UK voters face stark choice over Palestine

UK voters face stark choice over Palestine
Comment: President Trump's engagement in the Middle East makes the outcome of the UK election even more important for Palestinians, writes Tom Charles.
6 min read
30 May, 2017
Theresa May is a firm supporter of Israel's right-wing prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu [Getty]

A century after the signing of the Balfour Declaration that created Israel at the expense of Palestinian lives and rights, the UK election will see a prime minister emerge either from the Zionist camp, or from the peace movement.

The contrast between the two candidates is stark: the hard-line believer in the "special relationship", Theresa May, or the pragmatic peacenik, Jeremy Corbyn.

The outcome of this election is especially important for Israel and Palestine given President Trump's engagement with the Middle East conflict and the dominance of centrist parties in other major European capitals.

Global context

On the peace process, Trump claimed recently: "I would love to be a mediator or an arbitrator or a facilitator and we will get this done." The president's claim was followed by his first foreign trip, taking in Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians have good reason to be anxious about Trump's election. For the Israelis, they must contend with the least predictable president they have encountered, one in search of a legacy to boost his popularity and credibility. Trump could use American influence to force through a peace deal, an outcome in which the Israelis would certainly see their dominance of the Palestinians diminish.

For the Palestinians, Trump's closeness with Netanyahu and his pro-Israel proclamations, along with his ignorance of international relations, are proving to be concerning. That is why Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been keen to appeal to Trump's vanity and ego, welcoming the president to Bethlehem while both sides of the Palestinian divide, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were united in their concern and support for the prisoners' hunger strike - which did nothing for Abbas' own popularity in the occupied territories.

If Abbas could convince Trump that the Palestinians could be helpful in an American-Sunni bulwark against Iranian influence, then he might yet ingratiate himself to the US

A serious Trump push for peace could be transformative for the Middle East, but Israel is not interested in peace in the near future. The current state of affairs suits Tel Aviv very nicely: The PA is keeping the West Bank calm, Hamas is doing likewise in Gaza, and there is security cooperation with Jordan on the border.

But if Abbas could convince Trump that the Palestinians could be helpful in an American-Sunni bulwark against Iranian influence, then he might yet ingratiate himself to the US.

The Iran nuclear deal was good news for the world but a blow to both Israeli and Saudi hegemonic power. The signs are that the Trump administration wants to turn back to a policy of isolating Iran. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made the claim in Riyadh that "everywhere you look if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran". A patently untrue statement - but one which may be indicative of longer-term American policies under Trump. 

In Palestine

In Palestine, the parties have been adjusting their positions in anticipation of Trump's involvement. The upgrades made to the Hamas charter have opened the door to a unified Palestinian approach. While the West Bank-Gaza Strip division continues to aid US-Israeli policy, Hamas is looking for a way out of its responsibilities in Gaza while hoping to increase its influence over negotiations.

Comment: 'New' Hamas charter at least a decade old

Europe's stance

Trump's unpredictability may see him swing back to a staunch pro-Israel position at any moment and would leave other interlocutors with few opportunities to promote genuine peace. The presence of centrist parties in key European capitals is doing little to offset American hegemony over the issue.

Germany is hamstrung for historical reasons, while new French President Emmanuel Macron has signalled a continuation of pro-Israel policies in Paris.

With Italy carrying less political weight than ever, Russia has been left alone as a significant party able to act independently of US interests.

For a century, meanwhile, the UK has thwarted the implementation of Palestinian rights, most recently by undermining January's Paris peace conference by not sending a high-ranking Foreign Office official, dashing hopes of a united European approach.

Jeremy Corbyn (far right, wearing keffiyeh] has long been a supporter of the Palestinian cause. Also pictured (left-right): George Galloway, Ken Livingstone, Sarah Teather, Annie Lennox, Anas Altikriti, Alexei Sayle, Bianca Jagger, and Tariq Ali [AFP Archive 2009]

Stark choice

Under Theresa May and her predecessor David Cameron, the Conservative Party has shown no appetite for peaceful change in the Middle East. Characterised by a lack of imagination, UK policy towards Palestine has atrophied, and the Republican victory in the United States has seen May deepen her commitment to the status quo, telling a Conservative Friends of Israel event of her "pride" at the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, and her appreciation of Israeli "democracy and pluralism".

Corbyn was chair of the Stop the War Coalition, opposed the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and has been a tireless campaigner for Palestinian rights

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn represents a completely different brand and philosophy of politics, and has a personal foreign policy history that could not be more different to his opponent.

Corbyn was chair of the Stop the War Coalition, opposed the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and has been a tireless campaigner for Palestinian rights. Due to the relative calm of the Israel-Palestine conflict over the past two years, campaigners have not had the gratification of seeing Corbyn confront the Tories over Israel using his Middle East expertise.


Nevertheless, as prime minister, Corbyn would undoubtedly take steps towards making amends for Britain's historic wrongs. In the party's manifesto, Labour promises a different foreign policy, based on learning the lessons of the Chilcot Inquiry.

On foreign policy, the document states: "The Conservatives have no answers to the challenges we face." Specifically on Palestine, it goes through the usual platitudes about the two-state solution, but also adds: "The expansion of Israeli settlements on the Palestinian West Bank is not only wrong and illegal, but represents a threat to the very viability of the hopes of securing a successful outcome of the peace process. We cannot accept the continued humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and we will support Palestinian recognition at the UN."

New direction

In a Chatham House speech Corbyn promised "a robust and independent foreign policy" and "no more hand-holding with Donald Trump".

Labour's election campaign has so far been imbued with the language of humanitarian principles, and if successful would be an appropriate way for the centenary of Balfour to be marked - by taking steps to end the occupation and promote justice, whatever the incalculable Trump chooses to do.

Corbyn has the potential to steer Europe in a new direction, away from automatic support and cover for Israeli crimes. The alternative is Conservative denial of the injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians, and a hard-line, neocon foreign policy under Theresa May.

Both options would be fitting ways to mark the anniversary of the Nakba, but for very different reasons - and with very different consequences for those on the ground in the Occupied Territories and scattered around the Palestinian diaspora waiting to return home.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.