On the 13 October 2014, Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of recognising Palestine as an independent state, with 274 MPs voting in favour and 12 against.
This was not a whipped vote and was the largest turnout for a non-whipped backbench vote in the history of Parliament. The vote was of course non-biding on the UK government but it was highly symbolic. It sent a massive signal not simply to Israel, but to the rest of Europe and the US, that the UK under Labour was ready to recognise the independent state of Palestine, thereby joining 134 other countries across the world. The UK vote was soon followed by similar votes in Ireland, France, Luxemburg and the European Parliament all of which voted in favour of recognition.
The vote at the time was controversial but it was the right thing to do. It was typical of Ed Miliband to stand up for what he believed, Ed was and is a man of strong convictions and was happy to make tough decisions when they needed to be made. As Douglas Alexander said at the time, the recognition of Palestine consistent with Labour’s policy towards the Middle East.
There are many reasons why Labour lost the election. In time and after considered and informed analysis, debate and discussion answers will be found but we must be cautious about kneejerk conclusions. It therefore came as a surprise to read Luke Akehurst’s article that one reason why we had lost was because Ed had ‘comprehensively alienated many Jewish voters’ with his decision to support the recognition of Palestine.
Luke is of course the full time director of We Believe in Israel, the grass roots campaign group of the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM) and so it would fit into his agenda to partially blame the election defeat on Ed’s support of Palestinian recognition. But it is concerning that there have been other commentators keen to jump on this bandwagon.
It is therefore important to tackle the complete fallacy of a ‘Jewish vote’. In a wide ranging paper titled a ‘Guide to the 2015 General Election in the UK – Where Jewish Votes May Matter Most’ published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research there was an analysis of constituencies where there was a sizable Jewish community. The paper concluded that:
‘As a group, Jews have little influence over the final results. Not only do they represent less than half a percent of the total population of the country, they also do not vote in any way as a bloc.’
Simply put, there is no ‘Jewish vote’, all Jews don’t think the same. Like Muslims, Catholics and Sikhs they are individuals, who have different priorities and different needs. It is not only lazy and naive to suggest any different, it is patronising. Furthermore, Luke is wrong to suggest that Labour’s policy was not welcome by all members of the Jewish community. There were many who are appalled by Israel’s policies towards Palestinians and welcome the recognition of Palestine.
It is of no surprise therefore, that at a well attended hustings, just before the election, at Brondesbury Park Synagogue in the constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn (the sixth largest Jewish population by constituency in the country) there was not one question from the floor about Israel or Palestine. There were plenty about housing, crime the economy but nothing about the recognition of Palestine. It simply was not an election issue. Tulip Sadiq went on to win the seat increasing the Labour majority from 42 to 1,138. A target seat for the Tories, where they had spent a lot of money and put in a lot of resources.
But why recognition and importantly why now? It has been the complete failure of the peace process and the need to ensure that a two state solution is kept alive that has driven countries and Parliaments across the world to recognise Palestine. After 48 years of Israeli occupation Palestine barely resembles how it looked like in 1967. The settlements, condemned by the international community, have continued to grow. There are now 600,000 Israelis living on land that belongs to Palestinians.
Under Benjamin Netanyahu settlements have continued to grow, not because he has submitted to political pressure in a weak and unstable coalition but because he ideologically believes that Palestine should never exist. On the eve of his election he went on national television saying that there will be no state of Palestine on his watch. This was not new, he has repeatedly made it clear that he will never countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
It is a simple fact that Netanyahu will never on his own agree to a two state solution. It follows that if the international community want peace they must increase the pressure. Already, President Obama has indicated that Netanyahu’s position is making it very difficult for the United States to continue defending Israel’s position at the UN.
Palestine is ready to become an independent state. Following years of corruption, which has for so long blighted the Palestinian Authority, they have rebuilt their government and reformed their infrastructure. The World Bank, the UN, the EU and the IMF have all said that it is ready for statehood.
Recognition offers a clear statement in support of the rights of Palestinians to self-determination. It would send a timely message to the Palestinian people that the international community is prepared to take strong steps to bring about a two-state settlement.
Today is the time for strong leadership, strong politicians who must be ready to stand up for their convictions and stand by the words and opinions they have expressed for many years in private but have been reluctant to speak about in public. Let us hope that those who are now standing for election to lead our party stick by the historic parliamentary vote and Labour’s promise to Palestinians all over the world that we would unconditionally recognise the state of Palestine.
Mark McDonald is a human rights barrister and one of the founders of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East.