A manuscript amendment standing in the name of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and others has been tabled this morning—copies are available in the Vote Office—and I have selected it. In a moment, I shall call Mr Grahame M. Morris to move the motion. It might be for the convenience of the House for Members to be told that no fewer than 52 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, in consequence of which I am sorry to have to say that there will need to be a five-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. I understand that at some point, probably around the middle of the debate, the Minister and the shadow Minister wish to contribute. They are not, of course, so constrained, but I am sure that they will want sensitively to tailor their speeches, taking account of the level of interest of their Back-Bench colleagues. Similarly, the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) is not subject to the five-minute limit, but I know that he will aspire to retain or to gain the warm regard of his colleagues and will therefore not seek to detain the House beyond 15 minutes, and preferably not beyond 10.
It is pertinent to the issue of amendments. An amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) has been tabled, and I have been given two accounts as to whether it has been withdrawn or not selected. I would be grateful if you could illuminate the House, Mr Speaker.
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.
I wish to place on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time in the main Chamber for what is obviously, given the number of Members from all parts of the House who have indicated support, a very popular and timely debate. May I say at the outset that I am happy to support the amendment standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and various other Members? It has always been my position that recognition of Palestinian statehood should form the basis of any future peace negotiations, and the amendment clarifies that.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, his party played a phenomenally important role in the peace process in Northern Ireland, one of the world’s most successful peace processes. Why not learn from that experience and, instead of setting the conclusion at the beginning of the debate, wait for the debate and the negotiation to take place in order to reach the conclusion?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention but—if he will bear with me—I hope to be able to destroy that argument comprehensively.
I am firmly of the opinion that the day will come when the two-state solution, which I believe is supported by all parties on both sides of the House, will collapse and Israel will face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights. As soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished. Hon. Members might think that that is controversial, but they are not really my words but those of the then Israeli Prime Minister in 2007.
The two-state solution has been Britain’s stated policy aim for decades, but in politics talk often comes cheap. I have participated in numerous debates in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber where I have heard speeches delivered by Back Benchers from both sides of the House and from Ministers at the Dispatch Box stating our commitment to a two-state solution.
May I say that many people support the two-state solution? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that more than 300 Israeli figures signed a letter on Sunday urging this Parliament to vote in favour of the motion, and they included former Ministers, ex-diplomats and activists in Israel?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her intervention. As a friend of Palestine, I earnestly believe that recognition of the state of Palestine is the only way forward, and that it should be the choice of all true friends of Israel. All parties should come together on that basis. Given our commitment to a two-state solution and the fact that an overwhelming majority of 134 nations voted in favour of Palestinian statehood, I was hugely disappointed by our decision to abstain on the issue at the UN General Assembly. We should regret that decision.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I should like to make some progress, so that all Members who have expressed a wish to speak have the opportunity to make their own specific points.
The decision that was taken at the UN General Assembly placed Britain not only at odds with the international consensus, but on the wrong side of history. Although this is a cross-party debate—I want to pay tribute to all colleagues from all parts of the House who have supported the motion—I have to say that, as a Labour MP, I was proud when my party opposed the Government's decision and said that the British Government should be willing to support the recognition of Palestinian statehood. I am proud, too, that Labour is supporting today's call to recognise Palestine.
The hon. Gentleman is very kind to give way, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Does he agree that this is an unprecedented moment? Sweden has already moved to recognise Palestine. If we do not grasp this moment, we will lose a real opportunity to push this matter forward and to move closer to peace.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. As the originator of the Balfour declaration and holder of the mandate for Palestine, Britain has a unique historical connection and, arguably, a moral responsibility to the people of both Israel and Palestine. In 1920, we undertook a sacred trust—a commitment to guide Palestinians to statehood and independence. That was nearly a century ago, and the Palestinian people are still to have their national rights recognised. This sacred trust has been neglected for far too long. As the hon. Lady has just said, we have an historic opportunity to atone for that neglect, and take this small but symbolically important step.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I would rather not. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to speak later. I wish to make some progress.
The former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the current Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), who is not in his place, told the House that the two-state solution might become impossible if a settlement were not reached within a year. That was in 2012—two years ago. I am pleased to see that the Minister is listening attentively, as I expect him to stand at the Dispatch Box and tell us that we support a two-state solution and that we encourage all parties to return to negotiations. I advise him to keep hold of his speech, because he will soon have another opportunity to use it given the failure of so many similar initiatives.
It is now more than 20 years since the Oslo accords, and we are further away from peace than ever before. An entire generation of young Palestinians—the Oslo generation—has grown up to witness a worsening situation on the ground. We have seen a significant expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, heightened security threats to both sides, punitive restrictions on Palestinian movement, economic decline, a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions in Gaza and the construction of an illegal annexation wall through Palestinian land.
It is clear that both Israel-Palestine relations and our foreign policy are at an impasse, which must be broken. We hear a great deal of talk about the two-state solution. Today, through validating both states, Members will have the opportunity to translate all that principled talk into action, but we should be under no illusions—today might be a symbolically important step, but it will not change the facts on the ground. The continuous blockade of the Gaza strip will not relent and the day-to-day reality of life under occupation will not change for the ordinary Palestinians. Opponents of the motion will use the well-worn argument that statehood should come through negotiations and not unilateral action.
Let us make no mistake about this: to make our recognition of Palestine dependent on Israel’s agreement would be to grant Israel a veto over Palestinian self-determination.
Let me finish this point, and then I will give way for the last time. We have had a huge debate on giving up sovereignty to the EU. British people may or may not disagree with that argument, but they and their representatives here in this House would feel that it was completely wrong in practice and in principle if another sovereign state, be it Israel or any other country, determined our foreign policy.
No, I am afraid I will not give way.
Recognition is not an Israeli bargaining chip; it is a Palestinian right. It is one that has to form the basis of any serious negotiations. Indeed, the lack of equity between Israel and the Palestinians is a structural failure that has undermined the possibility of a political settlement for decades. As it stands, Israel has little motivation or encouragement—perhaps little incentive is a better way of putting it—to enter into meaningful negotiations. The majority of Israeli Government politicians flat-out reject the notion of a Palestinian state. There are currently no negotiations and, as Secretary of State John Kerry admitted, it was Israeli intransigence that caused the collapse of the latest round of talks.
Israel has been unwilling to offer a viable Palestinian state through negotiations. If the acceleration of the illegal settlement enterprise had not already proved that, in July Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu once again ruled out ever accepting a sovereign Palestinian state in the west bank.
No, I will not give way.
Let me be clear: to make recognition dependent on negotiations, as some Members advocate, is to reject the two-state solution. Some argue that by recognising Palestine, we would undermine negotiations or somehow incite violence, but it is the systematic denial of rights that incites violence and emboldens those who reject politics. The knowledge that Britain, once again, is refusing to recognise the rights of the Palestinian people will serve only to validate those who reject diplomacy and to demonstrate the futility of the efforts of moderates on both sides.
Rejectionists in both Israel and Palestine—those who oppose any type of political settlement—will be delighted to learn that the British Parliament has refused what the vast majority of states have already accepted. Members should bear that in mind before they cast their vote. Those Palestinians who have pursued the path of diplomacy and non-violence for more than 20 years have achieved very little. We need to send them a message and give them encouragement that it is the path of peace and co-operation, and not the resorting to force of arms, that will actually lead to a lasting and just peace. It will also send a message to Israel that the British Parliament believes that its illegal settlement enterprise, which has pushed the possibility of a two-state settlement to the brink of collapse, has no validity whatsoever and that the international community is resolute in its opposition to the systematic colonisation of Palestinian land.
The right to statehood has already been accepted by the Government, who have said that they reserve
“the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at the moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace”.
If they do not do so urgently, I contend, and many informed commentators would agree with me, that any hope of a two-state solution, the only viable solution, will disappear altogether. Instead, Israel will continue its crusade towards the morally repugnant and politically untenable one-state solution that, in truth, could be maintained only through even greater brutality and effectively through apartheid rule—a fate so bleak that any true friend of Israel would oppose it.
In conclusion, during the assault on Gaza the leaders of all the main political parties told Members in this House that the life of a Palestinian child is worth just as much as the life of an Israeli child. Today, we can show that we regard both peoples as equal in dignity and rights not just in death but in life. I urge Members to support the motion and to recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.
I listened with great care to the sensitive speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), and I compliment him on his balanced remarks. I find this a very difficult issue to address, and I do not think the answer to the question that the House is having to consider is absolutely on one side or the other.
It fell to me when I was Foreign Secretary to commit the United Kingdom Government for the first time to a two-state solution with a Palestinian state. I have never wavered in that view and I believe that the earlier that state comes about the better, both for the Palestinians and for the middle east as a whole. I also share the frustration of the hon. Gentleman and that of many other hon. Members about the impasse, which has causes on both sides of the dispute. I believe that the Israelis are totally unjustified in their settlement policy. But I must also say that the way in which the Israelis, having withdrawn from Gaza, have been subject to an ongoing attack by Hamas from within Gaza has clearly had a massive influence on Israeli public opinion. That has made it more difficult to make the progress we would like.
For me, the most important question is what practical benefit agreeing this motion would have. It might make us feel good and it might make us act in a similar way to a number of other countries around the world, but recognising a state should happen only when the territory in question has the basic requirements for a state. Through no fault of the Palestinians, that is not true at the moment.
It seems to me that the motion is premature. I say so for the following reason. We do not have a Palestinian Government; there are actually two Governments. Palestine is split, not because of the Israelis but because of the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. Not only are the boundaries of the Palestinian state not known but there is no Palestinian Government with any control over foreign policy or defence policy or who have an army with which to protect the territory of that state. That is not a criticism; it is simply a factual description of what would normally be a precondition. The United Kingdom did not recognise the state of Israel until 1950. It was only after what the Israelis call their war of independence that the Israelis demonstrated that they had created a state not simply through a declaration but through having the fundamental requirements.
We know that there have been occasions elsewhere in the world when states have been declared without the means to carry out the function of a state. We have seen it in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where the Russians recognise an independence that is bogus in reality. We saw it in South Africa, where Transkei and Bophuthatswana were declared independent states when, of course, they were never any such thing.
I will not take issue with the right hon. Gentleman on that, but I think that the boundaries are perhaps the least of the problems that we are addressing. I am saying something that has applied to British policy for generations, as it has to the policies of other countries. We recognise a state when the territory in question has a Government, an army, military capability—[Interruption.] That might not be something of which hon. Gentlemen would approve—
No, I am sorry. I am afraid I cannot in the time available.
We are told that 135 members of the United Nations—many of which have relatively little connection with the middle east, although some have a great connection—have recognised Palestine as a state. That has had no effect. It has received 24 hours of publicity but has had no marginal, massive or significant impact on the course of history. There is a great risk that today we will make ourselves feel important and that our own frustration will lead us to vote for a motion that will not have the desired effect and will perhaps make the problems that need to be addressed in reaching a two-state solution more difficult to deal with.
I will not detain the House any further, but will simply say that symbolism sometimes has a purpose and sometimes has a role, but one does not recognise a state that does not yet have the fundamental ingredients that a state requires if it is to carry out its international functions. At the very least, I would respectfully suggest that the motion is premature.
There is so much to say about the tragedy with which Israelis and Palestinians have lived for so long. Over the years, I have spoken about the things I have seen for myself, whether that has been settlements growing in violation of international law and successive resolutions; the barrier that snakes in and out of the west bank, cutting Palestinian communities off from each other and farmers from the land; or Palestinian children being brought in leg irons into Israeli military courts, accused of throwing stones, and being subject to laws that vary depending on whether one is Palestinian or Israeli. I have sat with Palestinian families in East Jerusalem who have had their homes destroyed and who are no longer allowed to live in the city of their birth. I have seen for myself the devastation of homes, schools and hospitals in Gaza. I have met fishermen who are fired on if all they do is try to fish. Yes, I have been to Sderot as well and know that Israelis have spoken about their real fear about rocket attacks from Gaza. I also know the fear that Palestinians in Gaza feel daily because of the constant buzz of drones overhead, 24 hours a day, that could bring death at any moment.
I have not merely read about such things; I have seen them for myself. They are why a negotiated settlement is so important. Principles are important too, however, in reaching that negotiated settlement. First, we should act according to international law and insist that the parties involved do so as well. Secondly, we should treat Palestinians and Israelis as equals. We have a choice today: will we do that, or will we just talk about it?
For Israelis, the right of recognition and to self-determination are not the subject of negotiation but something they have demanded as a right and that they were given as a right more than 65 years ago.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and compliment him on all his work. Is he aware that despite what was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and despite the fact that Israel is listed under the borders put down in 1948, it has never delineated its own borders? Our recognition of Palestine would help to assert Palestinian rights at this important time.
Yes, that is absolutely right. The international position is clear: it is delineated by the green line. The final borders will be negotiated in final status negotiations. That is understood, and that is the same for Israel and for Palestine. But let us also remember that it is more than 20 years since the Palestine Liberation Organisation, acting on behalf of the Palestinian people as a whole, recognised the state of Israel. Yet, despite that, when Israel talks about itself, it still says that it wants constant reaffirmation of that recognition. How many times have I heard Israeli Ministers—indeed, some hon. Members—ask, “How can you talk with people who do not recognise your right to exist?” So for them and Israel, recognition is not about negotiation; it is about something fundamental. Well, if that is the case for Israelis, Palestinians have no fewer rights than that. Recognition for Palestinians cannot be a matter of privilege; it, too, must be a matter of right. That is the problem with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), because saying that recognition can only happen with the outcome of negotiations very much gives Israel the right of veto not only over a Palestinian state but over the UK Parliament’s ability to make our own decision to recognise that Palestinian state.
No. I am afraid that I have given way once. Time prevents me from doing so any more.
In the House, we make our own decisions, and we act on them bilaterally. We do so as members of the European Union and as members of the United Nations. The choice before us is clear: do we want to achieve a two-state solution in practice, with Palestinians and Israelis treated as equals, or are we content to repeat a theoretical mantra about two states where the reality is slipping away before our eyes, either because Binyamin Netanyahu, as he said to The Times of Israel this summer, has said that he will never countenance a Palestinian state that is sovereign in the way that he expects sovereignty for Israel, or because another generation of Palestinians has grown up being told that they must reject the path of violence when the only reality that they see ahead of them is occupation in the west bank and a blockade in Gaza?
I received an e-mail today from a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem. He described some of his life under occupation in East Jerusalem and he asked me to say this tonight: “I want to see light at the end of the tunnel, but I really want to see light at the end of the tunnel; I don’t want to see a train coming at me from the other end.” That is the challenge before us today. Are we prepared to give him that light at the end of the tunnel and to assert that a negotiated solution must be based on equality: two states for two peoples, with equal rights and each with equal stature in the international community? If we are going to do that, it is not just something to talk about; it is something to get on with. People will vote tonight for different reasons, but if we want to achieve a Palestinian state in practice, vote for the motion tonight.
If the rest of the debate follows the tone of the three speeches that we have heard so far, it will be a memorable debate. The next few minutes will be personally rather painful for me. It was inevitable right since the time of the holocaust that Israel clearly had to be a state in its own right, and Attlee accepted the inevitable and relinquished the British mandate. In November 1947, the United Nations supported the partition resolution. What was on the table then was a settlement that the Arabs would die for today. In May 1948, Israel became an independent state and came under attack from all sides within hours. In truth, it has been fighting for its existence ever since.
I was a friend of Israel long before I became a Tory. My wife’s family were instrumental in the creation of the Jewish state. Indeed, some of them were with Weizmann at the Paris conference. The holocaust had a deep impact on me as a young man growing up in the aftermath of the second world war, particularly when I paid a visit as a schoolboy to Belsen.
I will not give way if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
In the six-day war, I became personally involved. There was a major attempt to destroy Israel, and I found myself as a midshipman in the Royal Navy based on board a minesweeper in Aden, sent by Harold Wilson to sweep the straits of Tiran of mines after the Suez canal had been blocked. In the aftermath of that war, which, clearly, the Israelis won, the Arab states refused peace, recognition or negotiation.
Six years later, in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the same situation happened again. It was an emphatic defeat after a surprise attack. Since then, based on the boundaries that were framed after the Yom Kippur war, we have had three thwarted peace agreements, each one better than the last, and we have had two tragedies: the assassination of Rabin and the stroke suffered by Ariel Sharon.
Throughout all this, I have stood by Israel through thick and thin, through the good years and the bad. I have sat down with Ministers and senior Israeli politicians and urged peaceful negotiations and a proportionate response to prevarication, and I thought that they were listening. But I realise now, in truth, looking back over the past 20 years, that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the 950 acres of the west bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life, mainly because it makes me look a fool, and that is something that I resent.
Turning to the substantive motion, to be a friend of Israel is not to be an enemy of Palestine. I want them to find a way through, and I am delighted by yesterday’s reconstruction package for Gaza, but with a country that is fractured by internal rivalries, that shows such naked hostility to its neighbour, that attacks Israel by firing thousands of rockets indiscriminately, that risks the lives of its citizens through its strategic placing of weapons and that uses the little building material that it is allowed to bring in to build tunnels, rather than homes, I am not yet convinced that it is fit to be a state; it should be recognised only when there is a peace agreement. Under normal circumstances, I would oppose the motion tonight; but such is my anger over Israel’s behaviour in recent months that I will not oppose the motion. I have to say to the Government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people.
I wish to draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The tragic clash between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism can only be resolved with the creation of a Palestinian state with agreed and secure borders, with international backing and support, alongside the state of Israel, and the only way to bring that about in a lasting and peaceful way, to the benefit of both peoples, is through direct negotiations, where agreements are made, assurances are given and where there is full security and long-term peace. That needs agreement on borders, and some agreement has been made, but the differences are relatively small in length but critical in nature. It needs agreement on how to share Jerusalem, on refugee issues, agreement on security and agreement that setting up a Palestinian state would be the end of claims and the end of conflict, not a staging post for an attack on Israel’s existence.
We should remember that the peace treaty that was signed with Egypt in 1979 has stood the test of time, despite drastic changes in regime and Governments. In contrast, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 has not resulted in peace. It has led to the terrorist organisation, Hamas, violently overthrowing Fatah, launching its barrage of rockets and now directing the terror tunnels at the civilians of Israel. We saw the results in the horrendous events of last summer.
Two years ago, the Palestinian Authority were given some status in the United Nations in an attempt to look for a diplomatic UN route to try to resolve what appeared to be intractable problems. What has happened since then, and what use has been made of that diplomacy? The most recent effort to find a negotiated peace was that undertaken by John Kerry. The truth is that it was President Abbas who did not give an answer to the framework agreement that John Kerry put forward as a basis for further negotiations. Israel agreed to it, quite rightly, though it did not want to; it had to be pushed and pressurised to do so. President Abbas has still not given any answer; instead, he returned to the United Nations.
On 26 September, President Abbas addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. That was the sort of approach that the proposed resolution envisages: no direct negotiations, and dealing with this by resolution, and through United Nations debates. He spoke about “genocide” by Israelis, and about Palestinian “martyrs”. Is that the language used about the suicide bombings directed at the young people and civilians of Israel at a time when peace negotiations, following Oslo, were very much under way? He spoke about “forced withdrawals”. That is not the language of peace.
It should be remembered that while peace negotiations were under way following the Oslo negotiations, in one month alone—March 2002—80 Israeli civilians were killed and 600 injured in targeted suicide bombings on the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon, in a concerted attempt to undermine and destroy that peace process. No wonder there is concern among the people of Israel; they know that during those peace negotiations—it was right to stick to them and to keep going with them —terror groups sent by, among others, Yasser Arafat, were targeting, killing and maiming Israeli civilians. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza—a correct, unilateral withdrawal—was followed by rockets, the terror tunnels, and more and more death.
This is not an easy issue; if it was easy to resolve, it would have been resolved by now. Both Jews and Palestinians deserve to have their states, and to live in peace and security, side by side. Direct negotiations are the way—
The House is enormously grateful to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) for securing this debate. I hope that amendment (b), in the name of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), to which I put my name, will maximise support tonight for the recognition of Palestine as a state. I find it astonishing that, having been a Member of this House for 22 years, I cannot think of a previous occasion on which we have debated this issue on either a substantive motion, or a motion such as today’s, yet this is the most vexed and emotive issue in the entire region, if not the world.
Let us be clear from the start, to allay the fears of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), who speaks passionately on this subject: I think that all of us in this House, to a man and a woman, recognise the state of Israel and its right to exist. Our belief in that should not in any way be impugned. Let us also be clear that that same right has not been granted to Palestine; in my view, it is high time that it was. It is the other half of the commitment that our predecessors in this House made as part of the British mandate in the region.
I cannot think of any other populous area of the world that is subject to so many resolutions but is not allowed to call itself a state. After the civil war, albeit two years after 1948, we recognised the state of Israel. It was still not the tidiest of Administrations. Its borders were not clear; they still are not. It had no agreed capital—it wanted Jerusalem; at the moment, it has Tel Aviv—and no effective Government, so I do not quite agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) in his assessment of what it takes to justify granting statehood to, and recognise, a country.
Given the very short time left to me, I will race ahead, if my right hon. Friend will allow me.
We have accepted as a principle in Government that eventually there should be recognition of a Palestinian state, so this is ultimately a matter of timing and circumstance. The House will have been deeply moved by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway). So many of us go on a personal journey on this issue, as I have done over the past 20 years. Recognition of statehood is not a reward for anything; it is a right. The notion that it would put an end to negotiations, or somehow pre-empt or destroy them, is patently absurd; Palestine would still be occupied, and negotiations would need to continue, both to end that occupation and to agree land swaps and borders. Refusing Palestinian recognition is tantamount to giving Israel the right of veto.
When I was a Minister of State at the Department for International Development, we supported the Palestinian Authority; over so many years, it was there, a responsible organisation. It is not their fault that they are occupied, and so often have their revenues withheld by the Israelis; if they were not withheld, Palestine would not need a penny of British aid. Recognising Palestine is not about recognising a Government. It is states that are recognised, not Governments. We are talking about recognition of the right to exist as a state. This is not about endorsing a state that has to be in perfect working order. It is the principle of recognition that the House should agree to today.
I will run out of time, so no; forgive me.
Some in this House clearly think that to support Israel, they must oppose or delay such recognition, but that is not the case. By opposing Palestinian recognition, they are undermining the interests of both Israel and Palestine. It is only through recognition that we can give Palestinians the dignity and hope that they need to engage in further negotiations and to live in a country that they can properly call their own. Let us remember a fundamental principle, on which I will make a more detailed speech tomorrow morning: settlements are illegal, and the endorsement of the Israelis’ right to reject recognition is tantamount to the endorsement of illegal settlement activity.
A lot of people feel intimidated when it comes to standing up for this issue. It is time we did stand up for it, because almost the majority of Palestinians are not yet in their 20s. They will grow up stateless. If we do not give them hope, dignity and belief in themselves, it will be a recipe for permanent conflict, none of which is in Israel’s interests. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, who speaks on every occasion on this subject, only ever catalogues the violence on one side, and this is a tit-for-tat argument. Today, the House should do its historic duty.
I beg to move amendment (b), at the end of the Question to add,
‘, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.’
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on bringing this debate to the House. I also pay tribute to the extraordinary and very moving speech by the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), which, as I think we all appreciated, was a very difficult speech to make.
As the House will note, the amendment has wide, cross-party support. Its purpose is very simple. It is based on the belief that the recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel will add to the pressure for a negotiated two-state solution, and may help to bring that prospect a little closer to fruition.
The “Road Map to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” was promulgated at the end of April 2003 under the auspices of the Quartet—the UN, EU, US and Russia. Though, palpably, much of the progress presaged by the road map has been confounded by events, crucially, by the road map the Government of Israel were signed up to there being a separate and independent state of Palestine. One part of the road map anticipated that Quartet members, which include the UK, could
“promote international recognition of a Palestinian state, including possible UN membership”
as a transitional measure, well before any final status agreement. The Government of Israel disagree. They claim that recognition of Palestine as a state should be at the conclusion of any successful peace negotiations. But such an approach would give the Government of Israel a veto, even over whether such a state should exist.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve by his amendment, but how does he think the passing of the motion would encourage either Hamas or the Israelis to change their approach to negotiation, which has been so unfruitful so far?
It is the Palestinian Authority that is part of the negotiations, not Hamas. I believe that the fact of the Israelis’ intemperate reaction to the very prospect of the House passing this resolution is proof that it will make a difference. The only thing that the Israeli Government understand, under the present demeanour of Binyamin Netanyahu, is pressure. What the House will be doing this evening will be to add to the pressure on the Government of Israel. That is why they are so worried about this resolution passing. Were it just a gesture, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) implied, they would not be bothered at all. They are very worried indeed because they know that it will have an effect.
We represent the electorate of the United Kingdom. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, having spent 13 years sitting on the Treasury Bench, that resolutions passed in the House, whether they emanate from Back Benches or Front Benches, make a difference, and this resolution will, if it is passed, make a difference.
I have had my ration, if the hon. Gentleman will excuse me.
A moment’s thought will allow us to appreciate just how ill-founded the Government of Israel’s assertion is. Israel has been occupying Palestinian land for nearly 50 years. It fails to meet its clear international legal obligations as an occupying power. In the last 20 years, as we have heard, it has compounded that failure by a deliberate decision to annex Palestinian land and to build Israeli settlements on that land. There are now 600,000 such Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the west bank. The Israelis are seeking to strangle East Jerusalem by expropriating land all around it, and two months ago, they announced the illegal annexation of a further nearly 1,000 acres of land near Bethlehem. The Israeli Government will go on doing this as long as they pay no price for their obduracy. Their illegal occupation of land is condemned by this Government in strong terms, but no action follows. The Israelis sell produce from these illegal settlements in Palestine as if they were made or grown in Israel, but no action follows.
Israel itself was established and recognised by unilateral act. The Palestinians had no say whatever over the recognition of the state of Israel, still less a veto. I support the state of Israel. I would have supported it at the end of the 1940s. But it cannot lie in the mouth of the Israeli Government, of all Governments, to say that they should have a veto over a state of Palestine, when for absolutely certain the Palestinians had no say whatever over the establishment of the state of Israel.
Today’s debate will, I hope, send a strong signal that the British Parliament stands full square behind the two-state solution set out in the road map. The current impasse can be broken, in my view, only by actions, not simply by words, and the recognition of Palestine by the international community would further, not hinder, these aims.
Three years ago on 9 November 2011, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), then Foreign Secretary, told the House:
“The United Kingdom judges that the Palestinian Authority largely fulfils criteria for UN membership, including statehood”.
He added that we, the United Kingdom,
“reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help to bring about peace.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 290.]
That moment is now. I urge hon. Members on both sides to support the amendment.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), but I am afraid to say that, having listened carefully to his speech and the speech of the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), I am not as convinced as I would like to be that this motion would contribute towards a peaceful solution of the conflict, or that the recognition of Palestine by the House in a Back-Bench motion would somehow unlock a process whereby the two sides negotiated freely together to arrive at a peaceful solution.
The hon. Gentleman said that he would destroy the argument of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) that taking this step would pre-empt and pre-determine the result of the negotiations. I am afraid to say that having listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech—he did not take all interventions on this point—that argument was still well in existence at the end of his contribution and had not been destroyed at all, and it remains there for us to face. I say that as a committed supporter of a two-state solution, which will involve difficult, if not painful, compromises on both sides. It is also something that will take a long time—
Does my hon. Friend agree that, given that the political system of the world’s superpower and our great ally the United States is very susceptible to well-funded powerful lobbying groups and the power of the Jewish lobby in America, it falls to this country and to this House to be the good but critical friend that Israel needs, and this motion tonight just might lift that logjam on this very troubled area?
There are powerful lobbies on all sides, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with me in paying tribute to the work that Secretary of State Kerry did in trying to bring both sides to the negotiating table; he really does deserve our staunch support. But I am sure that my hon. Friend would also agree that a peaceful solution will be achieved only by negotiations by the parties themselves over all the outstanding issues, without the issues being determined in advance. The question for the outside world is whether what it does makes a just two-state solution more or less likely. I believe that international recognition of a Palestinian state in the terms of the motion would make a two-state solution less likely rather than more likely. I heard what the right hon. Member for Blackburn said about this. I am afraid that I do not see Israel, having faced the challenges that it has faced over years, caving in to this Back-Bench motion tonight. It might be a gesture on the part of the House, but it would take the process no further. The right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Easington can chose to look at this in terms of a veto, but it will require both sides, including the state of Israel, a democracy, which is susceptible to public opinion, to agree to a solution. That is the only way in which a just solution can be achieved.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he can answer the point, which I think was going to be made to him, as to whether he will accept that although Israel has not always done everything that it possibly could to bring about a solution, there have been repeated occasions in history, in the 1930s and the 1940s, and more recently, when it has been Israel that has agreed to a solution of all the outstanding issues, and it has not found the hand coming from the other side. That is historical fact.
What is the hon. Gentleman’s solution, given that the former Foreign Secretary has said that the two-state solution is no longer tenable? Given the facts on the ground, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and numerous other Members have indicated, with the settlement expansion plan—600,000 settlers—if we are not going to push ahead with the two-state solution because of the practicalities, what is the hon. Gentleman’s alternative? Is it a one-state solution?
The state of Israel has been prepared to agree to a two-state solution in the past, and I hope that it will do so in future, but that will require both sides to negotiate. I do not accept the pessimism inherent in the hon. Gentleman’s approach, because it is now clear that the motion is very pessimistic. I would like to see a hopeful motion that looked forward to a peaceful solution that gave Palestine its state, based on a fair division of territory, and all the accoutrements of statehood while at the same time allowing the state of Israel to enjoy sovereignty and security.
I am afraid that I cannot, because I would run out of time.
I believe that the Palestinian Authority have acted in good faith and are a worthy partner in negotiations. They have expressed their commitment to a two-state solution. Although he does not actually have a state, I believe that President Abbas has displayed statesmanlike qualities, not least during the recent Gazan conflict, but I believe that he and his Authority are making a mistake in going down the unilateral road.
There is a problem, which the hon. Member for Easington did not recognise, in the form of Hamas. Hamas is a different matter. Although the Palestinian Authority has acted in good faith, and although President Abbas has been statesmanlike in many ways, I am afraid that the Palestinian Authority took a backward step when they entered into a unity deal with Hamas in April this year. It would have been fine if Hamas had shown any inkling that it was moving towards a peaceful solution, but it has not. It has had many opportunities to commit to the requirements of the international community and say that it will go down the road of peace, but from its inception, and according to the tenets of its founding charter, it has set its face against any sort of peaceful co-existence with the state of Israel and turned its hand to a campaign of unremitting terror and violence. No Government would stand by and allow such a campaign to be directed against its population without taking proportionate measures in self-defence.
We must not overlook the fact—it is often overlooked—that Hamas has caused Gaza, a rather sad place to say the least, to be locked into a deeply depressing cycle of violence, intending to inflict casualties on Israel and reckless as to the consequences for the civilian population in Gaza. It is against that background that we must approach these issues.
I very much hope that in future Hamas will show some willingness to become part of a peaceful solution and to engage in normal democratic politics and peaceful and legal means, but it has not done that so far. The pressure should be on Hamas to refrain from its campaign of violence and enter into negotiations genuinely, together with the Palestinian Authority, with the state of Israel.
This is a terrible conflict. We must all look forward to the day when both sides get down to the business of making the compromises that will be needed to bring it to an end. Israel certainly has to make compromises as well, but in the meantime we should all take steps that will make those compromises more, rather than less, likely. My fear is that the motion—a unilateral recognition of the Palestinian state—by encouraging one party to walk away from negotiations, would put off that day. We should be doing everything we can to induce both sides to negotiate, because only that way, as our Government have recognised, will we see a peaceful solution to this problem.
There are 6 million Israeli Jews. There are 1,600,000 Palestinians in Israel, 2,700,000 on the west bank and 1,800,000 in Gaza. The Palestinians now outnumber the Israeli Jews, and that is without taking into account the 5 million Palestinians in refugee camps and in the diaspora. The big difference, of course, is that the Israelis have a secure state and the Palestinians live under oppression day after day.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) wove a fantasy that the Jews were reunited when the state of Israel was created and that the Palestinians were split, and we have just heard again about the wickedness of Hamas—I do not condone what Hamas does, and I realise that it is a useful tool for those who wish to portray the Palestinians as divided and unreliable. His fantasy was that all was harmonious when Israel was created, but the Israelis were divided into three warring factions at that time: the Haganah, representing the official Jewish agency; the terrorist organisation Irgun Zvai Leumi; and the terrorist Stern gang. Israel nearly broke out into civil war immediately after it was founded because Irgun insisted on having its own army in an independent state, so the idea that Israel was somehow born in a moment of paradise and that all that surrounds the Palestinians is stress and damage is a fantasy.
Where are we now? The situation was not ideal for Israel then, and it is not ideal for the Palestinians now, but divided Israel survived and survives even though it is still divided. Look at the amazing divisions in the Israeli Government, with the extraordinary extremism of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which makes the UK Independence party look like cosy internationalists, yet it is part of the Government.
The Israelis are harming the Palestinians day after day. Last week the US State Department denounced a settlement expansion of 2,600 that the Israelis are planning. Last week the new president of the New Israel Fund, Talia Sasson—Jewish and pro-Israel—denounced the expansion of settlements again in the west bank. The Israelis, with the checkpoints, the illegal wall and the settlements, are making a coherent Palestinian state impossible.
It is essential to pass this motion, because it would be a game changer. The recognition of Palestine by the British House of Commons would affect the international situation. This House can create a historic new situation. I call on right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to give the Palestinians their rights and show the Israelis that they cannot suppress another people all the time. It is not Jewish for the Israelis to do that. They are harming the image of Judaism, and terrible outbreaks of anti-Semitism are taking place. I want to see an end to anti-Semitism, and I want to see a Palestinian state.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing the debate. I think that I am right in saying that the last time a debate of this type took place was in 1985, which was a long time ago, and that is not to the House’s credit. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) on a formidably powerful speech. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who also made a formidable speech.
I am convinced that recognising Palestine is both morally right and in our national interests. It is morally right because the Palestinians are entitled to a state, just as Israelis are rightly entitled to their homeland. This House should need no reminding of the terms of the Balfour declaration, which rightly endorsed
“the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”
but went on to state that
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Ninety-seven years later, the terms of the Balfour declaration are clearly not upheld with respect to the Palestinians, and in Britain that should weigh very heavily upon us indeed. It is in our national interest to recognise Palestine as part of a drive to achieve lasting peace. We face so many dire emergencies in the middle east today; we cannot afford to add to them the continuing failure of the middle east peace process and the inevitable death of the two-state solution. This step by Britain and other nations is needed to galvanise talks that are paralysed and to indicate that the status quo is not only untenable, but wholly unacceptable.
It is said that bilateral recognition would harm the prospects for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but the sad truth is that that effort has failed. Negotiations have completely broken down and there is not the remotest sign of a possible breakthrough. The cataclysm in Syria, the emergence of Islamic State and the 3 million Syrian refugees bringing neighbouring countries to their knees have made the situation in the middle east—already a cauldron—even more dangerous.
Moreover, as others have said, 135 of 193 UN member states have already recognised Palestine in recent years. Unless it is anyone’s serious contention that those member states are responsible for the failure of the negotiations, the act of recognition itself clearly does not wreck the prospects for peace. What does impede peace is a dismal lack of political will to make the necessary concessions and a tendency in Israel to believe that it will always be sheltered by the United States from having to take those difficult steps. Recognition by the United Kingdom would be a strong signal that the patience of the world is not without limit.
Secondly, it is said that recognition would be an empty gesture that would not change the facts on the ground. That is true, but it is not a reason not to recognise Palestine, which would be purely a political decision by the United Kingdom as a sovereign Parliament. It would be a powerful gesture to Palestinians that they will obtain their state in the future after 47 years of cruel and unjust occupation and it would strengthen the hand of President Abbas against Hamas.
Indeed, recognising Palestinians would be only a small and logical evolution of the current position of the United Kingdom. It has been the Government’s view since 2011 that the Palestinian Authority have developed successfully the capacity to run a democratic and peaceful state founded on the rule of law and living in peace and security with Israel. To paraphrase a familiar expression, if it looks like a state and fulfils the criteria for a state, surely it should be recognised as a state. What entitles the United Kingdom to withhold a recognition that is the birthright—the long overdue birthright—of each and every Palestinian child? It would be shameful not to take the step of recognition now, when it would make a real difference.
The United Kingdom was a midwife at the birth of Israel and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. That means an aspiration to take a lead in world affairs. We should take that lead now on this vital issue through a decisive vote of the British House of Commons.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing this debate; he has done all in the House a great service.
I cannot think why any supporter of Israel should oppose the recognition of a Palestinian state. We know the history of Israel from its beginnings in 1948, as outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). We know about the six-day war in 1967 and about Israel’s present situation. In 2013, Mr Kerry warned that there were only two years to resolve this flashpoint and that time was running out. He was surely talking to the Israelis as much as to the Palestinians. The two-state solution is disappearing rapidly before our very eyes.
We have to grapple with the issue of what will happen if there are not two states. What does the one-state solution look like? We are told that the majority of the present Israeli Administration no longer accept a two-state solution. Mr Netanyahu has suddenly become a rather centrist pragmatist, holding together a coalition, many of whom are to the right of him, in wanting a one-state solution. Do they accept the genocide and ethnic cleansing that go along with that?
The situation is far worse than that in apartheid South Africa, which has been mentioned. It has been regularly referred to as a parallel to what is going on in Palestine, but the situation in Palestine is much worse than apartheid. The white junta in South Africa accepted that somewhere in the country—preferably not near them —there would be land for black people. It was the worst possible land and a long way from the ruling white group, but none the less the junta accepted that there would be a place for the blacks. A one-state solution in Israel does not accept such a thing. There is no place in Israel and Palestine for the Palestinians. We have to face squarely what that means and so do the Israelis. That is even more reason why we should not give the Israelis a veto over Palestinian statehood.
We will be voting tonight for the recognition of a Palestinian state. That is not just about recognising the inalienable right of Palestinians to freedom and self-determination but about Israel’s need to be saved from itself. What Israel is looking at in a one-state solution is a continuation, year after year, of war and violence such as we have seen building in the past 20 years. The Israelis have just finished a third incursion into Gaza in 10 years. Are we suggesting that every two years another 1,500 people should be killed and another 100,000 people rendered homeless as a continuation of the process of driving everybody who is not Jewish out of what is considered to be greater Israel?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing the debate, which is so important.
As a young man, I backpacked around Israel and had a wonderful time. I stayed at various hostels—in Ein-Gedi, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Eilat. I swam in the Dead sea and went to Masada. I loved the place and its people and I wanted to return. I went back and spent time working with Mashav in the Arabic desert and living with an Israeli family. We had many discussions as we sat on our upturned vegetable boxes, drinking tea and taking a break from picking peppers and tomatoes. The farmer, the head of the family, told me over and again about his personal experiences—his military service and how proud he had been to do what he felt was his duty in representing his country in the military. From where we were sitting, we could almost touch the Jordanian mountains a few miles away. He also told me about the real existential threat involved in being surrounded by what he regarded as hostile Arab states. I have never forgotten that or sought to trivialise it in any way, or to minimise the sense of insecurity that Israelis must feel.
That sense of insecurity—felt by many Jews, I suppose, throughout the centuries—has occurred as they suffered persecution throughout eastern and western Europe, and beyond. That persecution, as we all know, included an attempt at annihilation. Quite apart from the Zionist agenda, the need for a place to be safe somewhere was so important because of the failure to find safety from persecution in many other places. All that is perfectly understandable, but what I do not understand is why the Palestinians should have had to pay such a terrible price for the creation of the state of Israel, where it was believed that security could be created, or why the Israelis believed that the brutal expulsion and continued suppression of the Palestinians would ever lead to the sense of security that they seek.
I remember a meeting not too long ago in one of the big Committee Rooms in the House of Commons at which there were lots of members of the Palestinian community. I said that the Israelis were winning; I was in despair at the lack of progress. I said that they will not negotiate and asked why they should when the immense support of the US and the inaction of the international community at large meant that they were gaining, day in and day out, and could ignore international law, continue to act with impunity, and, of course, increase their holding of Palestinian land. But a Palestinian rebuked me, saying that they were not winning because “We have not forgotten and we never will forget.” How can the Israelis believe that they can ever have security, because the Palestinians will never forget?
My wife, who is a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, met many Palestinians in south Lebanon who still have keys round their neck on a string from the house that they were ejected from in the late 1940s. They will not forget.
Indeed—how could they?
I support the motion for many reasons, but I will state three. First, for the Palestinians to turn away from the men of violence, they need hope, and this motion represents a degree of hope for them. Much is made of the failure of Hamas to recognise Israel, and we know about that, but let us imagine the sense of despair that ordinary Palestinians must feel at the failure of the international community to recognise their right to exist. My tweet on the firing of rockets out of Gaza and the previous comments by Baroness Tonge were never, of course, condoning terrorist acts by Palestinians; they were simply our recognition of the despair and sense of hopelessness that leads to terrorism.
Secondly, Israel is in breach of the contract set out in the Balfour declaration stating that
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
In the light of the Nakba and everything since, that seems like a sick joke. The failure of the international community to recognise the state of Palestine has helped Israel to ignore this commitment.
Thirdly, on a personal note, this Sunday at Eden Camp in north Yorkshire there will be a gathering of the Palestine veterans. They will parade at 1 o’clock, but many of them will not be able to walk very far, if at all—they are all over the age of 80. They went to that land in 1945 as a peacekeeping force, but lost over 700 members of the armed forces and 200 police. I believe that we owe it to them for tonight’s motion to succeed. Many were not conscripts; many were veterans of Arnhem, Normandy and Bergen-Belsen. Many felt, and still feel, betrayed by Israel and question the sacrifice that so many of their colleagues made. If this vote on recognising the right of Palestinians is won, they will very much welcome it, but it has been long in coming.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this historic debate on the recognition of statehood for Palestine: one small part in righting a profound and lasting wrong. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing the debate and, in so doing, again demonstrating his commitment to justice and to the region. This issue has widespread public support in the UK and across the world. That has been shown by the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets over the summer to protest against the continued bloodshed in the region, and by the flooding of Members’ in-boxes by constituents asking us to support this important motion.
As we have heard, this debate follows on from the failure of the UK Government to support Palestinian statehood at the UN. In 2011 and in 2012, Labour Members urged the Government to support the Palestinians’ bid for recognition at the UN. Let us be clear: this was a missed opportunity and a shameful moment for the United Kingdom and our claim to be leaders on the international stage for justice and democracy. The selective way in which the British Government apply their force and resource is, sadly, self-evident. I am therefore pleased that this motion has strong cross-party support and that it does not split on party lines, or even between those who class themselves as pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. Rather, it is a motion that is pro-justice and pro-peace.
Palestinian statehood is in the interests of the people of Palestine and the people of Israel, because with statehood come rights and responsibilities. The rights are the ability to govern freely, both politically and in the judiciary; the powers and the infrastructure that, we hope, will deliver for the people; and economic freedom, with the ability of the country to grow its own economy and create prosperity. Palestine has the resources and the skills to be a self-sustaining, functioning country. In 2010, the UN found that the overall cost of the occupation to the Palestinian economy was estimated at nearly $7 billion, or a staggering 85% of GDP. As I said, there are not only rights but responsibilities. Statehood obliges the Palestinian Government to respect, protect and fulfil human rights for their people. It requires Palestinian forces to abide by international rules on armed conflict, and it requires the Palestinian people to accept and learn to co-exist with all their neighbours. The recognition of a state is not an endorsement of any political party or any group within Gaza or the west bank—far from it.
There are moments when the eyes of the world are on this place, and I believe that this is one of those moments. What message will we send to the international community? There will be those living in Palestine who keep hearing that word, “peace”, while at the same time seeing a continued occupation, an ongoing blockade, further expansion of illegal settlements, and the never-ending cycle of violence and bloodshed, causing fear on both sides of the conflict.
Did my hon. Friend see the film on Saturday on BBC 2, “The Gatekeepers”, which showed the people who were at the most senior level of the Israeli security service, now retired, urging for the sake of Israel itself a willingness on the part of the Israeli Government to negotiate with all, including Hamas? It is a great pity that the Israeli Government refuse to accept such common sense.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The key point is that there is widespread support within Israel for this motion on the statehood of Palestine. People who are friends of Israel, who are Israelis, and who class themselves as part of the struggle to find a peaceful resolution for the people of Israel recognise that the motion is not only in the interests of Palestine but fundamentally in the interests of Israel too.
To go back to the issue of previous false dawns in Palestine, the people there have been hearing warm words for decades, but I am sorry to say that words are no longer enough. Our best chance of seeing a rejection of violence and militant forces is by rekindling hope so that people can stop hearing the word “peace” and start living its true meaning.
This motion is an opportunity to start addressing decades of failure, which are a shame on the entire international community. It has been said that supporting the motion somehow undermines peace and the two-state solution, but it actually does the opposite. This motion does not disregard the two-state solution; it endorses it. This motion does not undermine the peace process—there is no peace and there is no process—but it shows that we are serious about finding a lasting solution. This motion does not damage Britain’s role or undermine its standing in the international community; it actually goes a long way to restoring its standing in the international community. This motion is not a failure of leadership; it is a demonstration of it. That is why I will passionately and proudly walk through the Aye Lobby tonight.
I had not anticipated being called to speak, so I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The proposal for this House to recognise Palestinian statehood is not only premature, but misguided. An affirmative vote tonight would be nothing more than a propaganda victory for those who wish to bypass the mediation of the peace process in favour of international institutions such as the United Nations where the Palestinian Authority enjoy an automatic majority.
Three years ago President Abbas made it explicit that the attempt unilaterally to assert statehood through the UN was to ensure that it
“would pave the way for the internationalisation of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us”—
the Palestinian Authority—
“to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the international Court of Justice.”
The Palestinian Authority are seeking to create opportunities for new diplomatic and legal fronts on the conflict with Israel that enable a distraction, an alternative and an escape route from the bilateral principle entailed in the Oslo accords and subsequent diplomatic frameworks.
I will not give way at the moment.
The proposers of this motion are aiding those efforts and turning their backs on the peace process. That is not a proposal that I can accept.
The middle east peace process is underpinned by several key documents—this has not been addressed tonight —that prohibit the unilateral diplomatic action this motion would allow and deem it to undermine the prospect of a negotiated settlement.
In 1993 the Palestine Liberation Organisation committed itself to a declaration that
“all outstanding issues relating to the permanent status will be resolved through negotiations.”
This was followed two years later by the Oslo II agreement, where the PLO said it would not take any step that would change the status of the Palestinian territories pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
That is also an agreement to which our Government of the United Kingdom, as part of the European Union and the Quartet, are a signatory. Therefore, this motion asks the UK Government to break their commitment to the peace process. That is not a proposal that I can accept.
A negotiated two-state agreement would also resolve others issues, including borders, security arrangements and recognition by all of Israel’s right to exist, but this motion would allow recognition of a Palestinian state that would not even recognise or even accept Israel’s 1967 borders. The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), has called for the 1967 borders. If we had acceded to such requests in the past, the Golan heights would be in the hands of Syria or, in fact, ISIL nowadays, meaning that Israel would not be able to continue to exist, which I cannot accept.
Similarly, the concept that the 1948 armistice lines should become a border with a terror state is another irresponsible policy and something in which the Parliament of any liberal democracy should not be involved in any way. The battle that Britain and our allies are a part of is to stop the spread of fundamentalist Islamist control over the Levant—of which Israel is a part—and not to speed it along.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that when I intervened on the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) I was careful with my language and spoke about any borders being based on 1967, not resolutions? That is no different from that which is contained in the final page of the road map, which was endorsed by the Government of Israel, among others.
I am grateful for that clarification.
Recognition of Palestine appears attractive as it is considered to be the first step towards the internalisation and perceived legitimisation that could allow diplomatic and legal challenges to Israel through organisations that are perceived to be sympathetic to Palestinian grievances. The recognition of Palestine would produce significant setbacks for the existing peace process and is bound to elicit a retrenchment in the position of Israel when it has previously agreed statements that have produced land swaps for peace.
Most infamously, that occurred in 2005 when Israel undertook the unilateral move to withdraw from Gaza. Members all know what has happened since: more than 11,000 rockets have been fired from the Gaza strip into Israel by terrorists. Some 5 million Israelis are currently living under threat of rocket attacks, and more than 500,000 Israelis have less than 60 seconds to find shelter after a rocket is launched. That means that people in the biggest cities of Israel, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, are all at risk.
On the other hand, negotiated peace deals, such as the Egypt and Israel peace treaty in 1979 and the Israel and Jordan peace treaty in 1994, are examples of land being relinquished in return for stable peace negotiations. The same did not occur at the Camp David negotiations in 2000. The proposal to establish an independent Palestinian state in virtually all of the west bank and Gaza, along with a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, was rejected because of the alternative condition that the Palestinian Authority declare an end to the conflict as part of the final agreement.
Consequently, the proposal for the recognition of Palestinian statehood without the fundamental aspects of final-status negotiations, coupled with a reciprocal agreement that relinquishes further claims over lands, property, settlements, the right to return and access to Jerusalem, is premature.
My hon. Friend said that he had not intended to speak and he seems to be making up for that by reading, at great speed, from an Israeli Government handout. Could we at least establish these ground rules: those of us who support the motion are still firm friends of Israel and defend its right to security, but we also believe in justice for the Palestinian people?
I am grateful for another helpful intervention, but I assure my hon. Friend that this is certainly not an Israeli Government press release. [Interruption.] I can hear another hon. Member chuntering away, but never mind.
It is vital that any peace is achieved through negotiation and mutual agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, not through unilateral moves or pre-emptive recognition. Formal progress in peace deals has only ever been achieved through bilateral talks, which remain the way forward for the peace process. No credible peace-building initiative has ever emerged from the UN General Assembly. Both the UK Government and the Conservative party have been clear that bilateral negotiations are the only path to a stable peace. I had understood that that was the Labour party’s policy, but its Members seem to have been whipped to vote for this motion because their leader cannot make up his own mind on Israel.
Members of Parliament should vote against any unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood while making it clear that they support the creation of a Palestinian state through direct bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It is of great concern that the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Blackburn has been selected, because I felt that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) was more than adequate.
The diplomatic process, realities on the ground, international law and not least the UN system itself are likely to suffer serious negative consequences if Members accede to the Palestinian attempt to remove the search for a two-state solution from the established bilateral framework. It is vital that we send a clear message that such an approach, which the Palestinian leadership has pursued since 2010, is a dead end. At best it is a costly distraction and we should vote against this motion tonight.
In the short time available to me I want to give my support to the motion for two main reasons. First, three years ago at the United Nations, the then Foreign Secretary said that Palestine met the conditions and was ready for statehood. How long do they have to wait? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, against the backdrop of recurring violence, regular incursions into Gaza and settlement-building activity, we urgently need to find new ways forward, and I believe that recognition can and should be a part of that new process.
The Palestinians have waited a very long time for this debate, but the developing international consensus is that Palestine is ready for recognition. One hundred and thirty four countries have now recognised it diplomatically, including some members of the European Union, and the new Swedish Government made Sweden the 135th at the beginning of October. UN observer status was granted in 2011 by 138 votes to nine. There were 41 abstentions, including by the United Kingdom, but France, Italy and Spain all voted yes. Contrary to what the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union have all separately reported that the institutions in Palestine are appropriate for the formation of a state.
The then Foreign Secretary elaborated the Government policy, saying that the decision on recognition should be
“at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help to bring about peace”.—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 290.]
There are many reasons why the timing is now right. Recognition would give a very clear signal about the illegality of occupation. We have talked incessantly about settlement building. There are 550,000 settlers in Palestinian territory, and recent announcements suggest that that figure will increase rapidly, so now is the time.
I shall come on to that, but the short answer is yes.
On settlements, we must take action now to ensure that the building activity that so undermines the whole peace process is brought to an end. I believe that recognition will be a symbolic gesture towards that.
Recognition addresses real fears about the fact that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is narrowing rapidly. Many now openly question whether it has any current validity, but recognising Palestine—a second state—would help to ensure such a solution. Recognition would help to highlight the root causes of the conflict and address the cycle of violence that has ravaged Gaza three times in recent years. It would strengthen rather than, as has been suggested in the House, weaken the voices of moderation and compromise on, I hope, not only the Palestinian side but on both sides. It will help to avoid the dangers of adopting a one-state solution, which would be a disastrous conclusion to the negotiating process. Declaring that Palestine is the second state would undermine a one-state solution.
People have suggested that even if recognition were accepted, the Palestinian Authority would engage in some form of unilateralism. The reality is that the PLO is in no doubt—it has stated this publicly—that the occupation can end only through a negotiated settlement. We need to reaffirm that this evening.
The motion has the great merit of acknowledging that statehood is solely a bilateral issue for the United Kingdom and Palestine. Recognition should not be part of a negotiated settlement. Israel would never have accepted that some other country had a veto over its statehood, and we should not accept such a veto in the case of Palestine.
What would be the consequences of rejecting the motion? It would send a signal that we do not think it is a priority to recognise the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, particularly their right to self-determination. We would underplay the need for a viable sovereign Palestinian state, which our Foreign Secretary has said is in place. We would accept an extension of the Israeli military occupation, which is now in its 48th year, and enshrine it further into the future.
We should vote in favour of recognition because it will strengthen the belief of the Palestinians in diplomacy and democratic debate, which will go a long way to improving the climate for the discussions—
It is a great pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), and the many right hon. and hon. Members who have already made excellent speeches.
As the last Minister out of the washing machine on this topic, it is appropriate for me, on behalf of Members from across the House, to pay tribute to the many excellent people at the Foreign Office, both in the Box and in our two excellent missions in the embassy in Tel Aviv and the consulate in East Jerusalem—ably led by Matthew Gould, Sir Vincent Fean and Alastair McPhail—who have done so much, along with their staff from the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and those employed locally, to represent our interests and to help the people of the region. All of us genuinely owe them a great deal.
Over the past year, my time was dominated by the Kerry peace plan. That process initially excited much optimism, but I am afraid that it was ultimately doomed, like many of its predecessors. When I was thinking about what I could usefully say today, my eyes were drawn to a line in Jonathan Powell’s new book—it was reviewed at the weekend—which states:
“A deal depends on personal chemistry and uncommon leadership”.
Having studied this area in detail over the past year, I regret to say that both of those factors were absent during the most recent round of negotiations.
What did we learn from those negotiations about the middle east peace process and the connected issue of recognising the state of Palestine? First, I genuinely believe that there will be no deal unless the international community not only remains engaged in the process, but drives it. The US is the only power in the world that can force the necessary concessions from the Israeli Government and meet their security concerns. The Kerry peace plan remains an excellent basis for restarting negotiations.
The reconstruction of a Palestinian state will require the sort of Gulf money that has been evident, and welcome, in Cairo over the weekend, so keeping the wider Arab world involved is key. Egypt also has a key role to play, and the UK needs a more consistent policy on Egypt. We have a unique bilateral relationship with it: we are the largest bilateral investor in the country, and about 1 million British tourists travel there each year. Resolution of the Gaza issue depends as much on the Egyptians as the Israelis. We should deal positively with Cairo for the greater good of the region.
Secondly, having secured proactive international buy-in, we need to freeze the situation on the ground and buy some time for the negotiations. At the moment, every hurdle and obstacle on the way is met with terrorist violence and announcements about more settlements. If there is much more building, particularly on area C, a two-state solution will fast become undeliverable, and we will be left with the one-state option that is in no one’s interests.
It absolutely was. By the same token, I believe that many people on the Israeli side are genuine partners for peace. I am afraid, however, that the ability to make the crucial decisions and the really tough compromises necessary to deliver a peace process was in the end absent, as they have been in the past.
Thirdly, the international community needs to look at an appropriate and calibrated programme of incentives and disincentives at key points in a peace process, and recognition of a Palestinian state is one key component. It will be extraordinarily difficult, but the process must be done in such a way that it is in neither side’s interest to derail it.
Finally, I fear that we need in practice to look again at our own policy. Having sat on the Front Bench only a few months ago, I know that the Minister is bound to say that the British policy is to support a two-state solution—that is good—based on the 1967 boundaries, with agreed land swaps. However, as I did when I stood looking at a settlement in East Jerusalem, we have to recognise that the international community lacks the will to bulldoze £1 million houses built illegally in settlements. We will have to form a new border, probably based on the wall, and then deal with the settlements beyond it if we are to make any progress.
I firmly believe that the principle of a Palestinian state is right and fair. I am delighted to be a signatory to the former Foreign Secretary’s amendment to that effect. However, I feel that declaring it unilaterally at this time could well be the catalyst for a further period of instability. The international community needs to re-engage on this issue as never before, led by the USA with the Arab world and Egypt alongside it. It must lay out a road map, including incentives and disincentives, to a final agreement in which the recognition of a Palestinian state is a key milestone. There is no doubt that that will be extraordinarily difficult, as many of our predecessors have found, but the alternative is unacceptably grim. This House can play a part in that process tonight.
This is the first opportunity that I have had to speak in a debate in this House since 12 September, when my father passed away. It gives me the opportunity to say thank you to the many Members who contacted me and expressed their condolences. It was much appreciated. It is apt that I am speaking in a debate that touches on the issue of peace processes and peace processing. It provides an opportunity to look at some of the lessons that the House should have learned when dealing with a divided nation and a divided land.
Israel and Palestine are often described as the promised land. This mother of Parliaments has an opportunity to ensure that it does not become a broken promised land. This Parliament can play a part in ensuring that the promises are honoured and cemented. What we see happening in that part of the world is cruel and unfair in many people’s eyes. It deserves our attention. It deserves to be healed.
However, this House, which is often described as the mother of Parliaments, must not become the arrogant Parliament. It must not assume that it has the right to tell people how to sort out their peace processes, when it knows that there is a better way. It has proved in its own backyard in Northern Ireland that there are better steps and better ways.
In my brief comments I want to draw attention to two lessons that have to be learned. I raised one of them at the beginning of the debate in my intervention on the mover of this important motion, the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), in which I spoke of our experience as a Parliament and as a nation. His party and this Parliament played an important role in ensuring that the conclusion of the negotiations was not set in stone in advance of the negotiations or during the negotiations. The participants in the process must be allowed to find their own conclusions. I was told that that argument would be devastated and set aside. It is unfortunate that that argument has not been addressed. It cannot be addressed because this House knows that it is right. This House knows that the participants have to find their way; they cannot be told, lectured or dictated to on what is the best way.
This motion, which is well meaning, well intentioned and supported by friends and colleagues on all sides of the argument, would therefore do the wrong thing at the wrong time, because it would be saying, “Here is the conclusion that the House will reach.” That is wrong. As we have heard from other Members, more than 130 other Parliaments and processes have said that that is the conclusion that they will reach, but it has not made a bit of difference. We must therefore step back and realise that there is a better way.
The other lesson that I want to draw from our experience of being involved in a peace process is that we must not pour fuel on already burning flames. To recognise the state of Palestine at this time, when significant and strong elements in the Palestinian negotiating process do not even recognise Israel and would not allow that state to exist, would be to make an already difficult situation worse. Although no one here claims to have the answers to the process, we must, as a rule, tread carefully.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said that people want to see light at the end of the tunnel. I agree with that. However, we do not want to see flames in the tunnel, because all we would get is more smoke.
It is an honour to participate in this debate, which reflects the House at its best. I have travelled the middle east for 30 years. I have written about it and served there as an officer. I am now the Minister for the region. I am humbled by the depth of knowledge on both sides of the House and by the spirit in which the debate has taken place.
I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing this debate and I welcome the contributions of hon. Members from all parts of the House. I am sorry that important statements have curtailed the length of the debate. Before responding to the specific points that have been raised, I will briefly set out the Government’s position on the middle east peace process and the recognition of a Palestinian state.
I will start by addressing the terrible situation in Gaza, which I visited last week. I was profoundly shocked and saddened at the suffering of ordinary Gazans. More than 100,000 people have been made homeless by the conflict, and 450,000 people—about a third of the population—have no access to water. Yesterday, I attended the Gaza reconstruction conference in Cairo with the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne). It was clear that the international community stands ready to support the rebuilding of Gaza. I am pleased to say that the UK pledged £20 million to kick-start the recovery and help the Gazan people back on their feet. The UK has been one of the largest donors to Gaza this summer. We have provided more than £17 million in emergency assistance, which has helped to provide food, clean water, shelter and medical assistance to those in the greatest need.
Let me be clear: we do not want to see a return to the status quo. This is the third time in six years that conflict has broken out in Gaza and reconstruction has been needed. To illustrate the problem, in 2000, more than 15,000 trucks of exports left Gaza. In 2013, the figure had dwindled to only 200 trucks. The UN estimates that it could take 18 years to rebuild Gaza without major change. It says that Gaza could become unliveable by 2020. If the underlying causes are not addressed, it risks becoming an incubator for extremism in the region. At the same time, Israel has faced an unacceptable barrage of rockets from Hamas and other militant groups. That is unsustainable. We all know that if the problems are left to fester, conflict could break out at any time. Bold political steps are therefore necessary to stop the cycle of violence once and for all.
We welcome the agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the UN to assist in the reconstruction. That must now be implemented. More needs to be done as a priority and we urge the parties to make serious and substantive progress in the talks in Cairo to ensure that the ceasefire is durable. It must address Israel’s security concerns and ensure that the movement and access restrictions are lifted. There must also be a clear economic plan. Gaza has huge economic potential and significant natural resources that need to be realised. There must be urgent repairs and upgrades to the public utilities, including water, sewerage infrastructure and power.
The parties must work together to open the border crossings to goods and people to allow greater connectivity between Gaza and the west bank. I fully support the announcement by Baroness Ashton yesterday, in which she said that the EU is analysing the feasibility of a maritime link that could open Gaza to Europe. I discussed that issue with my Palestinian and Israeli counterparts when I was in the region last week.
It is crucial that the Palestinian Authority return to Gaza to provide services and security. In that regard last week’s Palestinian Cabinet meeting, which took place in Gaza for the first time, was a positive sign. The Palestinians must also take steps to address Israel’s legitimate security concerns. The world has shown that it is willing to put the necessary money on the table, and the parties must now demonstrate that they are ready to take the political steps necessary to prevent conflict in Gaza. However, even a more durable ceasefire is no substitute for peace, and there must be urgent progress towards a two-state solution that meets the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.
I thank the Minister for what he has said so far. During his discussions, was there at any point a serious debate about the problem of the lives faced by many Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and other places? They too must surely be part of a long-term peace equation. They have spent more than 60 years in those camps, and it cannot go on for ever like that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I had a number of bilaterals in Cairo, and I met the Lebanese Foreign Minister and we spoke about that issue. The hon. Gentleman might be aware that we are pouring in significant DFID and Ministry of Defence funds to support Lebanon in that regard. In Cairo yesterday Secretary Kerry again reaffirmed that the United States is fully committed to bringing the parties back to negotiations, and the UK will continue to take a leading role in working closely with international partners to support US efforts. A just and lasting peace will require leadership from all sides. For Israelis and Palestinians that must mean a commitment to returning to dialogue, and to avoiding all actions that undermine prospects for peace.
Let us be clear: Israel lives in a tough neighbourhood and faces multiple security challenges. The British Government are staunch supporters of Israel’s right to defence. Israel is a friend and we are proud to be pursuing a strong, bilateral relationship, from trade to our commitment to growth in high-tech start-ups. However, Israel’s settlement building makes it hard for its friends to make the case that Israel is committed to peace.
Will the Minister enlighten the House about what he thinks would be the consequences should the motion be passed tonight? Would the consequences be helpful at this time, would they be neutral, or would they be negative? That would be helpful in guiding us to make the right decision in a controversial and important debate and vote.
I ask the hon. Lady to be patient so that I can complete my speech and get to that point. We have made our position clear: Britain defends the right to choose our moment, which is appropriate for the peace process, when we make that bilateral decision.
Returning to Israeli settlement building, last week I visited the E1 area of the west bank and met members of the Bedouin community living there who face relocation by the Israeli authorities. They told me that they had no wish to leave, and expressed their fears of being forcibly transferred to make way for the construction of Israeli settlements. Such a move would seriously threaten the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, and according to the UN would be contrary to international humanitarian law. Israel’s recent decision to advance settlement plan units in Givat Hamatos will also have serious implications for the possibility of Jerusalem being part of a Palestinian state. As the Foreign Secretary said on 3 October, Israel needs to change course on that now. The Palestinian Authority must also show leadership, recommitting themselves to dialogue with Israel, and making progress on governance and security for Palestinians in Gaza as well as the west bank.
We are in a critical position, and at the discussions in Cairo it was clear that there is a huge effort to recognise where we are in trying to sort out a two-state solution. That has been recognised, and there is now a huge international effort to bring all parties to the table, which is where such issues need to be discussed. Having said that, we have made clear our concern about the developments, which must be considered when the parties come together to consider a two-state solution.
I will make a little progress and then I will give way. Our commitment to that vision is why the UK is a leading donor to the Palestinian Authority and such a strong supporter of their state-building efforts. We are providing almost £350 million between 2011 and 2015 to build Palestinian institutions, deliver essential services and relieve the humanitarian situation. We commend the leadership of President Abbas and Prime Minister Hamdallah, whom I met last week, and their commitment to security co-operation and institutional reform. Despite that commitment, however, and the support of donors such as the UK, the aspirations of the Palestinian people cannot be fully realised until there is an end to the occupation—a point that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) just made—and we believe that that will come only through negotiations. That is why, following the Cairo conference, the urgency was recognised, and the UK hopes that a serious process can urgently resume. It is time to readdress these issues, and only an end to the occupation will ensure that Palestinian statehood becomes a reality on the ground. The UK will bilaterally recognise a Palestinian state when we judge that that can best help bring about peace.
I have no doubt that all my hon. Friend is saying is entirely true, but surely it is a matter of judgment. We all want to see negotiations, and no doubt there is some magic right time for those to go well. Would a vote tonight by the House for the motion, as amended, provide a catalyst, even a nudge, for both parties to come together and to do so more quickly?
I believe the nudge we saw was in the announcements made in the Cairo conference and the recognition of the huge amount of money that is now pouring in. I was very moved by a speech given by Ban Ki-moon at the UN General Assembly when he said, “Is this what we do? Is this who we are? We reconstruct; it’s damaged. We reconstruct; it’s damaged. Is this the cycle that we now endure?” What was clear in Cairo is that that is unacceptable. There needs to be commitment to rebuilding, and the parties need to come back to the table to discuss and work towards that two-state solution. That is what is on the agenda at the moment, and that is what we are focusing on.
I will give way a little later, but first I want to make progress and address some of the specific points raised by hon. Members. I apologise because limited time means that I cannot address every contribution, but I will write to hon. Members if I am not able to cover their views.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who moved the motion, placed in context Britain’s historical role in the region. Let me clarify, however, that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have not said that they recommend statehood, but that the essential institutions are there. One of the most powerful speeches made today was by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway). It takes some courage to speak in the manner he did, and the House is all the wiser for his contribution.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) spoke about what practical benefit voting for the motion will have. After all, we can play this card only once—once it is done, we cannot repeat it, so the timing of the motion is critical. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) spoke about the important role of John Kerry, and the House should pay tribute to the hard work and dedication he has pursued in trying to bring parties to the table. We went a long way back in April, and it is important that we pick up where we were at that point. The same point was made by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood).
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) described this as the most vexed and sensitive issue. That is true, and I play tribute to his work as DFID Minister in considering how oil and gas reserves in the Gazan territory can be harnessed. I found it ironic that all the countries at the Cairo conference were contributing substantial funds, yet on Gaza territory and off the shore of Gaza there is mineral wealth that could be harnessed. That is one of the things that must be placed on the agenda and it will be brought up with my Israeli counterparts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) was the first to speak of the role of Hamas and the challenge of governance in Gaza. That is the elephant in the room, which needs to be addressed. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) asked how long we will have to wait for a solution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Sir Hugh Robertson) rightly paid tribute to the hard work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and of those who work in posts around the world. They do us a grand service and the whole House pays tribute to their work. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) paid a moving tribute to his father. I think the whole House joins him in that.
Order. That is not a point of order. [Interruption.] It is not a point of order. The House is well aware that many Members wish to speak. The Minister and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman are well aware. I notice that the Minister is keeping his remarks much shorter than Ministers normally do and I am sure he will conclude soon. We will not waste time on more points of order that are not points of order.
I will not give way. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to do so.
The challenges are clear. We must act urgently to help the people of Gaza to get back on their feet and begin the hard work of reconstruction. To put an end to the destructive status quo there must be swift progress towards a durable ceasefire that addresses Israel’s security concerns and lifts the restrictions on Gaza. Even a durable ceasefire can only be a temporary measure. The international community must redouble its efforts to support a comprehensive peace agreement that delivers an independent Palestine alongside a safe and secure Israel. The UK will be with other parties every step of the way. We will continue to push for progress towards peace and lead the way in supporting Palestinian state building and measures to address Israel’s security concerns. The UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time most helpful to the peace process, because a negotiated end to the occupation is the most effective way for Palestinian aspirations of statehood to be met on the ground.
I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue among many people in Britain. I am glad that this debate has given me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Easington for securing the debate, and I thank other hon. Members for their contributions.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing this historically significant debate. I will seek to limit my remarks and I hope that Members will forgive me if I do not refer to them by name. I do, however, want to refer by name to the right hon. Members for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) and for Faversham and Mid Kent (Sir Hugh Robertson). They made significant interventions and I thank them for doing so.
To clarify the Labour party’s position, the motion will be supported by the Labour party because it reflects our long-standing support for the principle of recognition of Palestinian statehood. Labour will also support the manuscript amendment, because it makes clear our support for recognition of Palestinian statehood as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution. Labour is clear that it is, of course, a matter for any Government to recognise another state at any point of their choosing. It is a matter for this Government, just as the former Foreign Secretary the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) made clear as long ago as 2011. The Minister has just said that there now needs to be urgent progress towards peace. There now needs to be, to use his word, a catalyst. I urge the Minister and the Government to listen to the tenor and seriousness of this debate, and to judge their own policy on the views being expressed tonight.
The timing and the mechanism to decide whether to recognise Palestinian statehood is a matter for this Government. It will be decided by Labour in government if the decision has not been made by this Government before Labour comes to power. We have made it very clear that we will always work with partners multilaterally to advance the two-state solution agenda. We fully support two states living side by side in peace, recognised by all their neighbours. We are clear that Palestinian statehood is not a gift to be given, but a right to be recognised. That is why—the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) should heed this—since 2011, when the Leader of the Opposition made Labour policy clear, Labour has supported Palestinian recognition at the United Nations. The weeks of bloodshed witnessed in Gaza this summer, and the breakdown of meaningful negotiations in April this year, are a painful and stark reminder of how distant and difficult the prospect of a peaceful resolution to this conflict remains.
I was in Israel and in Palestine at the end of July and the beginning of August, and heard directly from Israelis and Palestinians about their view of the position on the ground. One conversation with an Israeli general stayed with me. He said that the conflict would end sooner or later, and that how many die would depend on how quickly resolution was reached. That was true for Gaza then and it is true for the wider middle east conflict now. Urgent steps need to be taken to stop people dying.
The steps that need to be taken to resolve the conflict are political steps. That is why it was right for the Leader of the Opposition, in 2011, to instruct my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary to write to the Foreign Secretary to ask the UK Government to support the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations. That is why it was right for Labour, in 2012, to call on the UK Government to vote in favour of Palestine’s bid for enhanced observer status at the United Nations General Assembly, a vote on which this Government abstained.
I have never understood how, in the context of a conflict in which so many have died, it can be wrong to use political steps and the United Nations to make progress. Indeed, this principle has been widely supported, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said earlier when referring to the road map in 2002-03, where
“creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty, based on the new constitution, as a way station to a permanent status settlement”
was endorsed by President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon. The road map set out that Palestinian statehood was part of the solution. Since then, much progress has been made. We heard from the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) that President Abbas is a true partner for peace and that much progress has been made in the west bank during that period. It is therefore crucial, at this time when help is needed, that President Abbas receives support for the political path he has chosen. We need to support President Abbas to follow the path of peace and not the path the terrorists of Hamas inflict on the people of Israel, something I have seen with my own eyes in Ashkelon and in Sderot.
We should, as we stand today, support peaceful, political steps. This is why the Labour party will maintain its support for a two-state solution to the middle east conflict by supporting this motion. Labour is clear that this conflict will be resolved only through negotiations. However, after decades of diplomatic failure, there are those on all sides who today question whether we can actually achieve peace. This is why Labour believes that, amid the despair today, we need to take a dramatic step. The Government have rightly stated that the goal of all diplomatic efforts must be a two-state solution brought about by negotiations, but no negotiations are taking place. How can the Government’s current position on Palestinian recognition help bring about resumed negotiations?
The Labour party supported Palestinian recognition at the UN and we support the principle of recognition today, because we believe it will strengthen the moderate voices among the Palestinians who want to pursue the path of politics, not the path of violence. Labour urges the Government to listen to the House of Commons—listen to the voices on the Conservative Benches, the Liberal Democrat Benches, the Labour Benches, all the Benches—and give Palestinians what is their right: statehood. This it not an alternative to negotiations; it is a bridge for beginning them.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on introducing this motion. Like other Members, I was very disappointed at the Minister’s response, because he did not say anything about what might be wrong with the motion; he did not say anything that would harm the interests of Israel; and he did not actually say anything that would benefit the people of Palestine. This motion and the amendment offer that light at the end of the tunnel.
When we speak to Palestinians—whether President Abbas here in Parliament or Palestinians on the street in the west bank or elsewhere in Palestine—we see and hear at first hand how the voice from the UK Parliament is very important to them. The message that we send out tonight is a message of hope for them: that we in this Parliament recognise the right of their struggle and their right of self-determination. Those who would oppose this motion, or who speak as if it would harm Israel, have not put forward a single sustainable argument; not one iota of what has been put forward by them would stand close examination.
We have an opportunity to say to the people of Gaza, who have had their homes systematically bombed and destroyed and where, in Gaza alone, something like £5 billion-worth of infrastructure damage has been done, that that has to be put right.
I do not believe for one minute that the Israelis’ attitude and the sort of punishment they dished out was in any way the right thing for them to do; it was not in their best interests and it certainly was not in the best interests of the people of Palestine. “The Gatekeepers”, a “Newsnight” special, has been mentioned. In it, five of the past six heads of the top security agency in Israel say that successive Prime Ministers had not wanted to solve the problem with Palestine, and five out of the six say that that was a mistake and that Israel had to change its policy. These were the people who were leading the defence of Israel, but they recognise—obviously far too late, because they did not do this when they were in office—that something has to give in Israel.
Let us return to the initial point of this debate. If we give this motion our blessing, there is not a single thing that will harm Israel, but it will send a powerful message which is crying out to be heard for the people of Palestine, whether they are in the refugee camps—where four generations have now lived—or in Gaza, the west bank, Lebanon, or wherever. The people of Palestine have waited 65 years to get the justice they deserved. We did not listen then: when we could have given a two-state solution in ’48, we chose not to do it. People made that biggest mistake.
The hon. Gentleman will recollect that those five Arab states were seeking more of a reassurance that their borders would also be safeguarded, so it was a two-edged sword, I am afraid. We therefore have to be very careful when we talk about that situation.
I want to end by saying, please—for goodness’ sake—let us all send out a positive message to the people of Palestine and give them the hope and the light at the end of the tunnel that they deserve to see coming their way.
I am very glad that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), secured this debate in Backbench Business Committee time, and I rise to speak in support of his motion and the manuscript amendment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw).
This has been one of the most fascinating debates that I have had the privilege to witness in this House since becoming a Member. For me, the motion is very simple. There is no ambiguity: all sides want a two-state solution that works and is sustainable. That can only be reached by negotiation—by people talking to each other. There is no other way to reach it. However, Israel was given statehood in 1950 with no preconditions, and I believe Palestine should be given the same.
For negotiations to work, it is helpful to have as level a playing field as possible and to have as much equality as possible between the sides, but that simply is not the case at present. As has already been said, after the Balfour declaration—which was not carried through entirely—we as a country have a bit of a moral obligation to give our support.
This year’s conflict in Gaza shows how unequal the two sides are. There were some 1,462 civilians killed on the Palestinian side and seven on the Israeli side. All of those are a personal disaster for the victims’ families and are regrettable, but we can see from the numbers the scale of the imbalance in this situation.
No, I am going to carry on.
Given the imbalance, Palestinian statehood would not harm Israel in any way, but it would give some support to the Palestinian people.
For me, the issue is very straightforward and very simple and I am going to keep my comments brief and end on a personal story. I have a friend who came to Sunderland—my city—in the early ’80s to study at what was then the polytechnic and is now the university. He was born in Gaza and on his travel documents his nationality is given as “Palestinian”, but his brother, who was born in precisely the same place seven or eight years later, had “stateless” on his travel documents. No child should have that on their travel documents; it is wrong, it is immoral and it should stop. That is why, on a personal level, I will support the amendment and the motion. It is the right and the moral thing to do.
I will not discuss the rights and wrongs of the Palestinian and Israeli causes, about which hon. Members have spoken with such passion and eloquence, because I want to focus on the narrow issue of recognition: when it is appropriate and what its consequences are.
Some countries grant recognition as a mark of approval of a regime and withhold it as a mark of disapproval. Others grant recognition only on condition of receiving reciprocal favours from the country concerned. Neither approach has traditionally been that of the British Government. We have always granted recognition to a regime, however abhorrent, once it has established effective control of the state apparatus on the bulk of its territory. Likewise, we withhold or withdraw recognition from any regime, however congenial, if it lacks, or loses, control over the bulk of the state apparatus in its territory. Thus, whereas the United States refused to recognise the communist regime in China for many years and continued to recognise Taiwan as the legitimate Government, Britain speedily recognised the People’s Republic of China once its power was clearly established. I believe that we should stick to that pragmatic approach, subject to qualifications. We should recognise the Palestinian state, not as a mark of approval of its policies or disapproval of Israeli policies, but simply as a recognition of the reality, just as we would do anywhere else in the world.
There are two possible objections to our doing this. The first is that this is a question of recognising a state as well as a regime. Normally, we recognise a state as any duly constituted territory established as a state with a long history or more recently by agreement with the previous authorities exercising sovereignty in that territory. We did not recognise Katanga or Biafra even though the breakaway regime had established control, but Palestine is not a breakaway regime. It was recognised as a separate entity by the inheritor of the previous sovereign authority, the League of Nations and then the General Assembly of the United Nations.
I am interested that the right hon. Gentleman is drawing a conclusion in favour of recognition. Does he think it significant that he and the right hon. Members for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) and for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway)—distinguished senior Conservative Back Benchers and former Ministers—have arrived at the conclusion that recognition is the way forward? Is not this a significant step?
I am sure that it is extremely significant, as is any contribution that I make. [Laughter.]
The second objection is the one that has been raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—namely, that the Palestinian state is not in de facto control of its territory because of Israeli occupation. However, Britain has never accepted that military occupation extinguishes a country’s statehood. We did not do so during the second world war, when we continued to recognise the occupied countries in western Europe. For that reason, we should go ahead with recognition.
What effect would recognition have? Here, I fear that I must disappoint Members on both sides of the debate: it would have very little impact indeed. The proponents and opponents of recognition exaggerate the impact that it would have. Already, 134 countries have recognised Palestine and it has had no discernible effect on either advancing or hindering the peace process. Sadly, we in this House cling to the delusion that the world hangs on our every word, but it is absurd to imagine that the people who are prepared to fire rockets at civilian areas from Palestine, or the people in Israel who are prepared to incur international odium by the brutal way in which they respond, will be moved one way or the other by what we in this House say today. It is time we as a Parliament grew up and recognised that we have very little control over what happens there. Ultimately, it will be the people on both sides who will recognise the need to reach an accommodation. In that important programme the other night, we saw six former heads of Shin Bet—Israel’s state security apparatus—acknowledging the need to reach such an accommodation.
In line with our traditional policy, we should recognise the Palestinian state as a reality. We would not be granting it anything; we would simply be recognising a fact. We should make it clear that, in doing so, we were not expressing support for its policies or repudiating the right of Israel to exist. We must also accept that change will come about only as a result of those on the ground in Israel and Palestine realising that they need—
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing this important debate.
My father served with the Army in Palestine from 1945 to 1948 during the currency of the British mandate. He did not say much about it, but he did tell me that, at the end of his tour of duty, he had a chit for leave to spend a last night in Jerusalem. However, his comrade pleaded with him to let him have the chit as he wanted to see a girl in town. He had fallen in love with her and did not know when he might see her again, so he was desperate. My dad let him have his chit, but sadly the vehicle that took the soldiers into town that night was attacked by terrorists and the seat that the love-struck soldier sat in bore the brunt of the attack and he was killed outright. That could have been my dad’s seat.
There were other terrorist attacks—on trains and, famously, on the King David hotel. Among the terrorists were Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, both of whom went on to hold the highest office in the newly formed state of Israel. The point I am making is that committed individuals and groups who pursue self-determination might at one time be deemed to be terrorists but then perceived as freedom fighters and, ultimately, statesmen. We need look no further than the journey made by the great Nelson Mandela, as well as taking a glance across the water to the island of Ireland.
My dad served in what was then Palestine in the late 1930s, before the outbreak of the second world war. By contrast with the other 134 countries that have recognised Palestine, our recognition would be quite different because we were the protectorate. We were the power that held the mandate of protection over the area of Palestine that subsequently became Israel and Palestine.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that powerful point. We have strong historical links to Palestine and we bear certain responsibilities as a result. I believe that the world will look at this Chamber to see what the British Parliament says about these important issues.
As the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) said, the Balfour declaration of November 1917 made it abundantly clear that, while this country would use its best endeavours to establish a national home for the Jewish people, nothing would be done that might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. A national home for the Jewish people was of course created, but it cannot, on any reasonable interpretation, be said that the interests of the non- Jewish people have not been prejudiced. Palestinian people are prisoners in their own land.
It has been said on innumerable occasions that a Palestinian state is not a gift but a right, and I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. When such a right exists, it is unacceptable that that right should be denied or that conditions should apply. I note that some people say that the state of Palestine should be recognised only on the conclusion of successful peace negotiations between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority. If that view were to hold sway, the injustice would simply continue for ever more. It would be to put the cart before the horse and, worse still, exacerbate the situation. Can we really say with any sincerity that Binyamin Netanyahu will put his name to preconditions leading to the creation of the Palestinian state that would ever be acceptable to the Palestinian people?
We are all agreed that the actions of Hamas in launching missile attacks were abhorrent, but what hope are we offering to the Palestinian people? Let us imagine some coastal area of our own land being blockaded and starved, with bulldozers rolling in and destroying the properties and farms of innocent people. What would we expect those people to do? Simply lie down and accept such brutality? No; any people in those circumstances would fight with whatever they could lay their hands on to protect themselves and fight back. That is a basic human instinct, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the British would do that.
Yes, the death of an Israeli soldier or civilian is a tragedy every time it happens, but dropping bombs on innocent people in Gaza, killing thousands and annexing more and more land is not the answer; nor is it in any way justified. Do we really think that any of those actions will bring about peace? One day a Palestinian state will exist and with it there will be the hope of peace and prosperity for its people. Every day that the establishment of the Palestinian state is postponed merely guarantees the continuation of the conflict, with more innocent people losing their lives. We owe it to all those who have lost their lives on both sides, and those whose lives are constantly at risk, to bring this tragedy to an end by recognising the Palestinian state without further delay.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing the debate. I rise to support the motion to recognise the state of Palestine. I also support the amendment tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), to which I am a signatory.
I am a member of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group, and I have taken an active interest in the troubles in that part of the world since my election. Today, a number of Palestinian children were in schools across my constituency. This was facilitated by the Pendle for Palestine Twinning Group, and I was pleased to play a small role in helping facilitate that when the group encountered visa issues. I am sorry to miss their visit to Pendle, but I am sure they will understand why I am in Westminster today.
I last visited the west bank in May 2012, when I met the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Breaking the Silence, Defence for Children International, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Department for International Development, the British consul general, Sir Vincent Fean, and many others. I had not visited the region before, so the delegation gave me a much better insight into the region, the conflict and associated issues. We visited the Dheisheh refugee camp and al-Walaja, a village affected by both the separation barrier and demolition issues. It was also a privilege to meet the then Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, in Ramallah to discuss the future of the peace process, the hunger strikes and a range of other issues.
Although my visit to the region may have been brief, it left a lasting impression. Following my visit, I met Foreign Office Ministers to raise my concerns about the Israeli occupation and what was happening in this often misunderstood, misrepresented part of the world. The same year, 2012, I also publicly confirmed my support for Palestine’s upgraded diplomatic status at the UN to that of non-member observer state, and I was pleased to see that approved by the UN General Assembly. Since then, I have attended lots of events and debates looking at different aspects of the conflict.
Why do I support today’s motion and the amendment? It is simply because I believe we need to break the current impasse and underline our commitment to an equitable two-state solution. The recent conflict in Gaza was horrific and left Palestinians and Israelis who reject violence feeling that they had no hope. British aid money and the generosity of the British public to help rebuild Gaza have been incredible, and they will help in the short-term—but what about the long-term? The ceasefire has suspended the killing but it has not resolved anything.
As several right hon. and hon. Members have said during this debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), speaking as Foreign Secretary in 2011, described the Government’s policy as follows:
“We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help bring about peace.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 290.]
I, and many others across this House, believe that time has come. We need to support the vast majority of Palestinians who believe in peaceful coexistence with Israel, and face down the violent minority by showing them that non-violence and a willingness to negotiate can help get them somewhere. As Sir Vincent Fean, our former consul general to the region, whom I met in Jerusalem and here in Westminster, put it this week,
“Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in safety. Both deserve statehood. The status quo is unjust and thus indefensible.”
I could not put it better myself, so I am pleased to support today’s motion.
I congratulate all those who have made the case for the recognition of Palestine this evening, particularly my fellow officers in the Britain-Palestine all-party group and in Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East, including the mover of the motion, my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who has campaigned on this issue for decades rather than years. We have heard good speeches from Members on both sides of the House, particularly the right hon. Members for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) and for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames).
This is not just a debate within this House: tens of thousands of people marched against the invasion of Gaza; we have seen mobilisations through the trade union movement and through the Palestine solidarity campaign; and we have heard that distinguished diplomats —Sir Vincent Fean, our most recent consul in Jerusalem has been mentioned—have written powerfully in this cause recently. Let us not forget the Jewish and Israeli groups, particularly the Israeli civil society groups such as Breaking the Silence, Peace Now and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, which, under a great deal of pressure from their Government now, continue to campaign. But above all it is the British people who have taken up this cause, with more than 50,000 e-mails sent to MPs over the past two or three weeks.
I think that the British people have been on the same sort of journey as the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) described—it is certainly true of the Labour movement—from being very sympathetic to Israel as a country that was trying to achieve democracy and was embattled, to seeing it now as a bully and a regional superpower. That is not something I say with any pleasure, but since the triumph of military Zionism and the Likud-run Governments we have seen a new barbarism in that country. We have seen it in the Lebanon invasion, in the attack on the Mavi Marmara and the flotilla, and, above all, in the three attacks on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, Operation Cast Lead—
Does my hon. Friend agree that the message sent from the British Parliament tonight will also be noted by the American Government and the American people, and that although our influence may not be strong directly on Israel, our relationship with America enables us to use its influence with Israel also to convey that sense of horror?
I agree with my hon. Friend; I think this will be exactly as the vote in Syria was last year.
As I was saying, Operation Protective Edge, Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defence have all been, despite how the names sound, attacks by a major military power on a civilian community. I have heard two views in opposition to the motion. The first is from people who have no intention of ever recognising the state of Palestine—unfortunately they include the leadership of Israel at the moment. This view used to come just from people such as Ariel Sharon, but now it comes from Naftali Bennett, the Minister with responsibility for the economy, Avigdor Liberman, the Foreign Minister, and the Prime Minister himself, Binyamin Netanyahu. Bennett has said, “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state.” Those views are articulated publicly in Israel now because people are emboldened by their own actions and by the international community’s failure to do anything about them.
Who can defend settlement building—the colonisation of another country? We are talking about 600,000 Israeli settlers planted on Palestinian soil. I disagree fundamentally with the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who said that Gaza was no longer under occupation. It is under occupation; the life is squeezed out of it daily from land, sea and air. Anybody who has visited the west bank and not come back thinking that it is an apartheid system has their eyes closed. The daily indignities suffered by the Palestinian people there would make many people rise in rebellion, and what we have there is a strong movement for peace, led by President Abbas.
My hon. Friend and I went to Gaza together in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of Operation Cast Lead. Does he agree that, in addition to the staggering level of destruction wreaked on Gaza then, which has now tragically been repeated, one abiding story is the frustration and rage that the people feel about the peace process no longer being a realistic option and about how something needs to be done to break the logjam? I hope that we are starting to do that tonight.
It is indeed, but who can doubt that the Palestinians think like that when they are subject to the arbitrary use of extreme violence against civilians, not just yearly, but often on a weekly basis?
The second voice I have heard against this motion comes from people who say they agree with it but place every obstacle in its way. I also heard that in the speech from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, when he talked about the Palestinians not yet being ready to have their own state. If that were true—I do not believe it is—it would be a direct result of Israeli policy. Just after Operation Cast Lead, I stood in Gaza in the ruins of the Palestinian Parliament, which was deliberately bombed. Every organ of civil society, of the economy and of democracy in that country had been systematically destroyed by the Israelis, and they have just done it again. Every concession given by the Palestinians is taken and then more concessions are demanded, and the remorseless colonisation continues. How long is this going to continue?
The motion is a positive step, but my constituents wish to see more. They would like us to stop supplying arms to the Israelis when those arms are being used for the occupation and to kill people in Gaza. They would like us to stop importing goods from illegal settlements—illegal under international law. They cannot understand why, if the settlements are illegal, the goods should not be illegal as well. The motion does not ask for any of that. It was supposed to be a consensual motion that simply proposes giving the same rights to the Palestinians as we extend to the Israelis. This is about equity.
Finally, this country has a special duty here. It is easy to try to duck that duty. We are the authors of the Balfour declaration and we were the occupying power. Anybody who goes to the middle east knows—I am sure that the Minister would agree with me on this—that the views taken by the British Government and the British people run powerfully in the region. We should set an example. Yes, 135 countries have recognised Palestine and yes, we are behind the curve in this matter, but it is not too late for us to set an example to Europe and the rest of the world and show that we believe in equality and fairness in international statecraft as much as we believe in our own country. That is all that this motion is asking for tonight. It is not asking for special privilege or treatment. It is not a provocative act. It is simply saying: lay the basis for peace and equality in the middle east and resolve this issue and much else will follow.
The issue of Palestinian statehood is one that goes beyond simply recognising one Government alongside another. When considering the recognition of a Government, one should ask who the Government are, who they represent and what the territory is.
Let us start by considering the authority that this motion seeks to see recognised. It is always ambiguous to talk about a Palestinian Government when the Palestinians do not form a unanimous body. This summer, we witnessed the terrible war between Israel and one of the manifestations of so-called Palestinian power, Hamas. The explicit aim of that terrorist organisation, as stated in its own manifesto, is to eradicate Israel from the map and to fight Jews—a racist goal if ever there was one. The only difference between Hamas and ISIS is one of degree.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow. May I refer him back to the motion, which is about recognising not the Government, but the state? There is a substantial difference between the two. We recognise many Governments whom we do not tolerate. All we are recognising here is the need to confer statehood.
On those grounds, would the hon. Gentleman recognise ISIL? I think not.
When we look at the facts, it will be clear to this Parliament that recognising a Palestinian state in the status quo without a peace agreement would mean acknowledging a society that respects only the rule of force.
The first condition to the recognition of a Palestinian state needs to be that it is based on fully democratic and peaceful principles. As the Palestinian Authority is ready to co-operate with Hamas and to rule alongside it, we cannot be honest and democratic in recognising the Palestinian state.
I agree that there should be a Palestinian state. In fact, not many realise that there is already a Palestinian state called Jordan. It was created by the British in 1921 and was originally called Transjordan. After the 1948-49 war against the newly created state of Israel, the Jordanian monarch, Abdullah, even called himself the King of Jordan and Palestine, as his country controlled the west bank.
The vast majority of Arabs currently in Jordan are in fact Palestinians ruled by a monarch from the Hashemite minority. Before the 1967 six-day war when Israel defeated the Arab invasion and took control of the west bank and Gaza, which had been under the arm of Egypt, there had never been demands from Palestinians in the disputed territories for a second Palestinian state, as they were under Jordanian rule.
In today’s motion to recognise a second Palestinian state, the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) overlooks the fact that the Palestinians in the west bank and the Palestinians in Gaza are ruled by entirely different entities—the more moderate Fatah and the terrorist organisation Hamas. If we are not careful, we could end up with three Palestinian states, or to be precise one state and two statelets: one controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan, the eastern borders of which are now threatened by ISIS; one controlled by Fatah in the west bank; and one controlled by Hamas in Gaza.
I do not understand my hon. Friend’s point about Jordan. Is he suggesting that because hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled to Jordan, often in fear of their lives, and now live there that they have their state and therefore everything is okay?
Under the Balfour declaration, it was always envisaged that Israel would have a small part one side of the river and the Arabs would have the other part. There are many second and third generation Palestinians living there today.
We have heard a lot of criticism of the state of Israel today, but where is the same outrage about the massacre of thousands of Palestinians in the Syrian city of Yarmouk at the hands of Assad’s regime? Last year, I voted for intervention because of Assad’s chemical weapons and most hon. Members voted against it. What about the ongoing exclusion of and discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon, where women are not allowed to be married to a refugee for fear of integration?
The hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) said that only a few Israelis were killed whereas more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed, but if the Israelis had not had an Iron Dome system, hundreds of thousands of Israelis would have been killed by the hundreds of missiles that Hamas fired into the state of Israel. Should we not condemn Hamas for firing the 11,000 rockets, using Palestinians, their own citizens, as human shields, and wasting millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to build tunnels from Gaza into Israel to send terrorists and suicide bombers across the border?
As I said, I support a Palestinian state and a free middle east, free from terror and free from Hamas, al-Qaeda and ISIS. An enlightened middle east that has real liberty—something I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) believed in—with the rule of law, genuine elections, property rights, religious tolerance, equality for women and the rejection of terrorism. I therefore support an enlightened Palestinian state after negotiation alongside a secure and democratic Israel, free from Hamas, free from Islamic Jihad and living in peaceful co-existence.
This is an issue with which I have been involved since my teens. The fact that we are discussing it today feels historic and I am proud to have the opportunity to be in the Chamber. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) for securing the debate.
Before I begin, I send my thoughts to the families in Palestine and Israel that have been afflicted by the appalling conflict this summer in Gaza. It is, however, our duty to remember the vast number of Palestinian civilians who have died in the struggle not just this year but in the many years since the conflict began. They are people’s mothers, sons, daughters and brothers and they continue to be treated with little regard for the value of human life. It is with those Palestinian civilians in mind that I rise today to speak in favour of the motion.
Now is the time to move forward from the horrors seen in Gaza to try to secure peace. The only way we can help to restore peace—a real, lasting peace—is by negotiating a two-state solution and by recognising in doing so the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. The arguments for doing so are compelling. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund both argue that Palestine is ready for statehood. Palestine has many of the attributes of a functioning state: a Government, people who identify as its population and the capacity to enter into relationships with other states. Some have argued today that Palestine is lacking as it does not have a defined territory, but recognition of a Palestinian state does not and should not hang on the final agreement of Palestinian borders.
The Government made the case for the recognition of a Palestinian state in 2012. The right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) told the House:
“We want to see a Palestinian state and look forward to the day when its people can enjoy the same rights and dignity as those of any other nation.”
He went on to add that
“we support the right to a Palestinian state.”—[Official Report, 28 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 228-231.]
If the Government have already recognised the right to a Palestinian state, the right of the Palestinian people to determine the parameters of that state logically follows. The Palestinian people have been arguing for self-determination for more than 50 years and that is a request that we cannot and should not ignore. More than 100 states have already recognised Palestine, joined by Sweden only two weeks ago. It is now our turn. It is our moral duty to treat Palestinians as the people they seek to be treated as. That should not be conditional on negotiations, the views of Israel or those of any other state. It should be conditional only on the views of the Palestinian people.
There are some parallels with the recent referendum in Scotland. On polling day, we did not ask the people of England, Wales or Northern Ireland whether they wish Scotland to stay. We accepted that it was the right of the Scottish people to decide. The same principle should be applied to Palestine. This is not an issue for the Israelis to decide, even if they want to. It is not an issue for negotiations. It is an issue for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian people alone. Israel should have no veto over the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. This is a right that is not contingent on the views of other states.
There is a practical issue here as well: the recognition of the state of Palestine would mirror our historic recognition of Israel. It has been 54 years since we recognised Israel. When we did so, we did not ask the permission of the Palestinians or, indeed, any of the surrounding states. The recognition of Palestine should have happened a long time ago. For over 60 years, Palestinians have not been granted the same recognition as other peoples, either in their rights or in having their voices heard on the international stage. It is time now that we formally recognise this recognition by acknowledging their right to self-determination and by supporting them to exist as a state. Only by doing so can we move forward to secure a lasting peace for the people of Palestine and of Israel.
In the past, my problem with fully supporting Palestinian statehood has been the fact that Hamas—designated a terrorist organisation by the UK, as well as the United States, the European Union and other countries such as Australia—is so closely linked with the Government there. I remain concerned by the indiscriminate rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza, as well as the support given to other terrorist activities.
Article 57 of the Geneva convention, which I studied when I was the commander in Bosnia, is the key. It states that constant care must be taken to spare civilians from being hurt. It stresses that those who plan or decide on any attack must do everything feasible to verify that the objectives attacked are not close to civilians. It is absolutely clear that the military wing of Hamas, by its rocket attacks on Israeli territory and its association with west bank terrorism, such as the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in August this year, pays scant attention to that fundamental humanitarian law.
I have criticised, too, Israeli military actions in south Lebanon, the west bank and Gaza for quite a few years —even before I was a Member. In my view, the Israeli defence force, whatever the reason or military requirement, has breached article 57 on occasion, too. After all, it is indisputable that large numbers of civilians have been killed as a result of IDF operations in Gaza this summer.
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says.
I have had to deal with terrorist organisations of one form or other, whether the Provisional IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army, Protestant extremist groups or even terrorist gangs in the Balkans. Too many soldiers under my command have been killed by fanatics for me not to be very serious about this problem. I loathe the way that terrorists act, and their politics of guns, explosives and rockets.
Now if Hamas was to renounce violence and stop attacking innocent people in Israel, which in fairness, for a while, it did a few years ago, I would be much less vexed. Like so many in the Chamber, I have very mixed feelings about the motion. We all want to see a state called Palestine, but can I support a Government linked to terrorism? In theory, I should not, but in practice can I? After all, I can think of several well established states that support terrorism—away from their own territory, of course—which our Government already fully recognise and, indeed, support, despite this knowledge. So I wonder, why should we not support the Palestinians, too? Despite my aversion to the terrorism practised by elements of Hamas, I have decided that it is time that this Parliament should fully endorse the move to Palestinian statehood. I will be voting for the motion in the hope that it brings closer a peaceful settlement in the wonderful Levant.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart).
Many of us will remember the great hope and expectation felt when the Oslo accords were finally signed in 1993 in Washington, but I wonder if many can recall what the accords were supposed to deliver: the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of Gaza and the west bank; the affirmation of a Palestinian right to self-government within those areas through, in the first instance, the Palestinian Authority; and an interim period during which permanent status negotiations would commence, supposedly no later than 1996. Thereafter, Israel was to hand over power in stages. Major issues such as Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, security and borders were to be decided during the permanent status negotiations.
We must remember that the two groups also signed letters of mutual recognition. The Israeli Government recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people; the PLO recognised the right of the state of Israel to exist, and renounced terrorism, other violence, and the desire for the destruction of the Israeli state. There were many other associated agreements. There was a joint Palestinian-Israeli Co-ordination and Co-operation Committee for security, and a similar continuing committee for economic progress. The parties even signed an environmental protection plan. There was a follow-up in 1995, Oslo II, to highlight the progress made since the Oslo accords were signed.
What of the last 20 years? There has been a separation wall or barrier, which encroaches deeply on the west bank; that is where 85% of the wall is located. The wall de facto annexes 46% of the west bank, effectively creating ghettos or military zones. The air, sea and land blockade of Gaza, which has effectively imprisoned more than 1.5 million Gazans, has been criticised by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. We have seen Operation Cast Lead and, more recently, Operation Protective Edge from the Israelis; no doubt the justification is the rocket attacks by Hamas, which should not have taken place. There were 4,000 deaths, mainly Palestinian, in those two actions alone, as well as spectacular loss of and damage to property, industry and agriculture. Of course, Israel continues to build settlements on the west bank. This is the history that our constituents will be familiar with, but perhaps we should briefly look back further.
In 1947, the UN Special Committee on Palestine said that there should be partition into a Jewish and an Arab state. In the same year, the UN agreed resolution 181, which took effect in May 1948. On 11 May 1949, Israel was recognised by the UN, and it was effectively recognised by the UK two days later, formal recognition coming the following year. If we are serious about a two-state solution, 65 years is too long to wait for recognition of Palestine. Even if only to provide parity of dignity—the basic dignity of having one’s nation state recognised—we should recognise it. The time for excuses is over; we should recognise Palestine today.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate. I have learned a great deal from listening to it. Time is short, and I do not want to take up too much of it, or repeat what others have said. It is remarkable that there has been a shift in tone, and in the concerns of the House, during the debate. That shift should worry the Government of Israel, because it is clearly losing the moral high ground when it comes to the people in Gaza and the Palestinian issue. I have become increasingly concerned about the way Israel is operating since seeing on my television screen pictures of the recent crisis. It is impossible not to feel the suffering and hopelessness of the people of Gaza. It is only right that we should have this debate and discuss the issue. I would not be a friend of Israel if I did not speak out when I saw it doing the wrong thing, heading in the wrong direction and causing the unnecessary deaths of too many Palestinians. It is for that reason that I take part in today’s debate.
I recognise that Israel has a right to defend itself. I recognise that it is completely unacceptable for Hamas missiles to rain down in their thousands over Israel, and it is absolutely right that the British Government support Israel’s right to defend itself. But it cannot be right that in response to the Hamas rockets, Israel can unilaterally cause death and destruction in Palestine that is not proportionate to the threat. That is the important word here. The response must be proportionate.
According to the UN, during this summer’s conflict, a total of 2,131 Palestinians were killed. Of those, at least 1,473 were civilians—young, innocent civilians, in many cases. On the Israel side, 66 Israeli defence force soldiers were killed, and five Israeli civilians. I do not believe that that response is proportionate. Israel has lost the moral high ground in the way it acted.
We should demand the same standards of Israel as we do of any democratic state. Just this weekend, we saw the Australian Super Hornet pilots pull away when they were hunting down ISIL fighters because they were concerned about the loss of life of innocent civilians. It is only right that a sophisticated, well-funded army, such as that of Israel—
Does my hon. Friend also agree that in an open, democratic society such as ours, with modern technology, the visibility of actions requires politicians to change our view too? People in societies around the world see such disproportionality, and they want their leaders to take action to make change.
That is exactly right, and that is why we have this debate today. It is impossible not to want to speak out and act when we see such suffering .
Some of the acts committed by Israel were clearly unacceptable. Why was it necessary to blow up Gaza’s only power station, leaving already stretched hospitals to rely on generators? Why was it necessary to bomb hospitals and schools, when, as we saw, the threat of loss of life to Israeli civilians was small in comparison? By adding to the suffering of the Gazan people, the Israeli Government have lost the support of the House, and it should cause them great concern.
It is important that moderates in the debate such as me should speak out if we are turning against support for Israel. It is right that we should express our concerns. I recognise the concerns that have been raised by some in the House about Palestine’s ability to govern as a state, and its ability to have the mechanisms and the government in place to accept statehood, but it is a challenge to us to help them achieve it. We must redouble our efforts to help the moderate, peaceful Palestinian people in their desire and efforts to achieve statehood. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to take part in this debate.
Over the past weeks my in-box has been flooded with hundreds of letters from my constituents. Their strength of feeling is undeniable, their arguments are heartfelt, and their conviction is deep-seated—and for good reason. I share those arguments and that conviction.
Of the thousands of letters and e-mails I have received, there is one from Mia Thomas, extracts from which I would like to read today.
“I am a 21 year old medical student and I have just returned from 5 weeks in Ramallah in the West Bank. I am feeling increasingly helpless and frustrated, as every day the death count of innocent Palestinians grows higher and there seems so little we can do about it and our Government will not act decisively.
By contrast with Gaza, Ramallah is very safe. It is in Area A, so in theory it is completely Palestinian-run and governed. In reality, even in the heart of Palestine, it is still an occupied territory and violence erupts at checkpoints with scary regularity.
From where I was staying you could see Jerusalem—Ramallah is only 19 km away as the crow flies, but the journey there takes an hour because Palestinian buses are only allowed to use certain roads and then you have to pass through a checkpoint, where everyone’s ID cards/passports are checked at gunpoint, before changing on to an Israeli bus to carry on the journey. This sort of thing isn’t particularly harmful to one’s health and is viewed just as a hassle, but it also creates this feeling of being completely caged and unable to move.
As a foreigner, I was visiting cities within the West Bank that local friends hadn’t been to, not because of lack of funds or curiosity but because people are afraid of getting stuck outside their city as checkpoints can be closed at any point. The occupation has limited people’s movements physically, but it also massively limits people mentally in what they perceive they can and cannot do…
In a village further north near Nablus I met the mayor of the village, who was a wonderful man. He was in a wheel chair because as a young goat herder he was shot in the spine by Israeli soldiers from the military camp that looms over the village. He now runs the village and has an absolute rule of no protesting or fighting with the Israeli settlement nearby because, as he said, he ‘doesn’t want anyone else—Palestinian or Israeli—to lose the ability to walk’. He says just existing as a village is resistance. In the last year the Israelis have demolished 3 houses in the village, and as they try and rebuild them you can see how hard life is when just living and farming your land is an act of defiance.”
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Hundreds of constituents have also written to me on this matter, and it was discussed by the Hounslow-Ramallah Twinning Association last Friday night. Does she agree that a downside of our not supporting Palestinian statehood today could be that it will give succour to those who do not want to see a political settlement?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.
Mia concluded her letter with the following:
“I’m so ANGRY about what’s going on in Gaza. Most people are, I think, which is why I’m confused as to why it’s being allowed to continue. If this cycle of hate and violence is ever going to end, it has to start now with an end to killing—of Palestinians and Israelis.”
Ms Thomas is clearly a brave woman. She came back impassioned, disillusioned and angry. That anger and disillusionment was not just about the conflict she had witnessed; it was about her frustration that we in this House were not giving her a voice. Today I want to give her a voice, in the same way that I believe we must give Palestinians a voice.
I totally and utterly agree.
It is time to recognise a Palestinian state, a right they have long deserved, and use that recognition as a path to a wider process of negotiation—two equal states living side by side in peace and security and sharing in prosperity. We cannot stand here today, say that we believe in that goal of a two-state solution and then stand by and refuse to recognise one of the states. I encourage the House to take this opportunity and support the motion.
I have to declare an interest, as I am married to an Israeli—Israeli-born—woman and those who are married to a strong Israeli woman will know who is boss in our household. We have heard a wide range of moving and passionate contributions this evening. In the interests of time, I will not rehearse all that has been said, but I think that there is much common ground: we believe that the Palestinian people have the inalienable right to self-determination and that the Israeli people have the unquestionable right to live in peace and security, with all Arab and Muslim countries recognising and respecting the state of Israel. We regard both peoples as equal in dignity and rights and we wish the United Kingdom to remain at the forefront of international efforts to bring about an end to the conflict.
I take the powerful point that my hon. Friend has made.
The question before the House tonight is not whether we wish to see a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution or whether we wish to consider ourselves, or be perceived by others beyond the House, as strong supporters of a Palestinian state. It is whether in passing this motion today we would increase the prospect of a lasting settlement, reduce the obstacles to it and increase this country’s ability—modest as it may be—to influence that process positively, not diminish it.
I have listened to the debate this evening and the debate that has surrounded it, but I have not heard the case put convincingly. Only a handful of Members have answered the question directly, notably the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Other Members have spoken of a gesture, a symbol or a small nudge. I do not question the intentions of the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), but I fear that he is deceiving himself if he truly believes that passing the motion will breathe new life into the peace process.
The hon. Gentleman says that he is looking for evidence that recognising Palestine as a state in its own right will make a difference. The UK Anglican and Catholic Churches believe that. Furthermore, a former British consul-general to Jerusalem has said that we need to support moderate Israelis and Palestinians, and that recognising Palestine is the nudge that will help in that direction.
I hear the hon. Lady’s comments and hope that she is correct. We, of course, will be only the 130-somethingth country to have signed up to recognition and none of the previous nations has achieved a change.
Passing the motion will certainly antagonise and weaken to some extent our relationship with Israel and Israelis—a relationship that, for all Israel’s manifest faults and frailties, I value and the House should value in a dangerous world. In a peace process, we do not show solidarity to one by antagonising and alienating the other, diminishing our relatively limited influence on events.
I do not say that the case has been convincingly disproved either. In the short term, passing the motion will not make peaceful settlement more likely; it may not have any impact at all. The long-term consequences of our recognising Palestine at this time are unclear and anyone’s guess, even given the knowledgeable and informed comments that we have heard this evening. Unintended consequences abound in this region.
Some 135 nations have already recognised Palestine. They obviously thought about that before they did it. They are happy with what they have done and believe that it gives a recognised right to a people who have been denied one. Should we not just join them?
I am putting the argument that I want a well thought out strategy to end the conflict. I do not believe that this is the time for gestures. I hope hon. Members forgive the naivety of the second newest Member of the House—I welcome the newest one to her place—but I believe that this is a serious country and that we should pursue a serious foreign policy, based not on gestures, however well intentioned, but on our best efforts to address the unending quest for security and peace in the middle east. That applies in Iraq, where our decision not to address ISIS in Syria is not as serious a position as we could or perhaps should be taking. I believe that that also applies in respect of this motion.
I appreciate the powerful urge to leave this Chamber contented and able to face our electorates having done something. I am not alone in having received hundreds of e-mails and letters urging me to support this motion. I appreciate the urge to respond to the horrors of the summer in Gaza and the continued, impossibly frustrating impasse. However, if we believe in peace, we have to do what most advances it, and I do not believe that passing this motion is that. The British Government should use what influence they have once again to urge Prime Minister Netanyahu to sit down and negotiate, with no preconceptions, a realistic peace based on a two-state solution, and to urge President Abbas to accept the offer. My priority is to get the Palestinians a viable state rather than make a modest gesture here or have a momentary victory in the United Nations that will raise expectations but do little in the long term to further the interests of peace.
I meant no discourtesy to the Minister earlier; I was simply aware that colleagues were anxious to make their contributions, and that is why mine will be brief. I speak in support of the motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and of the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw).
This House has a duty to support Palestinian statehood. The Palestinian claim to statehood is not in the gift of a neighbour—it is an inalienable right of the Palestinians, and tonight we should speak up on their behalf. As the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) said in a superb, eloquent speech, the other half of the Balfour commitment places on us a further obligation and duty to support the Palestinians tonight.
Every speaker has spoken in favour of a two-state solution; everyone on both sides of this House is passionate about a two-state solution. However, I fear that confidence is draining away from the idea of whether a two-state solution is possible. Is it any wonder that confidence in a two-state solution is draining away when the Israelis push ahead with illegal settlements in the west bank? Is it any wonder that confidence is draining away when Bedouin Arabs in the E1 area live in fear of being moved on, and are not allowed to build proper schools for their children and so are forced to build them out of recycled tyres? Is it any wonder that confidence is draining away when those same Arabs put up swings for their children, and because they are denied the relevant permit from the authorities, the Israeli authorities come and take down the swings that the children play on? Is it any wonder that confidence is draining away when we see a conflict in Gaza that leads to 110,000 displaced Palestinians and the destruction of 22 schools?
There are times when this House has to send a message—when this House has to speak. I believe that the will of the British people is now to support Palestinian statehood. Many have questioned what is the practical purpose of supporting this motion; well, I ask what is the practical purpose of opposing it. If we oppose the motion, this House will be sending a message that we endorse the status quo, and I do not believe that that is the will of the British people.
We are going to be told when we vote tonight that we are being naive and indulging in gestures, but sometimes one has to be naive in expressing one’s hopes for a better world and to be prepared to make gestures, even if our power is very limited. I suppose that an Israeli living near Gaza will think that we are naive when missiles are raining down on them from Hamas. I have nothing but contempt for Hamas, which I view as a kind of Nazi organisation. I have nothing but respect and support for the state of Israel. I think that all of us are very philo-Semitic. We understand the horrors that the Jewish people have undergone and their desire for security and peace.
However, my viewpoint—my strong support for Israel—started to change when I talked to Abba Eban, a former Israeli Foreign Minister and a very fine gentleman. I was thinking of him only yesterday when I saw that he was an old boy of the school where my son is at the moment. He said in very powerful terms to me in his office in Jerusalem, “Look, there is absolutely no way in which we can possibly run or control the west bank. There are far too many Palestinians. We have to come to a settlement with the Palestinians and recognise their right to self-determination.” That was a former Israeli Foreign Minister.
My other Damascus moment came when I was standing at the Bethlehem checkpoint and saw the appalling humiliation heaped on Palestinian people. I spoke to a nurse at a hospital I visited as part of a charity I ran. She lived in Bethlehem, just a few miles from Jerusalem. It was just a short walk away, but she was never able to go to the city without enormous difficulties. Bethlehem, of all places, should be a beacon of hope.
I know we will be accused of making a gesture today and I understand the Government’s position, but they should listen to the voice of this House. Virtually everybody who has spoken—not just lefties waving placards in Trafalgar square, but virtually every Conservative MP—has said that now is the time to recognise the justice of the Palestinians’ case.
I am not speaking in anti-Israeli terms—I am proud to be a friend of that state—but they have to open their hearts. They have to start relaxing controls in and out of Gaza. I know about all the problems with terrorists and suicide bombers, but they have to start relaxing controls at the Bethlehem checkpoint I was at and they have to stop the settlements. There has to be some way forward. We have to recognise, however naive this may sound, that we are part of a common humanity, whether we are Christian, Jew or Arab. When we vote tonight—and I will vote for the motion—we will be making a gesture in favour of that common humanity, and we should be proud of that.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who, like other Members, touched on the human realities of people whose lives are afflicted in this conflict. The question for this House is: where do we stand on the basic, core question that constantly runs through this problem?
Every time there is violence and every time the attempts at a peace process fail, fall into a lull and are followed by more violence—whether it is from Hamas or the excessive efforts of the Israeli defence forces, as we have seen this summer—people ask what the western world is doing about it. Where does the international community stand when human rights are sacrificed again and again, and what is its will when international law is violated again and again? Of course, we hear from the Dispatch Box and elsewhere that the Israeli Government are told not to be disproportionate and warned against occupations, and yet the situation continues.
People are increasingly fed up with this screensaver politics, where shapes are thrown, images projected and impressions generated, but nothing real goes on in relation to the substantive issue. People in our constituencies find it frustrating, but the people for whom it must be most frustrating are those moderate people in the middle east, including those in Israel who know that their security will never come from drenching people in Gaza with bombs, and those in Palestine who know that their peace, rights and liberation will not come through lobbing rockets into Israel. They want a peace process and they know that at the heart of that peace process there has to be a two-state solution, and that two-state solution has a better chance of happening if there is at least a semblance of a two-state process. When there is no two-state process, we are wasting our time talking about a two-state solution.
The Minister told us today, once again, that the British Government will recognise the state of Palestine at a time when it is most beneficial to the peace process, but then he went on to say that a negotiated end of occupation is the most effective way of having the Palestinian aspiration for statehood realised on the ground. Is he telling us that the British Government will move on recognising the state of Palestine only when there is a negotiated end to the occupation, whenever that is? If he is, that is no argument against the motion, and nobody could accept it as a reason for voting against the motion or the amendment.
That may well be, and it may add to people’s frustrations. We will see whether it happens. We want to flush out a proper declaration, because there should be no obfuscation. There is a clear choice. One of the beauties of the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) is that it is clear—for the purposes of providing absolute clarity, there is the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)—and the issues have been well distilled in a very good debate.
A couple of attempts have been made to cloud some of the issues, including by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). He tried to suggest that the experience of the Northern Ireland peace process somehow means that we should not recognise the state of Palestine now, but leave everybody to sort everything out and then recognise it. The truth is that he and his party opposed the peace process throughout and did so shrilly. They said that the sky would fall in. They opposed American involvement. They opposed what the British and Irish Governments did to create the framework for a solution, and they opposed building a solution based on three sets of relationships—institutions in Northern Ireland, institutions in Ireland and institutions between Ireland and Britain.
The point is that people outside a conflict sometimes have to help to create some of the givens in a process. In the give and take that we expect in a negotiated process, particularly in a historic conflict, it is not in the parties’ gift to do all the giving; that is where responsible international input can create some givens and new realities.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his role in the Northern Ireland process. Does he agree that the involvement of not only the United States but the European Union in the events of 1997, 1998 and 1999 was crucial in facilitating agreement?
Absolutely, and such involvement predated that period. People feared that it was just a gesture that might somehow lead to a dangerous outcome. In fact, the layers of understanding, initiative and input from the international community over several years helped to condition the context of the peace process and to give people a sense of reality about our problem and the absolute and unavoidable requirements of a solution. That was done in ways that made people comfortable with those requirements, because they did not have the burden of making concessions or compromises themselves, but could take them as things that were already givens in the process.
That is why the important step from the international community in doing more to recognise the state of Palestine is the creation of a sense that the process is more equal. Will recognition create a solution? No. Will detailed negotiations have to happen? Absolutely. People will have the huge task of trying to work out a solution, to work with the solution and to work with each other within the solution, but one thing the international community can do is to say, “We are not going to endorse anybody’s excesses by retailing their excuses.” That is why we should not endorse the violence of Israel by subscribing to its veto on the very process in the very basic question before the House tonight.
It is an honour to follow such an eloquent speech by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). I hope to find just a fraction of the eloquence and sensitivity of my distinguished predecessor Daniel Lipson, who was MP for Cheltenham during the horrors of the second world war. He was also mayor of Cheltenham, and president of the Cheltenham synagogue. He said as long ago as 1946 that
“the solution I want to see is a just solution—a solution which shall be just to both Jews and Arabs. I do not want a one-sided solution”.—[Official Report, 21 February 1946; Vol. 419, c. 1374.]
It is in recognition of the one-sided nature of the various status quos that have prevailed ever since that our party finally voted last week to support recognition of Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. I very much sense that the House will take the historic decision to do exactly the same tonight. Of course, recent events in Gaza and the continued, determined pursuit of illegal settlement building by the Netanyahu Government must influence us, but there is a deeper reason to support the motion, especially as crises escalate across the region.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He makes a valid point. I will come back to the message that we need to send to the Government who are responsible for that.
The deeper point to which I was referring was that if we are to tell Arabs across the region to reject extremism, rockets, bombs and massacres that are deliberately aimed at killing defenceless civilians, we must also do more to support the moderate, democratic, pluralist leaders, such as Mahmoud Abbas, who have painstakingly pursued the diplomatic path towards peace and self-determination. In answer to the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), if the only practical outcome of passing the motion is to strengthen the hand of Mahmoud Abbas against extremism and intransigence, however imperceptibly, we should do it. If we can tell the Iraqi Government of Nouri al-Maliki that it is not enough to be elected—even to be elected and face an existential threat—but that Governments must also be inclusive and demonstrate a commitment to peace, we have to deliver the same message, loud and clear, to the Government of Binyamin Netanyahu.
To those who suggest that it is wrong to recognise a new state whose borders have not been finally determined, I say that this House did exactly that in 1950. In case Members have any doubt, I refer them to column 1138 of Hansard on 27 April 1950, when Kenneth Younger, the Minister of State in the Attlee Government, announced:
“His Majesty’s Government have also decided to accord de jure recognition to the State of Israel, subject to explanations on two points…First, that His Majesty’s Government are unable to recognise the sovereignty of Israel over that part of Jerusalem which she occupies, though, pending a final determination of the status of the area, they recognise that Israel exercises de facto authority in it. Secondly, that His Majesty’s Government cannot regard the present boundaries between Israel, and Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the Lebanon as constituting the definitive frontiers of Israel, as these boundaries were laid down in the Armistice Agreements concluded severally between Israel and each of these States, and are subject to any modifications which may be agreed upon under the terms of those Agreements, or of any final settlements which may replace them.”—[Official Report, 27 April 1950; Vol. 474, c. 1138-1139.]
We have been waiting for those final settlements—indeed, the middle east has been waiting for those final settlements—for 60 years and more. We have seen occupations by Jordan and then by Israel. We have seen wars and uprisings, but the Palestinian territories are closer in practice to statehood now than they have been at any other time in that entire period. If we are to reward the diplomatic path to peace, the time has come to recognise the state of Palestine, as we did the state of Israel all those years ago.
We should join the 350 Israelis who today wrote an open letter to my noble Friend Lord Alderdice—former Members of the Knesset, former Ministers, former Government officials, former winners of the Israel prize and the Nobel prize, a former Attorney-General, artists, playwrights and soldiers—who said:
“We, Israelis who worry and care for the well-being of the state of Israel, believe that the long-term existence and security of Israel depends on the long-term existence and security of a Palestinian state.”
We should support them and we should support the motion tonight.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate, having visited Israel, the west bank and Gaza on numerous occasions. It is great to see such a consensus developing as the debate goes on.
We all like to believe that we are in touch with the expectations and aspirations of the people we represent. Mr Norman Kirk of the New Zealand Labour party got it absolutely right when he said that people
“don’t ask for much: someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.”
New Zealanders are not unique in wanting those things. People the world over are looking for those things, including the people of Palestine and Israel. They have people to love in abundance. The problem for the Palestinians is that, too often, they lose those they love, including their children. And how many Israeli families have lost members who have died in the Israeli armed forces? The people of Gaza are left homeless when their houses are destroyed or severely damaged by Israeli bombings. In area C of the west bank, there are home demolitions and land seizures, and settlements are built on Palestinian land. A house is not a home if it has to be vacated at regular intervals in response to alarms signalling rocket attacks and the need to take shelter.
Unemployment is astronomical in Palestine, especially among young Palestinian people. What do they have to hope for? Peace, and a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, which has already been recognised as a state with no recognised borders. The truth is that they now have little hope, trust or faith in a two-state solution in the face of ever increasing settlements, the failure of the latest rounds of talks—in spite of the efforts of Secretary of State Kerry—and the failure of the US and EU to put proportionate pressure on Israel to demonstrate real commitment to the peace process.
When I was in Bosnia, a person said to me that unless politics sorted out the Balkans, history would take care of it. In this case, unless the Government of Israel get real in understanding that they have to live with the Palestinians, and that somehow a solution has to be found, history will take care of it because one day the Arabs will be so powerful that they will invade and that will be the end of Israel. Pray God that does not happen—let us find a solution.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but my point is that hope is running out for the Palestinian people. What is the impediment to the UK recognising Palestine as a state, and what do 135 other countries know that we do not? Is it that we have some special role in negotiations that would preclude recognition from the UK, or must we slavishly follow US policy? Neither argument is credible or moral. Surely we have even more responsibility towards the Palestinians because of our history.
The Palestinians who remain committed to pursuing a peaceful path to a solution have asked that we recognise their right to exist by formally recognising Palestine as a state. It is for them, not us, to judge when that should be done. I say that we should agree—no ifs, no buts—to statehood for the Palestinians, and I will be supporting the motion tonight.
As the chief cheerleader of “Get real, United Kingdom” about our place in the world, I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), and perhaps to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and others who have questioned the importance of this debate, that there having been media bids from France, Turkey, al-Jazeera, Channel 4 and the BBC World Service in connection with this evening—unknown to me—I must say to the House that people are listening to the debate, and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories they will be listening very attentively because of our history.
I am immensely proud to have my name on tonight’s motion after that of the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), and I also support the amendment that was so well tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), and others, which makes the purpose of the motion clearer.
I have been involved with this issue for an awfully long time. Twenty years ago I accompanied my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) when he was the first British Defence Secretary to visit Israel, where he went to deliver the Balfour lecture. We have been reminded on more than one occasion this evening of the second part of the Balfour declaration that has not been delivered. It was a rare period of hope for the Israel-Palestine issue at the time. Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister, the Oslo accords had been signed, yet already the rejectionists were at work. There was a bus bomb in Israel when we were there, and tragically a few months later Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish rejectionist of the Oslo accords. Even in 1996, I recall my right hon. and learned Friend as Foreign Secretary summoning the Israeli ambassador to give him a lecture about the settlements that were beginning to be constructed. That was before the deadline on the Oslo accords, which were supposed to deliver the final settlement arrangements by 1998.
Does not the hon. Gentleman think it is also important to make some reference to the problems facing Palestinian refugees in camps and in the diaspora? They should not be left out of this equation and our recognition will help to bring their cause to the fore.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The right of return will have to be dealt with at some point during the negotiations. In the course of the debate I was delighted to hear the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) and see the scales begin to drop from his eyes, with the latest land grab by the state of Israel. I was slightly surprised by his characterisation of the six-day war as an effort to destroy Israel. It was a brilliant Israeli feat of arms to dissipate what appeared to be a coming threat to Israel, but it certainly was not a response to an attack on Israel.
I will let the lawyers and my hon. Friend come to their own conclusion on that.
My last visit to Israel was with a collection of colleagues from this House to again play cricket for the parliamentary cricket team. I note that the chairman of the Israeli cricket board who entertained us so magnificently—he is a Jew from South Africa who is now an Israeli citizen—said that in his view Israel had begun to lose its moral and legal authority from 1967. Since 1967, we have to understand and consider Israel’s approach to the negotiations and the realities that have been created on the ground. I am afraid that in recent years it has become clearer and clearer that Israeli politicians have avoided the opportunity to deliver a settlement. As the realities on the ground have changed, so it has become more difficult for Israeli leaders to deliver a settlement. The 400,000 settlers in the occupied territories form the most enormous political problem for any Israeli leader to have to address.
I cannot. I am out of time.
Israel now has the existence of the Arab peace plan. It has the offer of full recognition and peace from its Arab neighbours. The Palestinian negotiating position, in the words of Saeb Erekat, is nothing: the Palestinians have nothing to give in the negotiations. The one thing that we can give them by this vote this evening is some moral and legal authority for their position. Even if it is only a small amount of moral and legal authority, it can begin to help the Palestinian moderates face down those who think violence against Israel is an intelligent course of action. Violence has, of course, been an utter and complete disaster for the Palestinian cause. Israel responds, as we have seen in Gaza, with disproportionate force—I use that term advisedly. The explanation for Israeli action simply does not stand the test. The Israeli Government, faced with the political problem it has in bringing a settlement, has all too often not sought to find the ground on which to deliver that settlement. By this vote tonight, we can give the Palestinians, who have had an appalling deal from history, a little bit of moral and legal authority.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on tabling this very important motion. I observe that earlier this evening the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) said that the motion did not matter, that we were just Back Benchers and that it did not come from the Government. I say to him that I am surprised he takes being a Member of Parliament so lightly. I also say to him that no Government can long withstand the settled will of both sides of the House of Commons.
When we have these debates, there is sometimes a tendency to imply that being against any policy of a particular Israeli Government at a point in time makes a person anti-Israel, anti-Jewish and even an anti-Semite. Let me say this: I represent Hackney, one of the historical centres of the Jewish community in this country. We had the oldest synagogue in the country in Brenthouse road, and there is an impressive roll-call of illustrious persons of Jewish origin who came out of Hackney: Moses Montefiore, Nathan Mayer Rothschild, Jack Cohen, Alan Sugar and Harold Pinter. I think that is one of the finest roll-calls in the country, and I deprecate the suggestion that just because somebody disagrees with the Israeli Government at any point, that makes them anti-Israeli. Of course I support the Israeli people and of course I support the right of Israel to exist, and I believe that that is mainstream public opinion. But it is also mainstream public opinion that something must be done to move the peace process forward, because the peace process is effectively stalled, and it is also mainstream public opinion that the public were horrified by what they saw—the sights and the killing—in Gaza over the summer, and I think the British public will be very disappointed if we do not have a decisive vote on these matters today.
It is very easy to call anyone who opposes the views of the Israeli Government an anti-Semite. Does my hon. Friend believe that building a wall and separation barrier on Palestinian land and building settlements that now house some 400,000 settlers is any way forward and gives the international community any confidence that Israel is willing to go through any sort of peace process? Does she also agree that this vote today is going to send a message to the Israeli Government that this Parliament and this country feel very strongly about their attitude towards Palestine?
I entirely agree about both the walls and the continuing proliferation of settlements.
In this debate we have heard what has almost been a mantra from Members opposed to the motion: “Make Palestine a state, but not just yet.” It is absurd for opponents of this motion to argue that it undermines negotiation. There is so much to negotiate, so much to do, so much for both sides to talk about. It is almost disingenuous to say that recognising Palestinian statehood cuts across any negotiation, and the idea that recognition of Palestinian statehood should be conditional or a bargaining chip must be wrong.
I believe that the time for justice for the Palestinians has come and the time to recognise Palestinian statehood is tonight in this House of Commons, and I believe that our own constituents, and above all Palestinians overseas, are looking to this House tonight to do the right thing.
By introducing this motion today, my friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), has given voice to the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people, who have been denied justice for far too long. Like me, he will have watched with horror and anger as an ailing peace process has descended into a cycle of violence, much of it directed at children, and like me he will stand with all those Palestinians and Israelis who reject this, and who understand that every single action taken in anger makes Israel less secure and the prospect of peace for both sides diminish.
The only path to real security lies in political, not military, action, but the political process is failing. I say this to those Members who have sought to argue that the motion would make the situation worse: what are those Palestinians who have remained committed to the peace process meant to say after a summer that left 800 dead and more than 5,000 injured and resulted in yet another announcement from Israel that it is expanding its illegal occupation—and when the product of this process is half a million more settlers in the west bank and the occupied Palestinian territories in recent years, children shackled by the ankles in the military courts, and living with the daily humiliation of life under occupation? They have had 48 years of military occupation; if not today, then when will this country and this House give the Palestinian people the hope that things will get better? Too many Palestinians can see, as I can, that this process is not a negotiation between equals. The current situation, to which the UK remains wedded, allows Israel—in practice if not in principle—a right of veto over Palestinian statehood. In what sense can those negotiations be called meaningful?
This is why I support and welcome the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Equality is an essential precondition for peace. A two-state solution requires two states with equal status. They must be equal partners, with an equal future. It shames us in Britain, with our historical obligation to the Palestinian people, that 135 nations have now taken the step of recognising Palestine while we remain among the handful of states in the United Nations that refuse to join them.
Half the population of Gaza is under the age of 18. Their lives are characterised by suffering, humiliation and despair. As Jonathan Freedland wrote recently, their childhoods have been
“broken by pain and bloodshed three times in the past six years”
while the UK stands by and watches. The UK, not Israel, determines our foreign policy. We are members of the European Union and the United Nations, we are in a special relationship with the United States of America and we are permanent members of the UN Security Council. As such, we occupy a privileged position in world affairs, and it is about time we showed the world why.
It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to contribute to the debate this evening. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing the debate and on enabling the space to be created for such powerful arguments from both sides of the House that tonight is the time for the UK to send a clear message that we recognise Palestine as a state. Those who say that this is just a gesture and that it does not matter what the UK Parliament says are simply mistaken. Our historical position in the world in relation to Israel and Palestine, the fact that we still hold a highly influential position and have a close relationship with the United States, and the foreign policy positions that we have taken over many years, mean that we can now send an incredibly powerful message from this House tonight.
This is the right thing to do morally, but it is also the right thing to do politically. It is important in relation to all our other foreign policy in the region that we should be seen to be even-handed and fair, and that we should no longer be accused of having double standards or of failing to stand up for the Palestinians. We have to give our support to those Palestinians who believe in a political route to self-determination based on non-violent action and international pressure. All too often, those people feel that they have not been given that support by the United States and the United Kingdom.
My constituents gave me a clear message this summer that they did not believe that the Israeli response was proportionate to whatever was happening in Palestine. Between 8 July and 27 August, there were 2,104 Palestinian deaths, including those of 495 children. In that period, there were 72 Israeli deaths, seven of which were civilians. The UK urged Israel to avoid civilian deaths, but made no condemnation of Israeli actions. The then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated on 23 July:
“There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes”.
She also condemned Hamas for “indiscriminate attacks”.
Recognition of the state of Palestine would mean a more regulated relationship between the international community and Israel and Palestine. At the moment, we are not seen as being even-handed. Whatever people in this House might believe, the reality is that we are the ones who are supplying the components for the weaponry being used against the Palestinians. I asked a series of parliamentary questions this summer and did not get any answers out of Ministers, but on 2 August The Independent detailed the weaponry being used against civilians in Palestine that had been produced from components made by the UK—in particular, that being used by drones and tanks against civilian populations. I say to the House that we need to send a clear message tonight that we are even-handed, that we believe in justice and that we recognise the Palestinian state.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing this debate on a matter that is important to many people throughout the UK, Wales and Arfon. My local authority, Gwynedd, has taken a lead in condemning the Israeli Government for the indiscriminate violence used in the recent attacks in Gaza and will not invest in or trade with Israel. Gwynedd sees this debate, and our vote, as a key measure of our concern for Palestine, and of progress on the peace process and on a two-state settlement. That process is vital for both Palestine and Israel alike. People in Palestine who long for progress and peace, and many Israelis, will take encouragement from a positive vote here tonight. For we can vote for politics, for discussions between equals and for an end to war, or we can stall, find excuses and point to the latest outrage. That will help and encourage nobody, other than those who choose the gun, the rocket, the air strikes and the blockade.
Our Government can decide to recognise Palestine. We make our own policy and we are subject to no outside veto. We can recognise Palestine, we can judge that the time is right, and we have a responsibility to seize the opportunity and to wield our influence as a permanent member of the Security Council, as a member of the Quartet, and as the imperial power historically responsible for the mandate. Others today have discussed the history of this question but I will not. I will just say that throughout my adult life there has been war between Israel and its neighbours. We have seen constant invasion, the expropriation of territory by the supporters of war in Israel and, to be clear, repetitive retaliation and a determined cry from the war party, “Not now, not just yet, not until they have stopped it.” That “it” could be bus bombings, hijackings or rockets, but whatever it is at the time we have seen constant blocking and constant concentration on the latest outrage. Those Israelis and Jewish people across the world who work for peace, reconciliation and a just settlement have been sidelined, ignored and worse. Recognition of Palestine by the UK would call time on this constant conflict.
I have heard arguments that the vote tonight will change nothing. We have seen such arguments in an article in The Daily Telegraph today by my close neighbour, who is unaccountably not in his place, the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). He says that the vote is
“non-binding and has no implications for British foreign policy.”
Paradoxically, he says that it will damage decades of hard work towards peace. He says that
“international opinion won’t be swayed by a few squabbling MPs on Britain’s Opposition benches”
but also that the motion
“damages Britain’s role in the Middle East”.
With such confusion and contradiction coming from one opponent—