UK Symbolic Recognition of Palestinian State Highlights Statehood Debate
The United Kingdom House of Commons passed a motion on October 14 to recognize the territories of Gaza and the West Bank as a Palestinian state, a move that came amidst worldwide criticism of Israel following its summer military offensive in Gaza. The bill, which passed the House of Commons by a vote of 274 to 12, expressed the British government’s desire to “recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.” The British legislature’s decision comes after recent declarations of support by Swedish and French leaders, with Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven announcing its recognition of Palestine on October 3 and French
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius acknowledging the necessity of Palestinian autonomy in an effort to implement a two-state solution on October 14.
And while other major European countries, including Germany, are hesitating to take this step prior to the implementation of a comprehensive peace agreement, Israeli leaders worry that this trend will continue as pro-Palestinian sentiment grows in Europe. "There are clear signs among many European Union countries," said a senior Israeli official. "Their goal is to pressure Israel, even though they are ignoring the reality -- that Mahmoud Abbas is the one who is always refusing.”
The recent UK vote elicited approval from Palestinian leadership, with key officials applauding the step. According to Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo, Britain was “obliged more than any other country to vote in favor of a Palestinian state because of its responsibility for the continued suffering of the Palestinian people since the notorious Balfour Declaration.” Moreover, Fatah representative Azzam al-Ahmed expressed hope that Britain’s decision would spur other nations to consider similar action, characterizing the vote as the “beginning of the awakening of the British and international conscience.”
While drawing Palestinian appreciation, however, the Swedish British announcements provoked a markedly different response from Israel and the United States. “We believe international recognition of a Palestinian state is premature,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said following Sweden’s announcement. “We certainly support Palestinian statehood, but it can only come through a negotiated outcome, a resolution of final status issues, and mutual recognition by both parties.”
Israel was more vocal in its condemnation of the recent decisions. “Premature international recognition sends a troubling message to the Palestinian leadership that they can evade the tough choices that both sides have to make, and actually undermines the chances to reach a real peace,” said the Israeli Embassy in London of the British motion.
Yet while the vote itself was non-binding and likely will not alter British policy towards Israel significantly, if at all, it does highlight the controversial issue of Palestine’s international status and its role in the United Nations. PLO President Mahmoud Abbas applied for UN membership in 2011, but withdrew the claim after US President Barack Obama declared his intent to veto this endeavor in the UN Security Council. Palestine did gain non-member observer status through a General Assembly vote in 2012, with Israel and the United States in opposing the new designation and 138 other states voting in favor.
While US veto power renders the possibility of Palestine gaining official UN recognition for statehood in the near future unlikely, the institution has been critical of recent Israeli policies. On October 16, UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon condemned Israel for the civilian casualties and mass destruction that resulted from Operation Protective Edge, its fifty-day military offensive in Gaza. "I fully understand the security threat from rockets above and tunnels below," Ban said. "At the same time, the scale of the destruction in Gaza has left deep questions about proportionality."
Although international pro-recognition sentiment has thus far had a limited effect on policy, the PLO is continuing to push for recognition at a higher level. According to PLO Secretary-General Rabbo, the PLO is urging the UN Security Council to pass a resolution ending the Israeli occupation of its territories. “Do the Americans have a realistic alternative to Israeli intransigence and settlements?” Rabbo asked. “We will continue our political battle and won’t be deterred by Israeli statements.”
While the text of the proposed PLO resolution is currently unknown, it would likely establish a three-month deadline for Israel to declare borders based on the pre-1967 lines, and subsequently set a standard for the creation of a Palestinian state based upon these borders. The resolution is slated to be revealed in early November.