made clear in a speech in May 2011. With Palestinian rights come responsibilities – rigorous implementation of the rule of law throughout the state, non-violence, zero tolerance of incitement to violence, and fair, free elections, with an advance commitment from the world community this time to respect the verdict of the Palestinian people. Today, all Palestinian elected politicians are time-expired. Palestinian politics is broken; it is for Palestinians to make it good again. We should encourage them by every available means.

Of Israel, the world should ask for acceptance of the inevitability, the necessity of the two state solution on a basis of equity, respecting international law. The best guarantee of Israeli wellbeing and international repute is the wellbeing of their Palestinian neighbour, free to work the land which is theirs, doing unto others as they would be done by. The vicious circle of deterrence, retaliation, violence and repression has to be broken, by mutual agreement. The alternatives are worse for all of us, including for Israel. The status quo, which I have just described, means chronic violence across borders and the inexorable decline in Israel’s international standing. The one state outcome, towards which we are drifting fast, internalises the inevitable violence inside that one state, with no way out.

It does not have to be like that. The rockets from Gaza can cease for good. Recognition of Israel by over 50 Arab and Muslim states can open new horizons for trade, investment, tourism and communication. The European Union offer of an “unprecedentedly deep partnership with both Palestine and Israel” is real. Security is needed by both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian. Israel reserves the right to defend itself, by itself – but can first test US/NATO/EU security guarantees, backed by the state of Palestine and by peace treaty partners Egypt and Jordan – and will not find them wanting. The European Union can and will play a bigger role – High Representative Federica Mogherini rightly has high ambitions to see a Palestinian state during her term of office. With political will, it can be done.

The Israel/Palestine conflict harms the region, and it harms us here. There is an argument – with which I agree – that to solve this issue you have to make it bigger: to make the end result more attractive to Israel and to make it last, you need to engage the regional powers – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey… This brings us back to the central importance of the Arab (and Muslim) Peace Initiative, endorsed by over 50 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, including all the Arab states.

Settlements and the rule of law

Such changes will take time, and political courage on all sides. There is urgency. A major, rapidly growing challenge to a just peace is the illegal settler enterprise in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, now 600,000-700,000 strong – among them a powerful minority of ideologically driven individuals and groups who want to force the Arabs to leave the land owned by the Arabs. Successive Israeli governments have encouraged settler ambitions. This must stop. The incoming Israeli administration must be asked to stop the settlement at Givat Hamatos, dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and to remove settlements. Outposts must go, as foreseen in the Roadmap. Failure to do so must bring consequences, starting from Europe – though the US knows the illegality of settlements better than most. The EU logic of distinguishing rigorously between Green Line Israel and the illegal settler enterprise needs to be reinforced and extended. It is not just the settlements themselves which are illegal, pending a successful comprehensive negotiated agreement – the settlers themselves are present illegally, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and anything they produce on Palestinian soil belongs not to them but to Palestine. What is made in Palestine – be it the stones hewn in Palestinian quarries near Bethlehem, or the dates grown in the Jordan Valley – is Palestinian, and should be taxed, branded and marketed as such. I accept that we are a long way from that today. We need to work towards it.

The International Criminal Court

While I strongly favour genuine negotiation between honest partners over litigation, which is usually only good for lawyers, I have to say that the illegal settler enterprise is a clear source of concern for the International Criminal Court – setting aside the debate about the latest Gaza fighting. Israel has signed the 4th Geneva Convention, which bans the Occupying Power from transferring any of its population on to Occupied land. That is precisely what the Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are. The drafters of the statutes of the ICC incorporated Article 49.6 of the 4th Geneva Convention into the ICC remit, adding the words “directly or indirectly” for good measure. There need to be agreed consequences for the buildings, for the settlers, for their products and for their political sponsors. To give one example: already we advise European companies not to engage with settlements, to avoid criminal association. The same applies to European companies having dealings with Israeli entities which, in turn, sustain illegal settlements – illegality at one remove, but still bound to tarnish the good repute of any EU firm engaging indirectly with illegal settlements in this way and serving to perpetuate illegality..

The UK role, actual and potential

Today, the United Kingdom can take a lead in the three areas I have described – recognition of Palestine, re setting the goals for a genuine negotiation under UN auspices, and serious consequences for the illegal settler enterprise. All three require a good dose of political will.

We British have a say in the ending of this conflict, just as we had a say in its beginning. It may not have begun with the 1917 Balfour Declaration, but that promise was decisive – and I pay tribute here to the Balfour Project, working hard between now and November 2017 to explain the relevance of the past to the present, to illuminate dark corners, and to educate our young about the unfinished business initiated by our Government back then. Unfinished business in that there is now in Israel “a national home for the Jewish people”, but there is still the second part of the Balfour Declaration to consider: “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Unfinished business indeed. The business can and must be completed – by statehood for Palestine alongside Israel.

What are we British doing? We are doing quite a lot of waiting – and we are doing some good. Let’s focus on the good. The British Government spends a quantity of British taxpayers’ money through the Department for International Development to keep the West Bank functioning – teachers, doctors, nurses, police – and through the UN Relief Works Agency to address the humanitarian tragedy of Gaza, where homeless children have died of cold this winter. We should spend more – the need is great, particularly in Gaza, and particularly in the medical field. The British Council, a great force for good in the field of education, including university ties between the UK and Palestine, does much – but can do more, and more effectively, with more resources. I am very glad that students of Arabic from this university are perfecting their language skills at the University of Al-Najah in Nablus, Palestine. I hope that this link, those ties, will prosper.

Israel is currently compounding the crisis both in the West Bank and Gaza by holding on to Palestinian tax receipts to punish the PLO for joining the ICC. This is illegal, collective punishment, pure and simple. It is criminal, like the 7 year closure of Gaza by Israel. Egypt should reopen the Rafah Crossing permanently for legitimate, innocent travel. The British Government seeks to restore the Palestinians’ own money to the Palestinian Authority, presses diligently for lifting the blockade of Gaza, and protests immediately against new West Bank settlements. I know that the effort put into this by my former colleagues is immense. The effort far exceeds the results. The same applies to our partners in the European Union. This has to change.

As for waiting – we await the results of the 17 March Israeli elections, and politicians are careful not to disturb the Israeli internal debate. But we have an interest in the wise Israeli electorate choosing leaders who will not build illegal settlements and who will negotiate in a fair way with the Palestinians, acting in Israel’s own best long-term interests. That is self evident, but I see every reason to make what should be clear, even clearer. After 17 March, we will await Secretary Kerry’s return to the region. But there are things we can do that Mr Kerry cannot do – UK action, or UK-led EU action, in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians. Not to cut across the USA, but to do what needs doing, not least when the USA cannot act for domestic political reasons. We should do the right thing, consistent with the international law which we helped to create and which we are proud to say we uphold. We should do what we say.

Finally, the political action you might take. We are in an election year in the UK, and politicians seek your vote in an election which is now very hard to call. On Israel/Palestine, and specifically on recognition of Palestine, the two main political parties have differing views, though individuals in each may buck the Party whip. Labour broadly voted for recognition on 13 October, as a contribution to a negotiated peace – the only way that peace will come. Many Conservatives absented themselves from the vote, as the Party allowed them to do, albeit with several honourable exceptions. The Tory Party is a broad church, as they say, and is not monolithic on this subject – but the current leadership is. The Lib Dems, SNP and Greens voted for recognition. So, my request of you – if you conclude that UK recognition of Palestine will do good, as I believe, then please ask your candidates for MP what they will do if elected – and please make it very clear that their answer will guide your voting decision.

There is more to say – about the tragedy of Gaza, about the nihilism of violence, about the need for statesmanship by the politicians of the region, and by our own leaders. But to conclude: this conflict has lasted too long. It harms the people of the Holy Land. It harms us, and challenges our values. It can be resolved. For me, the key lies in parity of esteem, mutual respect, respect for the dignity and the narrative of the other. That means equity and reason in all manner of ways. We can start by according to Palestine the very same recognition we have accorded to Israel.

Vincent Fean
UK Consul-General, Jerusalem, 2010-2014 (retired)