•Finchley MP resigns as ministerial aide
•New blow to Labour relations with Israel
•Envoy warns state ‘losing support in UK’
A Conservative MP resigned his Government role and the Labour Party faced a significant revolt from senior figures this week amid the fallout from Parliament’s vote to advocate recognition of a Palestinian state.
The backbench motion – calling on Britain to recognise Palestine alongside Israel but amended to include the words “as a contribution to securing a two-state solution” – was passed by 274 votes to just 12.
More than half of MPs did not vote. But, while saying that the decision did not alter policy, Britain’s envoy to Israel, Matthew Gould, stressed the “significance” of the vote in showing how public opinion was moving away from Israel.
While stressing the UK would recognise Palestine “at a time when it’s most helpful to the peace process” and continued to believe “negotiations are best road to peace”, Gould added: “The conflict this summer had a big impact on British public opinion and affected Israel’s standing in the UK and beyond. The announcement of settlements since the then have also had an impact. It is right to be concerned about what the vote signifies in terms of the direction of public opinion.”
Labour’s Grahame Morris, who led the debate, argued that a yes vote would be a “symbolic step” towards peace at a time when there was an “impasse”, while Israel claimed such premature recognition undermines chances of a reaching a genuine peace.
Protocol dictates that members of the government abstain on backbench business. But Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer, who had served as a private parliamentary secretary to Nick Boles, quit the post to vote against the motion.
He was one of six Conservative, one Liberal Democrat and five DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) MPs to do so.
He told Jewish News: “It would have been easy to hide behind the protocol, but the two-state solution we all want to see should be the end not start of the process. The Government had to follow the protocol but the irony is that I had to resign to support government policy.”
He added: “It’s an issue I feel strongly about. It was the right thing to do for my constituents. I’ve been a supporter of Israel and the two-state solution long before getting involved with Finchley and Golders Green. This decision was rooted in personal beliefs, not just my constituency.”
Labour’s leadership earlier supported the backbench motion and provoked anger within its ranks by strongly encouraging a vote for the motion.
Amid claims that this represented a change in Labour party policy towards unilateral action, eight members of the shadow cabinet and several other shadow cabinet ministers stayed away from the vote. Among them were Rachel Reeves, Jim Murphy and Ivan Lewis. Prospective parliamentary candidates for Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green, Andrew Dismore and Sarah Sackman, publically said they would have voted against if they had been in Parliament. But 195 of 258 Labour MPs backed the motion.
But one Labour MP said: “For more than a third of the shadow cabinet and more than a quarter of parliamentary party to be absent, despite the heavy encouragement to support Douglas Alexander’s position, shows the deep-seated concern lots of members have about his decision to change Labour policy on this important issue.”
He also acknowledged that “we are now in a different place” in terms of the relationship between Labour and supporters of Israel as a result of the leadership’s approach to the vote and its previous condemnation of Israel’s ground operation in Gaza.
“Many people have expressed concerns to me and I understand them,” he said. “People need to take stock of issues on which the party can engage with Israel’s supporters.”
While Israel’s Labour Party urged politicians from its British counterpart not to support the motion – warning that unilateral moves do nothing to advance peace – Alexander wrote on the website Labourlist that the motion “does not commit Labour to immediate recognition of Palestine or mandate the UK government to immediately bilaterally recognise the State of Palestine”.
Alexander, who insisted a solution would ultimately be reached only through negotiations, claimed the party’s backing reaffirms support for “the principle” of recognising statehood.
“The timing and the mechanism by which Palestinian recognition takes place will continue to be a matter decided by an incoming Labour Government. We have made clear previously that steps taken by individual governments outside of a wider international process won’t contribute to meaningful progress in negotiations towards a two-state solution.”
Shadow minister Ian Lucas told the chamber that support for the motion would “strengthen moderates” intent on a peaceful path rather than violence.
Just 39 of the 303 Tory MPs actively backed the motion while 75 percent didn’t take part.
But the unnamed Labour MP claimed Conservative MPs “could have voted against in large numbers”. Former Middle East minister Alistair Burt had backed another amendment – proposed by a number of Israel’s most prominent supporters but later withdrawn – urging recognition of a Palestinian state once negotiations had brought a settlement.
He told Jewish News: “There will be a variety of reasons why people stayed away. It was still a big vote and Israel remains, particularly on the Conservative side, an important cause. But so is justice, and Gaza shifted the pendulum on respective justice more than any other issue between Israel and the Palestinians that I can recall in recent years.”
He added: “The lessons are that Israel is now treated as a country like any other. If it is attacked it will be defended. But just because it is Israel does not mean its Government cannot make mistakes and be criticised. Friends of Israel need to accept that some MPs are making a judgment based on what Israel is doing, not just because it’s Israel.”
Another former minister who held the Middle East portfolio, Hugh Robertson, backed the final motion which passed, but argued it should not be viewed as a “mandate for immediate recognition”. He said: “I would not have voted to recognise unilaterally now. But if you believe in a two-state solution, a state of Palestine will have to be recognised at some point.”
Robertson – who stressed his continued “high regard” for Israel and its achievements – said the international community needed to reengage quickly with “incentives and disincentives” for both sides – to try to bring about a negotiated settlement before the window closes”.
Prospects would “flounder” if the two parties were left to themselves, he warned. An Israel embassy statement said the motion “sends a message to Palestinians that they do not need to make hard choices for peace, and to Israelis that their concerns are of no importance. This only undermines the efforts of those working to bring about a real and lasting change”.
Community and pro-Israel organisations had mobilised in advance of the vote to urge MPs to support the amendment proposed by pro-Israel MPs rather than Morris’ one. A statement from the JLC, the ZF and BICOM refuted suggestions that the passing of the motion would promote peace.
They added: “We fully support a state of Palestine alongside Israel, but maintain that this can only be achieved through dialogue. Gesture politics are unhelpful.”
Yachad said the vote “highlights the urgency of reaching a stable, enduring, comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. Without significant progress towards reaching an agreement, international actions of this nature are likely to become more frequent, whilst the parties themselves grow further away from peace”.
Liberal Judaism said in advance of the debate that it would welcome a ‘yes’ vote.