A Critique of the UK Vote on the International Status of Palestine


BOLOGNA — On October 13th, the U.K. House of Commons voted to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.  The vote, which is purely symbolic and will have no tangible impact on U.K. foreign policy, seems to be a public expression of frustration with the Netanyahu-led Israeli government rather than a declaration of newfound solidarity with the Palestinian Authority. Sir Richard Ottaway, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, told the New York Times after the vote, “Under normal circumstances I would oppose the motion… but such is my anger over Israel’s behavior in recent months that I will not oppose the motion.” While such frustration in the U.K. and elsewhere was predictable in the aftermath of this year’s fruitless peace talks, armed conflict in Gaza, and Israel’s recent announcement to expand settlement construction, the British vote can only delay diplomatic progress towards a two-state solution.

The U.K.’s unilateral vote sends unconstructive signals to both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the peace process. It provides a boon to the Palestinian Authority without demanding any political or security concessions in future peace negotiations and encourages future unilateralism among both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel leaders are undoubtedly unsettled to see the U.K. content to recognize a Palestinian state when at the same time the Palestinian Authority refuses to publically acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people. The recognition of Israel as a legitimate nation in the region must be central to any peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, but has remained problematic in the latest peace talks. Overall, this vote risks undermining Britain’s credibility as a reasonable and impartial mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

A two-state solution provides the only viable opportunity for peace between Israelis and Palestinians by maintaining Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state while also granting self-determination to its occupied territories. The U.K. vote was unwarranted not because it was unfair to Israel, but because there are well defined and widely accepted criteria for statehood within international law. According to the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, the basic criteria for new nations are (1) A permanent population, (2) a defined territory, (3) a government, and (4) capacity to enter into diplomatic relations with other states. The territory of a potential Palestinian state remains a subject of debate. Israel’s leaders argue that the putative borders (a return to the pre-1967 ‘Green Line’) would violate UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 because it would leave them with a militarily indefensible territory. The political divisions among the Palestinians, with the Palestinian Authority in control of the West Bank and Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, only adds to the territorial uncertainty of a future Palestinian state. Additionally, to label current Palestinian leadership as a “government” would mean acceptance of a precarious two-party agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which the U.K. currently recognizes as a terrorist organization. As of now, Gaza and the West Bank lack the political cohesion required to effectively govern, making the U.K. vote quite premature.  

When Scottish independence went to a vote in September, no one questioned the referendum’s legitimacy because it took place within a bilateral framework negotiated by the Scottish and U.K. governments. In other words, the international community respected the referendum because it received input from the two major stakeholders, the U.K. parliament and the Scottish parliament. Scotland’s vote for independence, though it failed, was a refreshing reminder that questions of state sovereignty require participation from all relevant parties. Though Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is no doubt a moral grey area, Israel’s position as a stakeholder in the question of Palestinian statehood remains unquestionable.

This month marks the 19th anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. While his vision of a Palestinian state living amicably alongside Israel remains unfulfilled, only constructive multilateral foreign support can help make this a reality.

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