Today, quietly and with remarkably little fanfare, the House of Commons will debate recognition of a Palestinian state. If they eventually vote to pass any such motion, the world will have taken a small but not insignificant step in the direction of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This summer’s violence was just another episode in the six-decades long saga over land in the heart of the Middle East; just one cycle in the never-ending revolution of conflict-negotiation-ceasefire-conflict we have all witness so many times. The West places so much emphasis, and so much hope, on getting the two sides to sit together and talk, and yet we have ample evidence that this isn’t working. It is really only a matter of time until the rockets fly and the bombs fall.
Why? Because the Palestinians remain an oppressed people, and this, as in so many other places, makes them dangerous. At every round of talks – and, indeed, in every round of fighting – Israel benefits from its sure footing on the international stage. One among equals, it has the overt or tacit support of most Western countries, who willingly sell it the arms with which it flattens Gaza. No matter how many die or how disproportionate a response is handed out, Israel will always have the diplomatic upper-hand, including the killer-blow of US backing. Recognising Palestinian sovereignty would by no means level the playing field, but it may allow Hamas to move away from its backer Iran, a pariah itself.
More than that, any Western recognition of Palestine would right an entrenched hypocrisy in international relations; that self-determination is always a good thing, apart from when it doesn’t suit. When Scotland fancied it, we gave them a ballot box, and most governments support the Kurds in their bid for autonomy and independence. Yet we are unwilling to grant Palestinians an even more fundamental part of self-determination, an acknowledgement of their identity. So marginalised by international society, it is no wonder that Palestinians are drawn to extremist causes like Hamas; how can a middle-of-the road like Fatah come to control a state which doesn’t exist?
And of course this is why ceasefires never last. The Palestinian authorities do not have the state apparatus necessary to stop dissidents from firing rockets over the border, and provoking the predictable Israeli response. Even when the PLO tries to end hostilities, its efforts are doomed to failure.
Almost everyone believes that peace is contingent on the existence of two states – including, we must remember, the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, who agreed as much in Oslo in 1995. Almost twenty years later, the chances of this provision becoming reality are ephemeral at best. A symbolic decision by the UK government today is unlikely to bring universal acceptance tomorrow, but it will be a sign that hope is not dead yet.