Balfour Declaration Centenary
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in November.
My Lords, I am delighted and overwhelmed in equal measure that so many noble Lords have agreed to speak in this debate. The topic is clearly of wide interest, and I will have to listen very carefully indeed if I am to catch everyone’s fleeting words.
Arthur Balfour would have despaired to know that, 100 years after the British Government’s declaration bearing his name, the Arabs and Jews had still not settled their differences over who has the right to what he described as a “small notch of land” that the Arabs could not possibly begrudge, given their vast Arabian Middle East. There remains considerable controversy both about the declaration itself and about its significance. There are still those who believe that it was the biggest error of judgment that a world power could make, while there are many others who believe it was the most magnanimous gesture by an imperial nation for an oppressed people.
The Zionists see Palestine as the biblical homeland of the Jews, who had been repeatedly driven out, always returning and always yearning for it in their prayers, while the Palestinians see what they believed was their land being given away by a western power whose land it was not theirs to give to someone else—seemingly incompatible aims that the wording of the declaration tried to overcome by offering a home for the Jews with the proviso that,
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights”,
of the indigenous population. It was a hopelessly optimistic idea and, at the time, little thought was given to how one group, the Jews, were supposed to protect the right of another group, the Arabs, who were immediately trying to kill them off.
It was not Balfour alone, of course. He had the full support of Lloyd George’s wartime Cabinet—a remarkable phenomenon given that in 1917 the Brits were bogged down in a war in Europe that was going badly wrong. They obviously thought it was important enough to produce the declaration.
It is sometimes said that the declaration was a purely British affair, but that would fly in the face of the evidence. Despite their history of anti-Semitism, the French had already given their written approval for a Jewish home in Palestine, as had the Italians, the Americans and the Japanese, and even the Pope was favourably disposed. So it was not simply Britain and Balfour.
However, it was not a legal document in any way. It was not a treaty and had no status in international law. It was simply an expression of support—the Government looking with favour on a Jewish homeland—sent in a letter to Lord Rothschild. It could easily have got lost at any time.
It was only in 1920 at San Remo and two years later in Geneva when the League of Nations gave the mandate for Palestine to Britain and, furthermore, mandated it to provide the Jewish home there. All 51 nations of the league voted for it, with none against. The League of Nations spoke of a Jewish nation for the first time and of “reconstituting” it in Palestine. Balfour had only spoken of “establishing” it, yet here it wrote of “reconstituting” its ancient rights. It was this basis in international law that gave legitimacy to the Zionists’ claim to a Palestinian home, and it was this agreement that was accepted in full by the UN in 1947. Balfour and his Prime Minister, Lloyd George, had continued to make their presence felt in San Remo and in Geneva, so Britain should be proud not only for the Balfour Declaration but for pursuing it so assiduously in San Remo and at the League of the Nations.
And here is the surprise: the wider Arab leadership were at first very favourably disposed to the Jewish influx, modest though it was at the time, into what they regarded as a small, neglected corner of Arabia. They had welcomed the Jews as their brethren—there was a written agreement between Prince Faisal and Chaim Weizmann saying as much—and the daily newspaper in Mecca wrote of the two branches of the Semitic family, Arab and Jew, who understood each other. It was only when the Grand Sharif Hussein and his son in Mecca realised that they had been duped by the British and French that all that sweetness and light melted away.
Hussein had been led to believe that, if he and his tribes revolted against the Turks, he would be rewarded with a vast kingdom in the whole of Arabia after the war. However, when they heard that their land had been carved up by the French and British in their mandates, they knew they had been cheated. First in the Sykes-Picot agreement and then at San Remo and the League of Nations, the allies agreed that they could not trust the Arabs to rule themselves in such a strategically important part of the world. The Brits remembered that many Arab tribes in Palestine had sided with the Turks against them during the war. However, it was the characteristic British attitude that they knew how to rule over—this is a quote from the League of Nations—
“peoples not yet ready to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”,
that justified their actions. Only then did Hussein and his son realise what had happened, and only then did they begin to see the Jewish influx as just another symbol of western colonisation—just another sign of British perfidy—and they turned against the Jews.
It was after that that there was a change in British government attitudes. In the 1930s and 1940s, severe restrictions were placed on Jewish immigration to try to placate the Arabs. The devastating consequences for the Jews of Europe, as they were herded into the gas chambers during the Second World War, changed Jewish attitudes towards Britain from gratitude to hostility, as they saw the escape route for the Jews being clanged shut. However, despite all that, and the attitude of the British Foreign Office after the war when boatloads of refugees were turned away, it remains the case that Israel owes an enormous debt to Britain for what it offered them earlier in 1917, 1920 and 1922.
Britain, too, has a lot to be grateful for. We should celebrate the fact that we in Britain provided the foundations of a democratic state in a part of the world where democracy is in very short supply. I like to think that, despite the problems that have to be overcome if we are to see a just and peaceful resolution of Israel’s differences with the Palestinians, Britain should celebrate the fact that it was instrumental in providing the foundation of this democracy, where religious and ethnic differences are fully tolerated, the only Middle East state where the number of Christians has risen, where gay parades are a feature of life—indeed, the current British Ambassador to Israel was able to mount a float in a recent gay parade in Tel Aviv—and where 17 members of the Knesset, a supreme court judge, many academics, doctors and professionals of all sorts are all Arab, to say nothing of its leading place in science, technology, medicine, the arts and commerce. It is a country with which we share intelligence on cybersecurity and other threats to security, and in which trade links are increasingly important as we move into the post-Brexit era.
It is fascinating to note now that, 100 years ago, it was the British Government that opened the door for a Jewish home in Palestine. A century later, and after years of conflict with the Arab world at large, we are beginning to see the more pragmatic Arab states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states recognise a Jewish Israel. The Arab peace initiative is being offered provided that there is a meaningful peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The enormous advantages to both of them and to the wider Arab world of a peace deal are there for all to see.
Mr Abbas has to be able to bring himself to recognise what Balfour was aiming at—a Jewish state in Palestine—and Mr Netanyahu has to stop further encroachment on Palestinian land in the West Bank. Will it happen soon? We should not hold our breath, but the fact that we now have a range of Arab countries keen to see it happen must be a positive sign. Will it require new and braver leaders on both sides? I fear that it will. Is it worth all the effort? It absolutely is.
Meanwhile, surely we should be celebrating the critical role we played in the creation of a stable, democratic state in the Middle East that now more than ever needs one. Does the noble Baroness the Minister agree?
My Lords, this is a time-limited debate and, with 29 speakers, the limit is just two minutes each. I respectfully remind the House that when the Clock shows two minutes, the permitted time has already been exceeded.
My Lords, my visit to the region in February is why I believe that, to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, our Government must address the appalling humanitarian situation there, pressure Israel to stop changing the map of the Occupied Territories and progress a two-state solution.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel at the al-Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem have highlighted the inhumanity of back-to-back ambulance transfers at checkpoints even for critically ill people as well as the increasing difficulty of getting checkpoint permits for senior medical staff, violating the right to health of patients. In Hebron, with Breaking the Silence we saw the shell of what used to be the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank where 200,000 Palestinians are violently dominated by 850 settlers. The Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, took us to Silwan in East Jerusalem where Palestinians face an ongoing policy by the Israeli authorities to remove them from their homes in favour of settler organisations, and to the East Jerusalem periphery where dozens of Bedouin communities are being forcibly transferred. Of the 2 million people trapped in Gaza, approximately 1 million are children. In any other place in the world, they would be evacuated from such a toxic environment where 96% of the water is unfit for humans.
Let me end with something that really impressed me. It is young Jewish people themselves who are documenting human rights abuses, so that others in Israel can know what is being done in their name. They tell me that they are doing it because creating a home for Jews while violating international standards of human rights demeans their proud religion. They want no part of it, and nor should we.
My Lords, 100 years ago the population of Palestine was Christian, Arab and Muslim. The Balfour Declaration changed that because the UK Government promised land in a non-European territory to a group with minimal presence in it and against the wishes of the people who lived there. On publication, the majority of the population protested vigorously against the declaration and continued to do so.
In 1919, the King-Crane Commission told the British Government that,
“No British officer, consulted by the Commissioners, believed that the Zionist programme could be carried out except by force of arms”.
How prescient that was. There followed a persistent campaign of terror against Palestinians, those administering the British mandate and even Jews who opposed the Zionist approach.
This terrorism was often sanctioned by future Israeli leaders and Prime Ministers. An example of this was the slaughter in April 1948 of 90% of the 400 Palestinians living in the village of Deir Yassin by Irgun. The purpose of this terrorist strategy was made clear in a press statement on 13 April 1948 by Irgun, then led by the future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, which stated:
“We intend to attack, conquer and keep until we have the whole of Palestine and Transjordan in a greater Jewish state”.
The evidence for all this is in the National Archives.
The Balfour Declaration has created endless misery for generations of Palestinians, with millions displaced. Those who remain are prisoners in their own land and forced to watch continuing illegal land confiscation. Gaza is a collective prison on the cusp of a humanitarian disaster. The West Bank has been occupied militarily for 50 years, with Palestinians daily victims of serious breaches of human rights and international law tantamount to war crimes.
The declaration and its aftermath are among the most shameful in our history. In the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where indigenous people have been mistreated, Governments have apologised and tried to make reparations. We have done nothing similar for the Palestinians, despite failing to protect them under our mandate. No British Government are willing to apologise to the Palestinians, recognise an independent Palestinian state or support proper deterrents to further land confiscation.
I suggest to the Minister that the Government might mark the declaration centenary by addressing some of these issues. I would be glad to hear the Minister’s comments.
My Lords, I want to make two points in my two-penn’orth of time.
First, the Balfour Declaration did not arise in a vacuum and in part reflected the very considerable contribution made by Jewish people, mainly recent immigrants of course, to Britain and the then war effort. To take an obvious example, it was a Jewish chemist at the University of Manchester who devised a clever new way to manufacture acetone from sugar and carbohydrate. It was a vital chemical in short supply for the manufacture of cordite. That chemist, Chaim Weizmann, went on to become the first President of the State of Israel.
Winston Churchill saw this and was among the strongest supporters of the Balfour Declaration both at the time and, significantly, during the inter-war years when the British Government actually tried to row back from the declaration. Churchill was not a particularly religious man, but he had a great admiration for the Jewish contribution to British life and the extraordinarily creative results, especially in agriculture, of Jewish resettlement in Palestine. All of this is set out in Martin Gilbert’s splendid book, Churchill and the Jews, which is available in our Library.
In marking the Balfour Declaration, we are marking more than just the success—and it is a great success—of the modern State of Israel, but we also need to acknowledge the difficult history of Palestine since 1948. In part, it is because the United Nations did not properly oversee and own the consequences of its resolutions. The British, too, essentially walked away and watched the conflict between Jewish settlers and their neighbours develop. The necessary peacekeeping force and, indeed, money to ease the issues of displacement and resettlement were not put in place—and, frankly, the rest is history.
My Lords, I refer the House to my registered interests. It took me a while at primary school, the King David Primary School in Liverpool, to understand why the four houses it was divided into were Hillel, David, Cromwell and Balfour. Hillel and David are well-known Jewish figures, Cromwell allowed the Jews back into this country, and Balfour. This shows the importance that the Jewish community attaches to Balfour. In fact, my niece has just named her new puppy Balfour.
I wish to pay particular tribute to Dr Jacques Gauthier, who has spent 20 years researching and writing on the subject of the Jewish claim to Jerusalem. In April this year he invited the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, and me to a conference held in San Remo. It was at the San Remo conference of April 1920 where the principal powers—the US, the UK, Italy, France and Japan—gathered to make a decision about the sharing out of the Ottoman Empire. Previously, on 6 February 1919 at the Paris peace conference, the allied powers had received submissions from the Arabs, as well as from the Jews on 27 February of that year. The Arabs asked for independence for the old Arab territories under Ottoman rule while the Jews asked for recognition of the historical connection to the land and the right to reconstitute what they used to have. They urged the principal powers to set up a mandate in Palestine because they were not ready for statehood. The principal powers met again in April 1920 in San Remo to make the decision. They said yes to the Jews to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine and later put that into the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. The transfer of title was made to the principal powers, which now gave the rights to the Jewish people, and the wording of the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into Article 2 of the Mandate for Palestine and became binding in international law by the League of Nations in 1922.
Last night I explained to the House that there are those who suggest that the second part of Balfour has not been fulfilled—the part of that resolution concerning,
“the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
Will the Minister confirm, in the words of the Prime Minister, that we will be marking the 100th anniversary with “pride”?
My Lords, standing as we do the day after another great anniversary, it is fitting to reflect on President Woodrow Wilson’s words of 4 July 1920, when he famously said that the anniversary of an independence should be seen as a beginning, not a conclusion. So what might the centenary anniversary of this document be a beginning of? To what does it aspire? For Britain that day, 2 November 1917, recognised the strong historic Jewish links to a land while also setting out a vision for the kind of society that could be built there.
It was Churchill just three years later, when reflecting on the declaration on his first visit to Jerusalem, who said:
“It is manifestly right that the Jews… should have … a national home”,
in a land,
“which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately … associated”.
Yet even Churchill could not have imagined that less than 25 years later two out of every three Jews in Europe had been murdered—6 million killings in total. It would be right to consider that without the opportunity the Balfour Declaration gave in the pre-war years to come to that national home, soon to be Israel, it would have been three out of three Jews murdered in those barbaric times.
History always casts a long shadow, anniversaries often a longer one. But what we take from anniversaries are the choices we make, so let us choose this centenary to rededicate ourselves to the aspiration of this document, which, like every democracy, remains a work in progress. Let us use the centenary to promote that positive vision for the future, finding a vocabulary that is sensitive to conflicting emotions and, above all, strengthening courageous moderate voices of both sides will work tirelessly to end the conflict.
We enter this centenary year inspired by two things. We are inspired by the pioneering spirit of those who wrote those 67 words into history and in doing so saved lives by the millions, and equally inspired by and committed to the task of building a lasting, just and secure peace for all the inhabitants of that blessed land.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, including being president of the Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel. I speak as an Orthodox British Jew and a Liberal. I am proud that it was a Lloyd George Liberal-led coalition Government who produced the declaration. I will be celebrating the centenary and I am sad if any speakers undermine this significant event.
Various other noble Lords have mentioned that the declaration became binding at the San Remo conference and was ratified by all 51 countries of the League of Nations in 1922. However, as proof of the adage that Rome was not built in a day, it was not until 1948 that the State of Israel was created.
The final phrase of the declaration says that nothing shall be done to harm,
“the rights and political status”,
of Jews “in any other country”. Sadly, since 1948 more than 800,000 Jews were expelled from Arab lands in the Middle East and north Africa, the majority finding refuge in Israel. Non-Jewish citizens of Israel are guaranteed equal rights under law. They make up 20% of Israel’s population. They can vote and in the Knesset the Arab List is the third-largest party bloc. Israel is the only country in the region where it is safe to be an apostate, gay or indeed to be Christian.
There were large Jewish communities in Syria, now down to 18 people. In Iraq they are now down to 13 people. Egypt has gone from 80,000 down to just six people. In Jordan it is down to none. In Libya the last Jews left in 2003. In Lebanon almost if not all Jews have fled. Then there is Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.
There is still work to do to carve out a lasting peace in the Middle East, but we should none the less celebrate our role in supporting self-determination for the Jewish people and the remarkable country Israel has become.
My Lords, the wording of the Balfour Declaration referred to the preservation of certain rights for non-Jews in Palestine and Jews in other countries. The Arabs who stayed in Israel are now 20% of the population, 17 members of the Knesset, judges, university professors and army officers, with equal rights. But 800,000 Jews were driven from Middle Eastern states in the aftermath of the creation of Israel, most of whom were resettled in Israel—unlike the deliberate abandonment of the Palestinian refugees, rejected by the countries in which they are resident and kept as supplicants and pawns by the UNRWA and other Arab nations. Before the establishment of Israel, there were hundreds of thousands of Jews in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Libya. Where are they now? They are all gone, bar a handful—cleansed and expelled in defiance of the Balfour Declaration.
What do we regret and what do we celebrate? We regret that Israel was not established 10 years earlier, which would have largely prevented the Holocaust. We regret the 1939 White Paper, which all but halted Jewish immigration to Palestine when most needed. We regret that anti-Semitism continues to thrive, often in the guise of anti-Zionism—an extraordinary phenomenon when one considers that there is no anti-Turkeyism, anti-Chinaism or anti-Saudiism, to quote but a few egregious examples of repression of the population.
We celebrate self-determination for the Jewish people after thousands of years of dispersal and persecution. We celebrate the miraculous success of Israel; its world leadership in innovation; its 13 Nobel Prize winners; its development of everything from the Intel processor to the five-minute cell phone charger, from radiation-free X-rays to desalination of sea-water, from genetic counselling for the Bedouin to the epilator; its diversity and freedom of speech. It has liberated Jews and given them pride and shown what a persecuted people can do when given control over their own destiny in a tiny state.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for giving us this important opportunity to celebrate the immense progress achieved since the Balfour Declaration was made. How wonderful it is that our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith once again have their historic home in an Israel that is prosperous, democratic and strong.
In preparing for this debate, I reflected on how indebted I am personally to a fine Jewish gentleman without whose orthopaedic skill in rebuilding my broken bones as a child I simply would not be here. Little did I know then of his escape from the Nazis on the very last train to leave Prague before the borders were closed in June 1939.
In contemplating the Balfour Declaration we should contemplate the alternative: a world without Israel. Celebrating this declaration is for me part of ensuring that the genocidal, anti-Semitic suffering of the 20th century is never again visited upon our world—a world to whom the Jewish people have revealed, and continue to give, as we have just heard, so much. They deserve a home. They deserve peace and recognition of Israel’s right to exist, to build on Balfour for many years to come.
My Lords, the characterisation of the Balfour Declaration as the unilateral action of the British Government of the day misses a crucial point in its genesis and significance. The Balfour Declaration should properly be seen as one of the steps in the development of an international consensus with the leading democracies and powers of the day converging in their support for the establishment of a Jewish state.
The declaration was preceded by many expressions of support. In May 1917 Pope Benedict XV affirmed the support of the Catholic Church. Jules Cambon, the secretary-general of the French Foreign Ministry, issued a letter on behalf of the French Government affirming their support for the establishment of a Jewish state. President Woodrow Wilson, who was first sent the text of the declaration in September 1917, approved it that October.
Even after the issuing of the declaration and prior to the San Remo conference and the formal establishment of the British mandate, explicit support from countries such as Japan, Siam and China had added to the existing public announcements of support.
I hope the Minster can confirm that the Government’s welcome celebrations will therefore also contain suitable participation and support from other members and institutions of the international community who should be credited with the existence and success of the State of Israel.
There is of course unfinished business in the declaration and we all hope that we are near time to usher in a two-state solution. However, for peacemaking to work, the international community would do well to recognise the achievements of public diplomacy that led to the Balfour Declaration and be sensitive to the potential footprint of its actions, ensuring that they do not undermine the capacity of Israel and the Palestinians to achieve what they can and what we all hope, in the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, they will.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for securing this important debate. In June last year, I was privileged to be invited as a guest speaker at the Israeli embassy in London. I spoke about the special role that Israel has in the world, a true democracy in the Middle East. My wife, Lady Taylor, and I have had the pleasure of meeting the brilliant Mr Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, on that and a number of other occasions. We were also delighted when our daughters were chosen to sing the Israeli national anthem at the Tower of David, the Jerusalem Citadel.
There is only one race: the human race. The centenary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November provides an excellent opportunity for the British Government to renew their support for Israel and the Middle East peace process.
The Holy Scriptures emphasise: “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Surely trade is one of the most powerful pathways to peace. The UK is Israel’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth £5 billion per year. Brexit opens the door for the UK to build on and expand its trading partnership with Israel. What plans do the Government have to further the already prosperous trade relationship that the UK has with Israel?
There are other road maps to peace which the centenary could be used to promote; for example, to feature educational organisations which bring together Israelis and Palestinians in harmony rather than division. One such organisation is the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow. Another is the Warwick Leadership Academy, which I founded to provide mentoring for young people from different nationalities and cultures. So far, we have invested in the futures of young leaders from 50 nationalities, including Israeli and Arab.
Some of the amazing Israeli inventions and discoveries which have benefited mankind should also be highlighted. I am privileged to be involved in an exciting development where Israeli innovation has established renewable energy and water technology projects in a number of African states. Let us not forget that there have been black African Jews from Ethiopia, including the Falasha, settled in Israel since 1934.
The path to Middle East peace may not be easy, but as John F Kennedy said:
“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, on securing this important debate, and I refer to my entry in the register of interests. The centenary of the Balfour Declaration presents a unique opportunity to revive the Middle East peace process.
The UK and Israel continue to have a close working relationship, in particular to counter terrorism and extremism and to commit to what has alone been talked about, a two-state solution, enabling Israel to be free from terrorism and to see a viable Palestine.
As we know, Israel celebrates democracy, has a liberal and open society and protects the rights of all minorities, including LGBT citizens, and today is a multicultural, multi-ethnic democracy which Britain shares together with the support and protection of the democratic State of Israel.
On my first visit with CFI last year, I had the opportunity to visit the Save a Child’s Heart medical facility, which provides life-saving surgery for children with cognitive heart defects. It is a tribute to its humanitarian help and worthy to note that 50% of around 4,000 children who have received the life-saving treatment are Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank.
In Tel Aviv, I saw high-tech and research centres’ digital communications businesses expanding at a phenomenal rate and witnessed Israelis’ ingenuity, in particular in how the country has tackled one of its greatest challenges, water shortages, with desalination plants purifying drinking water in as little as 30 minutes. However, visiting the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem was very moving as I gazed at all those pictures of the millions who were murdered. It will be a day that I shall never forget.
What I found invaluable was to hear at first hand from both Israelis and Palestinians their hope for peace to bring both sides together. Leaders will be have to be brave and go that extra mile, with no preconditions, to achieve that elusive peaceful settlement.
My Lords, in its history, the Balfour Declaration has been, and is, almost as much attacked, dissected and denigrated as it has been revered and respected. In two minutes, it is difficult to do it justice, but some salient points can be made.
The letter that Foreign Minister Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild to transmit to the Zionist Federation should be seen against the background of the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897, where it was stated:
“Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law”.
So the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 was hailed as,
“the much-awaited opening: narrow, conditional, hedged, but an opening all the same”,
and, for all its vagaries, it constituted a first step towards the Zionist aim.
Abba Eban once said that the Balfour Declaration stands alone,
“as the decisive diplomatic victory of the Jewish people in modern history”.
After the San Remo conference in 1920, which noble Lords have already spoken about, the Balfour Declaration was ratified in the League of Nations, when the Mandate for Palestine was approved in July 1922. If we fast-forward to 1947, when Great Britain relinquished to the UN the power to make decisions relating to the status of the Mandate for Palestine and UNGA Resolution 181 was accepted by the Jewish Agency and rejected by the Arab League, followed by the Declaration of the Establishment the State of Israel by Ben-Gurion in May 1948, we have a direct line from the Balfour Declaration to the State of Israel.
Britain can rightly be very proud of the Balfour Declaration, which well deserves a happy and dignified celebration of its 100th anniversary, which I hope Her Majesty’s Government will fully participate in and encourage.
My own heritage, being Turkish, Cypriot and Middle Eastern, has shaped my views rather differently from those of the majority of speakers here today. The Balfour Declaration has shaped the Palestinian experience and the wider Arab world. It has contributed to the disregard for the rights of the Palestinian people and is a document whose legacy continues to have devastating consequences for the Palestinians, Arab Muslims and Christians—who are infrequently referred to—5 million of whom are living displaced, mostly in poverty, around the Middle East. It is unfinished business.
The disregard continues today, with what has become an increasing charade of the “peace process”, which allows Israel to continue its expropriation of Palestinian land and expansion of illegal settlements, while stating its pursuit of “peace”. We all know that there is no current prospect of a peace plan or possibility of a two-state solution on the horizon—let us be honest about this.
The injustices are legion: more than 300 structures in the occupied West Bank were demolished by the Israeli authorities in 2016 alone, many part-funded by the EU or international NGOs. These are serious matters.
Britain has a unique historical connection and a moral responsibility to the people of both Israel and Palestine, and it needs to show leadership in how to resolve this matter. In yesterday’s debate on the report of the International Relations Select Committee, The Middle East: Time for New Realism, many noble Lords spoke about this as the time to get real, and said that there is no possibility at present of the two-state solution. The UK needs to come to terms with the reality, especially in the way it presents itself to the Muslim and Arab world. Not to do so is not in Britain’s interest; it is no longer a colonial power.
We should mark the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, but there is no cause for celebration in my view and that of millions around the world, particularly in the Middle East. I ask the Minister whether she agrees with the respected journalist, Robert Fisk, who wrote:
“The British have grown used to apologising—for the British empire, for the slave trade, for the Irish famine. So why not for Balfour?”.
My Lords, the Balfour Declaration in 1917 was a significant moment in history for three reasons. First, it was a momentous reversal of imperialism. It gave back to the Jewish people the home that had been seized by empire after empire: Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, and the Christian and Muslim empires that fought one another for centuries for control of the Jewish land.
Secondly, what eventually became the State of Israel was the only non-artificial creation among a host of artificial states, among them Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Libya, which had never been states before and thus still exist in a condition of ethnic, religious and tribal strife. Only Israel had previously existed as a nation state, which it had done 3,000 and 2,000 years ago.
Thirdly, it was a brave, if failed, attempt to prevent what later became clear at the Evian conference in 1938, when the Jewish people, facing what Hitler called Vernichtung—extermination—had not one square inch they could call “home” in the sense defined by the poet Robert Frost as the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in. No people should lack a home: not Palestinians and not Jews. That is why it is tragic that a century after the Balfour Declaration, significant groups still seek to deny the Jewish people a home, among them Iran, and Hezbollah and Hamas—two groups that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition has in the past called “friends”. Friends of violence and terror, yes. Friends of humanity, no.
It is shameful that the Jewish people still have to fight for the right to exist in the land that for 33 centuries they have called home. Yet, constantly threatened though they are by missiles, terror and de-legitimation, they have achieved so much in science, medicine, technology and humanitarian aid that I urge Her Majesty’s Government to acknowledge the State of Israel as testimony to the power of hope to triumph over hate.
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Turnberg for obtaining this debate. When the Minister replies, I hope that we shall hear what the Government’s plans are to celebrate this. It is a cause for celebration, and not to be pessimistic and abandon any hope of a two-state solution.
Within the Balfour Declaration, the dreams and aspirations of so many people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, had a chance to become real. The hopes of so many, and the endeavours of statesmen and nations, became a real possibility when the declaration was announced on that day a hundred years ago.
The few minutes that we have to speak prevent me and others from paying a full tribute to the nation state that came to fruition following the declaration. One hundred years—a century dogged by the activities of its enemies. Yet against all odds Israel and its people have achieved so much. A brief glance at the achievements and the contribution to the international world made by Israel since its creation show a nation striving and succeeding as it progressed through the past 60 years. It is a nation that played its part through the United Nations, from its pioneering work in the fields of science, technology and medicine, to the international aid it gives and humanitarian relief given so often following tragedies and disasters.
I urge the Government to celebrate this historic anniversary with a reaffirmation of their support for Israel and to find ways to show just how much its achievements are welcomed by decent, fair-minded people throughout the world.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel. It is absolutely right to celebrate the Balfour Declaration. As a Liberal, I am proud of the part that members of my party played in it, notably David Lloyd George and Herbert Samuel. Does that mean I am an unequivocal supporters of all the policies of all the Governments of Israel? Of course not: I am as critical as many Israelis, particularly of the settlement policy in the West Bank. However, I honour the fantastic achievements of Israel in so many fields of human endeavour.
The Balfour Declaration must be understood in its context, a time when national boundaries were being ripped up and redrawn. Whole nations and ethnic groups were on the move, fleeing war and persecution. National boundaries scarcely existed in the region, and British and French officials were drawing new lines on maps, installing dynasties from among Arab tribes, and pursuing their rival, strategic interests. Persecution of Jews was a reality, especially in Russia, but what no one realised then was that while the Jewish homeland in Palestine was still in its early days, there would arise not just a threat but the terrible reality of the Holocaust. The slaughter of millions made so many more Jews than before believe that there had to be somewhere in the world where Jews would always be welcome and safe.
Israel respects the human rights of its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish. However, the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, by its very nature, denies human rights. That occupation is in turn a direct consequence of the attempts to destroy the State of Israel, from the 1948 war to more recent rockets and bombs aimed at the civilian population. Balfour will not be fully implemented until there is a negotiated solution. I believe that will have to be a two-state solution. That will take a lot of vision and some political risks on both sides. There is not sufficient evidence at the moment that leadership on either side is available and ready to make those kinds of visionary moves and take those political risks.
My Lords, I first declare my interest as chairman of the Anglo-Israel Association. In Isaiah Berlin’s diaries, there is an interesting letter from Alistair Cooke, the famous journalist and author of “Letters from America”, on the subject of the Balfour Declaration. Cooke says to him, “You know, Balfour really wasn’t a very nice man. He had many illiberal views, particularly with respect to Ireland”. Berlin is for a moment troubled by this and replies somewhat nervously, “Yes, he wasn’t a particularly liberal man. Nor was my great hero, Churchill, who I dined with once and was shocked by some of his conversation. Churchill is still my hero”. Berlin says, “Like the leaders of the British Labour movement in 1917, I still support the Balfour Declaration and the idea that the Jewish people should have a home”.
I will pick up that theme about Ireland, just for one second. Both Churchill, whose work in 1922 supported the principles of the Balfour Declaration, and Balfour himself were educated in the decades of turmoil of Irish politics in this Parliament. They learned that when you have two nations and two religious identities in politics, you are—in the phrase of the great commentator of this period, WF Moneypenny—dealing with a clash of two great rights. That was not a clash between right and wrong, and nor is the clash between Jew and Arab. You can see Balfour struggling with this in the declaration, and Churchill struggling with it later, and not in a satisfactory way. Many people would say that what they did with respect to Ireland was not satisfactory, either.
However, there is one test here: the actual consequences. The consequence of the Balfour Declaration was the survival of hundreds of thousands of Jews who would otherwise have died in Europe. That is a crucial point and the absolute reason why we must celebrate the Balfour Declaration at this moment. It does not mean that the State of Israel’s policies are perfect. In many respects they are highly imperfect. Many Israelis make this same point. We should respond to the situation by celebrating the Balfour Declaration but work even harder for the two-state solution. I accept that that is not imminent but it is the only solution.
I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, on securing this debate. Of course the Palestinian people deserve the right to live in peace and prosperity. A peaceful coexistence with Israel, neighbours living together, without ongoing war or bloodshed, is still the dream. My fervent wish is that this centenary of the Balfour Declaration could somehow be the beginning of new moves towards peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Israel has shown its good faith and proved it wants peace. It returned huge swathes of land to Egypt in 1979. It has made peace with Jordan. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. It has dismantled settlements. It offered peace to the Palestinians several times since 2000, but sadly has had no reliable partner with which to negotiate peace. The Palestinians keep trying to make war with Israel, not peace. If one side refuses to talk peace and does not even acknowledge the right of the other party to exist, how is a two-state solution to be achieved?
Israel shares our western values of freedom, justice and tolerance of difference. It protects and respects the rights of its non-Jewish communities. Where else in the Middle East is there a country which promotes and protects the rights of women, the LGBT community and all religions? I welcome the strong ties in trade and security between the UK and Israel. Technology, medical science and even our health service benefit from these. One in six of our generic prescription drugs comes from Israel and the NHS would face shortages without them. Israeli aid helps with disasters and development around the globe.
Of course there must be a homeland for the Jewish people and a state for the Palestinian people—when they are ready. Meanwhile, let us commemorate the Balfour Declaration centenary with pride and prayers for peace.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for the second time today—and, for the second time, to agree with everything she said.
With the declaration, Britain was the first state to support Jewish aspirations. This caused many Jewish people to look up to Britain—people such as my parents. Indeed, that is why I am here. I think Britain can be pleased with the declaration because, as many noble Lords have said, Israel has many of our values: the rule of law, equal rights and all the freedoms. We have also passed on our spirit of humanitarian generosity towards people in difficulty or who are less well off—typical Jewish values. We can take pride in Israel’s accomplishments, which others have listed. We have benefited from these accomplishments and achievements by creating a valuable partner in trade and security.
Yes, Israel does not get on with the neighbours. This has been well chronicled in my noble friend’s recent book, on which I congratulate him. I also agree with his conclusion. In spite of intifada being the response to the generous offer made in Oslo, the resolution still lies in having two states. The pressure of resolving this gives rise to behaviour of which not all of us may approve. But let us take pride in the good as well as disapproving of the bad. We have every reason to celebrate this significant birthday.
My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for securing this debate, I say to the Minister that to have a debate in which we are allowed only two minutes to express our thoughts about a declaration made by our Government 100 years ago, which led to 50 years of suffering, brutal occupation and the illegal confiscation of Palestinian land, is an insult to Palestinian people all over the world. It is also a disgrace that, according to an Israeli lawyer I met yesterday, our Government now put trade before anything else—before human rights, international law or justice. Is this the new philosophy?
We need our Government to take some action against the Israeli Government before the two-state solution is dead. But if they refuse to take any action—they are very rich on words but there is never any action—we the people must continue the boycott of Israel’s goods and services, and we will do so, just as we did with South Africa to end apartheid.
But more needs to be done. I must express some anger towards the Palestinian leaders. The leaders of the Palestinian Authority act as the Government of Israel’s puppets, and we should withdraw aid from the Palestinian Authority until new elections are held throughout the West Bank and Gaza, with a guarantee from us that we will recognise the result of a democratic election process—whoever wins—which is what we did not do last time.
My Lords, Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and is right at the heart of the Balfour Declaration. However, sadly, in some quarters the term has become a proxy for anti-Semitism. I am not one of those who immediately brand any critic of Israel an anti-Semite—far from it. However, some critics of Israel leave themselves open to such accusations when they single out Israel for criticism but refuse to contextualise.
Suicide bombings, knifings and missiles are daily occurrences for the citizens of Israel, who live in a constant state of siege. Surely, such acts against innocent civilians require some criticism from those who are continually on Israel’s case. But no, there are those critics of Israel who by their silence on the terror inflicted by Hezbollah and its ilk condone it. When Israel acts in self-defence, the narrative is distorted to fit their narrative of Zionist aggression.
On 16 June two Palestinians, unprovoked, attacked Israeli police officers in Jerusalem with guns and knives, while a third stabbed to death Border Police Staff Sergeant Hadas Malka, aged 23. The BBC’s headline on its news website was: “Three Palestinians killed after deadly stabbing in Jerusalem”. The BBC eventually changed its headline to: “Israeli policewoman stabbed to death in Jerusalem”. The BBC accepted its mistake and subsequently changed it. Of course, I am not accusing BBC journalists of anti-Semitism but this example demonstrates the drip-drip effect of unqualified, uncontextualised singling out of Israel for criticism. If the BBC can get this wrong, it is little wonder that Israel finds it so hard to put aside the idea that some critics are motivated by something more sinister than political commentary.
Meanwhile, 100 years on, as we are hearing, there is much to celebrate in Balfour’s visionary declaration. If I may end on a plug, I recommend to everyone the excellent book of the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg.
My Lords, I believe that, following the Balfour Declaration, we in Britain have very special and heavy responsibilities for ensuring the well-being and security of the people of Israel. That means talking honestly to the people of Israel and explaining that the world is not always as they might like it to be.
What are we celebrating? The Balfour Declaration said quite clearly that,
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Are we celebrating that? I hope so. But it is here that the problems arise, because what about the settlements? What about, in the name of security, the regular transfer of Palestinians out of Palestine into Israel, in contravention of the Geneva Convention? What about the military courts, particularly their treatment of children, and indeed the security forces’ treatment of children? Geneva Convention issues come up again in that context. What about the harassment of courageous and highly committed people in non-governmental organisations fighting for human rights?
If we are to look to the security of the people of Israel—and I take second place to nobody in wanting to do that—I can think of nothing more urgent to be considering, alongside our other concerns tonight, than speedy and effective action to establish a state of Palestine for the Palestinian people. This would contribute like nothing else to their self-confidence, their well-being and their ability to play a role in the Middle East—which is so essential—as partners.
My Lords, one reason that I support Israel on most accounts is because it is a democratic country. If you try to change regimes in other Middle East countries, you have great difficulty. You have bloodshed, but in Israel, you have a democratic system. It is a PR system that goes to extremes but at least you can change the Government. If we do not agree at present with the Netanyahu Government’s programmes, and many people of Israel do not, we know that there will be an opportunity when they can vote against them and change the Government. For the sake of a democratic system, we should give all our support to this country at present.
When I was in Israel some years ago, I went to the Mount Herzl museum. Walking through I saw, in a frame, a photograph of David Lloyd George. His eyes were twinkling. I thought, “Gosh, that’s my man”. In 1903 he wrote, on paper headed “Lloyd George, Roberts and Co”—I am not that Roberts—a proposal that East Africa provide a home for the Jewish people. That was not to be because the dream was “tomorrow in Jerusalem”. They say that when Welsh people are out of their own country they are far more patriotic than they are when they are at home. I sometimes go to festivals in the United States and Canada. The people are far more patriotic as Welsh people than I am. They want to go home. Israel is where the Jewish people wanted to be. It was their land for hundreds of years. We know that there are examples of ill treatment of other peoples—Palestinians—that we would not accept, but we must be more vigorous in trying to achieve that two-state or even three-state solution. I sometimes look at Gaza as a separate country from the West Bank. We need a more vigorous humanitarian approach to achieving this. I support the Balfour Declaration. I am glad it is there. As has already been said, I am sure that millions of those who saw it as a gateway to safety and refuge were happy with it.
My Lords, it is important that we as Britons feel immense pride in the Balfour Declaration and its consequences. I think so for two reasons. I am an optimist, so I will try to get them out in two minutes.
First, we as a country were able to offer the Jewish nation a country and we were the first to do so. I think that makes up why we should celebrate this important declaration. We as the British Empire failed the Jewish people in the 1930s and 1940s and then most egregiously, probably, in the way that we treated those refugees who had survived the Holocaust by refusing them permission to come to the mandated territories. It was the Balfour Declaration that gave hope to many Jewish people throughout eastern Europe who faced pogroms and oppression and for whom there was no viable option other than emigration, and emigration to the Jewish homeland was surely the best hope for those individuals.
My second point is a more contemporary one. Without the Balfour Declaration the pluralism which defined the Middle East for 2,000 years would have been lost. What would have become of the Jews who lived in the Arab lands and who were already facing riots and pogroms in Baghdad and Tehran in the 1930s and 1940s? Those people could not sustainably remain in the Middle East beyond that period, which was before the State of Israel was created.
As we have heard already, there is pluralism in religion and sexuality and democracy in Israel that does not exist in a viable form anywhere else in the Middle East. For that, we should take immense pride in the Balfour Declaration.
My Lords, I declare my interests as vice-chairman of the New Israel Fund UK and as a member of the UK task force on issues concerning Israeli Arabs.
We have had an interesting debate tonight. I think few of us would do other than reject the policies of the current Israeli Government in terms of settlements and their failure to move sufficiently to promote the two-state solution. There is a bit of a paradox about two states: there are, in effect, two Palestinian states, one on the West Bank and the other separately in Gaza. Gaza is ruled by a vicious regime which tolerates no political dissent and persecutes its political opponents and people of whose sexual orientation it does not approve.
We have heard something about conditions in the State of Israel. When a former President of Israel was put on trial, the trial judge was an Israeli Arab. Is it conceivable that in any Arab state now a comparable judge would sit in any kind of court, let alone a court trying the former President of the country?
We also have the tragic situation in Syria, which I do not recall has yet engendered a debate in your Lordships’ House. Millions of people have been rendered homeless, many more than the very sad 700,000 who fled from or were driven from Israel in 1948. Incidentally, Israel has provided medical treatment for, I think, 2,000 Syrians who are casualties of the present disastrous situation in that country.
There is no clear path to a two-state solution, and I hope the Israeli Government recognise that their policies on settlements need to be changed. Having said that, I very much look forward to reading my noble friend’s book, which will be launched formally a week on Monday and which will give us more information about the development of the Balfour Declaration and the consequences of it.
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for securing this debate and for his very measured introduction of it, and also for his work through the Daniel Turnberg Memorial Fund to bring together medical scientists across the divide in the region and the UK.
This has been a keenly felt debate. The Balfour Declaration favoured,
“the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
A number of noble Lords have clearly marked out Israel’s achievements; others have referred to the terrible history which drove forward the creation of Israel. But the Balfour Declaration also stated that it should be,
“clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
This part of that proclamation remains unresolved. UK Governments and others have long said that they seek a two-state solution, but as the recent House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations noted,
“the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is on the verge of moving into a phase where the two-state solution becomes an impossibility and is considered no longer viable by either side”.
My noble friend Lord Alderdice, with all his experience of Northern Ireland and other conflicts, argued yesterday for a new realism: that the time had already passed for such a two-state solution, with all that this implies. Does the Minister agree? If she does not, how does she think a two-state solution can come about? Is she aware of how long Ministers in her position have been arguing for this? She condemns, for example, as others have here, the expansion of illegal settlements, but they continue apace. How does she think that the second part of the Balfour Declaration can be brought about, so that the rights of both Jewish and non-Jewish communities are on a truly equal footing?
A centenary after the Balfour Declaration, its principles remain to be fully delivered. In a tinderbox region, that has to be a threat to those in Israel, in the Palestinian territories, in the region and far wider.
My Lords, although I have profound differences with aspects of the current Israeli Government’s policies, I am proud to be a supporter of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the State of Israel—a right supported by the United Nations in 1947. I am proud of the record of my party in support of Balfour. I also support a two-state solution, which means a viable Palestinian state and opposition to settlement expansion by Israel.
My noble friend Lord Turnberg said yesterday that our wish for a two-state solution is, according to recent opinion polls, also the strong and heartfelt desire of the majority of both the Israeli and the Palestinian population. One way to commemorate the Balfour Declaration would be for the UK Government to promote and support intercommunity relationships in Israel and the Occupied Territories. There are many examples, such as the Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow, a three-year programme for Israeli and Palestinian youth run out of the Peres Center for Peace, which funds several projects. There are many more: the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, mentioned my noble friend’s charity, the Daniel Turnberg Middle East Travel Fellowship Scheme, which in the last eight years has supported 200 young medical researchers from both Israel and Palestine to spend a few weeks in a research institute in the UK. Highlighting and backing such grass-roots initiatives is the way to bring the confidence needed on both sides to secure a lasting peace and in my opinion—I hope the Minister will agree—the most appropriate way to commemorate the Balfour Declaration.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for tabling this evening’s debate. The speaking list demonstrates the extent of interest taken by this House in this issue. I understand the frustration articulated by the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but I can assure her it is a frustration that the Whips’ Office is listening to. I beg your pardon: it was the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge—there is an array of Ladies over there in summer outfits, all very bewildering. It was an important point to make, and I just take the opportunity to reassure the noble Baroness that the administrators of business in the House are not deaf or blind to this, and some thought will be given to the matter.
The quality of the debate this evening has not only indicated the extent of interest but revealed some very positive and very constructive contributions. I welcome the contributions of all noble Lords to the debate this evening. I hope your Lordships will understand if I do not endeavour to address every contribution, but I will try to cover some of the principal themes which emerged.
The first thing I want to do is set the scene—the backdrop to the debate. The United Kingdom is a close friend of Israel. Our excellent bilateral relationship is built on decades of co-operation across a range of fields, from education and hi-tech research to business, arts and culture. At the same time, we are a long-standing partner of the Palestinian Authority, committed to supporting the rights of Palestinians and helping them to build a state. I am anxious to emphasise that the UK Government are trying to be even-handed. Sometimes we may condemn one side, and likewise be condemned for doing so, but on another occasion we may condemn the other. All I am saying is that, if we see something that we think is wrong, we feel we must express our disquiet about that, and that is the right thing to do. Still, we are trying to be even-handed in our approach.
I reassure my noble friend Lord Polak that Her Majesty’s Government intend to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration with pride. The Prime Minister has extended an invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to the UK as a guest of the Government in November, although the programme for his visit has not yet been finalised.
While the UK is proud of its role in the creation of Israel, we recognise that the Balfour Declaration should have called for the protection of the political rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination. I suggest to one or two contributors who clearly had reservations about the declaration that that recognition by the UK Government is important. The Government are conscious of the sensitivities surrounding the declaration and the events that have taken place in the region since 1917, so eloquently described by many contributors.
I was encouraged that many contributors found much that was positive in the Balfour Declaration while acknowledging—I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, who used this phrase—the vagaries. I am trying to explain that it was not always perfect but on the whole it was a very good start, and it has led to something positive, albeit that attendant troubles have accompanied that in a turbulent passage. I think what unites this Chamber is the conjoined desire that we try to find a route to peace in that region.
Looking to the future, our focus now is on encouraging the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps that bring them closer to peace. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Kestenbaum, articulated that optimism well, as did my noble friend Lord Maginnis. The best way to achieve that peace is through a two-state solution. Noble Lords will be aware that the UK Government are a leading donor to the Palestinian Authority. Our support helps to maintain stability, provide vital services and build and strengthen the institutions needed for a viable two-state solution.
With reference to the Middle East peace process, I was encouraged. Peace was a frequently reiterated theme of the debate, and I thought that was positive and helpful. We continue to support a negotiated settlement based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as the shared capital and with a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees. That would mean a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. I think that is a worthy and positive aspiration. The Government understand and indeed share your Lordships’ deep frustration at the lack of progress towards such a settlement; the noble Lord, Lord Warner, reflected that frustration.
It is precisely because the conflict between Israel and Palestine is one of the central issues in the Middle East that the UK is strongly supportive of a regional approach to peace. We want to help but we are not in a position of barging in and interfering. The changing regional context, the Arab peace initiative and converging Arab and Israeli interests present an opening, a window, to develop Arab-Israeli relations and create the conditions for serious Israeli-Palestinian talks to resume. The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, identified that opportunity. I do not share the pessimism of the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, but I will come to that in a moment. The UK Government recognise that new impetus is needed, and we welcome President Trump’s interest in working for a peace deal that meets the requirements of both parties.
This June marked the 50th anniversary of the occupation. It is high time we saw a just and lasting peace agreement that ends the occupation and delivers peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. To reach that goal, both parties must take steps to build an environment conducive to fresh negotiations. They must also avoid actions that potentially obstruct the process by undermining the viability of peace. One such action is building settlements, which continues seriously to undermine the prospect of two states for two peoples. So far in 2017, the Israeli Government have advanced plans for over 8,000 settlement units, including a new settlement deep within the West Bank, the first for over 25 years. This represents a significant increase on the 4,200 new units announced in the whole of 2016.
We have repeatedly condemned settlement announcements as contrary to international law, but we also recognise that settlements are not the only barrier to peace. The July 2016 quartet report shows that the terrorist attacks and anti-Semitic incitement suffered by the people of Israel also gravely undermine the prospect of a two-state solution. It is critical that the Palestinian leadership implements the recommendations of the quartet report. It must continue its efforts to tackle terror and incitement, strengthen institutions and develop a sustainable economy.
In the time available, I shall try to deal with some of the specific issues which arose. The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, and others raised humanitarian issues, not least the situation in Gaza. That is deeply worrying and there is an urgent need to address that situation. We know that about 33,000 people remain displaced from the 2014 crisis and, ultimately, Hamas’s ongoing decision to embrace violence and reject the quartet principles lies at the heart of the Gazan tragedy. We need a durable agreement that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict and transforms that situation. The United Kingdom will continue to urge parties to prioritise progress towards reaching a durable situation for Gaza and to take the necessary practical steps to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction and economic recovery.
Other noble Lords raised a variety of issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, while expressing her reservations about Balfour, raised the important issue of demolitions. I make clear that the Foreign Secretary expressed our concern about demolitions to Prime Minister Netanyahu in his visit to Israel on 8 March. We have equally expressed our concerns about the continued demolition of Palestinian property by Israeli authorities, including proposals to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar.
Several contributors referred to the importance of Israel as a functioning democracy. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, rightly condemned anti-Semitism—as we all do in this Chamber; we should be ceaseless in our condemnation of that conduct. It was rightly pointed out that Israel is an innovative, inventive state. My noble friend Lord Shinkwin movingly explained how he is indebted to the medical skills of his consultant. There are many reasons to realise that Israel has a very important part to play as a functioning democracy; that has a powerful influence in the area. It was helpful to hear the contributions alluding to the advantages that that democratic process can offer.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, made an important point—it struck a chord with me—about joint community projects, getting right down to grass-roots level. They are happening, they are a very encouraging development, they are to be applauded and I very much hope that we will see a great deal more of them. When people from different communities find themselves working together, bonded by a common interest and endeavour, there is great hope for what can be created out of that co-operation.
In conclusion, the United Kingdom is proud of its role in the creation of Israel, and we will therefore mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration with pride. However, we also recognise the impact that the declaration has had on the Palestinian people—in particular, the omission of a reference to the protection of the political rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. We remain committed to encouraging both sides to revitalise the peace process. International action has an important role to play. Ultimately, however, an agreement can be achieved only by direct negotiation between the parties. Only the Israelis and Palestinians can bring about the lasting peace that their people seek and that is long overdue.
It was a privilege to listen to this debate; I thought that the contributions were powerful, eloquent, informed and helpful. It was very important that we in our own way reflected the democracy that this Chamber affords by allowing this very important issue to be debated and discussed—albeit, I appreciate, contributions may have been of a brevity that was slightly unwelcome to the contributors. I thank your Lordships for the contributions.
Question for Short Debate
House adjourned at 8.55 pm.