Israel was bracing for a diplomatic tidal wave this week after lawmakers in the United Kingdom, one of the world’s friendliest countries to Israel, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a recognizing Palestine as a state on Monday. Israel is largely trying to weather the storm by downplaying it, emphasizing that the 274-to-12 vote doesn’t force any binding changes in British foreign policy and should not be treated as sea change in the conflict.
But coming on the heels of a decision by Sweden to recognize Palestine as a state, a move that was much easier for Jerusalem to dismiss as marginal or anti-Israeli in nature, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is looking increasingly likely to face a new and unprecedented wave of international pressure to move toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Although Netanyahu has voiced a theoretical endorsement of a negotiated settlement to the conflict that would lead to two states, his critics say he has consistently stalled progress in peace talks while continuing robust settlement growth in the West Bank.
Palestinians widely celebrated the vote in London, saying it was a move whose time had come – or was perhaps overdue: “Palestinians see this vote as the first step in righting the wrong of the Balfour Declaration,” Kamel Hawwash, a British-Palestinian academic, told TIME, referring to the 1917 decree in which Britain said it supported “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Almost a century later, the Jewish people have had a state for 66 years. But Palestinian statelessness was put back into the international spotlight this summer during the devastating war between Israel and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, making it clear how untenable the status quo is.
Some Israelis view these moves in the U.K. and Sweden with great concern. While government officials have been measured in their remarks—so as not to blow wind into the sails of the “victory” the vote presents for Palestinian statehood, or to do damage to the friendly British-Israeli relationship—they have been vocal about their disappointment with the parliamentary move, saying it was not helpful to peace efforts.
“We have no question that the British people are interested in conflict resolution,” said Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry. “The undercurrent of this is saying, ‘we want to drive peace forward.’ We just think they’re not going about it the right way.
“This kind of step discourages Palestinians from coming back to the negotiating table in the first place, or getting them to compromise,” Hirschson added. “But this is only going to be resolved around the negotiating table.” Trying to force Palestinian statehood on Israel via international bodies, he said, will never bear fruit and only lead to frustration.
“The stated policy of the Israeli government is already in support of a Palestinian state,” Hirschson said. “So there’s no big deal here on substance, the question is process.”
But other Israelis said there is substance at stake. Although Netanyahu stated in a landmark 2009 speech that he supports a two-state solution to the conflict, his critics say he has done little to advance that agenda, and has been undermining it in day-to-day settlement growth and in severe criticism of his would-be peace partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
One of the leading voices among these critics is Dr. Alon Liel, the former Director General of Israeli foreign ministry and a former Israeli ambassador to South Africa. On the eve of the vote, Liel organized a public letter urging the British parliament to pass the motion, and had it signed by 363 former Israeli diplomats, government ministers and prominent peace advocates.
“What happened Monday in Cairo was the world pledged $5.4 billion for Gaza—after we physically destroyed the Gaza Strip. We also destroyed the peace process and without the outside world, it cannot recover,” Liel told TIME. “I see this decision by Sweden and Britain as a recovery process for the diplomatic chaos we’ve made. Israelis who have worked for two states side by side for many years, as I have, have to be part of this effort.”
Liel said he was surprised by how many prominent former Israeli officials who support a two-state solution were willing to sign the letter in the 24 hours during which he and other partners organized the campaign. And the Israeli embassy in London, in turn, was surprised to find that he was behind it.
“They sent me an email saying, ‘did you really sign this?’ I said I did. I think it’s good for Israel. They didn’t send a reply email,” Liel said. He blamed both Israeli and Palestinians leaders for making the grim atmosphere seem that much more hopeless during their speeches at the U.N. last month—Abbas accused Israel of genocide, and a week later Netanyahu said Abbas collaborates with ISIS-style terrorists in Hamas by allowing them in his unity government. And Liel said only an outside push will lodge the parties from their stalemate.
“It’s not as if we can say, ‘OK, let’s have the status quo for 10 or even two years and then come back to it later,’” Liel said. “Even after another two years of what’s happening on the ground in terms of settlement expansion, we will lose the opportunity for a two-state solution. Many people like me feel the change must come, if not from within, from without.”
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