Britain's inability to assert a consistent and sensible policy with regard to Israel and Palestine has led us down the road to anonymity
Today the United Nations will vote to upgrade the status of Palestine to ‘non-member observer'. And much like Eban predicted, the resolution will easily be voted through.
For over a year now the British government has been asserting that there will be no substitute for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. While supporting their right to a state, Britain and the United States have both urged Abbas to turn away from unilateralism and towards dialogue.
But tonight, the United Kingdom is set to abstain in the vote.
Clearly a consistent British policy on the Middle East is lacking. Last year, William Hague told the House of Commons that supporting a bid would ‘reduce the incentives for the Palestinians and the willingness of Israelis to find a negotiated solution.’
Last month, at the United Jewish Israel Appeal annual dinner, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that there would be no path to peace except through talks with Israel. He said, "So if the Palestinian plan is simply posturing with the UN rather than negotiating with Israel, Britain will never support it."
He's right in a way. Britain's abstention is not to be confused with active or tacit support. Instead, it's the change in rhetoric over the past week that we need to consider.
Yesterday, William Hague practically begged the Palestinians to grant Britain the assurances it needed to vote with them. These assurances were not based on the notion of direct talks.
Calling Mahmoud Abbas a ‘courageous man of peace’, Hague urged the Palestinians to provide guarantees that they would return to negotiations without pre-conditions and that they would not apply for membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Palestinians will not accept this offer.
Whilst Britain’s support would be useful in isolating the US, the resolution in its current form will easily pass without us anyway. Importantly for the Palestinians, they will not have to make any concessions on applications to the ICC, allowing them to continue to internationalise the conflict as a legal matter rather than actually sit down with Israel and negotiate for peace.
The Government is right to make the ICC its red line in negotiations, but as major donors to the Palestinians we should have been steadfast in ensuring maximum leverage on this issue from day one. We, thanks to the cowardice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particular, failed.
Instead, the international community will tonight tell the Palestinians that the unilateral diplomatic agenda works. Britain will stand by as the Palestinians realise and reaffirm the fact that they don’t need to sit down with Israel and make the tough decisions and the difficult compromises that define the process of seeking peace.
While it is frustrating that for years the peace process has gone nowhere, this is not the message we ought to be sending. It is only through a resumption of negotiations, not a unilateral agenda, that two states for two peoples can be a realistic objective.
When defenders of a two state solution are presented with tough decisions, they must not shirk from making unpopular but sensible choices; the choices that ensure the best possible chance for peace the day after the UN votes.
For all William Hague’s protestations that the UK decision will maintain our influence as effective mediators and act in the best interest of moving the peace process forward, this decision is the wrong one and will further consign Britain to a mere bit part player in the process of creating peace.