MPs' Palestine vote shows Israel has 'lost UK public'

By Marcus Dysch and Anshel Pfeffer, October 14, 2014
Britain's ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould (Photo: Mati Milstein)

Britain's ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould (Photo: Mati Milstein)

The vote by MPs to recognise a Palestinian state is a sign that public opinion is turning against Israel, Britain’s ambassador in Tel Aviv has warned.

Matthew Gould told the JC: “Israel lost support after this summer’s conflict in Gaza, and after the series of announcements on settlements.

"This Parliamentary vote is a sign of the way the wind is blowing, and will continue to blow without any progress towards peace.”

MPs voted by 274 to 12 to call on the government to recognise the state of Palestine alongside Israel in a controversial and unprecedented vote in the House of Commons on Monday.

The debate took place after a series of internal Labour Party rows over the issue, and the late withdrawal of a pro-Israel MP’s amendment to the motion.

This Parliamentary vote is a sign of the way the wind is blowing

Matthew Gould

The symbolic win for supporters of the Palestinian cause is unlikely to have any effect on government policy — the Foreign Office has already said it backed negotiations as the route to a Palestinian state, as opposed to any unilateral declaration.

But the result is a significant PR success for the pro-Palestinian camp.

Mr Gould’s view was backed by one former government minister who told the JC: “Israel cannot say it was not warned, time after time, that Parliamentary support was wearing away. Gaza was a disaster for Israel, and the longer time goes on, the more the after-effects are being seen.

"Israel needs to move, and quickly, to persuade people that it still supports a two-state answer.”

Former Middle East Minister Alistair Burt also believed support for Israel was waning, even among its friends.

Writing in today’s JC, he said: “The conduct of the Gaza operation had unjustifiable elements, and the subsequent settlement announcements were counterproductive for Israel’s friends. Let’s be honest, they are a kick in the teeth for a government which has loyally supported Israel.”

The Commons debate was led by Labour backbencher Grahame Morris, who claimed Israel would be “finished” if a two-state solution could not be agreed.

“Recognition is not an Israeli bargaining chip, it’s a Palestinian right,” he said.

Sir Gerald Kaufman suggested Israel’s actions had led to the rise in antisemitism in Britain. In reference to treatment of the Palestinians, the veteran Labour MP said it was “not Jewish for the Israelis to do this. They are harming the image of Judaism. I want to see an end to antisemitism and I want to see a Palestinian state”.

A number of Israel-supporting Conservative MPs were unable to oppose the motion due to their government roles, which forbid them from taking part in backbench debates. David Cameron was among those who abstained.

Labour MPs were encouraged to back the motion by Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander and leader Ed Miliband, but were not forced to attend or vote.

That allowed a series of pro-Israel shadow cabinet members to stay away from the chamber. Senior party figures such as Ed Balls, Jim Murphy, Rachel Reeves and Luciana Berger, who are leading supporters of Labour Friends of Israel, did not attend the session.

One senior Israel-supporting Labour figure said the lack of front-bench support for the party’s position was “humiliating” for Mr Alexander and showed “people are just not going to roll over on this issue. It’s another fine mess. The leadership made a big mistake.”

LFI chair Anne McGuire MP said: “I want to see the creation of a Palestinian state but I believe that unilateralism does nothing to advance peace and in fact can have a divisive effect. We must support Israelis and Palestinians in coming together to the negotiating table.”

Conservative MPs who support Israel attacked the motion and Labour’s positioning. Many stayed away from the chamber, claiming they did not want to add legitimacy to the debate.

Guto Bebb, the Tory MP who withdrew his initial amendment to the motion in protest at what he said was the Labour leadership’s “pandering” to anti-Israel sentiment, attacked Mr Miliband’s approach.

He said Mr Miliband had tried “to keep a small but voluble rump of the party sweet — MPs who have an increasingly uncompromising stance regarding Israel. It is quite wrong that he allow himself to be dragged along by partisan backbenchers”.

David Burrowes, Enfield Southgate MP, said: “A Parliamentary motion may appease a vociferous lobby but will not further peace for Palestinians and Israelis.”

A small number of pro-Palestinian activists demonstrated in Parliament Square on Monday as the debate took place.

Israeli officials said they were surprised that action taken by British groups including the Zionist Federation and Board of Deputies had not been co-ordinated with Jerusalem.

One official said: “We don’t think their actions contributed to Israel’s interests in this case. We favoured a policy of trying to draw as little attention as possible to this vote, as the Conservatives did, in our opinion very wisely, so it wouldn’t seem like a crucial decision of the entire British parliament.

“The ZF and other groups didn’t consult with us and their actions contributed to making this in to a much bigger issue than it should have been.”

The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued directions for diplomats to keep a low profile, to not make media appearances or public comments ahead of the vote. Instead, diplomats lobbied MPs privately.

In a later development, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen defended his reference to a “well-funded and powerful Jewish lobby” in the United States during the debate.

He was reported as saying on Tuesday that he had historically sided with Israel in Parliament but saw the influence of the "lobby" on American politicians as a "huge problem".

Last updated: 12:02pm, October 16 2014