Cameron’s statement changes nothing, yet everything has changed


Cameron’s statement changes nothing, yet everything has changed

David Cameron made remarks last week on the UK’s approach to the recognition of a Palestinian state. (Reuters)
David Cameron made remarks last week on the UK’s approach to the recognition of a Palestinian state. (Reuters)
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David Cameron’s remarks last week on the UK’s approach to the recognition of a Palestinian state must be regarded as further evidence of a notable shift in the position of the UK on all matters pertaining to the Middle East peace process.
For many years, the British government and its ministers used a formulaic response when challenged about when it would recognize a state of Palestine. I cannot recall how many times I would have said — from the Commons dispatch box or to any audience whatsoever — that, while we continued to support a two-state solution to issues between Israel and the Palestinian people, the “UK would recognize a Palestinian state at a time when it best suits the objectives of peace.”
The phrase carried certain implications that its constant repetition reinforced. One was that such recognition was assumed to be a concluding part of a negotiated process; that bilateral recognition would achieve little on its own. The UK government appreciated, with the historical background of the Balfour Declaration, that its recognition of the state of Palestine was a huge decision not to be taken casually, nor for domestic British political reasons and not simply to add to the pile of discarded and illusory promises that litter the narrative of a failed peace process. It was, frankly, too big a card to play at any other time than when it would make a profound difference to events, in company with others. And I knew that I did mean what I said, literally.
Others perceived it differently. Palestinians largely believed it was meaningless: that, while we talked the talk of two states, we were doing little to further it. Many Israeli politicians believed it meant “never” and were reassured that, if there was no peace process to which it could be attached, then it simply could not happen.
The events following Oct. 7 have now, on this issue as well as many others, changed everything. We know there is no going back to a false status quo, a misplaced sense of security or discussions between regional states that marginalized the Palestinian issue. The horror of the Hamas attacks and the subsequent destruction of Gaza in Israeli reprisals cannot allow some form of “business as usual” in future, as many Arab states have made clear. Now, the UK has also clarified that it sees events in the same way.

Israel’s staunchest allies are making clear they are no longer prepared to be held to ransom by extreme elements in the Israeli government.

Alistair Burt

Speaking in Westminster at a Conservative Middle East Council reception for Arab ambassadors, Foreign Secretary Cameron departed from the formula to say that the Palestinian people had to be shown “irreversible progress” toward a two-state solution and that the UK would, with allies, “look at the issue of recognizing a Palestinian state, including at the United Nations,” which “could be one of the things that helps to make this process irreversible.”
No one should take these remarks as unscripted or not supported by 10 Downing Street. They followed a lengthy article written by Cameron in a Sunday newspaper, in which he set out his suggestion for a widely drawn international contact group to work on the extensive parallel talks needed to resolve the immediacy of the conflict with Hamas in Gaza. It would also consider the medium-term future and the more comprehensive resolution for all the elements of the issue, including his belief that a “pathway to a state called Palestine” was essential. And in Lebanon last week, the foreign secretary made it clear that negotiations involving Israel and the Palestinians did not need to have concluded before the UK made its decision to recognize.
So, although you could argue, as the UK government does, that the phrase regarding recognition when “it best suits the objectives of peace” is no different from what it was, we all know it is. Cameron has, in effect changed nothing, but changed everything. Detaching recognition of a state of Palestine from a negotiated process that effectively put Israel in the driving seat to veto, by making the horizon of recognition a catalyst and not a conclusion, changes the terms of progress markedly.
The implications are significant. Israel’s staunchest allies are making clear that their support for the existence of the state of Israel and its people is profound, but they are no longer prepared to be held to ransom by extreme elements in the Israeli government or elsewhere. Palestinians and their supporters worldwide will be unlikely to allow the shift to go back in the box, but they have to make clear that a Palestinian state implicitly ends the ideology of Israel’s destruction, while Arab states must no longer harbor, tolerate or support those who advocate it.
The glimpse of a different future for the region, promised just months ago with talks and agreements between regional rivals, is currently disastrously imperiled, with threats of a wider catastrophe. There is a pathway out, but others will also need to abandon long-held positions that brought neither security nor justice to those who deserve it most: the endless victims of violence.

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. X: @AlistairBurtUK
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