Thursday, 3 January 2013

Israel lobby's influence in UK: Join the debate

A frantic few months for relations between Israel and Palestine have brought the UK's foreign policy into sharp focus.

Barack Obama, President of the USA (right) with Mahmoud Abbas, President of Palestine (left)

When Israel recently announced plans to build further settlements on the occupied Palestinian territory, most of the United Nations Security Council was ready to condemn the move. The settlement was illegal under international law and would involve the forced removal of 1,000 Palestinians currently living on the land. Despite the almost unanimous condemnation, the proposed UN resolution against Israel did not even get to a vote, after the US indicated it was ready to use its veto. The incident once again highlighted the US' close ties with Israel and the strong influence of pro-Israeli lobby groups such as AIPAC.

Yet, the US is not the only country with prominent lobby groups. In the UK, each of the three leading political parties has its own 'Friends of Israel' organisation - and the historical influence of the UK in the Middle East should not be underestimated; with the Balfour Declaration in 1917 the British government announced its intention of establishing 'in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people' and, in the 1940s, it was from the British Mandate over Palestine that the state of Israel was created. Today, former prime minister Tony Blair is the official representative of 'The Quartet'  - the UN, USA, EU and Russia - to Israel and Palestine, with a mission to create a 'favorable context for political negotiations to succeed'.

Even after Blair's efforts were recently described by Palestinian officials speaking to The Independent as 'useless, useless, useless', the UK retains influence in the region, but what is the government's actual policy? Last December Alistair Burt, a Conservative minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, published a document succinctly stating: "We believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved through direct negotiations between the parties and urge both sides to avoid undermining the prospects for peace by working towards starting direct negotiation without pre-conditions."

This policy may be balanced in word, but the Conservatives - who make up the majority of the government's coalition - are alone among the UK's three major parties in having no 'Friends of Palestine' equivalent to their 'Conservative Friends of Israel' group. When New Religion rang the Conservative head office, the representative we spoke to was unwilling to comment on why this was and unable to disclose how many Conservative MPs are currently members of Friends of Israel. A representative from the Labour Friends of Palestine did confirm 81 Labour MPs support their group, whilst Sally FitzHarris, Secretary for the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine said: "We have about a dozen MPs, MEPs and peers who are actually paid-up members but many more than that support Palestine".

Despite the ambiguous reasons for the Conservatives having no 'Friends of Palestine' group, what is clear is that when an Early Day Motion supporting recognition of the state of Palestine was tabled last November, only nine of 303 Conservative MPs signed in support - compared to 65 of 255 Labour MPs and 25 of 57 Liberal Democrat MPs. The result of the Conservative's lukewarm response to Palestinian statehood translated into the UK being one of a minority of countries to abstain from November's UN vote, in which Palestine received the overwhelming support of 138 countries around the world and so became an official observer state at the UN.

All of which raises a number of questions for debate. Is the Conservative majority of the UK government biased against Palestine and for Israel? If so, can biased peace-brokers expect to be succesful? On the other hand should the West simply view Israel - a rare democracy in the Middle East - as a natural ally and treat it as such?

Leave your thoughts below. 

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