It’s a slow process, this business of getting recognized as an independent state, but the Palestinians are making progress. In September of last year, Mahmoud Abbas, the long-overdue-for-an-election president of the Palestinian National Authority, was given permission to sit in the “beige chair”, the one that is reserved for heads of state waiting to go to the podium and address the UN General Assembly.
And now, another Great Leap Forward. Last week the British Parliament voted by 274 to 12 to recognize Palestine as a state. It was a private member’s bill, however, and ministers in Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet were ordered to abstain. The bill cannot compel Cameron to actually recognize Palestine, a decision which the British Government will only take “at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace.”
More hot air and empty symbolism, then, or so it would seem. But the parliamentary vote is better seen as a very large straw in the wind. After half a century when Israel could count on reflexive support from the United States, Canada and the big Western European countries no matter what it did, public opinion in the countries of the European Union is shifting.
Until recently, the only EU members that recognized the State of Palestine were ex-Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe that had done so when they were Communist-ruled. But early this month the newly elected Swedish government declared that it would recognize Palestine, and other parliamentary votes on the question are coming up in Ireland, Denmark, Finland and, most importantly, France.
They will probably all vote yes. As Matthew Gould, UK ambassador to Israel, said on Israeli radio after the vote in London: “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 (in Gaza), and after the series of announcements on (expanding Israeli) settlements (in the West Bank). This parliamentary vote is a sign of the way the wind is blowing.”
Official Israel is busily pretending that this does not matter, but it does, in two ways. One is the diplomatic reality that soon nothing may stand between Palestine and full membership of the United Nations except a lone, naked US veto in the United Nations Security Council, which may have to be repeated on an annual basis.
That will be one consequence of the way the wind is blowing, but much graver for Israel is the reason why it is blowing in that direction: patience with Israeli Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu’s perpetual delaying tactics is close to exhausted in most Western electorates. Among the young it has already run out completely.
Most people in Israel believe that Netanyahu has absolutely no intention of allowing the emergence of a genuinely independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the one-fifth of colonial Palestine that was not already incorporated into Israel at the end of the 1948 war. Indeed, much of his electoral support comes from Israelis who trust him to prevent such an outcome.
Netanyahu can never state his purpose openly, of course, because that would alienate Israel’s supporters abroad, who generally believe that peace can only be achieved by the “two-state solution” that both sides signed up to 22 years ago in the Oslo Accords. Those supporters used to be willing to turn a blind eye to his actions so long as he gave lip-service to the Oslo goals – but that faith is now running on fumes in the British House of Commons.
Sir Richard Ottaway, the chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and a lifelong supporter of Israel, told the House: “Looking back over the past twenty years, I realize now that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent.”
The erosion of support for Israel has been slower in the United States, where open criticism of Israeli actions in the media is rare and Congress is still (in the crude phrase of Washington insiders) “Israeli-occupied territory.” But it is happening even there – and among the younger generation of Americans the decline has been very steep.
In a Gallup poll conducted last July, in the midst of the most recent Gaza war, more than half of Americans over the age of 50 said that Israel’s actions (which eventually killed over 2,000 Palestinians) were justified. Just a quarter of those between 18 and 29 years old agreed.
In both cases these generations will probably stick to their convictions all of their lives – but generational turnover will ensure that the opinions of the younger group ultimately prevail. It was presumably Israel’s actions and positions over the past ten years that shaped the opinions of the younger Americans. Another 10 years like that, and even the United States may have a majority that wants to recognize Palestine.