Is Palestine going mainstream in British politics?

17 July 2012

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Are British lawmakers prepared to go beyond merely condemning Israeli colonization and oppression?

(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

On Wednesday, 4 July, a public meeting took place in the British Parliament’s Grand Committee room. Speaking on the panel of members of parliament were a Conservative former career soldier, a senior minister in two previous Labor governments, and a member of Labor Friends of Israel. What could they all possibly have had in common?

They had assembled to speak at a meeting about the reality of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. This followed a trip they had participated in, organized by the Council for Advancing Arab-British Understanding.

Earlier that same day, during a Westminster Hall debate, the Foreign Office minister responsible for relations with the Middle East had — for the first time — strongly hinted that a ban on importing goods made in Israeli settlements could be on the way.

The events of that day were only the latest examples of how views critical of Israeli policy have entered the mainstream of UK politics.

Israel’s “martial law”

The Conservative MP on the panel was Colonel Bob Stewart, an interesting, and in some respects eccentric, figure. Newly elected to Parliament in 2010, Stewart spent 28 years in the British army. He became quite well known in the 1990s after his time as UN commander of British forces in Bosnia.

After leaving the army, he joined the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton as a consultant. According to his own website, his clients at that time included Egypt during Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was part of British army intelligence in the northern Irish city of Derry. He is also a member of the British-American Project, a cliquey Atlanticist group whose origins lie in the Cold War.

But at the CAABU meeting, he spoke in the tradition of British army Arabists that stretches back to the early twentieth century. He recounted a little of his life growing up in a military family in Jordan and Yemen during the British colonial era, and visiting Jerusalem at times. He said “my father was [an officer] with Glubb Pasha in Amman,” referring to the British army general who commanded Jordanian forces until 1956.

Stewart said he was “deeply upset by what I saw” in the West Bank. He spoke passionately against the “martial law” Israel imposes on Palestinians there, and against the system of unequal Israeli laws for Palestinians and Israeli settlers who live in the same territory. He seemed genuinely outraged by what he had seen. He said that Hebron (occupied in its city center by militant Israeli colonists) had reminded him of places he had been in the Balkans.

At a debate on Palestine in the parliamentary chamber earlier in the day, he had concluded his speech with an odd rhetorical flourish “by asking God to bring back King Solomon. He was respected by Jews and Muslims equally, and my God, we need his wisdom now” (“House of commons transcript,” 4 July 2012).

“We are funding the occupation”

Also speaking on the CAABU panel was John Denham. Denham resigned from a ministerial post in Tony Blair’s government in opposition to the Iraq war, and is a strong supporter of Labor Friends of Palestine. On the panel he said that during the visit there had been “a sense of the normalization of the occupation” compared to his previous visits to Palestine.

Denham once thought UK aid was investing in a process that would lead to a two-state solution, but now he questioned that. “If all I am paying for now and all my constituents are paying for now is simply the maintenance of an occupation .. can I keep going back asking them for money? Surely there has to be an impulse for change … we are funding this occupation,” he said.

Denham also said there was a great danger of just repeating the “mantra of two-state solution as though it’s something that always remains open.”

Shift in Labor

Ian Lucas was the representative of Labor Friend of Israel on the panel. He is the shadow minister for the Middle East in the main opposition party. His presentation was somewhat more circumspect, and he seemed to be hedging his bets, with his political career in mind. He too noted the “normalization and improved security” during the CAABU delegation, but did so positively.

Interestingly, he said that some Palestinian Authority officials he spoke to were “gravely concerned about how long the situation can actually continue without an upsurge and reaction that could only end in violence.”

Although Lucas did not name these PA officials, the delegation is known to have met with “Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad, [“chief negotiator”] Saeb Erekat … the head of external affairs of Fatah and the governor of Hebron,” according to an article by Denham (“John Denham MP writes about his visit to the occupied territories,” Labor Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, 21 May 2012).

Nevertheless, the fact that Lucas even went on the CAABU delegation speaks volumes. So does the fact he addressed the Labor Friends of Palestine annual reception in May.

As Martin Bright of the Zionist weekly paper The Jewish Chronicle noted: “There was a time when an ambitious young member of the Labor Party was well-advised to join Labor Friends of Israel, but from Monday’s turnout it is now clear that Labor Friends of Palestine is the place to be seen” (“Labor Palestine group comes of age,” 17 May 2012).

Shazia Arshad, an executive committee member of Labor Friends of Palestine certainly agrees with Bright on that last point. Speaking to The Electronic Intifada, she said mainstream members of the Labor party had in fact long been appearing at the group’s events, including Gordon Brown, the former prime minister.

Arshad said that “mainstreaming the issue [of Palestine makes it] … more accessible. It’s about getting the issue heard at all levels” and that politicians play a different role than activists. “If you look back ten years, or even five years ago, the issue of Palestine, it wasn’t mainstream. But more than that it was kind of a bit scary,” and perceived as a fringe left-wing issue. But, she added, “there are now politicians that are not afraid of talking about Palestine.”

All three panel members had attended the Westminster Hall debate earlier the same day. It had been most notable for the strongest hint yet by Alistair Burt, the coalition government’s minister for the Middle East that a UK ban on products originating in Israeli settlements could be on the way.

Burt had said the issue was “under active consideration in London and in Brussels.”

Lucas, Burt’s shadow in the opposition, said at the CAABU meeting later that day that the comment was unprecedented. “Investigating the legal status of goods that are produced in the occupied territories … the government has actually, I think for the first time, today said something concrete about those types of actions in relation to specifically the occupied territories,” Lucas said.

Having followed the push to ban settlement goods for about four years, Arshad is cautious about Burt’s comment. Arshad thinks the Foreign Office will have little choice but to make some sort of change to the law, but said “I don’t know how stringent it will be” since the Conservative-led government has “diplomatic considerations” with Israel.

During the debate, Lucas said that “‘settlements’ is a very misleading word, because they are huge estates and developments; they do not appear temporary at all.” However, he was vague on concrete action, talking rather airily of a “need for a different attitude from the parties to the dispute,” and concluding that the “two-state solution is under threat.”

One state with equal rights for all: not utopian?

Bob Stewart noted that “unless the settlements stop, there can be no chance whatever of a two-state solution, and the only alternative … is a one-state solution — one state where Jews and Palestinians recognize one another as equals. Surely that is not totally utopian.”

Ben Bradshaw was more forthright on the issue of action. A previous minister for culture and sport in Gordon Brown’s Labor government, Bradshaw is no longer on the opposition front benches. He was insistent that the UK and EU should “move beyond the ritual criticism and condemnation that we always make of the Israeli authorities, and sue them for damages” because of their “illegal demolition of [Palestinian] infrastructure that has been built with British, UK, EU or international money.”

Michael Deas, coordinator in Europe with the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC), told The Electronic Intifada that Burt’s comments were “hopefully a sign that European governments are starting to realize that they must do more than simply condemn Israel’s relentless colonization of Palestinian land. However, Israel and Israeli companies habitually mislabel settlement produce as ‘made in Israel,’ so it remains to be seen how a ban on settlement produce would be implemented,” Deas said.

“Furthermore, agricultural export companies like Mehadrin are directly involved in the colonization of Palestinian land. Avocados don’t commit war crimes, states and corporations do,” he added, explaining that the BNC calls for a ban on trade with companies complicit with Israeli violations of international law rather than just settlement produce itself.

If it happens, a ban on exports from settlement goods would be a move in the right direction. It would certainly another sign that support of Palestinian rights is going mainstream in the UK.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist from London who has lived and reported from occupied Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org.