Mr. Morris, the Labour Party MP representing Easington (County Durham) and chairman of Labour Friends of Palestine, was the moving force behind the UK Parliament's overwhelming passage October 13, 2014, of a nonbinding resolution calling for formal British recognition of the State of Palestine. The vote, 274 to 12 in the House of Commons, indicated the drift in British public opinion since the breakdown of U.S.-sponsored peace talks and the conflict in Gaza that summer. Mr. Morris was interviewed in his office in the House of Commons, London, on February 10, 2015, by Roger Gaess (AQABA9@aol.com), an American freelance journalist currently based in Brussels.
ROGER GAESS: Were you surprised by the enormity of the "yes" vote in favor of recognizing the State of Palestine?
GRAHAME MORRIS: I was both surprised and heartened. Only twelve members of Parliament voted against, and virtually all of my party, the Labour Party, supported the motion — including the leader of my party (Ed Miliband) and the shadow foreign secretary (Douglas Alexander), and almost all of the members of the shadow cabinet. Not only was the vote very positive but so were the contributions in the debate — some from rather unexpected sources — some Conservative members, for example, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Ottaway, and many MPs who've held fixed positions as uncritical supporters of Israel and had a chance to reflect on their position either supported the motion or abstained. It was quite an important, if symbolic, vote.
Q: What prompted the motion to be brought forward at that particular time? The most recent Israeli military operation against Gaza had, for instance, ended only two months earlier, and during that 50-day assault Prime Minister Cameron had issued only tepid statements on Israeli accountability.
MORRIS: For me personally, the issue has always been one of social justice and the fact that the Palestinians have a reasonable and legitimate right to their own state, to self-determination and to human rights, but the complete breakdown of the Kerry peace process and the refusal of the Netanyahu coalition to stop the settlement building, to stop the evictions, to stop the incursions and the arrest of child prisoners, the daily consequences for the Palestinians, especially those in the Gaza Strip — I think that was the impetus. The motion was sought well before the latest Gaza operation. Then, subsequently, the incursion into Gaza and the appalling loss of life and the complete refusal of the Israelis to accept any responsibility or to be held to account for the wholesale destruction of Palestinian infrastructure, the power station, the residential areas, the deaths of over 500 children, tens of thousands made homeless and thousands maimed, attacks on UN shelters, schools, clinics. I think all of that caused an outpouring of indignation by the public here in the UK, and not just in London; protests and demonstrations were held all across the country, in all the great cities, in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland, but in the smaller towns as well.
I think perhaps social-media images and accounts from the ground and the advent of Al Jazeera TV had an impact on people's consciousness and understanding. Often the coverage that we see in the mainstream media is seen through a prism of pro-Israeli sentiment, but in this case fair-minded people could actually see objectively what was happening.
Q: What was the aim of the motion? What did it hope to achieve?
MORRIS: We had three objectives or three audiences. We wanted to send a message to the British government. We wanted them to understand that the British public, through their elected representatives in the House of Commons, were very unhappy at the status quo, that the two-state solution was slipping away, that the Kerry initiative — the peace process — had stalled, irreconcilably in many people's opinion.
We also had a second audience, and that was the Israeli government. We wanted to send a message to them that their continued and brutal occupation and repression of the Palestinians was not acceptable. You can't just have business as usual with the Israelis not being held to account for flagrant breaches of international law and conventions. UK recognition of Palestine would send a strong signal to Tel Aviv that Britain and other EU states that would join it were serious about keeping the two-state solution as a viable option and were not prepared to sit idly by while Israel, through its actions, was systematically undermining it.
Thirdly, we wanted to send a message to the Palestinians, a message of hope, that for those who were engaged in diplomatic means, those who sought through peaceful protests to raise their legitimate concerns and have their aspirations for statehood realized, that there were many in the West who support them and who would want to see their nonviolent-resistance approach encouraged.
So we had three audiences and perhaps, beyond that, to send a message to other Western governments and governments throughout the world who hadn't yet recognized Palestine but where there were still concerns and great sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, that maybe we could get some momentum going here and also to persuade the EU to become more engaged, perhaps through resolutions of member states like the UK. Before the House of Commons voted for recognition of Palestine, the Swedes took a vote for full recognition, not an indicative vote [officially recognizing Palestine on October 30], and then subsequently the French Parliament, also on a back-bench motion, voted [on December 2] for recognition, as did the Spanish [on November 18] and Irish [on December 10] parliaments.
Q: What's been the response of the Cameron government? Have there been any concrete actions, or have things largely remained suspended in mere rhetoric?
MORRIS: Essentially, David Cameron's government, the current coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrats, have sought to ignore the will of Parliament. The government raised the issue of settlements and demolitions rhetorically, but there are no proposed actions that I'm aware of. It may well act within an EU framework, but to date the present government hasn't been moved fundamentally other than to make verbal expressions of condemnation. It is a disappointment, but it isn't unexpected. What I would stress is that here in the United Kingdom we have an election coming up in May, and the election is the number-one priority for all political parties. I'm hopeful that after the general election, we will see some movement from the British government.
Q: How much longer can the status quo go on before the two-state compromise is lost? And if the possibility of separate and secure Israeli and Palestinian states is lost, what will be the consequences? I include here the possibility of heightened and prolonged Islamist terrorism in the West.
MORRIS: I don't think the status quo can continue. The present government said they support the two-state solution. We have to think very carefully about doing nothing because I don't think that's an option. It comes down to an issue of political will. Does a political party or a nation-state have the will to move it forward? And the present government doesn't.
My view is that it boils down to whether the Israeli government — a current or future coalition — is prepared to accept that hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers will have to be moved out of the occupied territories, and it will require the Palestinians also to accept some compromises. I do think we need to have absolute Palestinian unity as a prerequisite. I think we've had movement in that regard.
The issue of Islamic terrorism and the threat to the West is a very real one and it's one that's raised frequently in the West by commentators and politicians. I don't think that's an excuse for doing nothing or for turning a blind eye to systematic abuses by the Israelis of their obligations under international law and international conventions. Many would be of the opinion that failure to hold the Israeli government to account actually fuels the fires of extremism and plays into the hands of the fundamentalists, who say that the peace process has delivered nothing. So I feel we need to address this and move the process forward in the interests of peace: justice for the Palestinians and peace and security for the Israelis. My point in the debate on the recognition motion on the thirteenth of October was that people of good will and people who are true friends of Israel would recognize that that is a fact and would support the efforts that are being made to find a just and lasting settlement and a two-state solution based on the '67 boundaries.
Q: Would it be fair to say we're dealing with two basic questions here? One, how to minimize and soon end the debilitating conditions suffered daily by Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation: the checkpoints, the blockade and other means of control, the food and medical and fuel shortages? And, secondly, how to end a business-as-usual relationship with Israel as long as it's driven by policies of territorial expansion and ethnic cleansing that are seemingly aimed at the creation of a Greater Israel? Implicit in ending the business-as-usual approach is the assumption that that would help spur meaningful negotiations. Is this an accurate appraisal of what we face, or do you see it somewhat differently?
MORRIS: I think it is, but the two are inextricably linked. The daily suffering of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, arises from a quite brutal occupation, the consequences of which many in the West find difficult to comprehend: the pollution of the water supply, the lack of a decent sewage system, the systematic destruction of residential areas, the lack of electrical power. All of these are not acts of God; they have come about as a direct consequence of the actions of the Israeli government, and to suggest that they've withdrawn from Gaza and somehow everything is fine is to completely disregard the situation on the ground, where so many Palestinians are suffering, struggling to exist on a daily basis with all the privations of a blockade, limitations on travel, on their ability to earn a living, the destruction of their enterprises, their fishing fleets. All of these things are contributing to the instability, in the sense of injustice that the Palestinians feel. Yes, we need to address the immediate issue of the deprivations of the Palestinian people, but that is linked to a political settlement.
Q: Do you think Netanyahu is committed to a two-state solution?
MORRIS: No. He voted against the Oslo agreement, and he hasn't shown any willingness to back his words with actions in terms of moving towards a two-state solution. Most members of his party, most Likud members of the Knesset, are openly against a two-state solution.
Q: I remember when Yitzhak Shamir went to the Madrid peace conference in 1991 and that process began; when he left office the following year, he said his strategy had been just to stall so that settlement building could continue.
MORRIS: Yes, absolutely. We've raised this in foreign-office questions here in the British Parliament, and pointed out some of the statements that have been reported by senior Israeli government members, not just by back-bench MPs. It seems to many of us that it's quite clear Netanyahu and Likud are openly hostile to it. They wouldn't accept a two-state solution. For them it's just part of the process, isn't it? They use these expressions like "mowing the lawn" [to periodically rein in the Palestinian armed resistance from Gaza] and "negotiations" as part of a plan to delay things. At the same time, the evictions in East Jerusalem, the demolitions, the expansion of the settlements and the destruction of the Palestinian economic base continue.
Q: What's holding the Cameron government back? What is he afraid of? What interests is his government protecting?
MORRIS: It seems to me that Cameron and his government — and perhaps it's a feature of other Western governments as well — are unwilling to take a stand that is different from that of the United States of America. In the United States, it often seems it's a case that Israel is always right. The United States seems to work very hard to make sure that other Western nations follow that line in the United Nations, in the Security Council and elsewhere. There is also a genuine fear by some governments that, if they strongly oppose the government of Israel's actions and policies, they leave themselves open to accusations of being anti-Semitic. My view as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine is that we must always fight anti-Semitism; it's a foul form of racism and we should resist it wherever it's found. But that can be no excuse for not fighting for justice for the Palestinians. Fighting for justice and a just settlement for the Palestinians is not in any way anti-Semitic.
Q: This is a whole other very relevant issue, being called an anti-Semite and how that stops the conversation.
MORRIS: Absolutely. It's a tactic that's been deployed time and time and time again. It's a completely bogus argument, but it's proven to be very effective in deflecting criticism and causing a reluctance among many right-thinking people of good heart to support the Palestinians for fear of being labeled an anti-Semite.
Q: I think people in the public eye have to develop a better strategy for how to deal with this, so they can serve as an example to other people.
MORRIS: Well, one example occurred quite recently. A ship was commissioned, the largest ship in the world, to be used for the decommissioning of redundant oil rigs, oil-production platforms in the North Sea. It's huge, like two oil tankers joined together, and they use it to dismantle the obsolete oil rigs in situ. The oil company that commissioned the ship was going to name it after a Nazi war criminal who happened to be the father of the chairman of the company. His father had been a Waffen SS officer convicted of war crimes. Anyway, we had quite a successful campaign and I, as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, tabled a parliamentary motion calling upon the shipping firm to rename the ship because it's anti-Semitic to glorify a Nazi who was a convicted war criminal. So I think it's incorrect and unjust to label people who are speaking for Palestine as anti-Semites. I refute that allegation utterly and completely.
Q: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius recently said his government will recognize Palestine no later than the end of 2016. They apparently see recognition as a step along the road to ending the Israeli occupation. As I understand it, the UK government's position is that it will recognize the Palestinian state only when it judges that such action "will help the purpose of peace." Do you have any idea what the Cameron government's thinking is on this and what circumstances might trigger it – or a later government – to make the recognition move?
MORRIS: I've had some discussions with senior diplomats. These are discussions held under the Chatham House Rule, and it seems to me that the British government would rather leave the issue of recognition until the parties are close to a negotiated solution. That's the position of the German government; they won't recognize until the deal is signed. But from my perspective and from my party's perspective, it's hard to see exactly when those circumstances would come about, when a Conservative-led government would recognize, unless there were a concerted and widespread European Union move to force the hand of the British government. It seems we are slavishly wedded to the American position irrespective of the merits of the arguments for recognition and for moving the process forward.
Q: Why is that? Even as an American, I don't understand it.
MORRIS: That's a very good question, and I'm not sure I have the answer. Going back to Tony Blair's adventure in Iraq with George Bush, …perhaps it's part of this special relationship dating from the Second World War and perhaps it has to do with perceived common interests. But I think an ethical foreign policy and a principled stand may well cause the Americans to reflect, as it did when the UK Parliament voted [on August 29, 2013] not to send ground troops into Syria. That caused the U.S. government to reflect and think again. It may well be that a British government with a more pro-active position, both within the EU and with our American allies, may well have some positive effects — be it a David Cameron-led coalition or hopefully a change of government in May.
But I think there needs to be some consistency. When we see how, for example, the Americans are calling for the reversal of the Russian occupation in the Ukraine, we should be saying exactly the same thing to the Israeli government: the occupation of the territories taken by Israel in 1967 has to end, and we have to move towards a negotiated phased withdrawal of the Israeli occupying forces; in return, the Israelis have to be given the assurance of peace and security.
Q: I noticed that, in general, MPs distanced themselves from Hamas during the October 13 and December 1 debates. Was that due to a fear of appearing "too radical" or was there a genuine distaste for Hamas policies?
MORRIS: I know that many members of Parliament say we need to talk to Hamas, and we can't ignore them. But there is a strong feeling, particularly from those who spoke in the debate, that the deliberate use of rockets, firing them indiscriminately at civilian areas, is wrong and can't be justified. There is also a feeling that there needs to be some recognition that those Palestinians who are engaging in diplomatic negotiations and peaceful protest need to be encouraged and given hope, and that that is the route to justice for Palestine and not the tactics employed by Hamas. Hamas could also change some of the anti-Jewish rhetoric it's used and promoted. So perhaps that's an explanation. At the same time, I've read some of the comments and posts from some of the Israeli political parties, Likud and others, that are just as antagonistic towards the Palestinians.
Q: Do you think there's a full understanding of Hamas's position, or is not only the public but also members of Parliament seeing it largely through Israeli propaganda?
MORRIS: Absolutely. I do think there's an element of truth in that. Once again, there's a difficulty, even with the benefit of looking at other areas in the world, like Northern Ireland, for example — where a lasting peace was only possible because all the parties agreed through an honest broker to take part in negotiations that included elements of the Republican movement who had engaged in an armed struggle and elements of the Unionist community who were engaged in a bitter armed struggle. But we have to learn from what's been successful elsewhere in the world if we are going to move forward the peace process. I think we have to engage with Hamas and try to understand the nature of their grievances and see if, despite everything that has happened, it is possible to move things forward diplomatically. Ultimately, that's the only solution.
Q: What does Hamas need to do to win more support among elected representatives in Europe? What would the MPs, for example, like to hear from Hamas?
MORRIS: I think members of Parliament would like to hear that they are committed to a diplomatic solution and to peaceful negotiations and that they would end the indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israeli territory. And also that they would put aside their differences with Fatah in the interests of Palestinian unity. I think there are some simple messages.
Q: I don't want to get hung up on this issue, but Hamas sees their rockets as retaliatory.
MORRIS: They see that position as a legitimate armed resistance to an invading and occupying force, and their view is that they're simply defending the populace. But, again, to recognize what has happened in places like South Africa and Northern Ireland, we need to get the antagonists together, either directly or through a third party, so that there's an understanding of each party's grievances and legitimate aspirations. It requires on the part of the Israelis an acceptance that they will negotiate a two-state solution, and I don't think they have any intention under the present leadership of doing that.…I'm very alarmed by Israel's massive increase in the use of live ammunition to deal with peaceful protests, as reported by the United Nations and other agencies, and if the oppression that the Palestinians are experiencing on a daily basis continues and is intensified, there will inevitably be a reaction. It's very dangerous. So it's not in the interest of the Israelis to continue with an intensification of their occupation and premeditated actions, such as those they have carried out in the Al Aqsa mosque, for example, which causes enormous tensions and stirs up fears among the Palestinian population about Israel's true intent.
Q: What measures should be taken to protect Palestinian civilians? How can the blockade of Gaza be minimized, if not ended, so that there can be a marked improvement in the flow of non-military goods and civilians across Gaza's borders?
MORRIS: Protection of civilians is paramount in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Accountability for all sides is vital. Without that, the culture of impunity will continue. I think we need to try to ensure that we lift the blockade of Gaza. It would have to be done with the cooperation of Hamas in relation to the retaliatory attacks on Israeli territory. But I'm sure that it could be done, policed perhaps by the United Nations or by some third party to ensure that materials were brought in to allow for the rebuilding of Gaza, the restoration of power, and the restoration of the commercial enterprises that were destroyed during the last incursion. I believe it could be done but it requires political will on the part of the United States and the EU but, most important, on the part of the Israeli government. It seems to me, once more, that they have no intention of allowing the blockade to be lifted, and that's putting hundreds of thousands of people in an absolutely intolerable situation.
Q: Have you seen any indications that the Israelis are open to third-party monitoring?
MORRIS: There's been an extreme reluctance to accept even the UN envoy.
Q: The pressure the Israel lobby applies to members of the U.S. Congress is no secret. Given this and the results of U.S.-led negotiations over the last 20 years, what should be the U.S. role in the search for peace in Israel/Palestine?
MORRIS: The influence of the Israeli lobby certainly plays a role in shaping U.S. policy and the degree to which Secretary of State Kerry or any other U.S. representative is willing to risk being an effective honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The United States has an absolutely vital role, but it can't be the sole mediator in the process if it has no credibility or very little credibility with one of the parties. And it has no credibility with the Palestinians, who see them as being far from honest brokers, as being an uncritical friend of Israel. Increasingly people are starting to question what influence the United States has over Israel. So perhaps now is the time for other members of the international community to have a more significant role, and in my opinion that would be the EU. It shouldn't just be a payer; it should be a key player, particularly if the United States is unable or unwilling to take that role.
Q: What are the most pressing priorities at this time? What must be done?
MORRIS: The blockade of Gaza isn't sustainable, and the plight of the Palestinian people there is absolutely appalling. The people of Gaza have to be given hope, and we have to ensure that talks are going to resume on a very different basis with an impartial mediator. We need a commitment to respect international law, and we need a complete freezing of all settlement activity, including in East Jerusalem.