Palestinian ambassador Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom, has reminded the British government of its responsibility to immediately recognize the State of Palestine in an interview published on Monday.
Palestine Deep Dive’s interview entitled, “Ending Israel’s Impunity: The West’s Century of Broken Promises towards Palestine” illuminates the British government’s commitment to recognizing 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 recognize the State, the ambassador responds:
“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.”
“Apology is not a weakness. Apology is strength,” he says. “It’s a recognition of people’s suffering and your role. Apology allows you to lead the way and to have a legitimate role,” he said, before listing four examples of when he thinks Britain should have apologized for its historic wrongs, or recognized the State of Palestine.
“Britain missed an opportunity in 1999 when the Oslo Accords concluded after five years, 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 recognize the State of Palestine and we give the two parties equal footing and we level the field.’ Britain did not do that.”
He also lists 2012 as a key missed opportunity, when the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of Palestine’s non-Member Observer State status in the United Nations, with 138 in favor, 9 against (including the United States) and 41 abstentions (including the United Kingdom).
“Again, in 2014, the United Kingdom Parliament voted overwhelmingly to recognize 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 recognize the State of Palestine in 2014 (274 to 12). The non-binding vote stated, “This House believes that the Government should recognize the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution.”
The UK government’s long-standing position has been that it will only recognize Palestine at the “right time” when it “best serves the objective of peace.”
“The fourth opportunity, unfortunately, was missed in 2017. 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 recognize the State of Palestine.’ Missed, missed! Instead, Theresa May comes out and says ‘how proud we are to have issued the Balfour Declaration. Today, we celebrate it…’ She put salt in that deep wound.”
In 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, pledging its commitment for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, with only the caveat that it must not prejudice the civil and religious rights of the “non-Jewish communities” in the country.
Ending Israel’s Impunity
In 2021, leading human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, all unanimously concluded that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid for its institutionalized system of oppression and domination over the Palestinian people.
Yet, Israel’s political leadership has drifted ever further to the extreme right. On January 3rd, 2022, then-incumbent Prime Minister Yair Lapid, explicitly ruled out peace talks, 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 Netanyahu’s leadership has explicitly called for the outright illegal colonization of the occupied Palestinian land, pledging to “advance and develop settlements 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.
Israeli forces and settlers have killed forty-two Palestinians since the beginning of January 2023, including nine children.
Observing the relationship between Israel’s ongoing impunity on the world stage and its domestic rightward shift, Zomlot says:
“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 a lack of accountability? It’s because of the US, sometimes, the UK. The West in general, going out of their 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.”
In 2021, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson opposed the International Criminal Court investigation into alleged war crimes in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, saying 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, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s then-Conservative Party leadership hopeful 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 recognizing the latter as the “historic capital city” of Israel, himself contradicting international law which recognizes the status of East Jerusalem as illegally occupied by Israel. Upon becoming Prime prime minister Sunak abandoned the plans.
Zomlot predicts the current array of extreme right-wing Israeli ministers, including Finance Minister Smotrich who describes himself as a “fascist homophobe” and convicted criminal Ben-Gvir, will seem “dovish” in five years time, “because the Israeli public, very comfortable, no cost associated with the illegality, will keep producing and electing even more extreme people.”
Will Starmer’s Labour Party Keep its Commitment?
In June 2021, Labour leader Keir Starmer pressed Boris Johnson 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 a renewed international agreement to finally recognize 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 the UK Labour Party leader could backtrack on its commitment to recognize the State of Palestine from its upcoming 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 recognize a Palestinian state, as things stand.
Starmer, who has described himself as a “friend to Palestinians”, has faced fierce criticism for his refusal to recognize Amnesty International’s findings about Israeli apartheid. In 2021, a motion calling for sanctions against Israel for practicing the crime of apartheid was voted in at the Labour Party Conference, but the leadership refused to support it.
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, and is now also facing increasing voter apathy among British Muslim voters according to recent surveys, 87% of whom voted Labour in 2017.
It remains to be seen whether Labour will commit to its long-standing promise to finally recognize the State of Palestine, as parliament voted for in 2014.