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Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot calls for UK to do ‘what is right’ and recognise State of Palestine

Ambassador Husam Zomlot, Head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom speaks to Palestine Deep Dive’s Mark Seddon. The ambassador illuminates the U.K's century of broken promises and missed opportunities towards Palestine, including the lack of leadership of the British government for continuing to refuse to recognise the State of Palestine

February 8, 2023 at 11:45 am

The head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Husam Zomlot, has reminded the British government of its responsibility to recognise the State of Palestine. Zomlot made his comment in an interview for Palestine Deep Dive under the heading “Ending Israel’s Impunity: The West’s Century of Broken Promises towards Palestine”. He threw light on the British government’s commitment to recognise the State of Palestine, as voted for by Members of Parliament in the House of Commons in 2014, and its ongoing refusal to do so.

When asked by Mark Seddon, former speechwriter for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, what his message is for British politicians as to the importance of diplomatic recognition, and also to a possible future Labour Party government whose current position is to recognise the State, the ambassador responded: “To do what is right and not what is comfortable, and to really represent Britain as Britain wants to be, which is global Britain, that safeguards international legality and international law. If they safeguard international law, international law is clear. It has given the Palestinians the full right of self-determination and a state and now, in the United Nations, we are a state. We are an Observer Member but a state. The State of Palestine.”

Missed opportunities 

The ambassador pointed out that to apologise is not a weakness, but a strength. “It’s a recognition of people’s suffering and your role. An apology allows you to lead the way and to have a legitimate role.” He gave four examples of when he thinks Britain should have apologised for its historic wrongs, or recognised the State of Palestine.

“Britain missed an opportunity in 1999 when the Oslo Accords concluded after five years and there was supposed to be a state. Britain and other Western powers should have said, ‘Okay, the Palestinians and Israelis have signed this Accord. They agreed to have two states after the end of this interim period, five years in 1999. We recognise the State of Palestine and we give the two parties equal footing and we level the field.’ Britain did not do that.”

When in 2012 the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of according Palestine non-Member Observer State status in the UN, it was another opportunity for an apology, said Zomlot. There were 138 votes in favour, nine against (including the United States) and 41 abstentions (including the United Kingdom).

“Again, in 2014, the United Kingdom Parliament voted overwhelmingly to recognise the State of Palestine, including Conservative members, Labour, cross-party. The UK Government completely disregarded that. Another opportunity missed.”

British MPs, including then Labour leader Ed Miliband, voted overwhelmingly to recognise the State of Palestine in 2014 by 274 votes to 12. The non-binding vote stated, “That this House believes that the government should recognise the State of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.”

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The UK government’s long-standing position has been that it will only recognise Palestine at the “right time” when it “best serves the objective of peace.” Neither has been defined further.

“The fourth opportunity, unfortunately, was missed in 2017,” continued the ambassador. “That was one hundred years after the Balfour Declaration. Prime Minister Theresa May had such an opportunity to actually say, ‘Okay, one hundred years on, we have seen all the agony and the suffering of the Palestinian people. We have seen the outcome of what has happened. We have never meant this to happen and this is an opportunity to actually recognise the State of Palestine.’ Missed, missed! Instead, she came out and said, ‘How proud we are to have issued the Balfour Declaration. Today, we celebrate it…’ She rubbed salt in that deep wound.”

The British government issued the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, pledging its commitment for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people in Palestine”, with the caveat that it must not prejudice the civil and religious rights of the “non-Jewish communities” in the country.

Ending Israel’s impunity

From 2021, leading international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, have concluded that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid with its institutionalised system of oppression and domination over the Palestinian people.

Yet, Israel’s political leadership has drifted ever further to the extreme right. On 3 January 2022, Yair Lapid ruled out peace talks explicitly, saying, “When I am prime minister… we still won’t hold negotiations with the Palestinians… the coalition agreement prevents progress in this channel.”

And the latest iteration of Israel’s government under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership has called explicitly for the outright illegal colonisation of occupied Palestinian land, pledging to “advance and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel – in the Galilee, Negev, Golan Heights and Judea and Samaria [the Biblical names for the occupied Palestinian West Bank].”

Moreover, Israeli security forces and illegal settlers have killed forty-two Palestinians since the beginning of January this year, including nine children. Observing the relationship between Israel’s ongoing impunity on the world stage and its domestic rightward shift, Zomlot said that the key word in this whole discussion about the Israeli government is accountability.

“You have all these convicted racists and criminals in the Israeli government in very high offices, because of the lack of accountability. Why do we have lack of accountability? It’s because of the US, sometimes the UK. The West in general, going out of its way to shield Israel from any scrutiny, any accountability… If you really want to change the dynamics in Israel, and if you really want to see the beginning of electing people who would actually produce a peace process, and end this situation, you’ve got to associate illegality with consequences. And you’ve got to create accountability for all this wrongdoing for all these years.”

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In 2021, the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson opposed the International Criminal Court investigation into alleged war crimes in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. He said in a letter to Conservative Friends of Israel, “This investigation gives the impression of being a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s.”

In August 2022, Britain’s then Conservative Party leadership hopeful Rishi Sunak told a Conservative Friends of Israel audience that there is a “very strong case” for moving the British Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and for formally recognising the latter as the “historic capital city” of Israel. In doing so he contradicted international law which recognises the status of East Jerusalem as illegally occupied by Israel. Since becoming Prime Minister, Sunak has apparently abandoned the plan.

Zomlot predicts that the current array of extreme right-wing Israeli ministers, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — who describes himself as a “fascist homophobe” — and convicted criminal Itamar Ben-Gvir, will seem “dovish” in five years’ time, “because the Israeli public are very comfortable, and there is no cost associated with the illegality, so they will keep producing and electing even more extreme people.”

Will Keir Starmer’s Labour Party keep its commitment?

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pressed Boris Johnson in June 2021 over Israel’s 11-day onslaught on Gaza which killed over 250 Palestinians, saying, “Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity this weekend to press for renewed international agreement to finally recognise the State of Palestine, alongside a safe and secure Israel, to stop the expansion of illegal settlements and to get a meaningful peace process back up and running?”

Yet last month, Jewish News reported that Starmer could backtrack on his commitment to recognise the State of Palestine in the Labour Party’s next election manifesto. Shadow Minister for the Middle East and North Africa Bambos Charalambous was asked last month at the Jewish Labour Movement’s annual conference about this commitment. He is reported to have told the audience: “We would recognise a Palestinian state, as things stand.”

British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer seen at the BBC headquarters in London, United Kingdom on January 10 2021 [Tayfun Salci/Anadolu Agency]

Starmer, who has described himself as a “friend to Palestinians”, has faced fierce criticism for his refusal to recognise Amnesty International’s findings about Israeli apartheid. In 2021, a motion calling for sanctions against Israel for practising the crime of apartheid was voted for at the Labour Party Conference, but the leadership refused to support it.

While Starmer has been accused of waging a “factional war against the left”, with hundreds of thousands of members reportedly leaving the Party since he took over, he is now also facing increasing voter apathy among British Muslim voters according to recent surveys, 87 per cent of whom voted Labour in 2017. It remains to be seen whether Labour will commit to its long-standing promise to finally recognise the State of Palestine, as parliament voted for in 2014.

Moreover, it is disconcerting that many Jewish members of Labour have been accused of “anti-Semitism” because of their support for Palestine and the Palestinians. Ambassador Zomlot was very clear that the struggle for Palestinian independence is not an issue about the identity of the oppressors.

“Anti-Semitism is real. it exists, and we must fight it and uproot it. It’s vile, and so is the Israeli occupation. It too must be uprooted,” he insisted. “Our issue is not with the identity of our oppressors. There are non-Jews in the Israeli Army, and they are our oppressors. We are struggling against oppression, not the identity of our oppressors. Our issue is not with the Jewish people, it is with the state that has decided that it wants to control our lives forever and deny us our legitimate rights.”