Hague hedges on Middle East, but marks a new era

The UK decision to abstain in the UN Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood is a classic piece of diplomatic compromise. The people around David Cameron talked a good game about "going in to bat" for Israel when the issue first came to a head at the UN in September, but when push came to shove it was clear that Britain was likely to follow France's lead and abstain, rather than back the American decision to veto the move. The knowledge that the US was going to block the move in the Security Council made it easier for Mr Hague to hedge at this stage.

This has been, in recent years, the British way. The Board of Deputies was highly critical of David Miliband when he abstained in the vote over the Goldstone Report in 2009, and many in Conservative circles accused him of selling out Israel at the time. Mr Hague and Mr Cameron are discovering that it's not so easy to take a hardline stance in government.

The government decided not to declare its hand until the last minute - and in a sense it has still not done so. The tortuous wording of the statement comes straight from the Foreign Ofice handbook. On the one hand: "The UK judges that the Palestinian Authority largely fulfils criteria for UN membership, including statehood as far as the reality of the situation in the Occupied Palestinian territories allows, but its ability to function effectively as a state would be impeded by that situation." So the UK government believes that the PA has met the conditions of membership and even statehood, but the situation in the territories stops it from functioning as a state. The UK will therefore not vote against the bid because the criteria for membership are met in theory - even if the practicalities of statehood are made impossible by conditions on the ground.

And yet, the UK cannot vote for UN membership because it has always stated that its primary objective is a "return to negotiations through the Quartet process and the success of those negotiations". This is, by any standards, an ingenious cop-out.

Mr Hague's statement was, noticeably, entirely free of the usual fine words about unbreakable bonds of UK-Israel friendship, tributes to Israeli democracy and commitments to Israeli security.

Make no mistake, William Hague's statement marks a new era in UK-Israel relations.

Last updated: 12:09pm, November 10 2011