Stephen Daisley Stephen Daisley

The incoherence of Labour’s Palestine stance

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The Labour manifesto commits the party to recognising a Palestinian state. It frames this as ‘a contribution to a renewed peace process’. This rationale is as dishonest as the commitment is foolhardy. It is a reminder that progressives will not learn from history if the lesson offends their political sensibilities. 

The manifesto claims that statehood is ‘the inalienable right of the Palestinian people’. Is this true? An international law scholar would tell you that oppressed peoples or those living under military occupation have a right to self-determination. But does self-determination necessarily equal statehood? Could it be achieved by a different model, such as political autonomy in confederation with an Arab state? And if statehood is an inalienable right, what do we do about peoples who repeatedly refuse to exercise that right? The leadership of the Palestinian Arabs has consistently rejected proposals that would see a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. 

Labour’s manifesto goes on to say that Palestinian statehood ‘is not in the gift of any neighbour’. While a two-state solution requires the acquiescence of the two states, there is some (inadvertent) truth to this statement. A Palestinian state is not in the gift of Israel, it is in the gift of the Palestinians, and it is the Palestinians who keep spurning that gift. Their reasons are various but at their core is a collective refusal to accept the legitimacy of any Jewish state in any part of the ancient Jewish homeland. While the Palestinian Authority has become adept at talking the language of coexistence in international fora, at home it fosters and tolerates a culture of rejectionism, antisemitism and terrorism. Palestinian anti-Zionism is an ideology of national self-harm that prefers intergenerational dispossession and statelessness to compromise, cooperation and coexistence. 

The creation of another Arab state on its borders is said to be ‘essential to the long-term security of Israel’. This is one of the many truisms about this conflict that escape serious scrutiny. In an ideal liberal world, there would be a Palestinian state alongside Israel, two stable democracies with strong diplomatic, trading and cultural relations. We don’t live in a world governed by liberal ideals, where every nation wants to be Finland and would be if it just had the right institutions. We live in a world governed by time-honoured animosities, irrational prejudices, tribal loyalties, corruption and intemperate impulses. These will govern any Palestinian state unless there is a fierce, almost universal appetite to check them. Does that appetite exist? Two-thirds of Palestinians support the 7 October terror attack in which 1,200 Israelis were slaughtered, women raped and 250 people, including children, taken hostage. It’s going to take a lot more than institution-building and democracy workshops to overcome such ingrained prejudices. 

The more the world turns its back on Israel, the more Israelis will turn inwards

A Palestinian state established any time in the near future would be inherently unstable because Palestinian politics is inherently unstable. Mahmoud Abbas was elected president in 2005 and hasn’t held an election since, for the pretty sound reason that he would lose, almost certainly to someone more radical. The conflict between Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas erupted in a brief intra-Palestinian war in 2007 that ended with Fatah controlling the Palestinian Authority and Hamas ruling over Gaza. The struggle to speak for the Palestinian people would not end with a state for there would remain a sizeable body of opinion in favour of expanding that state’s borders ‘from the river to the sea’. The political leadership of Palestine would be pulled in one direction by the US and the EU and in the other by the realities of Palestinian popular attitudes about which US and EU policymakers prefer to remain in denial. An American-funded and western-armed State of Palestine could easily come under the control of Hamas or even more extreme elements, whether via the ballot box or the AK47. It is not in Israel’s security interests to have another unstable neighbouring country. 7 October showed how vulnerable Israel is to cross-border attack. Handing over the West Bank would mean surrendering hilltops that overlook major Israeli population centres to a Palestinian state and hoping that state never turns hostile. 

Labour’s manifesto commits to recognising Palestine ‘as a contribution to a renewed peace process which results in a two-state solution’. This would mean the UK recognising a Palestinian state before one is agreed between the Israelis and Palestinians. That is not a contribution to any peace process but a pre-emption of one. Let’s say the next government recognises a Palestinian state. What would it consider to be the borders of this state? The answer would almost certainly include the West Bank as well as the eastern sections of Jerusalem. But these areas are the subject of a territorial dispute, one that lies at the heart of the conflict. Labour wants to declare the conflict over by announcing Palestine as the winner. 

Recognition would not mean an end to the conflict. It is more likely to prolong it. If the Palestinians once again walk away from the negotiating table they still get to keep UK recognition as a bonus. It rewards and thus incentivises rejectionism. If intransigence and 7 October-style terrorist attacks bring international legitimacy to the Palestinians, then we can expect to see more of both. The Palestinians understand this even if western liberals do not. Polling released earlier this week found that 82 per cent believe Israel’s response to 7 October has ‘revived international attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ and ‘could lead to increased recognition of Palestinian statehood’. 

The Palestinians cannot defeat Israel militarily and so their terrorist attacks are supplemented by diplomatic warfare. Ramallah’s strategy is to gain increased recognition so that it has standing to pursue Israel in various international bodies. The cumulative effect would be that Israel is outgunned institutionally and pushed out of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem by pressure from global organisations and selectively applied international law. This strategy is shared by the left, the NGOs, the academy, the lawfare industry and numerous anti-Israel governments, of which Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour would be one. It nudges us further along the path of a post-national order in which the rights and policies of sovereign nations are dictated by supranational entities. 

Labour’s policy on Palestine may be motivated by domestic considerations but it should remember that Israel has domestic considerations too. Over the years, the impetus to make peace has tended to fall on the Israeli side, both the political leadership and public opinion, but the horrors of 7 October have hardened attitudes. Even among those not ideologically hostile to a Palestinian state, there is bitter frustration, if not exhaustion, with a paradigm in which Israel offers the Palestinians a state, the Palestinians reject it, then launch terrorists attacks on Israelis, and Israel gets the blame. The more the world turns its back on Israel, the more Israelis will turn inwards – and vote accordingly. 

As it happens, I am not against the UK taking unilateral diplomatic steps. I have argued repeatedly for us to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Why? Because doing so recognises the facts on the ground and strengthens an ally. Recognising Jerusalem is about more than standing with Israel. It displays an understanding of the deep and historic connection of the Jewish people to the political, religious and cultural centre of Jewish life for more than 3,000 years. Just that little glimmer of empathy would give Israel the confidence to take further risks for peace. This approach stands a better chance of delivering Palestinian statehood than haughty imposition by elites determined to salvage their failed peace process.