On Monday October 13, British MPs voted to recognise Palestine as a state, by 272 to 12 – a majority of 260. Ministers were told to abstain, and the vote – which was free for Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs and on a one line whip for Labour MPs – is non-binding. It was a symbolic victory that is not expected to make a difference to government policy, but it was a historic moment nonetheless.
One day after the vote, the former international development secretary and Conservative MP Alan Duncan made a speech to the Royal United Service Institute in London. The speech was one of the strongest attacks on the Israeli government ever made by a frontline British politician.
In his speech, Duncan stressed that he supported Israel's right to exist within its 1948 borders. But he condemned Israeli settlements as "the worst, most destructive, aspect of the military occupation, an occupation which has become the longest in modern international relations."
He said that the time had come for Britain to say in clear terms that settlements on land occupied by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War were unacceptable: "This illegal construction and habitation is theft, it is annexation, it is a land grab – it is any expression that accurately describes the encroachment which takes from someone else something that is not rightfully owned by the taker. As such, it should be called what it is, and not by some euphemistic soft alternative."
While successive British governments have stated that they view settlements on land captured in 1967 as illegal, Duncan feels that Britain and other allies of Israel should go further and make it obvious to Benjamin Netanyahu's government that ignoring calls to halt expansion goes outside the bounds of democratic nations.
He was particularly critical of Netanyahu's government, saying that the expansion of settlements was a deliberate policy showing that "the occupier has little or no intention of ending that occupation or of permitting a viable Palestinian state to come into existence." He described this policy as "reprehensible".
Speaking about the city of Hebron, where Palestinian families have largely been forced out of the centre by settlers, he used the word "apartheid", which is highly charged in the context of Israel and Palestine. "One should not use the word apartheid lightly, but as a description of Hebron it is both accurate and undeniable," he said. "In South Africa it meant pass cards, no free movement, forbidden areas, and first and second-class citizens. So it is in Hebron."
He added that anyone who supports settlement activity should be viewed as an extremist, and said that the "wicked cocktail" of occupation and annexation should bring shame on the Israeli government.
Duncan, who was appointed the prime minister's envoy to Yemen and Oman after leaving government last year, revealed that he had raised his concerns about Israel's settlements in a letter to David Cameron and the then Foreign Secretary William Hague last year. Clearly, the fact that these concerns were kept private while Duncan was a minister – as well as the fact that all ministers abstained from the parliamentary vote on Palestinian statehood – demonstrates nervousness on the part of the British government about taking a strong stand on this issue.
Responding to the parliamentary vote, Israel's ambassador to the UK, Matthew Gould, said that Israeli government officials should not dismiss the vote, despite its symbolic status: "I think it is right to be concerned about what it signifies in terms of the direction of public opinion," he told an Israeli radio station.
He added: "Separate from the narrow question of recognition, I am concerned in the long run about the shift in public opinion in the UK and beyond towards Israel. Israel lost support after this summer's conflict, and after the series of announcements on settlements. This parliamentary vote is a sign of the way the wind is blowing, and will continue to blow without any progress towards peace."
Gould's point about the shift in western public opinion of Israel – something that was raised by left and right-wingers during this summer's onslaught of Gaza – is an interesting one. In 2011, when Duncan criticised Israel's Separation Wall as a "land grab", he was forced to remove footage of the comments from his department's website; a spokesman said the comments had been "misinterpreted".
The Foreign Office was said to be privately unhappy with the tone of the language he used, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews questioned his suitability as a government spokesman. Three years later, Duncan is no longer a minister and can therefore speak more freely – but it is notable that he has not only used the term "land grab" again, but has gone much further in his criticism. While his speech is unlikely to have any direct impact on UK government policy towards Israel, the fact that such a prominent Conservative minister is making such a speech at all could well say something about the political mood and the direction in which it is moving.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.