UN bid throws party positions into sharp relief

Ed Milliband: prescient? (Photo AP)

Ed Milliband: prescient? (Photo AP)

What a difference a year makes. Last September, Ed Miliband marked a definitive break with his party’s pro-Israel New Labour past by backing the Palestinian bid for an upgrade to their status at the United Nations. At the time this seemed precipitous and naive. He backed a bid that President Abbas had not yet decided to make and was made to look foolish when the Palestinians themselves backed off.

Now Mr Miliband finds himself in a very different position. He was able to wrong-foot David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions last week by asking him to set out the government position as it stood in advance of this week’s vote. The PM’s hesitant answer was underwhelming. A year on, Mr Miliband’s support for the bid starts to look prophetic.

What has changed is the position of Mahmoud Abbas himself. As I write, a day in advance of the proposed vote, the Palestinian President really seems to mean it this time. Last year, the UK government’s cautious “wait and see” approach was entirely reasonable. Why jump before the Palestinians themselves? The new UK position is not entirely inconsistent. But it is necessarily far more complicated. By attaching conditions to UK support for the bid, Foreign Secretary William Hague has rather cunningly gave himself an escape route. If the Palestinians refused to meet his conditions he could say he supported the bid in principle. If they agreed to conditions, he could claim a great diplomatic coup.

To those unfamiliar with Middle East politics, the difference between the PLO’s existing “observer status” at the UN and Palestine being a non-member “observer state” must seem absurdly technical. But this stuff matters, especially if the new designation gives access to wider UN institutions such as the International Criminal Court — something Mr Hague is keen to thwart.

But in everything to do with Middle East peace there is a tendency either to over-complicate or over-simplify matters. Neither is particularly helpful.

There is another way. I returned this week to a paper written when the issue of Palestinian statehood came to the fore late last year. “The Declaration of Palestinian Statehood: An Unparalleled Political Opportunity?” was produced by the Reut Institute, a “right-wing” Israeli think tank. The paper argued that Israel should embrace the Palestinian bid and suggested it could be turned to Israel’s advantage by cementing the two-state solution as the only game in town, demonstrating to Israel’s allies that it was committed to the peace process and lowering the prospects of military confrontation.

A year on, all the initiative lies with President Abbas, Israel is increasingly isolated at the UN, the UK government has been forced to shift its position. And Ed Miliband begins, dare I say it, to look a little bit statesmanlike.

Last updated: 6:45pm, November 29 2012