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Palestine in British politics

January 29, 2014 at 3:57 pm

From a Palestinian perspective, we are at an all-time low. The peace talks are dead, Netanyahu is likely to be re-elected, unilateral annexation is threatened, reconciliation talks have stalled and the Palestinian Authority is threatened with bankruptcy if it has the effrontery to seek recognition at the UN. Paradoxically, though, in terms of support for Palestine in Britain, we are at an all-time high.

A YouGov poll for Avaaz showed overwhelming support among the British public for Palestine to be recognised as a state at the UN. A majority of 59 per cent thought that the UK should vote in favour and only 9 per cent thought that the government should vote against. That majority was even higher in France (69.9 per cent) and Germany (76.8 per cent).

It would appear that on this issue the public are way ahead of their governments, which have yet to have the courage to say they will vote for Palestinian statehood. Indeed, there are few other issues where governments are so out of step with public opinion.

It is an unfortunate fact that public opinion doesn’t count for anything unless it is reflected in national parliaments; in Westminster the balance of opinion is much more sympathetic to Israel.

Why? It is certainly true that a generation of politicians grew up thinking of Israel as an “island of democracy” in a sea of dictatorships, but that would be true of the public as well. The only difference is that there have been very effective lobbies putting the Israeli case in Parliament over the past few decades.

Our job is not to complain about that, but to emulate it and there are plenty of signs that we are beginning to succeed on this. Up to a few years ago there were only a handful of MPs who would put their name to any motion supporting Palestine; now there are up to a hundred.

More than 80 Labour MPs support Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. While there are 89 MPs who have signed a motion urging HM Government to support Palestinian statehood at the UN, there are many more MPs who sympathise, but do not sign motions.

The change is most noticeable during the time allocated once a month for Foreign Office questions. In the past, pro-Israel MPs have dominated, reading out briefs prepared for them by Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) or Labour Friends of Israel (LFI). Now, despite the Speaker’s attempts to engineer a balance, it is the pro-Palestine questions that dominate.

In part this reflects the fact that many in Britain’s Jewish community feel deeply uncomfortable with what is happening in Israel and support policies such as withdrawing from settlements, ending the occupation and boycotting settlement goods.

It also reflects the fact that MPs are now lobbied much more on this issue than they used to be. If they fail to notice what is going on in the occupied Palestinian territories, they will have more and more constituents bringing it to their attention.

The politicians are slowly catching up with the public, but they are still years behind and the biggest brake on this process are the lobbying groups; CFI and LFI briefings to MPs are not only regular but also still almost entirely uncritical of the current Israeli government. Over the years they have come to exercise an influence out of all proportion to their spontaneous support through the use of various tactics, including the targeting of promising politicians early in their careers and inviting them to make visits to Israel.

CFI and LFI have taken over 150 MPs since 2002 on expenses-paid visits to Israel, with help from BICOM (the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre) and the Israeli Embassy. This may explain why CFI and LFI express so little criticism of the Israeli government. Some MPs have experienced a cursory tour of the West Bank consisting of a meeting in Ramallah and a visit to Ruwabi, the only place where Israel permits new housing to be built for Palestinians.

The names of the MPs are recorded on the Electoral Commission website, along with the smaller number who have been on visits to the West Bank or Gaza as guests of pro-Palestinian organisations and an even smaller number who have been on both. No one suggests that there is anything wrong with MPs going to Israel or the West Bank to see the situation for themselves but clearly organisations on both sides think it worth their while to invest in fact-finding missions for MPs in the hope of influencing them.

Another factor has been the view commonly held by MPs that supporting Friends of Israel organisations will help their career whereas supporting the Palestinian cause will consign an MP to the backbenches. If this was ever true, it certainly isn’t now. Many front-benchers on both sides of the House are very supportive on Palestinian issues. On the Labour side it is clear that a majority of MPs are sympathetic – though how much is impossible to measure – and on the Government side support is far greater than it appears in public.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go. Just as many people believe that they are not influenced by advertising, but only use well-known brands, many MPs believe that they are impervious to lobbyists, but they still absorb their message.

The fact that CFI and LFI have offices and full-time staff and their counterparts on the Palestinian side have none is bound to have had an effect. They may not have the best arguments, but they certainly have the resources and the money. The answer to this is for those who support Palestinian human rights to put their hands in their pockets, not to berate Israel for being well supported.

Furthermore, on a foreign policy issue, even if most MPs are guided by strong convictions, sometimes reinforced by constituency interests, it can be a marginal issue for others and they can be influenced by personal contacts and perceived career pressures.

So the message to all those campaigning for justice and human rights for Palestinians, is that you are already doing very well. The public is now much more supportive. There are some of us trying to translate this public support into parliamentary support and this is a vital job.

In the fight against apartheid all the early advances were made by protesters and consumers, but the battle would never have been won without political and governmental action. On this issue the British government has been more and more robust in its condemnation of Israel’s constant breaches of international law, but they are still baulking at the idea of taking any effective action to put pressure on the Israelis.

We need to persuade governments to move from words to actions and here are five ways in which you can help:

  • Mainstreaming the issue. Although the campaign for justice for Palestinians has always been cross-party, its opponents have always tried to portray it as the preserve of the far left. They do this in the hope of creating a “bounce-back” effect where those who do not identify with the far left – including many people in the Labour Party – are reluctant to become involved. Unfortunately this tactic has worked. It is greatly to the credit of the far left that they have supported the campaign for so long and nobody wants to lose their support, but it’s in everybody’s interest to emphasise the cross-party nature of the campaign. We should promote the involvement of Conservatives, and within the Labour Party we should promote the involvement of MPs not traditionally associated with the left. The Palestinian community in Britain should welcome the participation of all parties.
  • Looking for popular issues. The Palestinian move that had the biggest resonance and won the most public support in recent years was the PA’s application to join the UN. Even so, many of the Palestinians’ most long-standing supporters sat on their hands, claiming   inaccurately as it turned out   that the move did not have the support of Palestinians. It was a terrible missed opportunity. We need to be pragmatic about how to win public support. The last thing we should be doing is having arguments about our ideological purity.
  • Finding common ground. Although many of the leading activists in all the organisations campaigning for justice for Palestinians are themselves Jewish, it remains true that the majority of liberal Jews are reluctant to get involved. It would be more valuable for our cause if we let them take the lead in protesting against, for instance, visits by Israeli right-wingers such as Avigdor Lieberman or in favour of boycotting settlement goods and supported their protests rather than expecting them to join ours. This would demonstrate that there is common ground between liberal Jewish groups and groups campaigning for justice for Palestinians, even if there may not be complete agreement on long-term goals. Every demonstration is a coalition and we need to shake the kaleidoscope and create a more inclusive campaign.
  • Changing the mindset. It is the besetting problem for people involved in the Palestinian issue that, being aware of what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank and of most people’s ignorance or indifference to it, it is easy to fall into anger or despair or take refuge in unrealistic solutions. However, the truth is that the Palestinians suffer from desperate problems which, nevertheless, need well-thought-out, gradual, piecemeal solutions that in turn require a great deal of reassurance and persuasion to build the confidence on which change can be built. For years we have had words without action and it hasn’t worked, although action without words would not work either. It will need strong financial incentives to persuade any Israeli government to withdraw from the occupied territories, but the British government will also need to engage with Israelis and the British Jewish community to convince enough of them that change is in their interest.
  • More effective lobbying. MPs will always respond to lobbying by their constituents and there is huge scope for increasing the pressure on MPs to support justice for Palestine. Muslim communities, for instance, are very supportive of Palestine but few take the trouble to tell their MPs how strongly they feel. If every MP who has 2,000 Muslim constituents was lobbied by 20 of them at the National Palestine lobby in the House of Commons on Wednesday 28th November, that would make a huge difference. Hire a bus from your mosque to the Commons, or to your MP’s local surgery, and present them with a list of “asks”. If local parties are selecting candidates, find out what all the aspiring candidates say about Palestine and campaign for candidates who support human rights and against those who do not support justice for Palestine.

Martin Linton is a former MP and Guardian journalist who now runs a briefing service for MPs as “Palestine Briefing” and organises visits to the West Bank as “Labour2Palestine”. He co-founded Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.