Ignorance and arrogance in UK Parliament

I am what is commonly referred to as a “political junkie.” I absorb BBC News and Hansard to an extent that is at times probably a danger to my sanity.

So when I turned on BBC Parliament to watch last night’s Commons debate on whether the UK Parliament should recognise a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, I was amazed at the sheer idiocy of many British parliamentary representatives. I should add that this piece will be equally critical to members of all parties — MPs from across the spectrum dabbled in ignorance, arrogance and prejudice. At the same time, the embarrassing incompetence shown by Ed Miliband, in issuing and then retracting a three line whip, easily illustrates that this is a leader not fit to govern a school never mind a country. The same chamber that saw Fox fight Burke, Disraeli duel Gladstone and Thatcher thwart Foot, saw a stultifyingly anti-Israel consensus in a half empty Commons – 274 for, 12 against, many either abstaining or in non-attendance. The likes of Alan Duncan and Gerald Kaufman, bitterly opposed in ordinary boring politics, could at least unite in their opprobrium of Israel. Hurrah!

I want a two state solution as much as the next person, but I’m not quite sure what this motion will achieve other than offering false hope to the Palestinian people. For a start, it is non-binding on the government and is unlikely to have any effect on UK foreign policy towards Israel in the short term. No clear timetable for recognition was actually set. Furthermore, an amendment emphasised that recognition must come “as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution”; this is despite the motion imposing the kind of unilateralism and preconditions that were excluded from the Oslo peace process and the road map discussions.

A few brave voices on both sides of the House – Malcolm Rifkind, Louise Ellman and others – tried to make sensible points about the problems of premature recognition and the dangers of turning back on bilateral negotiations, especially with a polity that lacks the proper functions of civil administration. Conservative MP Guto Bebb wrote in the Telegraph that “the motion, which is against official Labour Party policy, ignores decades of peace talks and… undermine[s] all international efforts to achieve a negotiated two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians.” These voices were subject to ridicule and slander. It is sad that it is an increasingly small number of the same voices in Parliament who are prepared to take Israel’s concerns seriously in relation to the peace process and Palestinian terrorism.

It is also quite striking that some MPs are willing to recognise a State of Palestine without final borders, without water and utility agreements, without a fully functioning judiciary, without an effective civil administration, but have done almost nothing to help the Kurds who have most of the organs of a modern nation state – but are currently facing annihilation at Kobani. As Eylon Aslan Levy wittily remarked on Twitter;

“Weds: #RecogniseKurdistan Thurs: #RecogniseCatalonia. Fri: #RecogniseTibet. Sat: #RecogniseWesternSahara. Sun: #RecogniseAbkhazia. Oh wait.”

Quite frankly, I don’t think this debate actually had very much to do with helping Palestinians or respecting Israel’s security, or high noble ideals such as ‘justice‘ and ‘peace.’ This debate had nothing to do with recognising Palestine and everything to do with massaging egos. This debate had everything to do with providing a useful ‘exotic’ distraction from the everyday business of announcing tax changes, department budgets and tackling unemployment. This is the boring crap we’re kind of used to in Britain, and the reason why we have such an odd obsession with Israel and the Palestinians.

Permit me to deconstruct this very British mallady in a few precise points. By looking at a few statements recorded in Hansard or BBC Parliament online, one realises that this had nothing to do with helping Palestinians, and everything to do with bad historical knowledge, backing the ‘underdog’, demonising Israel, all around Orientalism and last minute lobbying by the PSC. So here are the worst offenders;

1) A couple of basic historical lessons

Sir Alan Duncan, Conservative; “After the civil war, albeit two years after 1948, we recognised the state of Israel. It was still not the tidiest of Administrations. Its borders were not clear; they still are not. It had no agreed capital—it wanted Jerusalem; at the moment, it has Tel Aviv—and no effective Government”

Israel’s borders were not fully decided in 1950, but that was not Israel’s fault. It had agreed to the UN Partition Plan in 1947, only for the following civil war and invasion of Arab armies to lead to new frontiers based around armistice lines – the green line commonly referred to as the ’67 border. However, Duncan’s claim that Israel was not the “tidiest of administrations” and had “no effective government” is just plain absurd. The Jewish Agency were taking in thousands of refugees from across Europe and the Middle East. The country possessed a standing army, a national grouping of trade unions, numerous government departments and had begun to institute major economic reforms. It seems Israelis were complaining about bureaucracy and red tape from the outset!

NB As an aside, Britain’s recognition of Israel in 1950 was hard fought. In January 1949, the then Labour government refused to lend even de facto recognition to the State of Israel. The party faced a rebellion by 150 of its MPs who were disgusted with this policy including notable politicians such as Aneurin Bevan, Hugh Dalton and Richard Crossman. The government eventually gave in despite having achieved a majority.

There was then this extraordinary exchange between Mike Hancock, an Independent, and Julian Lewis, a Conservative;

Mr Hancock:
“The people of Palestine have waited 65 years to get the justice they deserved. We did not listen then: when we could have given a two-state solution in ’48, we chose not to do it. People made that biggest mistake.”

Dr Julian Lewis:
“I am sorry to correct the hon. Gentleman on an historical point, but my understanding is that the UN did vote for a two-state solution and five Arab armies then invaded Israeli territory, so it is not quite as he suggests, I think.”

Mr Hancock:
“The hon. Gentleman will recollect that those five Arab states were seeking more of a reassurance that their borders would also be safeguarded, so it was a two-edged sword, I am afraid. We therefore have to be very careful when we talk about that situation.”

It’s good to know he felt the Arab states needed ‘reassurance’ that their borders would be ‘safeguarded.’ It’s just a shame they tried to extend them again in 1967 and 1973 and ended up losing the Golan Heights and the West Bank! We wouldn’t want to pass judgement on them, no?

2) Some of my friends are Jews! Honest!

David Ward, Liberal Democrat; “As a young man, I backpacked around Israel and had a wonderful time. I stayed at various hostels—in Ein-Gedi, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Eilat. I swam in the dead sea and went to Masada. I loved the place and its people and I wanted to return. I went back and spent time working with Mashav in the Arabic desert and living with an Israeli family… He [a farmer] also told me about the real existential threat involved in being surrounded by what he regarded as hostile Arab states. I have never forgotten that or sought to trivialise it in any way, or to minimise the sense of insecurity that Israelis must feel. That sense of insecurity — felt by many Jews, I suppose, throughout the centuries — has occurred as they suffered persecution throughout eastern and western Europe, and beyond. That persecution, as we all know, included an attempt at annihilation.”

Nice try. For those who aren’t aware, David Ward has got into a lot of trouble recently for upsetting the Jewish community, including accusing them of inflicting ‘atrocities’ on the Palestinians (on Holocaust Memorial Day no less) and also by tweeting that if he were a Palestinian he too would fire a rocket at Israel. Ward’s real motives are underlined by his cynical attempt to defend his tweets later in this debate, arguing that they “were never, of course, condoning terrorist acts by Palestinians; they were simply our recognition of the despair and sense of hopelessness that leads to terrorism.” Yeah, right.

3) Conspiracy theories – from the mundane to the mad

Firstly the mundane. Sir Edward Leigh to Matthew Offord, both Conservatives;

“My hon. Friend said that he had not intended to speak and he seems to be making up for that by reading, at great speed, from an Israeli Government handout.”

My good sources tell me this wasn’t true. Also, what a cheap comment!

Now the mad. Take this comment by Andrew Brigden, Conservative MP;

“Our great ally the United States is very susceptible to well-funded powerful lobbying groups and the power of the Jewish lobby in America.”

This is going into some quite dangerous territory. Also, when he is talking about the influence of “well-funded powerful lobbying groups” and the “power of the Jewish lobby in America”, I somehow don’t think he’s referring to J Street.

4) The classic ‘Israel causes worldwide anti-Semitism’ cliché

Sir Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP; “It is not Jewish for the Israelis to do that [the occupation]. They are harming the image of Judaism, and terrible outbreaks of anti-Semitism are taking place. I want to see an end to anti-Semitism, and I want to see a Palestinian state.”

Sir Gerald has a history of insulting fellow Jews, whether by comparing Israelis to modern day Nazis or mumbling at fellow Jewish Labour MP Louise Ellman “Here we are, the Jews again.” So his record on fighting anti-Semitism is not exactly exemplary. Also, the idea that Israel causes anti-Semitism has long been refuted. Instead, Israel was caused by anti-Semitism – a fact that is sadly confirmed by the unnatural obsession the world has with demonising Israel.

5) The Apartheid analogy

Mike Wood, Labour MP; “The situation is far worse than that in apartheid South Africa, which has been mentioned. It has been regularly referred to as a parallel to what is going on in Palestine, but the situation in Palestine is much worse than apartheid.”

Something tells me Mike Wood wouldn’t want to hear the stories of thousands of Arabs and Jews who live in peace and harmony within the State of Israel. His comment that the situation in Palestine is “much worse than apartheid” is a huge insult to the millions of Black South Africans who were oppressed by a genuinely racist regime for five decades.

Despite its vacuousness, this motion is important for other reasons. I do believe this debate gives us a real fascinating insight into the arrogant, post-colonial musings of a country that is no longer a major world player. As proud as I am of my British identity, I can’t help but feel that this premature recognition quite literally puts Britain in the same league as Sweden. Britain is quickly becoming a third rate power, the kind of country that can boast that it will defend human rights but can only send six fighter aircraft to Iraq (and not even Syria).

Karl Marx once famously remarked “History repeats itself… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” History will tell whether this debate will be as remembered as much as some representatives seem to think it will be. I rather imagine this vote will be a poor man’s replication of the 1975 UN General Assembly motion that declared that ‘Zionism is racism’ – equally as meaningless and grandiloquent, except this time with a less inflammatory title. After all, we Brits have to be more polite when condemning our friends! The Palestinians shouldn’t be too flattered either. If I was in the Palestinian Authority, I would be insulted that Britain’s grand statement of Palestinian recognition was consigned to a tawdry backbench business motion, 10 o’ clock at night, with a half empty house.

This vote was imitating UKIP on an international scale. It was a feeble attempt to give Benjamin Netanyahu a bloody nose for the IDF’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in Gaza this summer. Instead of trying to understand why Israel may want to defend itself from unprovoked rocket attacks and tunnels under its territory, or indeed why 95% of Israel’s public agreed with their government’s response, British MPs are far more content to reassure themselves that Israel was acting ‘disproportionately’ (while never adequately explaining why).

Britain used to pride itself on being an honest broker in the Middle East, encouraging both leaderships to take pragmatic steps and to make historic compromises in order to reach a settled peace. Northern Ireland offered the British government a unique perspective into the art of negotiation. There was little of that on show last night. Either way, I doubt Israel is sleeping too uneasily at what Britain thinks about them.

About the Author
Richard Black is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford.
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