Pro-Palestinian demonstrators call for Britis
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators call for BritisReuters

Does yesterday's symbolic vote in Britain's parliament to recognize a "Palestinian state" reflect a failure on the part of pro-Israel advocacy groups to make Israel's case effectively?  

That depends on who you ask.

According to Paul Charney, Chairman of the UK's leading Israel advocacy (or "hasbara") group the Zionist Federation, the answer is no.

In fact, the ZF knew of yesterday's vote at least a month in advance and had begun lobbying efforts, when it was asked "at the last minute" not to lobby MPs to vote against it - by none other than the Israeli foreign ministry.

The foreign ministry urged his organization to "pick its battles," and felt that the best route to take would be to play down the vote's significance and "not to give it more publicity" - a position he said he "understood."

"We were specifically told not to do advocacy on this," he told Arutz Sheva, because Israel felt the vote would merely be "a hollow victory" and was wary of being sucked into a battle it knew on the one hand it was unlikely to win, and on the other hand was essentially "meaningless" in a political and legal sense.

While the overwhelming victory of the motion - 274 to 12 in favor - is being touted by its supporters as a symbolically important gesture, Charney dismissed the initiative as little more than electioneering by the left-wing Labor Party ahead of general elections next year.

"All you had was a large majority of mostly Labor back-benchers supporting the motion," he pointed out, noting further that more than half of the British Parliament's 650 MPs abstained. "It has no legal standing or implications apart from as a PR or symbolic victory."

Even then, he cited the reported discontent among some Labor MPs over the vote, and subsequent amendments to the motion which reaffirmed the UK's commitment to "two states" - which is essentially the British government's position anyway - as further illustration of its "meaninglessness."

Charney said the Israeli foreign ministry's position was informed in part by the opinion of the governing Conservative party's chief whip that "it was not a fight worth fighting."

Conservative frontbenchers (i.e. senior MPs and Ministers) were barred from voting given that it was a backbench initiative, while the Conservative party whip warned his own party's backbenchers to avoid the vote entirely as well.

"There is only so much hasbara can do," Charney cautioned. "You've got to bear in mind that many of these constituencies have majority Muslim populations and therefore MPs need to represent their constituents - and this is what their constituents want to see. 

"It's about allowing them something - a small victory, to represent their constituents... however, politically and legally this is not the fight worth fighting.

"When it comes to, let's say, a proper vote on whether the UK should recognize a Palestinian state - not based on a two-state solution but unilaterally - that's something that advocacy groups will have to take on directly."

The challenge moving forward is to approach the majority of MPs who are still on the fence, and whose constituencies' demographic makeup did not place such a pressure on them, and explain to them why such initiatives are counter-productive and undermine peace prospects by encouraging the Palestinian Authority to take more hardline positions.

Charney also expressed hope that even many MPs who were responding to pressure by Muslim constituents were still "right-minded" enough to be convinced to only support "reasonable" resolutions, and not to adopt more radical stances.

Israel ignoring the PR battlefield at its peril?

But while agreeing that the motion was essentially "meaningless," UK-based Middle East analyst Jonathan Sacerdoti warned that both advocacy groups and the Israeli government needed to think more carefully about dismissing the PR battlefield. 

"Often the Israeli approach is not to take these things too seriously, and that's often a good way of dealing with it because it is a meaningless vote and just 'trouble-making' of sorts politically - essentially hijacking the UK political process through a back-bench motion," he said.

Such "symbolic" gestures clearly had not impacted Israel's concrete interests such as trade, which has reached record levels in recent years, he pointed out.

"But unfortunately, if you then ignore it and stonewall it because you don't think it deserves the attention, when it then develops that attention on its own steam, then it does become a story."

"The story isn't of course that the UK government has changed its approach for a negotiated solution - because Cameron has made it clear that it has not," he added. "The story is a PR story, it's a headline that's going to be repeated around the world, that UK lawmakers have voted in a huge majority in favor of recognition - and that's just a bad headline, because it helps in the overall Palestinian campaign to achieve unilateral recognition."

But Simon Cobbs, a founder of the grassroots Sussex Friends of Israel, went further, and insisted that the vote illustrated how pro-Israel "hasbara" organizations needed to rethink their strategy.

"Mondays vote in Parliament was a very sad day for Israel and UK Jewry," he said.

"You can dress the loss up in many ways: it’s a non-binding resolution, it will make little or no difference to Government policy, less than half of the MPs showed up...

"[But] the bottom line is that in the UK parliament on Monday evening Israel, and, by extension, UK Jewry, got a hammering and that is simply not acceptable. It wasn’t even the margin of victory the anti-Israel MPs achieved on Monday, but the hate-filled rhetoric that came out of their mouths for hour upon hour.

"The lack of pro-Israel voices was unacceptable. Those that did speak were eloquent and passionate, but their speeches fell on deaf ears. The anti-Israel side played the ‘politic game’ far better than us and we need to learn from this and quickly.

"For too long we have tried, as a community, to do something that evidently just isn’t working. Anti-Zionism is on every street and every campus. Anti-Semitism is at its highest level since the 1940’s."

Cobbs called on supporters of Israel, and the Jewish community in particular, to take a more forthright, direct approach to counter anti-Israel efforts.

"Our response, the response of the Jewish leadership has got to stop being so 'nuanced,'" he urged. "We need to send a strong message that we can all stand behind."

"It is not a case of why and how we lost but what we are going to do about it. It is time for the leadership to look and understand that things are just not working and it is not possible to just continue the way we have been. It’s time to be on the front foot and set the agenda."

And despite playing down the significance of the vote, Charney agreed that it should serve as "a wakeup call" to British Jews to mobilize politically and fight back against the tide of anti-Israel sentiment in the country.

"Once again British Jews will feel alienated as a result of yet another initiative singling out Israel unfairly. This is another call for them to wake up and make their voices heard."