Opinion: Nick Clegg’s remarks inch the UK towards recognition of Palestine

It is now over a week since Nick Clegg held his joint press conference with President Abbas of Palestine in which he referred to Israeli settlement construction as “vandalism”. Before his comments fade out of the news altogether, it is worth thinking through the implications of what he said – and thanking him for his courage in making them. Could they have come from the mouth of a Conservative minister?

By calling the settlement building “an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise on which negotiations have taken place for years and years and years”, Nick hit two important nails on the head. The first was that announcements of settlement expansion can only be a deliberate tactic to scupper negotiations. The Israeli government knows full well that the PLO cannot negotiate while Israeli actions continue to call into question the Palestinian right to those territories Israel occupied in 1967, and which once formed part of the Mandate of Palestine. This is rightly the Palestinian red line on territorial issues and is fully supported by international law.

Secondly, there has to be an end to the moral equivocation which has enabled Israeli government spin doctors to construct a narrative that the settlements are on land that is “disputed”, and which seeks to imply that the settlers have a “right” to build their homes there which is morally equal to the rights of the indigenous people of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The latter, of course, are entitled in international law to exercise their right of self-determination by establishing their own state on the entirety of their land.

Nick also stated that “the continued existence of illegal settlements risks making facts on the ground such that a two-state solution becomes unviable”. Far too often, politicians have confined themselves to calling for a halt to settlement construction, rather than drawing attention to the key point that they should never have been built in the first place. Come on, Cameron and Miliband, can’t you say the same?

Of course, in negotiations, the Palestinians may agree to cede some of the land on which settlements have been built in exchange for an appropriate quid pro quo, but such negotiations have to be conducted on an arms’ length basis by parties which recognise the rights of the other in international law, something which Israel still refuses to do. Israel must not be allowed to bludgeon the Palestinians into making concessions as a result of the duress inherent in its brutal occupation. Any peace treaty achieved in that way will not last.

It is to be hoped that Britain will shortly see fit to recognise Palestine on the entirety of the Occupied Palestinian Territory and support its application for UN membership. It is only by international recognition of Palestine that the parties can be enabled to negotiate as equals towards a final peace.  Although he did not call for British recognition, Nick’s endorsement of Palestinian rights brought it that little bit closer.

* John McHugo is a member of the Lib Dem Foreign Affairs Advisory Group. He is a former chair of Lib Dem Friends of Palestine and is the author of A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi'is, Syria: A Recent History, and A Concise History of the Arabs.

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  • Fully agree. There will be no progress until other countries are prepared to put real pressure on Israel. Britain and the EU must take the lead.

  • No chance….About 80% of Tory Mps are “Conservative friends of Israel” They include Iain Duncan-Smith, Liam Fox and William Hague. David Cameron addressing the CFI in 2006 said, “I am proud not just to be a Conservative, but a Conservative friend of Israel…..

  • John McHugo 25th Jan '12 - 6:13pm


    With respect, I did NOT quote Nick as saying “announcements of settlement expansion can only be a deliberate tactic to scupper negotiations”. If you look once again at my piece (and note where I placed the inverted commas marking the quotation), I hope you will agree with me on this. Those words were my own.

    However, I would like to ask you whether you think MY statement (not Nick’s) that “announcements of settlement expansion can only be a deliberate tactic to scupper negotiations” is justifiable, and whether or not Nick’s statement that settlement activity is “an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise upon which negotiations have taken place for years and years and years” could reasonably lead me to infer that he believes settlement activity frustrates negotiations?

    One of the points I was getting at in my piece is that settlement activity by Israel is in breach of international law and in contempt of the rights of the people of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. It is only when Israel acknowledges this that it can negotiate in good faith towards a peace settlement. Nick deserves to be applauded for showing himself willing to call a spade a spade, in striking contrast to the feeble language of so many other politicians.

  • No – it’s far from lack and white.

    The Mandate territories to which John refers covered the whole of what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, plus originally what is now Jordan. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, following the UN Partition Plan which was rejected by all the neighbouring Arab states who sought to destroy the new State of Israel, the West Bank was occupied by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt. Strangely, no one called them occupied territories then. The reason in international law why their status is unclear is because they were not occupied from a Palestinian State – there never has been a Palestinian State. They were occupied from Jordan and Egypt who have since disclaimed them.

    Virtually everyone agrees there must be a Two State solution, but that can only be achieved by negotiation and agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The outcome of those negotiations will almost certainly be the removal of many settlements but the retention of some, with a negotiated border which is not exactly on the lines of the 1967 Green Line (incidentally not an agreed international border but simply the Armistice line where the fighting stopped in 1949), but which involves land swaps between Israel and Palestine.

    I don’t support continued settlement building because it is provocative and not helping create confidence between the parties. But it is wrong for that to be used as a precondition, or it could uncharitably be said an excuse, not to enter into negotiations. The parties need to enter into negotiations without prejudging their outcome, and I hope that is what the UK Government will call for.

  • John McHugo 26th Jan '12 - 8:09am

    Jonathan – I, too, believe in the two state solution, but how can the parties negotiate towards this unless each party accepts the rights of the other as the starting point? This is where the question of settlements is black and white, since – as Stephen W eloquently pointed out above – they are a form of theft. In striking contrast to Israel’s position, the Arab League Peace Plan does recognise the international law rights of the other side.

    The status of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza is not “unclear”. They have been described by the International Court of Justice as “The Occupied Palestinian Territory”, and the land and its inhabitants are entitled to the protection of international law – including protection from land grabs by the occupying power. It is only by accepting this and reversing its settlement policy that Israel can negotiate in good faith. The indigenous inhabitants are also entitled to the right of self-determination, which includes the right to establish their state on the entirety of their land. Only then can “land swaps” be negotiated.

    I will not comment in detail on your historical assertions, but would steer you to Avi Shlaim’s “The Iron Wall” which shows that the kind of analysis you give does not stack up. But do not forget that a Palestinian Arab is quite entitled to say that the Mandates should never have been created in the first place, and that Britain only handed the Mandate back to the UN as a result of pressure from Zionist terrorism which led to a manifestly unworkable partition. We live with the consequences to this day.

  • Clegg should be congratulated for making these courageous comments and trust me .. I do not often say that about the Deputy Prime Minister .

  • Anthony Aloysious 4th Feb '12 - 10:12pm

    Dear All

    I agree wholeheartedly with John McHugo.

    With respect to other contributors, Palestine is recognised as a state. There are 130 nations in the world that include Russia, China, Brazil, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and more recently Iceland and Thailand that have approved Palestine’s status. UNESCO – supported by France, Spain, Ireland and Norway – overwhelming recognised Palestine.

    Moreover the International Court of Justice when it made its ruling pertaining to the illegal ‘separation barrier’ did not refer to the Palestinian Territories as ‘disputed’. They demanded that part of the wall that divides Jerusalem be removed as well as the wall (3 times the length of the Berlin Wall) be removed too.

    In addition the Road Map (2003) which Israel is a signatory is, requires her to end all settlement expansion including natural growth ones. In 1980 the UN Security Council resolution demanded Israel rescind its decision to make Jerusalem its ‘eternal capital’. There are over 150 UN resolutions.

    The current Israeli government sadly does not recognise US President’s 1967 lines and continues to build settlements – which international law has explicitly referred to as illegal and a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention.

    Palestine has had no other choice but to seek international involvement – through the UN – to ensure talks with Israel are on an equal footing.

    God bless

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