There is a low intensity ground war between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel wins the battles, with its infinitely superior force. But both sides will lose the war if the result is one state, Greater Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, denying the Palestinians their right to self-determination and statehood on the land Israeli troops captured in 1967. That outcome, with chronic violence internalised within what will be an apartheid state, is coming dangerously closer. It is in no people’s interest – not Israel’s, not Palestine’s, not ours. Without change, it will be the new reality. Britain can do two things to help prevent it: recognise the state of Palestine alongside Israel, their borders based on pre-June 1967, then treat both states equally according to international law.
If today we expect little of the two parties to this conflict, we shall not be disappointed. The Palestinians, the weaker, divided party, made concessions at Oslo which rebounded on them. What they assumed to be temporary, transiting to Palestinian statehood, has become the daily norm: Israel’s blockade of Gaza is in its 10 year, the increasing humiliations of West Bank checkpoints are in their 50th year. Illegal Israeli settlements spread far and wide there and in East Jerusalem. Soon 600,000 Israeli citizens – 10% of Israel’s population – will live on the Palestinian side of the 1967 line. Israel’s armed forces impose suffocating security controls on the occupied Palestinians, but Israelis still feel insecure, fearing the cycles of desperate violence to which we all have become too accustomed: three Gaza wars in six years, with a fourth on the cards if nothing changes. Lasting Israeli security is not to be attained by suppressing Palestinian rights.
Change will not come swiftly from this Israeli Government, whose idea of “reprisal” for a horrifying murder is to build more settlements – pouring petrol on the blaze, putting more Israelis on the wrong side of the line. Settlement expansion and the accompanying crippling restrictions on Palestinian rights to build on and work their own land are the heart of the matter: how can any Palestinian leader credibly negotiate final borders while Israel builds more settlements? Mr Netanyahu sometimes says he can envisage a Palestinian state, but his systematic illegal settlement expansion eats away the very land of that state. Some settlements are in the fertile Jordan Valley, geographically as far away from Israel as you can get without entering the state of Jordan. Any equitable solution will need to recognise Palestinian rights to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
What is Britain’s role? We certainly have “form” on this conflict, as both parties say loudly. That role predates 2 November 1917 and Foreign Secretary Balfour’s declaration of support for a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.* Those “non-Jewish communities” then constituted 90% of the population of Palestine. By the end of the British Mandate in 1948, they were still 69%. In our haste to cut our losses and hand over to the UN, their vital interests were flouted. After the June 1967 war, Britain negotiated Security Council Resolution 242, which ruled against the acquisition of territory by force and called upon Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories recently occupied by force. Today, our Government is on good terms with Israel and the Palestinians. With our US and European partners, we can influence both parties to the conflict. But our policy of discreet cajolery and polite encouragement has not worked. A more assertive, values-based approach is needed to change minds and right wrongs, leading to two states at peace.
British values are embodied in the international humanitarian laws we drafted after World War II, including the laws on occupation. British interests lie in ensuring that the two state solution to this conflict becomes a reality. Our key security interests are served by that outcome, just as the nihilistic interests of Da’esh (Islamic State) are served by any other result. Upholding our values and our interests, we should speak truth to Power: in the first instance, the occupying Power. Israel’s current policies are making less likely the solution of two independent states coexisting peacefully, with international security guarantees for both. Those policies need to change to reflect on the ground the (sometimes) professed wish of Israel’s Prime Minister to see Israel at peace with a viable Palestinian state. We also need to address the Palestinians – to strengthen those moderate voices who argue urgently for non-violence and two states. The best way to help them win is to prove our support for two states by recognising both states. Britain recognised the state of Israel in 1950. Our Government should now recognise Palestine alongside Israel on 1967 lines, as over 130 of our 193 UN partners have done. Britain is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, alongside France, the US, Russia and China. Our measured decision to recognise Palestine and to act accordingly will find a ready echo elsewhere in Europe.
Today, France is working hard to preserve the solution of two states. It’s a lonely task. The Americans, who are taking their Presidential election year off (again), are necessary for a negotiated solution but unable to deliver it alone. France needs our help to make a go of her planned international peace conference later this year. The Paris menu consists solely of carrots to reward good behaviour at the expense of consequences for illegal behaviour. But it is now the only vehicle for progress, based on UN Security Council Resolutions for which Britain voted. Our new Government must make common cause with France, and Boris Johnson must put his shoulder to the Franco-British wheel. The symbolism and substance of joint efforts to preserve Israeli and Palestinian rights matter more now than ever.
Sir Vincent Fean, a retired British diplomat, was Consul-General (Jerusalem) 2010-14, responsible locally for UK/Palestinian relations.
The Balfour Project seeks to shed light on British Government policies from World War I until we left Palestine in 1948. The Project website is worth a visit.
Sir Vincent Fean