Imagine, if you will, the scene of a recent explosion in a formerly recognisable part of town. As outsiders gingerly pick their way through the rubble and flames, they spot a curious site. With little left standing above waist height, their eyes are drawn to a single house that, remarkably, is still standing. Battered, burnt – but undeniably intact. Crowding through the remains of the gate and past the singed front lawn, our intrepid fact-finders gather round the building. They ring the doorbell, knock on the door, and try peeking in through the keyhole. After a few minutes they start squabbling amongst themselves about what is to be done – until one of them finally shouts: “Look, it doesn’t matter if we can’t decide exactly what health and safety law this garden is violating, as long as we all agree it’s making the neighbourhood look terrible!”
That, essentially, is how I feel about Monday’s vote in the House of Commons to recognise a Palestinian state. It’s not just that it sent a harmful message that negotiations can be ignored, doing nothing to persuade both sides to return to the negotiating table. Or that it was divisive, forcing MPs and organisations to divide themselves along ‘Pro-Israel’ or ‘Pro-Palestinian’ lines, when there is a general consensus on a two-state solution.
It wasn’t even that it all seemed a bit pointless, given that the government had already stated the outcome would have no impact on foreign policy, and the majority of MPs weren’t even present. (The room looked empty enough to be an echo chamber in more than one sense.)
No, my main complaint is that once again it is clear that Britain still hasn’t woken up to the reality of the new Middle East. For decades it was somehow acceptable to think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the heart of the region, as hundreds of correspondents from across the world filed their reports from Jerusalem whilst basically ignoring the 99 per cent of the continent that didn’t have a Jewish majority.
You would think that the absolute chaos that has erupted since the start of the Arab Spring would have put paid to that. The collapse of Syria and Iraq, the threatened obliteration of minority groups, the rise of radical extremism – all of those should be top of the priority list, surely? And yet once again we saw politicians pandering to those who still think that the conflict in the Holy Land should be where our focus lies.
If people really cared about peace in the Middle East, or national self-determination, or making a symbolic gesture on a global scale, then Monday’s meeting would have been about another group entirely: the Kurds. The Kurds who are the largest national group without a state. The Kurds who have learnt the hard way that in the Middle East minority groups can’t survive unless they can defend themselves. The Kurds who, right now, face the threat of ethnic cleansing and worse at the hands of Islamic State fundamentalists.
Picture it. The full house present, from the cabinet to the backbenchers.
David Cameron, Prime Minister, is first to speak:
Over 50 years ago, a Conservative and the greatest Prime Minister this country has ever seen gave a speech in which he spelled out the threat of Communism to the civilised world. He spoke of an iron curtain that had descended upon Europe. I would never dream to describe a speech of mine as Churchillian, and perhaps only the man himself would be able to find a similar metaphor to describe the chaos that has erupted in the Middle East today. But of one thing I am sure: he would recognise that there is an equally dangerous threat to the civilised world, and one which we must all play our part in fighting.
Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, is up next:
I won’t pick a fight over who is the greatest of our Prime Ministers, so I’d like to reference an Englishman who, despite never holding office, is also regarded as a giant when it comes to political matters: George Orwell. A man of the left who opposed all enemies of freedom wherever he saw them. Who faced those enemies first hand in the Spanish Civil War, as he fought against fascism. Shakespeare, Dickens – this country has produced many fine writers, but none who is as famous for his clarity of thought and word as Orwell. So let me also speak clearly: the principle of international solidarity demands that we stand with those who are again fighting against fascists. ‘No pasarán!’ is what they said in Orwell’s day, and to those in Islamic State we also say: You shall not pass!
And so would start several hours of speeches and debate, as members from all parties stressed the need to stand with the Kurds, embattled in the region once delineated on maps as ‘Syria’ and ‘Iraq.’ Someone stands to argue that it is no business of the United Kingdom to meddle in the affairs of the Levant, and is forced to give way as several others immediately leap to their feet. It became our business when Islamic State started beheading British citizens like Alan Henning, it is pointed out. It became our business, another interjects, when British citizens started travelling abroad to do the beheadings.
Soon the issue of Kurdish statehood is broached. The right to self-determination is highlighted. Questions are raised about the issue of respecting the borders and boundaries of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. The atrocious policies of these countries towards their Kurdish inhabitants is addressed in response. Recognition of Kurdistan is necessary, it is argued, since otherwise there can be no progress – unlike other conflicts, there is no peace process or negotiating table for Kurds to be involved in.
Someone else mentions that the call for Kurdish independence is exactly that, since Kurds are only interested in a homeland, rather than depriving anyone else of theirs. After all, there is no widespread issue of Kurdish incitement against their Turkish, Iraqi or Iranian neighbours. No hint that ceding sovereignty would serve as a base for those with expansionist, genocidal intentions.
And so it comes to pass. The ayes have it. It might only be a symbolic gesture, but it was an important one, a recognition that the Middle East had changed, and British politicians with it. That’s the issue I would love to have seen debated Monday.
Yes, there must be a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes, it will need the support of the international community. But the path to peace is known and recognised, and can only be travelled when the two sides are ready to journey together. Until then, British politicians should think seriously about the people in the Middle East who really need their help – and who finally deserve some attention.