By Joseph Willits
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In an over-subscribed Urgent Question debate in the Commons yesterday, on the Palestinian statehood bid, foreign office minister Alistair Burt (standing in for Hague who was in Libya) refused to be drawn on whether the government would officially support a Palestinian bid for UN membership.
On Tuesday, ConservativeHome reported that only 2 Tory MPs, Nicholas Soames and Sir Peter Bottomley had signed an Early Day Motion in favour of a Palestinian state. Upon writing this, the number had increased to four Tory MPs, with Julian Brazier and Eleanor Laing adding their signatures.
The hesitancy with which Tory MPs are having putting their name to the EDM, bears resemblance to the government's caution, because of fears that the bid could ruin the peace process. Alistair Burt stated that it would be "premature to speculate on what the Government’s response might be" before any proposal for membership had been published. Burt also stressed it was "vital that any action in the UN does nothing to endanger the prospect of talks".
Following on from the Arab Spring "the world can no longer claim that change in the Middle East will come slowly and incrementally, or allow the middle east peace process to limp along indefinitely, as it has done", said Burt. Any resolution made between the Israelis and Palestinians, he said, is seemingly "more significant" in relation to events of the Arab Spring.
According to an article in the Times today, Britain's indecision, and refusal to commit itself on Palestinian statehood is calculated in order to risk a spat with the US administration, who intend to veto Palestinian membership of the UN. The Times quoted a "well placed source" in the Foreign Office who said that they wanted "to try and avoid the risk that it just alienates people and further hardens the American position".
The Foreign Office is understood to be demanding some changes from the Palestinian side. This was echoed by Tory MP Julian Brazier (who has already signed the EDM) in the debate yesterday, who urged the government to "take very seriously the Palestinian bid for statehood while, understandably, calling for some conditions" yet highlighting the building of a wall through the West Bank and "a programme of settlement building" as being detrimental to the peace process.
Matthew Offord MP called for "mutual recognition" from both sides on issues such "settlements, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and other day-to-day trade issues" and that the issue of a UN declaration "simply evades" important moves towards peace.
Robert Halfon MP, who has proposed an amendment to the EDM raised the difficulties of negotiating with the Palestine Authority "when its main partner is Hamas which refuses to recognise Israel or renounce terrorism".
Many MPs appeared cautious, and conscious of the fact that the recognition of a state of Palestine could have unexpected consequences. Nick Boles MP, for instance, made criticism of "politicians trying to associate themselves with a cause and taking up a brave position" rather than thinking of the issue itself.
Andrew Percy MP asked of Burt if he could give assurance that the issue would not simply become "a battering ram for those who seek the delegitimisation of Israel"
What was clear, however, was that there is no consensus within the Parliamentary Party at present about whether to approve the Palestinian issue or not – and that much more thinking is to be done before the Foreign Office comes to a decision.
You can read the full transcript of the debate here, and watch a recording of it here.