I beg to move,
That this House has considered the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am pleased to have secured this debate. It is particularly fitting as just a few days ago, on Tuesday 2 November, we marked the beginning of a year of events leading to the centenary of the Balfour declaration —one of the most defining moments in the UK’s shared history with Israel.
On that November day back in 1917, a Conservative Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, gave the official approval of His Majesty’s Government to the Zionist movement’s aspiration for Jewish self-determination. That paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel in their historic homeland following centuries of exile and persecution around the world. This landmark letter, comprised of just three paragraphs, has been the subject of intense historical debate right up to, and I am sure including, today.
The British Government of that day could well be accused of duplicity. Not only were they issuing the Balfour declaration, but they had guaranteed, one way or another, to the Sharif of Mecca and other Arab leaders, that the Arabs would be allowed to have a homeland, so they were either duplicitous or incompetent in 1917.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My understanding is that that challenge has been made, but was refuted strongly by Churchill back in the day.
This landmark letter, comprising just three paragraphs and the subject of our debate today, sets out that aspiration for a Jewish homeland. I am proud that our country supported the establishment of that national home, and I am also proud of the strength of the UK-Israeli relationship. Our partnership in trade, technology, medicine and academia, and our shared values, have flourished in the 68 years of Israel’s young life.
In his letter, Foreign Secretary Balfour pledged to Lord Rothschild, a leading member of British Jewry, that he would “view with favour”, and that His Majesty’s Government endorsed,
“the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
I am glad that the hon. Lady read the letter through. Does she agree that the first part of that equation has been dealt with, which is the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine—not, obviously, the whole of Palestine—and that perhaps concentration for the next immediate period should be on the second part, the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities, which clearly has not been achieved? That should be our priority.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made. Where we might disagree is on reasons why that second aspiration has not come to pass. What is really important about the letter, which has been contested, is that this non-binding Balfour declaration was swiftly endorsed and enshrined in binding agreements ratified by the international community in the San Remo resolution and the Sèvres peace treaty, and was then ratified by all 51 countries of the League of Nations when the British mandate for Palestine was approved in 1922.
Although we are living in a fast-changing world and no treaty at any time is entirely immutable, my hon. Friend, I and many of our colleagues present here today acknowledge the importance—hopefully, the globally acknowledged importance—of the recognition of an Israeli homeland. Although I accept that there is still work to do to ensure that every aspect of the Balfour declaration is put in place, and we will hopefully play a part in that work in the decades to come, it is equally important to recognise that Israel has been a success story and its right to exist should be recognised globally.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reaffirmation that, although Britain led in this regard, that shared, stated intention to see a homeland returned to the Jewish people was supported across the world.
On the subject of leadership, does the hon. Lady agree that, given Britain’s prominent historical role, it needs to play a very active part in trying to find a solution and ensuring that a two-state solution is implemented?
Indeed I do.
The League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, formally recognised, and this is critical to what follows,
“the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine”
“the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country”.
Through its use of the term “reconstituting”, the international community formally recognised the pre-existing ties of the Jewish people to their homeland, in which there had been a continuous Jewish presence for millennia.
A hundred years on and Israel today is a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy where Arabs, Druze and other minorities are guaranteed equal rights under law. Israel’s 1.7 million-strong Arab minority—around 20% of the local population—participates fully in Israel’s political system, and there are currently 17 Israeli Arab members in the 120-seat Knesset. Israeli Arabs serve as university professors, senior police and army officers and heads of hospital departments, and an Arab judge sits in the country’s Supreme Court. Opponents of Zionism and the state of Israel have freedom of speech and are permitted to form political organisations within the country. In fact, Israel is the only country in the world whose Parliament has Members advocating the destruction of the state. Elsewhere in the middle east, minority communities live in starkly different circumstances. The Christian community, for example, is in serious and dramatic decline across much of the middle east because of persecution and oppression, while in Israel Christians enjoy full rights and freedoms. Indeed, Christians make up the largest religious community in Israel after Jews and Muslims, and the holiest sites in Christianity are protected by Israel.
Britain and Israel have an enduring relationship shaped both by our historical ties and by our extensive co-operation and shared interests today. The Prime Minister recently described the relationship between our two countries as remaining
“as strong as ever, based not only on bilateral trade, scientific research and security co-operation, but the values we share, like freedom, democracy and tolerance.”
The value of bilateral trade in both directions over the past 10 years has increased by 60%, and in 2015 reached a record high of almost £6 billion.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She is making an insightful speech but, on the point about trade, does she believe that there should be trade with the illegal settlements or with businesses that are located in the illegal settlements? I ask that particularly because the European Union has recently banned trade with businesses in the Crimea, which, as we know, is an illegally annexed land. Given that there are now 600,000 settlers living in the illegal settlements, and those settlements are clearly—
Order. We will have to have shorter interventions.
I apologise, Mr Chope. My question is—
Order. Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat, please?
On the point about settlements, we need to see a far bigger picture. We are looking to determine today, and in the hereafter, a peace deal whereby Israel and Palestine can live, co-exist, share, prosper and trade with one another. The hon. Gentleman, in focusing on that point, is perhaps neglecting the much bigger picture and the bigger ambition: we want free trade across those borders and security for both peoples and all businesses operating in the region.
I was very pleased with what my hon. Friend had to say about co-operation between Christians, particularly in this country, and the Jewish community. Does she recognise that as well as the trade to which she refers, a huge amount of incredibly important co-operation on security and intelligence is happening between our two countries to make the middle east and, hopefully, the world a safer place in the years to come?
I recognise the great merit in what my right hon. Friend says. In particular, the new relationships in that part of the world—with the peace deals with Egypt and Jordan—are securing much greater stability in the region and, courtesy of that technological advancement, greater security across the world.
The hon. Lady rightly draws attention to the much better relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Is not the key to a sustainable peace that those who are involved in negotiations commit themselves to full recognition of the state of Israel, securely positioned alongside a Palestinian state with international guarantees, and a rejection of the groups that campaign against the existence of Israel? Should not all those who participate in this debate make clear their commitment to that as the starting point of the process?
The right hon. Gentleman’s point is so very well made; that is the starting point and the journey. We would do well to preface all our speeches with the intention that we want to see both sides come together and engage in peace talks for the peace and security of both countries, the region and the world.
Would we not have a two-state solution today if the armies of five Arab states had not invaded the newly independent declared state of Israel in 1948? It is really from that decision that the Palestinians lost their allocated share and their homeland.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. The UN-sponsored partition plan for Palestine in 1947 was a very significant missed opportunity. How different might the region be today and how many lives might have been spared—because there is suffering and loss on both sides—if the Arab leadership had taken up that UN-sponsored partition plan back in the day.
Let me reprise Britain’s ties with Israel and how we feel the benefit of that relationship. Consider, for example, that one in six generic prescription drugs issued by the NHS comes from an Israeli pharmaceutical company. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), announced a few weeks ago that, without these supplies from Israel,
“significant shortages of some medicines important for patient health”
would be likely. Brexit provides us with an opportunity to negotiate a new trade deal with Israel, and I welcome the fact that the Government have already confirmed their determination to secure a deal and further strengthen our trading relationship.
Does Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020 indicate, post-Brexit, that the European Union will still be open not only to Israel, but to Britain in the really important area of scientific research?
Indeed it does; I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
Although the UK’s relationship and ties with Israel are strong and we see Israel’s contribution to our economy, its contribution to the world should also be recognised at this landmark moment. Israel has defied the challenges posed by an arid climate, a small population and security threats to make significant contributions to the advancement of the world. Israeli inventions have transformed the way we live our lives. The algorithm for sending emails, mobile phone technology, technology for anti-virus software, instant messaging and the USB flash drive were all developed in Israel. It is little surprise that so many multinational tech giants have established R and D facilities in Israel. Apple, Windows, Intel, HP, Google and many more all have a presence in a country that is the size of Wales.
From helping refugees in Lesbos to fighting Ebola in west Africa, Israeli aid teams are a common and welcome sight for countries in their time of need. On my visit to Israel last year, I had the great pleasure of visiting Save a Child’s Heart, which is an extraordinary project that provides life-saving surgery for children with cognitive heart defects. The lives of children throughout the developing world have been saved by Israeli doctors. There is much to recognise, value and celebrate.
Did the hon. Lady speak to Palestinians and see what is happening in the west bank? Next year is also the 50th anniversary of a brutal military occupation of someone else’s territory. Until that key point is resolved, we will not have two peoples living together in peace.
I had the opportunity during that visit to meet Palestinians, business leaders and property developers. I saw a development at Rawabi, the likes of which I have never seen before in its scale, scope, vision and ambition. A whole city is rising out of the ground. I have never seen anything so truly astonishing. That place, being built by Palestinians for Palestinians, with 40,000 homes looking to be delivered, is a really positive vision for what the future could look like.
Events to mark the declaration’s centenary began earlier this month and will continue until the 100th anniversary in November 2017. Jewish communal and Israel advocacy organisations have launched an official Balfour 100 campaign, providing helpful educational resources, and will be hosting a series of events. The Prime Minister has expressed her desire to mark the occasion, as has the Minister, and I thank him for his remarks.
However, Israel does not live in peace and security and the Palestinians have not acceded to their own recognised state. As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said earlier, how different things might have been if the Arab leadership, back in 1947, had adopted that UN partition plan. The region could look very different today, with two prosperous states—one Arab, one Jewish—working together and more faithfully reflecting the Balfour aspiration that the civil and religious rights of all be safeguarded.
Over the years, proposals have been rejected for a two-state solution, including, in recent decades, at Camp David at the turn of the century, and more recently, in 2008. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 in an effort to bring more momentum to the peace process. Gifted with a highly educated population and a very beautiful Mediterranean coastline, it has been said that Gaza had the potential to be the Singapore of the east, but rather than being able to seize that opportunity, the Islamist terror group, Hamas, has committed Gazan civilians to ongoing rounds of violence.
When I asked a Palestinian official why several thousand greenhouses had been destroyed during that period, I received the reply, “We were very stupid to do so.” That great opportunity was squandered. Does my hon. Friend agree that that was surprising?
Yes, indeed, that was an opportunity. I think, with the benefit of hindsight, how different things might have been.
Instead of participating in face-to-face talks, the Palestinian Authority have chosen to pursue unilateral measures in the international arena, but unilateralism is the rejection of the peace process, not a means to revive it. Worse yet, the Palestinians remain divided, with fierce internal rivalry between Hamas and Fatah. Following the recent cancellation of the long overdue local elections, it does not seem that the two camps will come together anytime soon.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very difficult to have sensible negotiations on a two-state solution if the other side does not turn up or, indeed, recognise the existence of the other side?
My hon. Friend highlights two essential, beautifully simple truths: there must be mutual recognition and there must be direct talks. Without those, the process cannot move forward. I hope that in this landmark time, the call from us all, with one voice, is to urge both sides to come together again to take up talks.
As the engineers of the Balfour declaration, it is even more important for our country to work with both parties to return to the peace talks. Therefore, I ask the Minister what recent discussions he has had with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts on the return to direct negotiations, and what the prospects are for the resumption of peace talks without preconditions.
The Palestinian people deserve to live their lives in peace and prosperity. As I said during my time in the west bank, I visited the remarkable new city of Rawabi, which offers up such hope for a better future. Very recently—during the summer in fact—new partnerships have been coming forward. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, two new programmes are bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. The lead professor said:
“As a leading academic and research institution, we are committed to advancing science for the benefit of all people. Through this new partnership with the British government, Palestinian graduate students are already contributing to world-leading research at the Hebrew University, and we are delighted to have them with us. This program not only advances science, but through it sends a message of hope and friendship, and of the importance of working together to find solutions that improve the health of our communities.”
Such projects bring hope and show what can be achieved.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the Palestinian people have been badly let down by their leadership? When I spoke to the Palestine Liberation Organisation about duplicating Rawabi, it told me that it did not want anything to do with the project because it involved the private sector. That is a disgraceful approach to a very significant project in the region.
Yes, indeed. I understand that much negotiation was done to bring the project to light without the blessing of the leadership, which perhaps pulls back from wanting the world to see a more prosperous Palestine.
Although leaders need to step up, it is through relationships between everyday people from both communities that a real and lasting peace will ultimately be established. There have been no direct peace talks for several years now, but there have been some recent signs of progress on both sides. We should welcome the fact that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has underlined his commitment to restarting peace negotiations without preconditions, and that PA President Mahmoud Abbas attended the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres in September. Recent polling has shown that there is still an appetite for a two-state solution among Palestinians and Israelis; the people.
We have found in Northern Ireland and other locations across the globe that, until we get to the point at which those who advocate violence or give it quiet endorsement accept that there is no point and that violence is totally counter-productive in reaching a successful conclusion, it is exceptionally difficult to arrive at, in this instance, a two-state solution. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is the case?
The hon. Gentleman is right in everything he says, but peace is possible and there is a precedent for peace in the lasting peace deals with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994.
In conclusion, there is much in the past century to value, recognise and celebrate, and there is much more to which we need to aspire to ensure that the peoples of both communities can continue to live and prosper.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing the debate and on a good set of opening remarks.
This debate gives us the opportunity to reflect on the unique contribution of this country to the creation of the modern state of Israel. There is much to be said about the historical significance of the Balfour declaration, but I will focus my remarks on its significance in the context of today’s stark realities. We are seeing a serious and concerning resurgence of anti-Semitism globally, which more often than not is inextricably linked to a hostility towards the state of Israel. In many quarters, Zionism has become a toxic word that is equated, by some, with the oppression of the Palestinian people. In the recent past, there was a global campaign by Israel’s strongest critics to falsely equate Zionism with racism.
Although it is true—and we should make this point—that some people inappropriately label any criticism of the Israeli state as anti-Semitism, it is also true that hostility towards Israel and Zionism too often consists of language and imagery that crosses a line and becomes anti-Semitism—or, to give it its true name, Jew hatred. This is the case among some on the left in this country including, sadly, a small minority in my party. Such hostility has led to a significant flight of Jews from France, and is a growing problem in many European countries. Too often, anti-Semitism is viewed as a second- class form of racism, and justified or legitimised by many who claim to be staunch anti-racism campaigners, but who abhor Israel and attack Zionism.
It is chilling that, 100 years on from the Balfour declaration, Marine Le Pen has a serious prospect of power in France, and the President-elect of the United States has appointed someone with well-documented anti-Semitic views to a senior position in his forthcoming Administration. Incidentally—it is important to put this on the record—it is equally chilling that misogyny, homophobia and Islamophobia are trivialised as just part of the rough and tumble of an election campaign, as though women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Muslims, Mexicans and other minority communities can simply move on, the morning after an election, and that the anger, fear and insecurity for many citizens in a country that prides itself on being the world’s leading liberal democracy should be relegated to a mere footnote in history. That would be the worst kind of double standard.
No serious attempt to tackle contemporary anti-Semitism can duck the Zionism question. All too often, those who talk about tackling anti-Semitism do not want to recognise that fact. I raised that point forcefully in my direct representations to the leader of my party and Shami Chakrabarti as part of their recent inquiry. Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their own state—a right to self-determination that many of Israel’s fiercest critics demonstrate for on behalf of many other minority communities now around the world.
It is true that a small minority demand, in the name of Zionism, a greater Israel, which means the expansion of her current borders, but that is not the Zionism of the overwhelming majority. I passionately support a two-state solution, which means a viable Palestinian state and opposition to settlement expansion by Israel. I have profound differences with aspects of the current Israeli Government’s policies, but I am proud to be a staunch supporter of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the state of Israel—a right supported by the United Nations in 1947 and enshrined by full recognition in 1949.
That right is in the finest traditions of the Labour party and many socialists who were the pioneers of the modern state of Israel. It was the British Labour party that led the way in supporting the right of Jews to have a homeland in Palestine. Three months prior to the adoption of the Balfour declaration, Labour’s stated policy was:
“Palestine should be set free from the harsh and oppressive government of the Turk, in order that this country may form a free State under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return and may work out their salvation free from interference by those of alien race or religion.”
The party’s then leader, Arthur Henderson, said:
“The British Labour Party believes that the responsibility of the British people in Palestine should be fulfilled to the utmost of their power. It believes that these responsibilities may be fulfilled so as to ensure the economic prosperity, political autonomy and spiritual freedom of both the Jews and Arabs in Palestine.”
This debate is a welcome opportunity to challenge both the rewriting of history and the ignorance of history, a toxic combination that is fuelling so much of today’s anti-Semitism.
Does my hon. Friend, like me, recognise and acknowledge that it was the Labour party that first expressed such support for the creation of the state of Israel and advanced the Balfour declaration? The Labour party went on to re-establish and recommit its support 11 times in the months and years that followed.
My hon. Friend is right. That is a historical fact. The reason for repeating that point is that there are some who talk about a two-state solution, which she and I support, but whose rhetoric and language often appear to be about a one-state solution—and that state is not the state of Israel. Her intervention is an accurate reflection of history, and it is important to make that point in the debate that often rages in our party. It is important to clarify the difference between the two, because people are saying that they want two states when they really want one state. That too often appears to be the language and rhetoric.
This timely debate has given us an opportunity to debate something that is incredibly important, particularly because of the impact in contemporary Britain, in Europe and across the world. To be clear, Zionists have no right to seek exemption for Israel from legitimate criticism of the actions of her Government or to brand those who engage in such criticism as anti-Semitic. Equally, some of Israel’s fiercest critics must not be allowed to get away with the delegitimisation of Israel through the rewriting of history, which seeks to deny the legal and moral basis of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their own state. It is entirely consistent and morally right both to support and celebrate the Balfour declaration and to strongly and passionately support a two-state solution that includes a viable state for the Palestinians.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for securing it. I am a long-time friend of the state of Israel and am proud to be so. I am pleased to say that a significant number of my constituents have been in contact with me about taking part in this debate, and I welcome their input.
As my constituents point out in their emails to me, the Balfour declaration was the first official statement of recognition by a major foreign power of the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, free and safe from persecution. The support that the British gave to the creation of a Jewish democratic state was a key stage in a process that eventually brought relief from two millennia of persecution and exile, as my hon. Friend so eloquently stated.
As we have heard, the Balfour declaration was subsequently ratified by all 51 countries of the League of Nations when the Mandate for Palestine was approved in 1922, recognising the historical connection of the Jewish people to Palestine and the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country. Over the years, many sought and found refuge after the holocaust and the expulsion of some 800,000 Jewish people from across the middle east and north Africa. Since its rebirth in 1948, Israel has sadly been attacked many times and has repeatedly faced existential threats. Despite those threats, Israel is a liberal, pluralist democracy that is committed to working for a peaceful settlement with all its neighbours.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that, despite all the rhetoric about talks or whatever, the people who suffer most greatly from those attacks are the men, women and children, especially the children?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely valid point. As others have said, I fear that the Palestinians have often been let down by their leadership.
It is also important to recognise that Israel is a multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy in which Arabs, Druze and other non-Jewish minorities are guaranteed equal rights under the law. It was a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that Christians enjoy full freedom of religion in Israel, unlike in almost any other part of the middle east. Unlike in many countries of the middle east, the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are fully protected in Israel, which is something to celebrate. Of course, there are a famously independent-minded media in Israel and an equally independent judiciary, both of which are always willing to hold the Israeli Government to account.
This debate is an important opportunity to speak out against those organisations that use boycott campaigns to seek to delegitimise the state of Israel. The 12-month run-up to the centenary of this important declaration provides us with an opportunity to celebrate Israel’s contribution to the global community. It is an opportunity to condemn the sorts of anti-Semitism that we have heard about this morning, and it is an opportunity to reflect on how to restart the peace process in the middle east.
Although hon. Members in this room may be divided on many issues, I am sure we can all unite in supporting efforts to deliver a negotiated peace settlement for Israel and the Palestinians. Throughout the build-up to this important centenary next year, I am sure there will be a strong focus on seeking to get those negotiations going once again, with a view to finally securing the two-state solution for which we have already heard such strong support among hon. Members this morning. We could then finally see a safe and secure Israel living beside a viable Palestinian state.
The centenary is also an opportunity to celebrate the bilateral relationship between the UK and Israel. Since its creation, the state of Israel has had an enduring partnership with our country that covers many areas, including trade, technology, science, medicine and academic research. Trade between our two countries is now at record highs. The UK is Israel’s second-largest trading partner, with more than 300 Israeli companies operating in this country. We have already heard about British-Israeli co-operation in technology, which is facilitating significant numbers of business partnerships that support jobs in both countries in areas such as FinTech, cleantech, cyber-security and health. Israel is a world leader in medical research, particularly stem cell research. Research under way in Israel is giving hope to many people with debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s.
The forthcoming centenary is an opportunity to further strengthen ties between our country and Israel in culture, trade and academic life. Of course, the Brexit decision opens up the opportunity of a trade deal. We should also use the forthcoming centenary to see whether we can make further progress towards a long-term peaceful settlement in the middle east, which continues to be a foreign policy priority for our Government.
I hope the Minister will reassure us on those points. Today’s debate is a reminder of the significant role that the United Kingdom played in the creation of the state of Israel, and with that comes a continuing obligation to do all we can to support efforts to deliver a negotiated settlement so that we can finally see a peaceful outcome and a two-state solution in the middle east.
I welcome this debate. I should perhaps declare that I am a patron of the Balfour Project and explain its purpose:
“The Balfour Project invites the British government and people to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration on 2nd November 2017 by…learning what the Balfour Declaration means for both Jews and Arabs…acknowledging that whilst a homeland for the Jewish people has been achieved, the promise to protect the rights of the Palestinian people has not yet been fulfilled…urging the people and elected representatives of the UK to take effective action to promote justice, security and peace for both peoples.”
I am sure Members will have noted that the Balfour Project is inviting the Government and people of Britain to mark the centenary. I understand why the Jewish community will want to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which enabled the creation of the state of Israel; as someone who has family in Israel, I celebrate that too. Equally, I understand why the Palestinian people will want to grieve or lament on its centenary the failure of the British Government to protect the rights of the Palestinian people, and I will grieve and lament with the Palestinian people too. That is why the Balfour Project talks about “marking” the centenary.
The Balfour Project takes its educational role seriously. To help to inform British citizens of our historical role in that region, it has produced a film about the Balfour declaration, which was shown at an event I hosted in Westminster in May, and a booklet that supports the initiative.
Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in condemning the meeting that his former party colleague Baroness Tonge hosted in the House of Lords, at which the discourse was anti-Semitic? Will he condemn that meeting and his former colleague?
Of course I condemn that meeting. The right hon. Lady rightly described her as my former party colleague; I am pleased that she is no longer a party colleague.
As I understand it, there was no anti-Semitism from the bench at that meeting. It was a question asked from the audience that Baroness Tonge did not even hear. That meeting has been grossly misconstrued, and that is wrong.
I was not present at the meeting either, but as I understand it the comment was made not by Baroness Tonge but by a person in the audience, and Baroness Tonge did not make a blunt statement to rebut it. However, the fact is that she is no longer a member of the Liberal Democrats.
It is our historical role in the region that led me to get involved in the Balfour Project. I had not forgotten the bitterness and anger felt towards the British by the young Palestinians I met some 10 years ago as part of an initiative from the organisation Initiatives of Change. They felt that we had a central role, both in the failure to deliver for the Palestinian people and in trying to ensure that that was now delivered.
How should the UK Government be celebrating, commemorating or marking the centenary? That is obvious. They should fully support any peace initiatives that seek to implement the two-state solution before time runs out. I hope Members will agree that there is a real risk that time will indeed run out. We know that the election of President Trump is unlikely to help with implementing a two-state solution. As far as I am aware, the only game in town, in terms of peace initiatives, is the one that the French are currently running. The Israeli Government have said that they believe the French plan
“greatly harms the possibilities for advancing the peace process.”
I wonder whether the Minister agrees with the Israeli Government on that score.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to express a difference of opinion with the Israeli Education Minister, who says that there is no two-state solution? As far as I am aware, the UK’s position is that that is what our Government are seeking to implement, so I hope the Minister will challenge that statement from a senior Israeli Minister. Is the Government’s position that they want to encourage the Israelis to engage with that initiative in the way that Abbas has? Will the Minister support proposals from that initiative that would lead to greater economic co-operation—that is an area in which Israelis and Palestinians can mutually benefit—or proposals to strengthen ties between Palestinian and Israeli civil society organisations, perhaps as a first step towards a more meaningful peace process?
The UK has a particular historical responsibility towards the Palestinian people. We failed to honour our promises nearly 100 years ago. We have a duty now to actively support the peace process and to secure a viable Palestinian state. That is what our Government must do—indeed, a number of Members have said today that they want the Government to do it. It will be the most effective and meaningful way of marking the Balfour declaration and would mean that in future years its anniversary could be celebrated by both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people.
Order. The wind-ups will start at 10.30 am. The shorter the speeches, the more Members we will be able to accommodate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope—I believe I will have that pleasure again in several weeks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on introducing the debate in such a balanced way.
We should clearly be talking about the celebration of the centenary of the Balfour declaration. I take the point that the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) made, but the meeting that was held in the House of Lords under the auspices of the Palestinian Return Centre was a Balfour apology campaign. The President of the Palestinian state has sought to get Britain to apologise for the Balfour declaration and potentially to sue the British Government for it. That is the context in which we must put the debate.
I have had the opportunity to visit Israel, both as a tourist and with Conservative Friends of Israel. I have also visited Jordan and the west bank with the Palestinian Return Centre, to see both sides of the argument. The reality of life in Israel or the west bank is such that no one should really speak about that part of the world unless they have been there. Israel is the only country in the world in which someone can go to one side of it, see the other and know that they are surrounded by neighbours that want to destroy the state in its entirety. That, of course, leads to the reasons why Israel acts as it does.
We should celebrate the Balfour declaration, but the one element that was not put in it was the borders of the state of Israel. Had those borders been determined at the time, when Britain was drawing lines on maps in many other parts of the world, possibly we would not still be trying to reach the two-state solution that we talk about today. It took three years for the Balfour declaration to be accepted worldwide, but accepted it was. Israel has since had to endure the second world war; the Holocaust; the 1948 war of independence, when it was attacked by Arab states that sought to wipe Israel off the face of the planet on its inception; a war in ’67, when it was invaded again; and a war in ’71, when it was invaded. Yet Israel continues to exist.
During various discussions, we have heard about the Israeli Government’s supposed intransigence. However, Israel has demonstrated that it will give land for peace. The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza left behind buildings and agricultural opportunities that could have been used by the Palestinian people but were just demolished or ignored. The result of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has been more than 11,000 rockets descending from Gaza on to the state of Israel. If you were in that position, Mr Chope, you would react, and the Israeli Government have reacted.
We have also heard the reality of the situation in this country. Anti-Semitism is on the rise; it is often conflated with a belief that the state of Israel should not exist at all or with attacks on the Government of the state of Israel. We have to confront anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head. We must ensure it is understood that it is unacceptable to express such views and that it is unacceptable that anyone in this country should have to suffer anti-Semitism.
We have already heard from several Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), about Israel’s contributions to the world through trade, security, medicine, technology and science. We should remember that Israel is the world’s 10th biggest economy: it is a key trading partner of the UK’s, and beyond. Once we leave the European Union, we will have great opportunities for continuing our trade under a new international trade agreement, and we have the chance to set that out clearly over the next two years.
One issue that has not been mentioned, but should be, is the plight of the Jewish people throughout the middle east. Back in the 1950s, when Israel was in its infancy, there were 2.3 million Jewish people living in Arab states; today, there are fewer than 100,000. They all had to flee Arab states in fear of their lives. We should remember that we are getting greater polarisation of the peoples of the middle east, which is of particular concern.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are countries in the Muslim world that have been very positive about Jews? I am thinking particularly of relatively enlightened countries such as the Kingdom of Morocco, which has always welcomed Jews and treated them extremely well.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. There are clearly exceptions to the rule, but the unfortunate generality is that the Jews have had to flee.
We look forward to a two-state solution, but we should remember that the Palestinian state has never existed as an independent state; it has always been occupied, either by Jordan, the Ottoman empire or someone else. We are therefore creating a state, and when we do so, we must ensure that there is peace, security on all sides, and an opportunity for everyone to live in peace.
We are running out of time with the Obama Administration, from which I suspect we will not see any movement between now and January, when we will have a new President of the United States. Will the Minister ensure that the Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are negotiating with the incoming regime in the States on initiating urgent talks between Israel and the Palestinians that can lead to that two-state solution? That would give us the opportunity, during the anniversary of the Balfour declaration, to have real, meaningful talks, without preconditions, with the Israeli Government and the Palestinians sitting down side by side so that everyone can benefit.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for presenting the case so well. I am conscious of the time and know that other Members wish to speak, so I shall try to be brief.
I am well known as a friend of Israel; indeed, in my former role as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, I sponsored the Stormont Christian Initiative, which had a strong focus on Israel. The historic ties that began with the Balfour declaration still bring dividends some 99 years later. Other Members have outlined our close economic ties with Israel—our bilateral trade is worth £5 billion and has doubled over the past 10 years—but I want to celebrate our country’s historical contribution to the modern state of Israel. I also want to celebrate the contribution that this tiny country on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea has made to the world.
The formal recognition of the right to an internationally established homeland for the Jews was one of the more interesting developments to arise at the end of the first world war. The Balfour declaration was clear: it was the first statement of recognition by a major foreign power of the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in their homeland, free and safe from persecution. It is good news that Christians can worship freely and without fear of persecution in Israel.
Since its rebirth in 1948, Israel has been attacked many times, and faces many threats daily.
It is worth reminding the House that in 1922 the League of Nations overwhelmingly ratified the Balfour agreement—it was unanimous.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
I can well remember the six-day war from when I was a boy. It will always stick in my mind as the underdog holding fast and winning the battle. I remember listening to the radio and my parents discussing what was happening. It was one of those things: from a very early age, I could understand that this fight would seem always to exist.
A debate such as this could easily degenerate and make the motion appear anti-Palestinian, but that is not what it is about. We are celebrating the declaration that was instrumental in the Jews being allowed to establish an internationally recognised homeland. The debate is about recognising the formalisation of the right for that area of the middle east to be asserted as their homeland—as the Israel we all know from biblical times.
The policy expressed in the declaration—the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine—became binding in international law following the 1920 San Remo conference and the 1922 British mandate from the League of Nations, which was referred to earlier. UN resolution 181 reinforced the state of Israel’s acceptance into the family of nations following the 1948 war of independence.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the motion is not anti-Palestinian; it is quite the opposite. Does he agree that the centenary is an opportunity to encourage both sides to get together and look towards a formal peace process?
That is absolutely what it is about. We are positive about this debate, and that is what we are trying to achieve.
I have spoken many times in the House about the benefits of our being allies with Israel, along with the trade that other Members have referred to. Think of the pharmaceuticals, technology, cyber-security and research. Israel has made new drugs for Parkinson’s sufferers; an implantable bio-retina that stimulates neurons to send messages to the brain; and a new plasma that amazingly eradicates the need for stitches, staples or glue. Those are some of the things that Israel does, and does well.
Israel is a nation that can do so much for the rest of the world. It should be allowed to carry out that work free from the prejudice and the cloud of distrust that so often surrounds it. I spoke on anti-Semitism in the House two years ago; it is unfortunate that it is still to be found, including in the so-called boycott of Israeli products. If people only knew what they would be doing without, they would think seriously about that.
Along with so many colleagues, I am anticipating the plans that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will bring forward for the commemoration of this historic event. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Before my hon. Friend concludes, does he agree that one thing we found in the Northern Ireland peace process, from which many lessons have been drawn, was that growing economic prosperity for everyone makes a major difference? Boycotts and economic sanctions, and all that kind of talk, damage the prospects for peace.
My right hon. Friend and colleague has very wise words, and they are important to listen to.
I stand today in celebration of the Balfour declaration and its historic impact. Furthermore, I stand today in celebration of Israel, and in continuing solidarity with her in her struggle to be allowed to exist and to provide safety and security to Jews and non-Jews alike.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this tremendous debate.
In the few minutes I have, I shall explain a little of the reasoning behind the Balfour declaration. It is unusual because it was not a settlement or reaction to any kind of nationalist war or terrorist activity, in the way we are now used to; rather, it had its roots in lobbying carried out in the Parliaments of Europe, mainly by the bourgeoisie and aristocrats. Herzl and Lord Rothschild would have been seen as pretty distant characters to, say, their Polish ghetto co-religionists, who were much more likely to follow the socialist kibbutz-type Zionism that eventually had an important role in the practical settlement of the new state.
What actually happened? What did Herzl do that made such different Jewish characters and political creeds all move generally in the same nationalist direction? Herzl was the first person to explain how Europe’s Jews were not only individually or nationally in peril, but internationally at risk. In less than a decade he persuaded most Jews of most classes and political views that, whether or not they as individual Jews wished to live in Europe, the Jews’ collective future depended on their once again having their own independent nation on their own soil. He suggested that the concept of Jews as a wandering diaspora should be replaced with Jews being allowed to lead the life of normal people, with all the rights, benefits and, indeed, challenges that go with that.
Herzl died in 1904, some 13 years before the declaration, but the dream he created was that of a functioning Jewish homeland, and it was that dream that brought the Jews out of the ghetto culture and mentality and out of the ghetto language of Yiddish, and that brought many of them physically out of the ghettos and into Israel. The dream empowered Jews as human beings; it permitted them to be proud to stand up for their rights with a united destiny, based on shared religious and cultural values, not least the rebirth of the spoken Hebrew language.
It was that Zionist movement that increasingly persuaded world leaders to understand that Jewish homelessness must come to an end and that the solution was down to the international community and world leaders, working together with the Jewish people.
That was the spirit of recognition encapsulated in the Balfour declaration, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne explained so well, was then incorporated into the Sèvres peace treaty with the Ottoman empire and finally the UN resolution that established the state of Israel. It is for this reason that Jews around the world highly valued the Balfour declaration then and it is why I believe it should still be celebrated now by those who understand or accept the then Zionist dream, now reality of a Jewish homeland in Israel.
I commend the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for initiating what I am sure will be a year of these discussions.
I have the honour to represent East Lothian, which, of course, was the seat that Arthur Balfour represented in this House. His name is still very much alive in East Lothian. I visited Whittingehame, where he lived and where—I think—there were Cabinet meetings occasionally in the long recess. Whittingehame also became the home to around half of the Kindertransport children who came to the UK in 1939. They were sent to Whittingehame because the Balfour family had turned it into a farming school and during world war two the children there learned farming skills. Many of them then went to Palestine in the late 1940s and were involved in the kibbutz movement. I therefore have an affinity with this subject.
It is right that we should mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, but I use the word “mark” very carefully, rather than “celebrate”. It is an important historical moment in time but it is—and this is my basic point—unfinished business. The declaration foresaw not only one homeland for the Jewish people but that the rights of other people and other growing nationalities in the region would be protected. Clearly, that has not happened. So the underlying message, and the thing that we can give to history and the peoples of the middle east in the next 12 months, is to reanimate the peace process, so that we end up with two states.
I am just back from a week in the middle east as part of the first Scottish National party delegation to Israel and Palestine, and I have returned with a number of thoughts. Above all else, as my hon. Friend said, it is absolutely vital that we do everything we can to support progress towards a sustainable two-state solution for these two peoples. Does he agree?
I do indeed. Given the time, however, I will not take further interventions. Please do not think that I am being disrespectful to other Members.
I will comment very briefly on the two-state solution. The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) made the point in his speech that sometimes the two-state rhetoric hides other agendas. On behalf of the SNP, I will be very plain: we are genuinely supportive of a two-state solution. In fact, finding that solution is the key to Israel’s security.
For good or ill, Israel has decided in recent decades that its security is basically based on force of arms. As the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), said, time is running out for that approach. I had the great opportunity to have conversations with Ariel Sharon while he was still Prime Minister about the whole issue of Israel’s security. As an old general, he tended to look at things in military terms and his explanation to me was that the extension of the west bank settlements and the maintenance of an Israeli security zone within the west bank was necessary, as he put it, to protect the tank avenues through which tank thrusts from Syria or Iraq would come into Israel and cut it off very quickly. That is because, as we know, the narrow waist of Israel is tiny and it is possible to get a tank thrust through there very quickly.
Does anyone in this Chamber really think that Syria or Iraq, or any of the other major states in the middle east, are in any sense capable, as we speak, of taking on Israel militarily, or even politically? Of course they are not. Therefore, Israel has a security window where it can produce a two-state solution. That is where we have to go. My question to the Minister is this: how will the British Government use this 12 months to ensure that that happens, because Britain has a responsibility?
The Balfour declaration is not quite as it has been presented today. It is a studiously ambivalent document and quite deliberately so, because Britain and France had decided to exclude the Ottoman empire from the Wilson principles, expressed at Versailles, of self-determination. The middle east was not given self-determination; it was carved up by the British and French for their own political and economic ends.
That remained the case all through the time of the British mandate. It is very strange—I say this because I want to try to find as much common ground here as possible—that in all the speeches we have had this morning, nobody has strayed into the territory of what happened during the time of the British mandate, when both the Jewish people and the Arab people rose in revolt against the way that Britain had handled its mandate. In fact, in 1948—sadly, in my view—Britain walked away from the mandate, leaving a mess. That was because the British mandate was not seen as a way of bringing two peoples to self-determination; it was a way of securing Britain’s military presence in the canal zone and in the middle east as oil production developed.
The Balfour declaration is nowhere near as selfless as it has been presented here today. It was part of a chain of diplomatic initiatives that Britain had, which broke up the old Ottoman empire. Anybody who sensibly looks at the state of the middle east now would say that those interventions made things worse rather than better. If we recognise that, we will be in a position morally—I say this to the Minister—to begin to come back and to say how we can provide some redress for the political and economic disaster that we caused in the middle east. We have a debt of honour, because of the Balfour declaration. If the declaration means anything to anybody, it means unfinished business.
That is as far as I think we should go in history. If we start picking over every single piece of “who did what?” over the last hundred years, we will not get anywhere; I say that humbly to Government Members. A lot has been made in a number of speeches about 1948, when it is absolutely clear that the UN declared a mandate for two nations within a particular map. That project foundered in the first Arab-Israeli war. However, if we mention that war and if we say that the Arab states were wrong to intervene in 1948 and should have respected the UN mandate, we are duty-bound—I put this to the hon. Member for Eastbourne—to accept all the other UN mandates and security resolutions. Those are the 12 UN Security Council resolutions that condemned the illegal settlements on the west bank.
I have also met the current Prime Minister of Israel; I talked to him and I understand his position of wanting talks without preconditions, which is a fair point to make. However, if Israel, while it is waiting for negotiations without preconditions with the Palestinians to begin, is expanding the illegal settlements—I use the word “illegal” because they have been condemned as illegal by the British Government and the UN Security Council—its good faith is called into question, and we need good faith somewhere in this debate.
I will finish by saying, “Let’s mark the Balfour declaration”, but the only way of marking it is to finish the process that it started, which will end in two states and the recognition of a Palestinian state.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing the debate as part of the commemorations marking the centenary of the Balfour declaration. As we have heard, the 1917 declaration signalled the beginning of Britain’s official support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.
Even before the famous letter from Lord Balfour to Walter Rothschild, the Labour party supported that commitment. The war aims memorandum, which was adopted by the inter-allied Labour and socialist conference in 1918 and quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) today, stated:
“Palestine should be set free...in order that this country may form a free State, under international guarantee, to which such of the Jewish people as desire to do so may return”.
Labour’s first Cabinet Minister, Arthur Henderson, outlined his support at the time of the war aims memorandum, stating:
“The British Labour Party believes that the responsibility of the British people in Palestine should be fulfilled to the utmost of their power. It believes that these responsibilities may be fulfilled so as to ensure the economic prosperity”—
that picks up some of the points made earlier—
“and spiritual freedom of both the Jews and Arabs in Palestine.”
That support for the state of Israel has been at the core of the Labour party’s foreign policy since those early days. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) alluded to, between 1917 and 1945 support for Zionism was expressed at Labour party conferences on no fewer than 11 occasions. We stand in solidarity as we mark the 100 years, and we stand firmly against anyone who questions Israel’s right to exist.
Both Israel and Palestine have a right to exist. Does the Minister agree that the UK Government should now join the 70% of the other member states and recognise a Palestine state?
I believe that the Minister will answer that point shortly. The Labour party supports a comprehensive peace in the middle east: a permanent and long-term peace based on a two-state solution. That is a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine, respecting the boundaries as outlined in UN resolution 242 from 1967. Violence against Israel in any form is unacceptable and can never be justified. It represents a mortal threat to any peaceful, long-term solution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South said, any hatred of Jewish people is anathema, wherever it is found.
At a time when peace is also under threat from the retroactive legalisation of settler outposts in the west bank and the prospect of new settlements in the west bank, we must continue to reiterate the importance of the Israeli Government remaining committed to the two-state solution.
Does the shadow Minister not think we should do more than just issue platitudes about the illegal settlements and the fact that outposts are now being legalised by the Israeli Government? Firm action needs to be taken.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but I beg to differ: these are not platitudes; I am stating a position. Anyone who has visited the area knows this is a very sensitive topic that needs to be dealt with carefully without inflammatory language.
Is it not important to offer practical support to projects for peaceful coexistence, such as Save a Child’s Heart, the Peres Centre for Peace and Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow? Those organisations are showing the lead in terms of the spirit of Balfour and the peaceful coexistence we all want between Palestinians and Israelis.
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the economic element. If we could somehow provide better livelihoods for people across the area, we would make some gains, but there are real barriers to proper economic development within various communities in the area. Any charitable work that is done to promote that development should be welcomed.
Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are unlawful under international law. The continued demolition of Palestinian structures undermines the Palestinian communities’ ability to develop socially and economically. That in turn undermines the viability of a future Palestinian state. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)—he is no longer in his place—pointed out, the Balfour declaration also made the commitment that
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
We have heard about the Christian community today. We have supported and honoured Lord Balfour’s commitment to create a national home for the Jewish people. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) said, it is now incumbent on us all to honour the second part of the declaration. My right hon. Friend is no longer in his place, but he said we need international guarantees. I look forward to hearing how the Minister interprets the concept of the international guarantees. We need to ensure the rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine.
As we approach the centenary of the Balfour declaration, the Labour party is glad to commemorate that historic anniversary. We express our continued support for the state of Israel. We remain committed to seeing the achievement of lasting security, stability and peace in the region. However, we find ourselves in something of a deadlock with the peace process. The Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan), referred to that earlier. Will the Minister enlighten Members as to what the Government are doing to rejuvenate the moribund approach to peace in this critical area of the middle east?
There are enough progressive forces on all sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict to shift the debate away from extreme and entrenched positions and towards that lasting peace. As we always have done, we will continue to do our part to support that process, to help ensure that the two-state solution becomes a genuine reality and to deliver the full intent of the Balfour declaration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I begin, as others have, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this important debate. It is an honour to be able to respond to a debate on the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which is the letter written on 2 November 1917 by the then Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community.
If I may, I will place in context today’s instability and conflict, which goes back beyond 100 years. Arguably it goes back thousands of years, because this complex part of the world—it is often referred to as the cradle of civilisation—forms the crossroads of three continents. Along the riverbanks, oases and coastlines, we saw the start of humanity, where we harnessed the skills of farming, writing and trading and built the first cities. This complicated real estate gave the world the three great monotheistic religions whose values underpin much of the morality of the world today.
Successive civilisations—the superpowers of their day, whether the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Romans, the Byzantines or the Ottomans—sought ownership of these tribal areas, the rich trade routes and the holy sites. With the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the great war, it was Britain’s turn as the occupying power to manage this complex, multilingual, multi-faith tribal land. Britain was motivated by a range of ambitions at the time—some altruistic and some self-interested. The decisions and influences made then continue to provoke intense discussion today, whether that is the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour declaration, the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, or Britain’s general role in shaping the middle east.
The Balfour declaration is part of our history that some celebrate and some condemn. It did not create the state of Israel, but it was a stepping stone along the way. When Theodor Herzl was writing his vision of Zionism in the late 19th century, the preference was for a Jewish homeland in the biblical land of Israel, and that movement grew. That land, which included Jerusalem and the meeting point of the three Abrahamic religions, became a destination for Jewish migration, first under the Ottoman empire, then under the British mandate, and finally after the establishment of the Israeli state.
The Balfour declaration played a part in that story, but like so much foreign policy, it was a product of its age. It was written in a world of competing imperial powers, in the midst of the first world war and in the twilight of the Ottoman empire. Many people believe that establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do. It is for historians to assess the declaration in that context, and it is for Ministers to deal with today. Balfour’s 67 words are dissected and analysed, and that has happened today, but it was a statement of intent, rather than a detailed plan. The details came later, in the San Remo agreement of 1920 and in the League of Nations mandate for Palestine in 1922. The Israeli state was established after the end of Britain’s mandate.
The Balfour declaration had its flaws. It called for the protection of the
“civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
It should have protected their political rights, too, most especially their right to self-determination: a right that underpins the British commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We will mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration next year. Planning is still at an early stage, but I want to make it clear that we will neither celebrate nor apologise.
We will not apologise, for the UK is a diverse country in which the historical show of support for the world’s Jewish community means a great deal to many people. We continue to support the principle of a Jewish homeland and the modern state of Israel, just as we support the critical objective of a Palestinian homeland. Nor will we celebrate the centenary as others have called on the British Government to do. The seriousness of the situation faced by millions still affected by the conflict is testament to the fact that the achievement of Jewish and Palestinian self-determination in the former British mandate of Palestine is a task as yet unfulfilled. I remain conscious of the sensitivities surrounding the declaration and the events that have taken place in the region since 1917.
We cannot change the past, but we can strive to influence the future. It is approaching 100 years since the Balfour declaration, and, as has been mentioned by hon. Members, it is 50 years since the occupation began. It is 70 years since UN resolution 181 in 1947 first proposed partition and the end of the British mandate. It is 23 years since the Oslo accords and 16 years since the Camp David discussions. It is 25 years since the Madrid talks and 18 years since the Wye River discussions. All those were opportunities when stakeholders were brought round the table to seek a long-term solution, and still that eludes us.
Will the Minister comment on the recent French Government initiative?
I will come to that shortly.
Agreements and gatherings have come and gone and we have not been able to make progress, but let us turn to the south and see the deal that took place 36 years ago between Israel and Egypt and, further to the west, with Jordan in 1994, 22 years ago. That proves what can happen when sides come together, conflict stops, war is put aside and strong leadership comes together. The relationship between Israel, Egypt and Jordan is to be commended. It shows that deals can be struck regardless of what has happened in the past.
Does the Minister agree that leadership from Britain must include British values? There are more than 3,000 British graves in Gaza’s cemeteries. Does he agree that British values include protecting refugees and children, hence the right to return for refugees and protection of children in courts?
I do. I will come on to what Britain is doing in the occupied territories in the west bank and Gaza as well as in Israel if time permits.
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a highly emotive issue, as has been expressed today. Israel has achieved statehood while the Palestinians have not. The UK Government are very clear that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is unacceptable and unsustainable. In the long term, it is not in Israel’s best interest for the status quo to continue. If this is to be a homeland for the Jewish people, the demographics show that there will be an imbalance in the next few years. More than 40,000 Palestinians are helping to provide security in Areas A and B. Were that to be removed—were the Palestinians to give up—it would be up to the Israelis to provide that security. Is that a direction we would want to go in? Is that the path that we would want to go down or even test? It is in everybody’s interests not to believe in the status quo but to work towards a two-state solution.
Not everyone will be happy with the Government’s position on the anniversary of the Balfour declaration. I fully accept that. Some will want to celebrate the anniversary unreservedly and will see our position as insufficient. Some will condemn it. They will want us to make the apology and will consider marking the anniversary improper. There is no denying the document’s significance. I hope that it will not be used as a vehicle to incite violence or distract us from taking the steps we need to take to secure the two-state solution.
Will the Minister use his next four minutes or so to set out a concrete UK Government initiative that he will be driving to ensure we achieve the two-state solution?
I will lead up to that towards the end. I intend to make such points.
An awful lot of effort, noise and concern have been expressed about the Balfour declaration and its 100th anniversary. I would hate it to be seen as an excuse to incite further violence. We need to learn from the past, but work towards the future. A future with prosperity and security is what the Israelis and Palestinians want. On a personal note, it has been three years leading to the right hon. Gentleman’s point and it has been a privilege to be the Minister for the middle east. In those three years, the British Government, the Foreign Secretaries and I have been fully committed to doing what we can in leveraging our support and our influence to bring the parties to the table.
I have sat through a series of meetings in New York at the UN General Assembly and in Paris at the summit that took place there, and I asked who the leaders will be, given that so many years have passed since Oslo, Madrid, Wye River and Camp David. When will we finally find the solution, get an accord in place and recognise the two states? Of all my briefs and challenges, this has been the toughest and most frustrating in not being able to make progress. In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, at the moment we seem further away than ever from bringing the parties together. We are not seeing the leadership on the Palestinian side that would invoke the necessary measures of support to bring people to the table. On the Israeli side, it makes it much tougher to defend our friend and ally when we see the continuing building in the settlements.
I certainly hope that in the absence of moving closer to a solution, there will be a new opportunity with the new Administration in the United States. I ask the new Administration, as they settle in, to consider what needs to be done. Other issues across the world have come and gone. We have had conflict in the Balkans, the Berlin wall has come down, yet we now have new issues coming to the fore: Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Other problems can be solved, yet still the middle east peace process eludes us. I ask the United States to work with the international community, along with the Israelis and Palestinians. Let us recognise the 100-year anniversary, but let us mark 2017 not by what has happened in the past and the fact that it has been 100 years, but by what we can achieve for the future.
As I had envisaged, the debate has been lively with passion on all sides. It really struck me when an hon. Member talked about grieving and lamenting. Today we can all grieve and lament the lives that have been lost and the conflict that we have seen, but I hope too that we can all see what has come forward and positively affected the world in the creation of the state of Israel and the justice that has been served there. I hope we can all with one voice urge again the resumption of direct peace talks that stand steadfastly in the interests of the people of Israel and Palestine.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.