Sir Alan Duncan is a member of the Intelligence and Scrutiny Committee, and a former International Development Minister.
A year ago this week, the Commons passed a hugely significant motion to recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel by 274 votes to 12. Despite only being a symbolic vote that was not binding on the Government, it was a watershed moment that demonstrated a shifting mood amongst MPs. I was proud to be in the Aye lobby that night.
Twelve month on from that vote, however, despite a clear international move in favour of Palestinian recognition, the two-state solution continues to drift even further away from reality.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise election win in March this year shut the door on any prospect of negotiations restarting, with the last attempt in 2013/14 having foundered – despite the best efforts of John Kerry – because of Israeli intransigence.
On the eve of the poll, Netanyahu – anxious to get over the line – went further than he ever has by confirming what we all knew, and explicitly vowing not to allow the creation of a Palestinian state if he was re-elected. An attempt at backtracking after the election fooled no-one.
At the UN General Assembly earlier this month, he devoted most of his speech to denouncing the recent Iran nuclear deal, but in the small passage reserved for the Palestinian issue he claimed that he was ready to resume direct negotiations ‘without any preconditions whatsoever.’
This might appear to be a fair and reasonable offer to help finally reach a two-state solution. It is nothing of the sort. It is a stalling tactic to allow Netanyahu to make a viable Palestinian state impossible, while pinning the blame on the Palestinians themselves.
Netanyahu has no need to impose preconditions, because none would weaken his hand. The Palestinians, though, would rightly insist on a freeze in the construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, each one of which puts a viable state further out of reach. Offering no preconditions is not an act of generosity: it is a trap to bind the Palestinians into talks without Israel having to adhere to international law and halt settlement expansion.
Nothing Israel could insist on diminishes their already established position as a state, yet each illegal settlement they construct weakens the prospect of Palestine becoming one too. Without a commitment to halt settlement construction – which Israel has made and then broken in previous rounds of negotiations – the Palestinians would be left trying to negotiate the creation of their state while Israel continued to eat into it.
The day after last year’s vote in Parliament, I delivered a speech at the Royal United Services Institute, which was reproduced on this site, arguing that illegal settlement expansion should be treated as a clear moral issue. Failure to condemn it, or to equivocate about whether the land rightly belongs to Palestine, should be considered an extremist position.
My most recent visit to the West Bank last month provided bleak confirmation that the situation on the ground continues to get worse. Israel continues to classify tranches of Palestinian land as buffer zones for illegal settlements, re-categorise swathes of the West Bank as state land and refuse permits for almost any Palestinian construction.
It was frustration at being continually told to be patient despite these indignities, and almost 50 years of Israeli occupation and annexation, that led the Palestinians to pursue their current strategy of seeking international recognition and membership of bodies such as the UN and the International Criminal Court. Since the vote in the Commons last year, Palestine has formally joined the ICC, having been granted non-member observer status at the UN in 2012.
This approach – while understandable, given that all other realistic avenues have been cut off – only serves to create facts on paper, while Israel continues to create facts on the ground in the form of settlements.
The past year has been relatively calm, with no repeat of the devastation of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, yet there have been flash points such the murder in July of 18 month old Ali Dawabsheh, his mother and his father in an arson attack by Israeli settlers in the West Bank village of Duma, which I visited shortly after. The burnt-out house in which I stood serves as reminder of the impunity with which some settlers feel they can treat the Palestinians in their own land: none of the perpetrators has been brought to justice.
Thankfully, the Duma attacks did not spark widespread unrest in the West Bank, but recent clashes at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif have demonstrated that East Jerusalem – which would be the capital of a Palestinian state but remains under Israeli control – is a tinder box. Sporadic Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers in the West Bank are increasing as, worryingly, are stabbings of Israelis in Jerusalem and elsewhere over the past fortnight. For the first time in years, the prospect of a third intifada is a serious concern.
The Palestinian Authority is desperate to avoid such an uprising and continues down the diplomatic track. But ordinary Palestinians will support this approach only so long as it promises to bear fruit. The danger for the PA is that it merely provides them with ‘wins’ on paper. With faith in the PA dwindling amongst the population anyway, this is unlikely to be enough in the long run.
Yet there is little other option available to them, with Israel – despite Netanyahu’s protestations – having little incentive to return to negotiations for as long as they can continue to contain the security situation. At the same time, each flare-up in Palestinian violence allows Netanyahu to argue again that the Palestinians are not a partner for peace.
A year on from our historic vote in Commons, progress continues to be agonisingly slow. Palestine has slipped even further down the international community’s agenda in place of the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it has unleashed. Even Israel has turned its focus to the rise of ISIS and the Iranian nuclear agreement. The other Middle Eastern and North African states highlight the plight of the Palestinians, but civil war in Yemen and the hangovers of the Arab Spring provide them with more pressing concerns.
We were right to make a stand – albeit a symbolic one – in voting to recognise Palestine. The truth, though, is that unless we are prepared to exert proper diplomatic pressure and change our thinking to see Palestinian statehood as an essential moral issue of our time, not just something to be forever put off, the prospects of Palestine actually transferring its paper statehood to a real and viable state are bleaker than ever.