Tomorrow, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is expected to ask the United Nations Security Council for the world body to recognise Palestinian statehood. At least 130 of the 193 members of the General Assembly have already indicated that they will be voting ‘Yes’ if the issue goes there, which it could, if the US vetoes the move in the Security Council.. Britain is at present among the undecided, but the Coalition Government should prove its commitment to justice and back the Palestinians’ aspirations.
There are at least two compelling reasons for this. First, there is the historical responsibility. In persuading the Arabs to join the Allied effort in the First World War in the fight against the Ottoman Turks and their German Allies, the British gave a clear signal to Sherif Hussein of Mecca that an independent Arab state would emerge from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, a vast Arab land to be ruled by his Hashemite dynasty. This was, as it turned out, a pipe-dream – worse than that, a con-trick.
Two obstacles stood in the way of that Arab Awakening, as it was so properly described by the great Arab historical writer George Antonius, in his 1938 book bearing that title. First, there was the so-called Balfour Declaration, based on a letter sent in November 1917 by the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to a leading member of the UK’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, declaring that the British government looked favourably on the idea of the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, providing the rights of the resident non-Jewish population were safeguarded.
The second obstacle was the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which proposed – with no reference to the populations concerned – how the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire should be divided up after the War. This is more or less what happened after 1918. France got hold of what is now Syria and Lebanon, while Britain had a mandate over Transjordan (now Jordan) and Palestine. The UK was still nominally in charge of Palestine when the foundations of the modern state of Israel were laid, leading to the unilateral declaration of independence by the Jewish State in 1948.
Though Britain was not the first country to recognise Israel, it did so relatively quickly, believing that the Jews who had suffered the unparalleled horrors of the Holocaust deserved a state of their own. Unfortunately, the process of creating Israel led to the expulsion – by force or through fear — of a large proportion of the resident Arab population, many of whom still live as refugees scattered around the Middle East and beyond.
Fast-forward six decades to the current situation, and what do we find? Israel has turned itself into a prosperous little state, through a mixture of hard work and massive public and private assistance from the United States. But for the past 44 years it has been occupying the West Bank – formerly part of Jordan – as well as the Golan Heights of Syria. Put aside the Golan for the moment, as it is the West Bank and its smaller ‘brother’, the Gaza Strip, which are meant to form the basis of a putative independent Palestinian state. Even the US President Barack Obama has recognised that the pre-1967 borders should be the basis for territorial agreement, though there will need to be some land swaps.
East Jerusalem is a critical issue, as it contains not only the third most holy sites for Muslims (after Mecca and Medina) but also it is seen by the Palestinians as the logical capital for a Palestinian state. Alas, the government of Binyamin Netanyahu – urged on by his hawkish Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman – is overseeing the judification of East Jerusalem, as more and more Muslims and Christians are squeezed out and new settlements for Jews are built. This is little short of ethnic cleansing.
Which brings me to the second reason why Britain should recognise Palestine when it comes to a vote in New York. This question is not just a matter of historical legacy but also of the current imperative for Britain to put itself clearly on the side of justice – to give the Palestinians not only the statehood but also the dignity that they have been denied, not just since 1967 or even 1948, but ever since the British government conned them into believing an end to Ottoman rule would mean freedom and self-government.
The UK’s Coalition government rightly threw its weight behind intervention in Libya, on the grounds that there was an international Responsibility to Protect the Libyan people. The time has now come to recognise the Responsibility to Protect the Palestinian people as well, not by military intervention but by backing the statehood claim and getting Israel to cease its heavy-handed and illegal occupation. Of course, not all Britain’s EU partners will agree. The EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, who has been visiting Israel and Palestine on several occasions in recent months, knows she has an impossible task to put together a united EU front on the issue. Israel’s traditional supporters , including guilt-ridden Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, to name but three, are likely to vote ‘No’ or at best abstain. The United States is very likely to use its veto (not for the first time), but that is no reason for Britain to take other than the moral high-ground. If Israel justly claims the right to exist, so can Palestine.