James Arbuthnot MP is Chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel and of the Defence Select Committee.
Next week, the United Nations Security Council will vote on a resolution to grant ‘Palestine’ full membership. It is now time for the international community to decide whether to support the Palestinians unilateral diplomatic strategy. The UK holds an important vote in the Security Council and how we use it will certainly have ramifications on the future of the peace process and what future role we intend to play in creating peace in the region.
To date, the Palestinian strategy has been to secure enough support in the Security Council to win an outright majority. Failing this, they are aiming to trigger a US veto and thereby win a ‘moral majority’ in the Security Council before moving the vote to the General Assembly where an outright win on ‘non-member’ statehood would be guaranteed.
The Palestinians currently have eight Security Council votes in the bag – Russia, China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Lebanon, Gabon and Nigeria –just shy of the nine votes needed for a win. The United States has announced its intention to vote against the resolution, labelling it a distraction from the goal of restarting negotiations between the parties. Crucially, Europe has become the swing vote in this debate.
Britain – in agreement with the US – has stated time and again that it is negotiations rather than unilateral action that will bring peace. William Hague has been very clear in stating that there can be no resolution to the conflict via unilateral action. Palestinians will expect real change on the ground as a result of the declaration of statehood but unilateral Palestinian moves will bring no real transformation since Israel will reject them.
Furthermore, a positive result at the UN signals to the Palestinians that they don’t need to talk to Israel, that they can circumvent the whole negotiation process and proceed unilaterally and diplomatically – with the support of the international community – to achieve their ends. In an article in the New York Times earlier this year, President Abbas said:
"Palestine's admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalisation of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice."
Whilst it is frustrating that peace talks have stalled, it is only through a resumption of negotiations, not an “internationalisation of the conflict”, that two states for two peoples can be achieved: a sovereign Palestine beside a safe and secure Israel.
Britain – along with France and possibly Germany – will be abstaining from the UNSC vote next week. The planned abstention is an acknowledgement of the validity of some of the Palestinian demands coupled with a reflection of the British concern that the Palestinian agenda will not move them closer to their ultimate goal of a sovereign state. It shows an understanding on the part of our Government that unilateral moves will not benefit the peace process.
However, an abstention also demonstrates a missed opportunity to lead on the issue. The solid principles that the UK demonstrated in the Libya campaign seem to be lacking in the Middle East conflict. The US’s position as a strong mediator in the process is a reflection not only of its power but also of its decisiveness. Conversely, Britain tries to appease both sides. In reality we shall please no one. We should not be afraid to stand up for our principles on this issue and do what is right and sensible for the future of the peace process.
As the resolution moves out of the Security Council and gets re-drafted for a General Assembly vote, abstention or no abstention, the UK must maintain our influence and work to ensure that the resolution on non-member statehood manages expectations and enables a swift return to negotiations by both sides. The UK should also act as an effective mediator in the 192-strong General Assembly ensuring that other members are aware of the implications of their decisions.
The coming days and months represent a critical juncture in the peace process. Defenders of a two state solution are being presented with tough decisions to make. The UK, in particular, must not shirk from making unpopular but sensible choices; the choices that ensure the best possible chance for peace the day after the UN votes.