Recognizing Palestine—and political reality

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After British MPs moved overwhelmingly to recognise the State of Palestine, the governments of Britain and Israel affected indifference in an attempt to undermine the vote’s significance. [1] These dismissals mask a deep and growing anxiety about the direction of political traffic. ‘There is indeed reason to worry’, a senior Israeli diplomat acknowledged. ‘Not because it’s going to be translated into actual government policy, but because it’s a public opinion setter. It does create a trend’.

But trends don’t set themselves, and fortunately for Israel, rather than mobilising to publicise and build on last week’s achievement, significant tendencies within the Palestine solidarity movement are working instead to undermine and contain it.

Ahead of the vote, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the presently dominant strand within the solidarity movement, issued no press release or calls to action to pressure MPs to endorse recognition. [2] In its aftermath, BDS’s leading spokesperson Omar Barghouti informed readers of the New York Times that recognition amounts to ‘yet another act of British complicity in bestowing legitimacy on Israel’s unjust order’, while Nadia Hijab downplayed its significance relative to BDS, which ‘takes no position on statehood’. Times readers were thus presented with denunciations of the vote as anti-peace and anti-Israel from one side, and, from the other, a series of dismissive or contemptuous shrugs.

For Barghouti, recognition of Palestinian statehood by the parliament of a leading European power, permanent member of the UN Security Council and staunch Israeli ally is unwelcome because it is ‘meant to resuscitate the comatose version of the “two state solution”… dictated by Israel’:

Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights and ongoing colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territory, including in East Jerusalem, after all, will turn the putative two-state solution into a Palestinian Bantustan in an ‘apartheid state’ of Israel, as Secretary of State John Kerry has warned. [3]

Prominent Palestinian American commentator Ali Abunimah similarly urges that, ‘while recognising the “State of Palestine” excites and pleases many’,

people should not… [get too] carried away with the aesthetics of ‘statehood’ in what would amount to a bantustan.

Certainly, many of the MPs who voted for recognition also endorse a resolution of the conflict on terms which violate international law and render a Palestinian state unviable: more than one ‘Aye’ voter spoke in favour of the Kerry process, which sought to achieve just this. The vote’s significance, however, was as an indication of where public opinion is at, and the extent to which it has filtered through to the political class. Strategically, its message was simple: a mass movement of Palestinians demanding a two-state settlement based on international law would win broad support in the UK, and in all likelihood across Europe too. Such a movement, that is to say, would stand a good chance of winning.

The bill adopted by MPs was compatible with Kerry’s proposal, but it was also compatible with the international consensus two-state settlement. Given the UK’s consistent voting record for two-states based on the ’67 borders and given the state of British public opinion, there is no reason to suppose that, faced with a mass mobilisation in the occupied territories augmented by an effective solidarity movement abroad, MPs would be wedded to Kerry.

But the bitter irony is, by falsely conflating the unjust settlement preferred by the US and by liberal Israeli elites with the two-state settlement as delineated by international law and endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the international community, advocates for Palestine make the former outcome more likely. If growing international frustration with Israel is not to be co-opted into supporting the Kerry proposal, popular pressure must be directed against both Kerry and the status quo, counterposing both to a two-state settlement based on international law.

One would think, then, that the challenge now for Palestinians and their supporters is to build political and diplomatic momentum for pressure on Israel, while carefully steering it against the US-led political process and towards the international consensus. The reasons that led Israel to play down the recognition vote should lead us to publicise it, congratulate the MPs who supported it, emphasise its significance, entrench it as a pillar of Labour Party foreign policy, and pressure the British government and other European governments and left-of-centre parties to follow suit, while insisting on the distinction between a genuine Palestinian state on the borders defined by international law and the rump statelet envisioned by the US and Israel.

We should, in short, be acting like a movement that aims to win: that takes its victories and seeks to extract the most out of them, rather than snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by helping the US and Israel to isolate and neutralise them:

Palestine faces a future of permanent occupation or partition. Partition can take one of two forms: the Kerry proposal, with Israel annexing the major settlement blocs at the expense of Palestinian viability, or the international consensus two-state settlement endorsed by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly, which designates the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza as the territory for the exercise of Palestinian self-determination.

These alternatives exhaust the realms of political possibility, and a defeat for one is a gain for the others. Except among certain academics and BDS activists, the demand for dismantling Israel has no international resonance. This could be seen from the House of Commons debate itself, where even Palestine’s staunchest supporters made a point of affirming Israel’s legitimacy as a state. By holding fast to a demand that has no prospect of winning a broad constituency, one state advocates not only consign the solidarity movement to irrelevance. By frustrating the two-state solution, they increase the likelihood of palpably worse alternatives. With their gazes riveted on a one-state utopia, they help create a bantustan.


1. Indeed, Israeli officials criticised the UK Zionist Federation and Board of Deputies for campaigning on the vote:

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 lobbyists appear to have been caught between the Israeli government and their own grassroots.

2.  The UK based solidarity groups, chiefly the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, have on the other hand been excellent, organising letter-writing campaigns ahead of the vote and, along with Labour Friends of Palestine, publicising the result very effectively.

3. In fact, Kerry warned not that the two-state solution would become a bantustan arrangement, but that the absence of a two-state settlement would lead to a ‘unitary state’ that would either be apartheid or non-Jewish. Given the prevailing balance of power, it is not difficult to predict which possibility would come to pass.

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I think it is time for the Palestinians (PLO?) to state that just as they are unhappy with an Israel which has obscured its national borders, so too it cannot expect the world to be happy with a Palestine which has not stated its borders. Accordingly, Palestine should state as its borders the borders proposed in UNGA 181 and note that all of its territory is under belligerent occupation by Israel, some occupied in the… Read more »

The key point to note, which also explains this ostensible paradox that Palestinians seemed unexcited by the recognition of their statehood, is that despite all the talk to the contrary the real goal of the Palestinians is already the so-called one-state solution. Compressing another mini-state in that miniature piece of land that Israel + the West-Bank is, stopped being the goal of either Israelis or Palestinians. Arafat at the time wanted it as part of… Read more »

This piece misrepresents what Bargouti said in the NYT. Here is the full sentence: “But, if it (recognition) is, as implied, solely meant to resuscitate the comatose version of the “two state solution” which, as dictated by Israel, omits basic Palestinian rights, then it would be yet another act of British complicity in bestowing legitimacy on Israel’s unjust order.” Bargouti and Hijab, and I assume Abunimah, are not jumping up and down as Stern-Weiner would… Read more »

“By frustrating the two-state solution, they increase the likelihood of palpably worse alternatives. With their gazes riveted on a one-state utopia, they help create a bantustan”. A bantustan is not the worst outcome, in my opinion expulsion is far more likely in the inevitable event that when Palestinians outnumber Israelis of Jewish origin the “Jewish state” will cease to exist, in theory this would be a good thing, but we live in the real world… Read more »

If its really a majority Jewish state the Israelis want, then one is on offer now, a state based on the green line would ensure a Jewish majority within the legal borders of Israel, and for the foreseeable future. unfortunately they want it all, in which case they will probably lose it all.