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Peace process needs UK to play its part    

by
17 February 2023

The Government should recognise Palestine, like Israel, as a state, in a preliminary to negotiations, argues Vincent Fean

A TEAM in the Foreign Office deals with the Middle East Peace Process, also known as Israel/Palestine. Problem: there is no process, and no peace. Injustice and violence are increasing. Britain has a part to play, given our historic responsibilities in the region and our Government’s declared support for equal rights and the rule of law.

As the British Mandate crumbled in 1948, the State of Israel came into being through bitter strife, with the expulsion or flight of most of the Palestinian population. In 1967, Israel occupied militarily the remaining 22 per cent of Mandate Palestine: East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, and Gaza.

Under international law, territory occupied in armed conflict cannot be annexed; so any annexation that is de jure under Israeli law — for example, East Jerusalem — is illegal in terms of international law. Arafat’s PLO recognised Israel on its pre-’67 borders in 1988, and sought a state on the 22 per cent. Since 1967, the international community has advocated ending the Occupation, enabling two states to coexist with mutual security. This is still the aspiration of the United States, UK, and European Union.

Our government can take a positive step: recognise the State of Palestine alongside Israel. It is logical to recognise both states, as a precursor to any negotiations. Making recognition follow negotiations gives Israel a veto, which the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will use. He says that the Jewish people “have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel”, including the West Bank. He rejects negotiations over two states in favour of permanent occupation and annexation: de jure under Israeli law as regards East Jerusalem, de facto in the case of settlements elsewhere in the West Bank.

The then Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, rightly said that settlements were annexation.

 

THE Palestinians are in desperate straits, but at least now there is clarity about Mr Netanyahu’s intentions: what he has he intends to hold, with impunity.

Palestinians live with varying degrees of deprivation, depending on where they live: refugees in Syria and Lebanon; two million people locked into Gaza; West Bankers, recently banned from building in their own countryside, where they face violent attacks by ideologically motivated settlers; East Jerusalemites, paying full Israeli taxes, but receiving one third of the services delivered to West Jerusalemites; and the Palestinians constituting 21 per cent of Israel’s population.

They have relied on the Israeli judicial system to defend their rights, with mixed results; but Mr Netanyahu now says that the Israeli Parliament can override any Supreme Court ruling by a simple majority vote. His coalition of Likud, Ultra-Orthodox, and Jewish Supremacist Religious Zionist parties has that majority.

Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, and Gaza are in a bad place, politically. The split remains between Hamas, which runs Gaza, and Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah.

President Abbas, to whom the West speaks, is old, weak, and unpopular, particularly among the young. Ironically, he has done exactly what the West wanted: PA security co-operation with the Israeli army, continued advocacy of two states, and fruitless negotiations with any Israeli leader willing to meet him (including, in the past, Mr Netanyahu).

Palestinian democratic renewal is desperately needed: there have been no national elections since the Hamas/Fatah split in 2007. Abbas cancelled elections in May 2021, as his Fatah party splintered.

Desperation in the face of repression leads to violence: in 2022, the highest annual number of West Bank Palestinians — more than 150 — were killed by the Israeli army for 15 years, with nightly army incursions into Jenin and Nablus. More than 30 Israelis were killed in unco-ordinated Palestinian attacks in Israel and the West Bank. In the first weeks of 2023, more than 40 Palestinians and nine Israelis have been killed.

Israel’s new Minister of National Security, the Jewish Supremacist Itamar Ben-Gvir, promises to show the Palestinians who is boss. The fragile truce between Hamas and Israel could break without warning.

 

OUR imperial history includes the 1917 Balfour Declaration (Israel’s birth certificate) and Britain’s rule over Mandate Palestine until 1948, culminating in our shameful withdrawal, leaving the country in chaos for the parties to fight over. Past actions and inaction give us a certain moral and political responsibility for what happens next.

Mr Netanyahu used to say that Israel had no Palestinian partner for peace. Today’s Israeli government is not a negotiating partner, but is ordering, instead, a massive expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank: annexation.

Our Government is well-informed. The Middle East Minister, Lord Ahmad, was in Israel and the West Bank last month, and, to his credit, visited the West Bank hamlets of Masafer Yatta, where 1000 Palestinians face eviction by the Israeli army.

Rishi Sunak will visit Israel in May, and should visit Palestine, too. He should heed those Israelis who oppose their government’s illegal discriminatory actions, grievously harming Palestinians and putting at risk Israel’s own future well-being.

Britain rightly opposes Russia’s brutal attempt to seize and annex Ukrainian territory, in grave breach of international law. Those same laws apply to annexation of Palestinian land. If our Government wants to be taken seriously, it must not exhibit double standards: one law for our foes, and another for our friends.


Sir Vincent Fean was British Consul General to Jerusalem from 2010 to 2014, and is currently vice-chair of the Balfour Project.

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