Israel and the House of Commons: A Word of Caution

I am generally reluctant to use this blog to comment on matters involving Israeli security or what is (somewhat euphemistically) known as the “peace process.”  This is certainly not out of any lack of concern for Israel’s wellbeing but rather because the practical realities of preparing and submitting blog posts unavoidably entails enough delay that the relevant facts will be known to most readers through other sources well before anything I write could reach them.  Moreover, so many writers are heavily engaged in security-related debates that I seldom have anything significant to add.

Despite this habitual reluctance, I feel impelled, for both pragmatic and moral reasons, to take note of last week’s overwhelming vote of the British House of Commons (274 to 12) urging the British government to grant diplomatic recognition to a State of Palestine.  Because I follow the proceedings of the British parliament fairly closely, I may bring to this subject a perspective somewhat different from that typically found in the American media.  From a moral viewpoint, moreover, since I unabashedly identify myself as an anglophile and frequently express admiration for the constitutional system that the British have evolved over the centuries, I feel a moral responsibility to point out those instances in which the institutions of that constitutional system act in a manner unbefitting their distinguished history. Last week’s House of Commons vote on Palestine was such an instance.

Dismayed as I am by last week’s vote, we do need to keep it in perspective.  The motion is not binding on the British government and will have no immediate impact on British foreign policy. Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear in a statement released after the vote that the creation of a Palestinian state should result from negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel and that his government has no intention of preempting those negotiations by recognizing a Palestinian state unilaterally.  He reiterated that position two days later during the Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

Despite all the hullaballoo, simple arithmetic makes it clear that fewer than half of the 649 sitting members of the House of Commons took part in the vote.  Prime Minister Cameron and the other senior government ministers did not participate in the debate, nor did most of the senior figures of the opposition Labour Party. The motion came to the floor of the House through the Backbench Business Committee (which exists to enable backbenchers of any party to initiate a debate on a subject without the active support of their parties’ senior parliamentarians) at the initiative of a group of five backbenchers from the three major parties.  As a practical matter, the motion will have little effect and will probably soon be forgotten by all but the most intense partisans on each side of the issue.

Still, the potential impact of the overwhelming anti-Israel vote in the “mother of all parliaments” should not be shrugged off.  Anti-Israel hostility has gained much ground in Europe in the last few years, but Britain has been at least a partial exception .  The House of Commons vote suggests that British exceptionalism in this respect may be weakening, which is certainly not good news for Israel.  (It’s not great news for America either, but let’s leave that for another time.)

The lopsided vote can’t be taken at face value.  The governing Conservative Party and its coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, each allowed its Members of Parliament to vote their conscience on the motion.  In contrast, the opposition Labour Party (whose current leader, Ed Miliband, has described himself as a Jewish atheist) invoked party discipline to force those MPs present to support the motion but did not require its MPs to attend.

Although there are certainly Labour Party activists and MPs who are friendly to Israel, there has long been an anti-Israel faction on the party’s left wing.  The fact that Ed Milliband, the party’s current leader, is Jewish probably doesn’t help.  I believe that he is sympathetic to Israel but doesn’t want to encourage the forces of xenophobia by taking too pro-Israel a stand.  Britain will have a general election next year, and if Milliband wants to become Prime Minister, he will need to unify the British left.

Listening to parts of the parliamentary debate on Palestine was an almost surreal experience.   On the surface, the debate sounded moderate and constructive.  Almost all the speakers affirmed their support of Israel’s right to exist, and many supporters of the motion insisted that they were friends of Israel, and that recognizing Palestine at this point in time is in Israel’s interests as well — a viewpoint, it’s worth noting, that has been expressed by some on the Israeli left as well.

In the course of the debate, it appeared that most of the motion’s proponents were going out of their way to sound moderate.   Indeed,  even Sir Gerald Kaufman, one of Israel’s most vicious British critics, who habitually wields his supposed upbringing as an Orthodox Jew and a Zionist as a weapon to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, sounded somewhat less hostile than usual when he spoke during the debate.  George Galloway, the bigoted demagogue who, in his day job as a talk radio host, recently suggested that Israel was responsible for shooting down the Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine (yes, you read that right; and no, I have no clue how he comes up with his crackpot ideas) did everyone a favor by not showing up.

One of the problems in any effort to assess the meaning of the vote is that not all of those who spoke appeared to agree on what they were debating.  Some argued against the motion on the ground that Palestine did not meet the criteria of a state under international law; some supporters of the motion insisted that it did meet those criteria, while others acknowledged that it did not but argued that the motion should be passed anyway.  Some opposed the motion on the ground that it would further complicate the peace process, thus making a negotiated settlement an even more remote prospect; some supported the motion in the hope that it would facilitate that process (though how they thought it would do that was unclear).  Others didn’t expect it to make any difference and advocated the motion as a symbolic gesture with no practical impact.

It’s worth noting that the speakers on both sides of the debate actually agreed on more than you might expect.  All those that I heard (and as far as I’m aware all who spoke) endorsed the two-state solution and acknowledged that the establishment of a viable Palestinian state could only come out of direct negotiations between the parties.  All affirmed Israel’s right to exist and condemned the rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli cities.  All condemned the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and all expressed, in greater or lesser degree, disapproval of Israel’s “disproportionate” attacks during the recent conflict in Gaza, particularly those that resulted in civilian casualties.  Many, not surprisingly, made reference to Britain’s role as the former mandatory authority in Palestine.  

I agree with those who assert that Britain’s historical responsibility for creating the modern Middle East should inform Britain’s policies toward that region.  My view of Britain’s record as the mandatory power, however, is far less positive than the views expressed in the House of Commons during the debate.  As a result, I believe that Britain’s historical connection to the region should make its political institutions more hesitant to criticize Israel, not less.

There were several references during the debate to the Balfour Declaration, with particular emphasis on its reference to the “civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities of Palestine.”  If anyone noticed the declaration’s careful phrasing — by which it promised to protect “civil and religious rights” but was silent about national rights — they kept that insight to themselves.  No one mentioned, moreover, that the Palestine mandate given to Britain by the League of Nations initially included what is today the Kingdom of Jordan.  In 1922, the British, in pursuit of their own imperial interests, unilaterally decided to remove that portion of Palestine from the mandate and created what was then called the Emirate of Transjordan, thus reducing by more than half the territory on which the promised Jewish national home could be built.

More important, of course, there was no mention during the debate of the 1939  White Paper, by which Britain slammed shut the door of Palestine to European Jews trying desperately to escape the Nazis.  We will never know how many of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis would have survived had Britain left the door of Palestine open during the war years.  It is certainly possible, however, that the potential demographic dilemma that has impeded the peace negotiations might not exist but for the British refusal to allow Palestine to be a refuge for those Jews seeking to escape from the clutches of the Nazis’ attempted genocide.  Given Britain’s role in creating the challenges Israel now faces, it seems to me the British should think long and hard before criticizing Israel’s manner of meeting those challenges.

Does any of this really matter?  Many Israelis and American Jews have shrugged off all European criticism of Israel as irrelevant.  As long as Israel has the support of the United States, they reason, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

Without question Israel’s long-time friendship with the United States is and will remain its most important diplomatic relationship for the foreseeable future.  But if it is to protect its citizens and pursue its interests, Israel should not be dependent on a single relationship.  The United States, after all, is a superpower, with wide ranging interests that may not always be in perfect alignment with Israel’s.  American Jewry’s support of Israel remains strong, but is likely to weaken somewhat in the long term in the face of shrinking demographics and a growing Muslim population.  Moreover, Israel’s economy needs trading partners, and the increasing popularity of the boycott-divestment-sanctions movement, in Europe and elsewhere, could ultimately threaten its prosperity.

Some of Israel’s American supporters have complained for years that Israel’s public relations operation is inadequate to the task before it.  That complaint has much validity, and a prudent Israeli government would be well advised to increase the resources devoted to that purpose.  We should not delude ourselves, however, as to how much even the best PR operation can achieve.  The worsening image of Israel among Europeans probably says more about Europe than about Israel.

When it comes to substantive policy, Israel faces a dilemma with no easy solution.  At the heart of the Zionist enterprise is the insistence that Israel will take responsibility for its security and the safety of its citizens.  Never again will the Jewish people be dependent on the compassion of strangers for its protection.  It may well be that the Europeans will not be placated unless Israel adopts policies that take unacceptable risks with its security.  If so, Israel must do whatever is necessary to protect itself, regardless of the diplomatic fallout.

I’m not convinced, however, that all the Israeli actions that were the proximate provocations giving rise to the House of Commons debate were essential to Israel’s security.  The settlement expansion, in particular, seems more a reflection of Israel’s domestic politics than of its security needs. I don’t believe that the settlements are the primary obstacles to successful peace negotiations; that description applies more accurately to Palestinian inflexibility.  But neither do I believe that further expanding the settlements is some kind of religious/ideological imperative.  Throughout his time in office, Prime Minister Netanyahu has used settlement expansion to mollify his critics on the right, not only his coalition partners but much of his own party.  He would be well advised to consider the downside of that tactic — a downside illustrated by the Palestine debate in the House of Commons.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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