What a Labour government recognising a Palestinian state would actually mean

Toby Greene, from British-Israeli think tank Bicom, explores the significance of Jeremy Corbyn's pledge

September 28, 2018 18:48

Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to recognise Palestine at Labour’s conference was a guaranteed crowd pleaser. But is this just red meat for Corbynistas, or really significant?

It seems reasonable to assume Labour would fulfil this commitment — included in the 2017 manifesto — after entering office, and promptly. It is a swiftly deliverable act of symbolic significance for party activists, on an issue which almost no-one else — save perhaps British Jews and Muslims —  cares much about.

There are conceivable circumstances which might make Labour delay, but they are not likely.

One would be if credible peace talks were under way, and ministers were persuaded that premature recognition might prove disruptive. This looks a dim prospect. The Israeli government’s current ambivalence regarding peace talks makes an otherwise reasonable Israeli argument against recognition — that it encourages Palestinian unilateralism and undermines bilateral negotiations — somewhat mute.

Another possible delay would be Labour ministers trying to persuade other European states considering recognition, such as Ireland, to jump together. It would be preferable for Britain to act with others, diluting any backlash from Israel and the US, but it seems Mr Corbyn would be ready to go it alone.

So what would be the impact for Israelis and Palestinians? In short, not much.

We can expect great fanfare from Palestinians in Ramallah. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, assuming he’s still around, would likely seek to bolster his waning credibility by raising the flag above a freshly minted embassy — presumably the existing Palestinian mission in London with a shiny new door plaque. Manuel Hassassian, the veteran Palestinian representative in London, or whoever else becomes ambassador, will get to present credentials to the Queen.

But while he will be offered tea at Buckingham Palace, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will not benefit at all, because recognising Palestine as a state does not make it one. 

Some 137 states already recognise Palestine. It was recognised by the UN General Assembly in 2012, albeit blocked from full UN membership by the Security Council. Creeping legal recognition has allowed Palestine to join international institutions, including the International Criminal Court, creating new opportunities to confront Israel.

But this has done nothing to make Palestinians sovereign on the ground. The practical attributes of statehood derive from governing a defined territory and population, and capability to manage international relations. Ironically, in these terms, the Hamas-run Gaza Strip looks more like a state — albeit under siege and in dire crisis — than does the PA, with only limited control over a Swiss cheese map covering 40 per cent of the West Bank. However, the PA government is internationally accredited to represent the Palestinians, not Mr Corbyn’s “friends” Hamas, so they would get the honours.

Yet the PA in the West Bank can only assume the practical attributes of statehood by Israel reducing its own control. This could be through negotiation or unilateral Israeli decision, but no diplomatic step can make Palestine more than a state on paper — which means, not really a state at all.

The most significant effects of recognition would not be for Palestinians, but Britain. Unless Israel’s government then, is very different to now, there would be a furious reaction, and significant cooling of UK-Israel relations. When Sweden recognised Palestine in 2014, Israel temporarily withdrew its ambassador and stopped dealing with foreign minister Margot Wallstrom for several years.

If future Labour ministers hope Israelis will internalise that intransigence on the Palestinian issue means losing international friends — they can forget it. The Israeli right would happily take the opportunity to reinforce its narrative, that diplomatic support for the Palestinians derives from innate hostility to Israel, or even antisemitism. Given Mr Corbyn’s abysmal record on this, it will be hard for Israel’s centre-left to disagree in this case. The clash between Israel and Britain would, of course, be deeply uncomfortable for British Jews. Meanwhile the UK could also expect a US backlash, especially if Mr Trump is still there. Neither of these concerns will much deter Mr Corbyn.

Once, Britain could assume that strained relations with Israel would be rewarded with warm responses from Arab leaders. No longer. Israel and Sunni Arab interests are more closely aligned than ever, and Arab states have no enthusiasm for Mr Corbyn. Arab ambassadors have not attended recent Labour conferences after the party refused to accredit Saudi and Sudanese representatives in 2017. Mr Corbyn’s threat to suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia would create a rift far outweighing the significance of recognising Palestine, which is anyway a low priority for Arab leaders.

But whilst recognising Palestine itself would be of limited practical consequence, it would likely be accompanied by wider changes of greater concern for Israel — as set out in a recent Bicom report analysing Labour Middle East policy.

The shift to a one-sided pro-Palestinian position could be reflected in greater support for Palestinian diplomatic initiatives. For example, in recent Unesco votes on resolutions ignoring Judaism’s connection with Jerusalem’s holy sites, the UK supported Israel, alongside the US, Germany and others. Under Labour, Britain could switch to abstaining (with France) or even backing the Palestinians (like Sweden). 

Though opposition to settlements is long-standing British policy, the tone of condemnations relating to the occupation would likely escalate, and moves towards boycotting settlement produce could come to the table. During periods of conflict, a Labour government would be much quicker to condemn Israel and back calls for unconditional ceasefires. The strong objections recently raised by Britain to the disproportionate focus on Israel in the UN Human Rights Council, look unlikely to be sustained under Labour.

It is worth recalling that Britain is not Sweden. Though about to give up its EU influence, the UK retains diplomatic weight as a permanent Security Council member, and significant economic and military power.

The effects of a potential arms boycott, proposed by Labour members, are difficult to gauge. Could this affect Israeli acquisition of F35 jets, for which Britain supplies many components? Would this call into question Israel’s supply of UAV technology to Britain?

Either way, a Corbyn-effect would likely ripple through Whitehall, chilling UK-Israel bilateral ties, drying up the exchange of ministerial visits and trade delegations, and reversing recent growth in trade and strategic cooperation. This would undermine years of British efforts to maintain a balanced posture between Israelis and Palestinians, by having trusted relations with both.

There is however, a potential route to recognising Palestine without poisoning UK-Israel relations or fuelling the narrative of the Israeli right. A sophisticated strategy would balance recognition of Palestine with parallel recognition of Israeli positions.

These could include recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving Britain’s embassy, and affirming that the State of Palestine is the solution for Palestinian refugees, with no “right of return” to Israel that would threaten its status as the nation state of the Jewish people.

A balanced gesture would be harder for Israelis to dismiss as the spasm of an inherently hostile and even antisemitic British government. Rather it would communicate — in line with what former MK Einat Wilf calls “constructive specificity” — an even-handed attempt to shape the contours of a fair solution. 

This however, would entail internalising that both parties have reasonable claims, not just Palestinians. That is a position that Mr Corbyn, and his Palestinian flag waving acolytes, seem incapable of grasping.

Toby Greene is Senior Research Associate for Bicom and Israel Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute, Hebrew University.

September 28, 2018 18:48

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