To Whom The Bell Tolls

A majority of 274 to 12 members of the British Parliament recently called upon the government to join them in recognizing the State of Palestine. The UK Labour Party was the main supporter of the resolution. Although UK Prime Minister David Cameron and a great deal of the parliament abstained, many members of coalition parties also voted in favor.

Some dismissed the vote as merely symbolic, but it reflects Israel’s position in Europe after almost six years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stewardship. It was encouraging for many to hear him say in 2009 that Israel no longer sought to control another people, but his government’s actions in the West Bank ever since speak louder than his words.

The UK is signaling its government to climb off the fence. “Negotiations” and the “peace process” have increasingly become the sugar coating for the bitter status quo between Israel and the Palestinian people.

It is about time for the Israeli Labor Party to follow suit and rethink its message.

Labor general secretary MK Hilik Bar lobbied his British counterparts not to recognize Palestine, because such recognition “does nothing to advance” Palestinian statehood, as it “plays into the hands of Israel’s hard Right.”

MK Bar is a personal friend, and I’m proud of my Labor Party membership, as well as our work together with the Knesset caucus for the two-state solution in my time as executive director of OneVoice Israel. However, I am afraid he is wrong this time. Not because his efforts amounted to only 12 votes against, but because they are a poor step domestically and – most importantly – hurt the cause I know he and the party are deeply committed to.

It’s true that unilateral actions and the internationalization of the conflict aren’t popular in Israel. The fear of many, including supporters of the two-state solution, is that the world would impose terms on Israel, which might undermine its security arrangements, its access to holy sites in the West Bank, or the chances to negotiate even the minimal land swaps that are necessary to create a viable Palestinian state without evacuating the entire population of over 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

Beyond suspecting that only a bilateral agreement would ensure these interests are taken into account, international intervention is something of an insult – as if we can’t draw a border on our own. However, since Israeli and Palestinian delegations met for the first time, the settler population of the West Bank has more than tripled due to domestic sectorial pressure (which the Labor Party wasn’t immune to either when prime ministers Rabin, Peres and Barak were in power).

Hardly anyone in Israel genuinely believed Netanyahu when he assured US President Barack Obama of his commitment to a two-state solution only two weeks ago. And Netanyahu is set to remain in power for at least two more years. Under these difficult circumstances, it is increasingly unlikely that we – Israelis and Palestinians – can in fact do this on our own.

We can’t do this on our own now any more than we could do it in 1991 when the hard-liner prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was dragged to the Madrid Conference – kicking, screaming and sulking. Then and now most Israelis preferred a compromise with the other side over perpetuation of the conflict, but then as now a messianic settler lobby hijacked the government and prevented it from moving toward a resolution.

Following that international intervention, the Israeli public voted in the Rabin government, which managed to break through with the historical Oslo Accords.

Whatever problems are to be found in those interim agreements, they’ve set the course for an alignment of positions between the moderate camps in both Israel and Palestine.

The Labor Party’s charter supports partitioning the land based on the 1967 borders and the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. The PLO, the international representative of the Palestinians, accepts the exact same terms. Seventy-eight percent of the land to Israel and 22% for Palestine constitutes a huge victory for both national movements.

It is certainly more than Israel was granted when it accepted Israel’s (unilateral) application for UN membership in 1949.

The alignment of positions between moderates in Israel and Palestine means Palestinians recognize that Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa and Ashdod aren’t theirs, and Israelis understand that Shilo, Bet-El and Jericho aren’t ours.

It’s unclear what MK Bar expect moderates to line up behind, since peace talks under the brokerage of US Secretary of State John Kerry ended in nothing. Should Palestinians negotiate again with Netanyahu, the same leader that the Labor Party itself refuses to sit in the same coalition with? Should the friends of Israel and Palestine abroad wait patiently until a regrettably unlikely government under opposition leader Isaac Herzog replaces Netanyahu’s government? Finally, let’s examine MK Bar’s efforts to hamper the international campaign for a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. He knows the alternative, for the time being, is the much more dangerous campaign for Greater Israel by the far Right. That is why the current party leader, Herzog, advocated already in September 2011 that Israel should be the first country to vote yes for Palestine – and following that recognition should enter good-faith negotiations to conclude the details of a peace agreement.

Many British MPs spoke about how their vote in London would strengthen the moderates in Palestine against the absolutist and terrorist alternative, Hamas (which Conservative Sir Edward Leigh called a “Nazi organization” as he explained his reason for voting yes to recognizing Palestine).

The Israeli Labor Party should and make good use domestically of what happens internationally. International recognition of Palestine should embolden the moderates in Israel to climb off the fence of ambiguity, and push the stuttering Netanyahu out of office.

The author is a Labor Party member, formerly the director of the OneVoice movement in Israel and is currently pursuing a PhD in sociology. He is one of over 300 Israeli ex-diplomats, ministers and members of Knesset, Nobel Prize and Israel Prize laureates and civil society activists who signed a letter urging the British parliament to vote in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state.

This article was was first published in The Jerusalem Post.

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