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Volume 537: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am pleased to be able to raise the issue of Government policy towards Israel in a quick, half-hour debate. Before I do, however, let me draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, where I declare a trip I made to Israel about a year ago.

This is an important issue. The relationship between the UK and Israel has always been strong, and the UK has always been a constructive partner. At times, it has been willing to inform the Israeli Government of the need to move faster towards an accommodation with the Palestinians. At the same time, there has always been a relationship of respect and trust between the two Governments, and that has been clear not only in politics, but, very impressively, in business. The business relationship between the UK and Israel is extremely heartening, and it was most encouraging, on my visit to Israel in February, to see how the Israeli business community saw the UK as a good partner in terms of development.

It is interesting that despite the fact that the Israeli state has been extremely effective at developing the Hebrew language and culture—we in Wales have tried to follow it in reviving our own language and culture—the English language remains an important binding issue for the business community. Traditionally, Israel has perhaps looked towards the United States, but under our current ambassador, there is a developing business link between Israel and the UK. We therefore have a strong relationship with Israel, and we have been able to be a critical friend. That is a good position.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward this issue. Do some of those who, quite understandably, want to criticise particular Israeli Government policies not sometimes need reminding that there is no criticism they make that will not be heard in Israel’s vibrant democracy? It is much easier to work with a country that has as vibrant a democracy as Israel, even if we have criticisms of its policies.

I am grateful for that intervention from my right hon. Friend, who is a Liberal. When my colleagues and I were in Israel, one of the things we found quite amusing was that we, as MPs, occasionally complained about the fact that we had a coalition between two parties in Westminster. Obviously, Israeli politicians said they would be absolutely delighted if they could have a coalition between just two parties. Israel’s proportional representation system means that it has a vibrant political system, in which criticism of Government actions happens regularly.

I was delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman refer, I believe, to a poem by Saunders Lewis, in which he urges Wales to follow the example of Israel, particularly in terms of reviving its language—it is a poem of great optimism. However, does he not agree that there is a world of difference between the Israel of Yitzhak Rabin and the Israel of Netanyahu?

I am grateful for that intervention, and I will come to that issue in due course, because I want to talk about the attitudes of the world press and of other Governments towards the current Israeli Prime Minister. I think his actions do not justify the way he is often attacked and portrayed badly in the media.

Let me turn, however, to our Government’s policy towards Israel. In a conflict situation, there is no doubt that the use of language is extremely important. In that respect, I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) here. When we discuss such issues, language is important. I can vouch for the fact that the hon. Gentleman and I have disagreed on numerous occasions, but I know for a fact that there is not a racist bone in his body. However, a few weeks ago, because of a possibly inappropriate use of language, he found himself in difficulties. The use of language is therefore important.

That is why I requested this debate. The Foreign Secretary recently made a statement on issues in the middle east and north Africa, in which he gave his usual robust explanation of the Government’s position. What that statement perhaps revealed, however, was an imbalance in the use of language. There was almost an implication that the lack of movement on the peace process was the fault of the Israeli Government, and the Israeli Government alone. When we have such debates, it is important that there is a degree of balance, but I think there was a lack of balance in the statement, given the expectation that any move would have to come from the Israeli Government.

It is worth quoting the Foreign Secretary’s words:

“For Israel, the only means of averting unilateral applications to the UN is a return to negotiations. A demonstration of political will and leadership is needed from both sides to break the current impasse”—

I welcome that comment, but the Foreign Secretary continues:

“This includes the Israeli Government being prepared to make a more decisive offer than any they have been willing to make in the past.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 290, c. 535.]

That indicates a degree of criticism of the Israeli Government by the UK Government, and we have to ask whether that criticism is fair and balanced.

It is clear that peace will be achieved only through negotiation. We know that to be the case, and every Member in this debating Chamber would agree that peace will be achieved only if both parties come to the table and discuss how to create the two-state solution we all want and that we all know is the only way forward for peace in the region. However, it is important to state that if we are to have negotiations, both parties need to engage, and the problem with the statement was that it indicated that the process had stalled because of the lack of an offer from the Israeli Government. To an extent, that ignores history. Perhaps we should ignore history more in the middle east, but the truth is that we need to understand that the Israeli state has made numerous efforts over the past 10 or 12 years to make a clear and generous offer. As yet, there has not been a response from the Palestinians.

My hon. Friend is making an eloquent speech. He is quite right to say that Israel has made many such offers. In 1979, for example, it made its offer to Egypt, and the agreement between the two countries has been very successful. In 1994, it made a similar offer to Jordan, which has also been very successful. In 2005, it made what many consider a huge sacrifice by removing itself from Gaza. History has shown that the Palestinian side did not accept that in the spirit the Israeli Government intended.

I am grateful for that intervention; indeed, I suspect I can now throw away two pages of my speech. The Camp David accords of 2000 were a major offer for peace by Israel. I think I am right in saying that if the offer had been accepted, something like 97% of the land in the west bank and Gaza would have been available to create a viable Palestinian state. Indeed, in that regard, the highlight of my visit to Israel and the west bank was my visit to Ramallah, which was not the third-world enclave I had been told to expect, but a vibrant city that was growing and clearly prospering. It was perhaps not growing to the extent it should have been, but it was growing by 10% per annum, and I am sure the Chancellor would be delighted to swap.

The point I raised about the Camp David accords is extremely important, because the offer of 97% of the land in return for peace stalled on Israel’s demand that the Palestinian Authority included in the agreement a statement that the agreement would end the conflict. When the British Government say that Israel has to make a generous offer, we in the UK must be very aware of its demand for an end to the conflict. After 30 years of waste and loss of life in Northern Ireland, we managed to bring all the parties, including the British Government, to the negotiating table, and a key element was the demand that the republican movement in the north of Ireland accepted that there was an end to the war. In terms of creating trust, it is imperative that both parties feel that the negotiation will finish the conflict, and that the option of going back to the conflict is not allowed.

The Camp David accords failed on Israel’s claim that the Palestinian Authority would have to agree that there was an end to conflict, and it is extremely disappointing that that did not happen. In addition, of course, the Israeli Government took the decision to move out of Gaza in 2005. Time and again we are told that the crisis and problems in the middle east—

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Northern Ireland situation. Clearly, there had to be an understanding from all parties on both sides of the community that violence does not work. Perhaps there was an understanding, after 30 years of campaign and conflict; perhaps people realised that the gun, the bullet and the bomb do not work. That is a key aspect of what is happening. Is there a realisation among the Palestinians—perhaps there is among the Israelis—that that should happen?

I sincerely hope so. Certainly there is a difference between the Palestinian Authority in the west bank and the attitudes of some organisations who were in control in Gaza. That issue is vital.

The Palestinians have a just cause and the Palestinian Authority have responsible and respectable leadership, but is there not a large problem in the shape of Hamas, which my hon. Friend has mentioned? Would he welcome hearing from our right hon. Friend the Minister whether there has been any movement at all from Hamas on recognising the state of Israel, giving up terrorism and abiding by its international commitments?

That is, indeed, one of the questions I was going to put, but now that my hon. Friend has made the point I am sure that the Minister will respond to it.

The 2005 decision to pull out of Gaza was met not with a break in hostilities but, rather, with continued attacks on Israel from Gaza. The situation in Gaza is a crisis and is unacceptable, but it is also unacceptable that a state such as Israel faces attacks from land from which it has withdrawn. It is important to point out, when the issue of settlement is discussed, that the Israeli leadership expended significant political capital in pulling out of Gaza. The decision to uproot settlers from Gaza was right, but we should not underestimate the political capital that the Israeli Government lost in making it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for obtaining this important debate. It is important that we have balanced debate on the peace talks. Does he agree that a strong Prime Minister goes into negotiations defending the national interest with clear red lines and that that is the secret to good negotiation? Asking one side to give up all its bargaining chips, such as settlements, in advance of negotiations, is clearly nonsense.

I tend to agree. I thought for a second, when I heard about a strong leader and red lines, that we were back in the Democratic Unionist party debate on Europe; so, yes, I agree entirely.

In addition to what happened in 2005, another offer was made in 2008, which would have resulted in 93% of the land mass of the west bank and Gaza being available for a viable Palestinian state, including a land link between them, which is critical. Again, that was rejected by the Palestinian Authority. I am not here to demonise the Palestinian Authority, but they must be partners for peace, and I have given three examples from the past decade when a partner for peace was not there.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that one of the key things for lasting peace is business, working together? If we could get the two states to work together in business, there is nothing that the Israelis would like more. Hamas and terrorists filled a vacuum in Gaza. However, I visited Ramallah and the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, and there is a fantastic opportunity for two peoples to come together—the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis, working together in peace and harmony through business and international development.

I agree entirely. That emerging city is indeed a testament to the development of the west bank. I agree that the prosperity and viability of the west bank is crucial to any move towards peace.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is subject to regular criticism, which ignores three important points. The first is that peace in the middle east has always come from the initiatives of the right in Israeli politics. That might not be something that some hon. Members in this Chamber would appreciate, but, in truth, the 1979 agreement with Egypt was the result of the efforts of Prime Minister Begin, and the 1994 agreement with Jordan that has been mentioned came from the leadership of the right. It is important to bear in mind that if the right in Israeli politics is moving towards peace, that offers the opportunity for a unified approach.

In the same way, comments about the Prime Minister of Israel ignore his words. Time and again he has made it clear that he is ready to negotiate anywhere, with anyone. I am not here to defend him; I am trying to offer some balance. In a speech in 2009, he said clearly:

“I appeal to the leaders of the Arab countries and say: Let us talk about peace. Let us make peace. I am willing to meet at any time, at any place”.

He followed those comments in 2011:

“Let’s meet here today in the United Nations. We have to stop negotiating about the negotiations. Let’s just get on with it. Let’s negotiate peace.”

Those are not the words, in my view, of a Prime Minister who is unwilling to talk about peace.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, because, like him, I was extremely concerned about the words of the Foreign Secretary, where the emphasis seemed to be very much on Israel. I want to add another quotation from Mr Netanyahu:

“Israel will not be the last state to welcome a Palestinian state into the United Nations. We will be the first.”

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the point that Netanyahu is expending considerable political capital on the issue. Far from being the ogre and pariah that he is made out to be, he has committed himself time and again to peace and negotiations.

Again, the record, but, unfortunately, not necessarily the media in this country, would support that view.

More important than words are actions, and in 2009-10 there was a freeze on all settlement activity. For a right-wing politician in Israel that is a brave move. The 10-month freeze was met with nine months of no activity by the Palestinians—another missed opportunity.

We all condemn the incessant use of rockets by Hezbollah and Hamas, but is there not another danger, given what is happening in Tehran, with the explosions, assassination of scientists and cyber-attacks, that we are in a perilous situation that could lead to war? I believe that the hand of other countries can be seen in what is happening in Tehran, and that is likely to provoke it into a shooting war.

I am sure that all Members of the House agree that the situation in Iran is dangerous and are concerned about that regime having access to nuclear weapons. Again, negotiation would be a much better option than direct action, and I am sure all hon. Members would agree on that too.

The final point that I wanted to make about the Prime Minister of Israel is that in September 2011 he fully accepted the Quartet initiative, which was the basis on which negotiations could restart. Again the response of the Palestinian Authority has been to obstruct the process and provide the Quartet with evidence without consultation with Israel. The whole point of the Quartet initiative was to ensure that proposals would go forward in tandem with Israel and the Palestinians. That did not happen. Time and again Israel has made generous offers, which have been rejected. That is not to say that it should not continue to make generous offers. It is simply to say that the exhortations to Israel to make the next move ignore the reality of the past 10 years.

The context of the statement to the House was the near euphoria in this country about the changes in many parts of the Arab world, which have been welcomed on both sides of the House. We welcome changes and moves towards democracy in Egypt. There has been a brave effort in Syria to deal with a regime that has been, to say the least, unkind to its people. There is successful democracy in Tunisia, and we all welcome those changes. However, it is crucial to put them in the context of how they appear to someone living in an Israeli state where the borders suddenly look extremely vulnerable for perhaps the first time in 30 years. Israel’s land border with Egypt has been a solid part of its security for the past 30 years, but suddenly there is a question as to where it is going. Syria has never been a friend of Israel, and no one in the Chamber would claim that it was; however, the border between them has been stable for a generation. Discontent is clearly being shown in Jordan, and that border too has been a successful part of the peace process in Israel. Israel seems to be threatened by change on all sides. Finally, the malign influence of the Iranian regime is present in both southern Lebanon and the Gaza strip. That, again, is part of the context that was missing from the statement.

I have three or four questions, and I would appreciate it if the Minister could respond to them. First, why did the statement ignore the efforts made by Israel over the past 10 years? That is a reasonable question. Secondly, why did the statement almost fully argue that the expectation was that Israel should make the next move? Israel certainly has to make a move, but to say that the onus is entirely on Israel’s shoulders was questionable. Thirdly, why was no equal and corresponding demand made of the Palestinian Authority to show a degree of flexibility? Finally, why did the statement ignore the context? As I said, although we welcome the changes, we must acknowledge that they look threatening to a state of 7 million people surrounded by potentially hostile neighbours.

The Israeli Government have shown a willingness to engage. I believe that the only way forward is a two-state solution, which will happen only through negotiation. The British Government, with our experience in Northern Ireland, can contribute positively to that debate, but the debate needs a balanced approach and balanced language.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing this debate. The attendance of a large number of my right hon. and hon. Friends and hon. Members from other parties at this 30-minute debate indicates the importance that the House attaches to both the bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Israel and to the wider issues concerning the middle east peace process, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy alluded in his opening speech.

I want to make it clear at the start that the Government see Israel as a key ally and friend of the UK. That does not mean that we agree on everything—we do not hesitate to express our disagreements with Israel where we feel that to be necessary, and successive Israeli Governments have done exactly the same with successive Governments here in London. We enjoy a close and productive relationship with the Israeli Government, and that very relationship allows us to have the candid discussions that are often necessary between friends.

As a number of hon. Members have said, the potential for collaboration between the United Kingdom and Israel is enormous. Our partnership in the high-tech industry could become one of the drivers of Britain’s economic growth. There is a long way to go before we get to that point—America still remains the first thought for an Israeli entrepreneur thinking about international co-operation—but we need to change that mindset, and we have taken some important steps this year towards that goal.

First, in October, during a visit to Israel, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer launched a Britain-Israel high-tech hub. It is a new team, based in our embassy in Tel Aviv, tasked with promoting the high-tech partnership, with staff drawn entirely from the high-tech sector. Its job will be to help find partners for Israeli companies, bring the best of Israeli innovation to British companies and help our two economies to exploit each other’s potential.

Secondly, also in October, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science went to Israel, too, with a high-powered delegation from our digital industries. We intend to continue the exchange of delegations from across the high-tech sector in the coming year.

Finally, regarding political initiatives, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have agreed to launch a UK-Israel high-tech council. It will meet twice a year, once in the UK and once in Israel, to make sure that our strategy is right.

I could point to other examples of increased co-operation between our two countries. For example, in science and innovation, a major conference on regenerative medicine took place in November. Another example is education, where we are planning a campaign to ensure that the United Kingdom resumes its place as the destination of choice for Israeli students. A third example is cultural co-operation, where the work of the British Council and bilateral exchanges between Israel and the United Kingdom are helping to bring about a greater understanding of the culture of our two countries.

The political editor of The Daily Telegraph has alleged that a meeting that took place in February this year between the previous Defence Secretary, Adam Werritty and others was attended by Mossad. As the report that we have on the matter decided that that was a private meeting, is it not time that we looked at the policy followed by Mr Adam Werritty as possibly something that would lead to a conflict with Iran and had a legitimate report into the Adam Werritty-former Defence Secretary affair, because the only enforcer of the ministerial code is Philip Mawer—

I think that it was an ingenious attempt by the hon. Gentleman to import some completely irrelevant material into a debate about an important subject. There has been a full report by the Cabinet Secretary and numerous parliamentary questions from the hon. Gentleman and others. I do not propose to go beyond the responses provided in those documents this morning. I shall move on to the middle east peace process, which was the subject of a large part of the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy.

I have five minutes to speak, and I want to try to reply to what has been said. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me.

The events in the Arab world this year reinforce the urgent need to make progress on the middle east peace process. We are clear that a solution cannot be imposed from outside. We believe that both parties—I emphasise that—need to redouble their efforts to break the impasse and resume negotiations on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the window to such a solution closes. Neither side can afford to let the opportunity for peace slip further from its grasp. A successful outcome will require good will and a willingness to compromise from both sides.

To respond to an intervention by, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), if Hamas is to be regarded as a player in the peace process, it needs to show that it is genuine about making concrete progress towards accepting the Quartet conditions, which will form the basis of any enduring peaceful settlement.

We have been clear in our call for negotiations on a two-state solution without delay and without preconditions, based on the timetable set out in the Quartet statement of 23 September. In our view, the parameters for a Palestinian state are those affirmed by the European Union as a whole—borders based on 1967 lines, with equivalent land swaps; a just, fair and realistic solution for refugees; and agreement on Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.

It is clear from what I have said about land swaps that we expect—I think that both parties do—the final status of settlements to be addressed in negotiations. I believe that Israel’s announcement last month that it would accelerate the construction of a further 2,000 settlement housing units was wrong and deeply counter-productive. That was the eighth announcement of settlement expansion in six months, and there have been further such announcements since.

Settlements not only are illegal under international law and in direct contravention of Israel’s road map commitments, but more practically, represent an attempt to create facts on the ground, which will make a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, even harder to achieve. We have called on Israel to reverse its plans to accelerate settlement construction, and we are clear that we believe that all settlement activity, including in east Jerusalem, should cease immediately.

We were concerned by the Israeli Government’s decision to withhold tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, which we believe was provocative and against Israel’s own interests, because it had direct implications for the Palestinian Authority’s ability to maintain effective security in the west bank. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear our view on 3 November, and we welcome the fact that Israel has subsequently released the funds. We urge the Israeli Government to maintain a predictable and regular transfer of such revenues.

I do not propose to go into detail about our approach to the Palestinian application to the United Nations; the Foreign Secretary has spoken about that before. There is no time to waste in making progress towards peace. Successful negotiations are the best way to give the Israeli people the long-term security that they yearn for and deserve, and the Palestinian people the state to which they are entitled. Doing nothing is not an option, and the Government remain committed to working with the Palestinians, the Israeli Government and other international partners to make progress towards a negotiated agreement. We will continue to develop our bilateral partnership with Israel, while not ceasing in our efforts to support both parties in finding a long-term and sustainable solution to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has dragged on for too long.

Sitting suspended.