Like Ireland and more than 140 other countries, it is time the UK recognised the state of Palestine

Article in The Independent, 27 May 2024

For more than a century, Britain has shown scant respect for Palestinian rights, says our former envoy in Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean – we must now play our part in creating a framework for peace.

Palestinian self-determination is the key to a just peace in the Middle East. The United Kingdom deprived Palestinians of that right, through its misconduct of the Palestine Mandate, before we cut and ran in 1948. It is 57 years since the Israeli occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. It is only right that we should now recognise the state of Palestine on those lands.

Spain, Ireland and Norway are are the latest to have done just that, last week announcing that, from tomorrow, they will join the long list of countries that formally recognise a Palestinian state. They have set the example that the United Kingdom should have provided for the so-called two-state solution – and which we must encourage others to follow.

First, some clarity is needed on what we should envisage as the Palestinian state: namely, pre-June 1967 borders, with full territorial sovereignty, the free movement of people and goods, and control of administrative matters (a registry of births, and so on).

 Security is fundamental to statehood. In January, Foreign Secretary David Cameron said that the last 30 years had been a story of failure for Israel because it had not delivered that basic security requirement to its citizens. And the reason for that failure is that Netanyahu and his peers have systematically deprived Palestinians of their rights – including their own right to security – by entrenched military occupation, blockades, the building of illegal settlements and much more besides.

 The realisation that my safety is best assured by the safety of my neighbour, through mutual security with international guarantees, is what will stop this chronic cycle of violence. Repression is not only evil – it doesn’t work.

The arguments presented against state recognition for Palestine now are spurious. To confirm its status alongside Israel is not a “reward for terror”, as Netanyahu claimed last week, adding that a sovereign Palestine would be a “terror state” that would “try to repeatedly carry out the massacre of 7 October”.

Yet some 140 governments, out of the 193 UN member states, now recognise the state of Palestine – and our Government recognises states, not their governments, an important distinction. There will be no recognition for Hamas, for Fatah, or for any other faction. If Hamas seeks to wipe Israel off the map, it only stands to lose when states reaffirm their recognition of Israel along pre-June 1967 lines. British recognition of Israel has been a fact for over 70 years and is completely unaffected by recognition of Palestine.

Nor is British recognition of Palestine “premature”. It is decades overdue. MPs voted overwhelmingly for recognition ten years ago. Since 2011, our Government’s policy has been to recognise the state of Palestine “at a time of our own choosing, when it will best advance the cause of peace”. That time is now.

 It is wrong to subordinate recognition to potential peace negotiations. The current Israeli administration asserts that it has the right to all of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Netanyahu’s coalition agreement explicitly states that only Jews are entitled to self-determination on that land – a racially defined claim. While he remains in office, there will be no negotiations. The prospects thereafter are, at best, uncertain.

It is for the UN Security Council, working with regional partners, to create the framework in which peace with justice can come about. In 1948, Britain sought to wash its hands and transfer its historic responsibility to the United Nations. The UK retains a duty to do better. The inauspicious days as the Mandate Power are long gone, but Britain still has influence to exert, for good or ill.

The United Kingdom is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, alongside France, now the leading foreign policy player in the European Union. The UK should work closely with France, the US, EU, Israel’s Arab neighbours and those Commonwealth partners now also contemplating recognition, particularly Australia and New Zealand.

Recognition can bring with it two rare commodities – hope and respect. Hope that there will be a genuine and sustained international effort, with the United Kingdom at last playing its full part, to address inequalities, discrimination and shared insecurity by exclusively peaceful means on the basis of international law and UN Security Council resolutions. Hope that Israelis can live in safety, recognised by all their Arab neighbours, and that the Palestinians can realise their right to self-determination.

As for respect – the United Kingdom has shown scant respect for Palestinian rights for a century and more. Recognition of Palestine alongside Israel would begin to show parity of esteem for two peoples, Palestinian and Israeli.

It is not the whole answer. But it’s the right start.

Sir Vincent Fean is a former UK Consul-General, Jerusalem, and a trustee of the Balfour Project charity.

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