[Ian Austin in the Chair]
I have only recently been appointed to the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs and have not done this before, so bear with me until David Crausby, who should be the Chair, arrives.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
I did not turn up for my previous Westminster Hall debate because I was stuck on the tube, so there is something about me and Westminster Hall debates that does not seem to work. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin.
It has been almost a year since we last convened in this place to discuss the landmark anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. It is my pleasure to reflect once more on the words of a Conservative Foreign Secretary that ultimately led to the re-establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. In his letter dated 2 November 1917, Foreign Secretary Balfour informed Lord Rothschild, a leading member of the UK’s Jewish community, that
“His Majesty’s government view with favour 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”.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Not in the middle of the quote. The letter continues:
“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 congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I was keen to intervene because I am so excited by the quotation. Does he agree that one reason for Britain being one of the greatest countries in the world is people like Arthur Balfour, who recognised that the Jewish people needed a homeland after hundreds of years of being denied one, and that Israel is a place of democracy, aspiration, scientific achievement and refuge?
I certainly do recognise that. Only two days ago, I finished reading a book by Rev. Leslie Hardman, who, as my right hon. Friend may know, was the first Jewish chaplain to enter Belsen. He was a constituent of mine until his death in 2008. In his biography, he talks about the people who were in the camps and how they felt that, after the second world war, Europe was not a place for them. They desperately wanted a homeland called Palestine then. Anyone who reads that book will be aware of the need then and the continuing need now for the democratic and free state of Israel.
I compliment the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and particularly on the complete nature of the quotation. Is this not also an opportunity to reflect on the second part of the declaration, about the obligation to the Palestinian people? Does it not behove us to pressure the British Government to honour that commitment and recognise Palestine and the rights of Palestinians?
That is a very constructive intervention. I certainly agree, and I hope to discuss that as my speech progresses. I thank the hon. Gentleman and hope that the debate continues in that spirit.
In a mere 67 words, the United Kingdom set in motion a chain of events that led to the historic birth of Israel, one of the world’s most vibrant democracies. The United Kingdom has a lot to be proud of, and I welcome repeated statements by this Government and by the Prime Minister, including today at Prime Minister’s Question Time, that we will mark the centenary with a sense of pride. It is particularly symbolic that our Prime Minister has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to London to share our celebrations for this very special occasion. One hundred years on, the UK-Israel relationship is stronger than ever, with our shared commitment to the values of liberalism, democracy and freedom.
Something that struck me when my hon. Friend was reading out the quotation, and a reason we can have some pride, is that it is very balanced and talks about both the right of Jewish people to have a homeland and the rights of non-Jewish people. To pick up on the intervention from the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), does my hon. Friend agree that the right way to proceed is direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians together, to get to a two-state solution? That is the only way it will happen.
Perhaps I should investigate whether there is something on WikiLeaks, because two Members now have intruded upon issues I wished to attend to as part of my speech. I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend. A peace process should involve both parties; neither should be absent, and talks should not be sought when one party is absent.
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is it not also true that we will not get to a peaceful situation if people attend events, for example, where individuals hold signs or sing, “From Jordan to the sea, Palestine will be free”? Must we not remember the loss of citizenship and the pogroms that happened to the Jewish people in the Arab world between 1948 and 1972 and mark that during this centenary year too?
I can only agree with that sentiment. Once again, I will come on to that in my speech.
I am someone who comes from a divided society and a place that has had its own conflict resolution issues and, indeed, successes. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the double problem Israel faces is not only internal divisions but the fact that it lives in a very bad neighbourhood, which adds to and accentuates its problems? It is up to Israel’s neighbours to help Israel by acknowledging its right to exist. If we are to have a peace process, people must accept the fundamental principle that they have to stop killing and attacking Israelis.
That is a very sensible contribution, and I am grateful for it, particularly given the hon. Gentleman and his family’s experience of the troubles in Northern Ireland.
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
Thank you, Sir Roger, and welcome to the Chair, Sir David. It certainly is a revolving Chair this afternoon.
I feel that there is much more to our deep bilateral relationship with Israel than just shared values. It is one that benefits all our peoples. Over the past 10 years, the value of our bilateral trade has increased by over 60%, and last year it was worth a record £5.5 billion.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although trade with Israel is excellent, trading with businesses based in the illegally occupied territories of the west bank should be sanctioned?
I am afraid I do not agree with that at all. Some of those businesses, including SodaStream, are providing opportunities for employment to the people in the occupied territories—opportunities for employment that do not exist elsewhere—and a lot of those people are remunerated to a higher level than their peers and neighbours who are not similarly employed.
In celebrating the Balfour Declaration, does my hon. Friend agree that Britain can be proud to have played its part in creating a nation which rose out of the desert to become an innovator and world leader in many areas, including technology, agri-science, cyber-tech and medicine, and that the world has benefited from Israel’s development?
I agree that that is something we can be proud of. Those of us who have visited Israel and its tech hub and universities see the innovation and advancement in biochemical technologies, medicine and a range of sciences that is happening in a place that, not long ago, was simply desert, as my hon. Friend says.
I shall move on with my speech, but I will take further interventions shortly.
The work of the UK-Israel working group highlights the importance of our trade relationship. I hope that Israel will be one of the first countries that the United Kingdom signs a free trade deal with when we eventually leave the European Union. Israel’s and Britain’s security services are working around the clock to keep us safe in our fight against the threat posed by Islamic terrorists, and our scientists work together to find cures to the world’s deadliest diseases. An Israeli company, Teva, provides more medicines to the NHS than any other supplier.
Instead of boycotts, sanctions and other measures that drive people apart, is not the answer to promote dialogue, build trust, encourage negotiation, and promote economic development, trade and investment in the west bank? Are not prosperity, trade and jobs the building blocks of the peace process?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Boycotts are divisive, counterproductive and harm everyone. The way forward, as he says, is through trade.
I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he supports trade with settlements that are illegal under international law, which is discouraged by his own Government. To fulfil the second part of the Balfour Declaration, regarding non-Jewish communities, do we not need to follow international law and end the occupation?
We will certainly follow international law, but we do not want to negotiate and work with people who wish to see the destruction of Israel. Hamas is a leading proponent of that—part of its foundation is that it does not want the state of Israel to exist. I would not agree with negotiating or working with Hamas. We will work with the Palestinian authorities and others who are actually seeking the best for their people, rather than murdering their own people, as Hamas has done in the past.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the reason for the occupation was Israel surviving the war of 1967, which was unleashed by Arab forces, and that the Khartoum conference at the end of 1967 issued declarations of no recognition and no peace? Is not that the cause of the occupation? Does he agree that the way to resolve it is by direct negotiations on the way to securing two states for two peoples, Palestine and Israel?
I agree, and I will come on to what happened in 1948 and again in 1967. It is often forgotten that Israel has not been the aggressor. Others have decided that they want to attack Israel, and Israel has decided to defend herself.
We should remember that the original UN partition plan of 1947 proposed a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The great tragedy is that, instead of allowing that to be established at the same time, five Arab countries chose to invade Israel on day one.
They did, and the people who were harmed the most were those who fled the fighting, many of whom were Palestinians and others who had resided in Israel and no longer do—a point I will come on to.
There can be no doubt that Lord Balfour would have been proud of the unbroken bond between Israel and the United Kingdom that we share today. Since its inception, the state of Israel has stood as a bastion of freedom and democracy in a region where liberties cannot be taken for granted. By accepting the United Nations’ partition plan for Palestine in 1947 and absorbing up to 200,000 Arabs who remained in Israel after the war of independence in 1948, the Jewish leadership upheld Balfour’s principle of protecting the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish population. Their descendants today make up Israel’s 1.7 million-strong Arab minority, forming over 20% of Israel’s population. Today there are 17 Arab Members in the Knesset, out of 120—that is an increase from 12 in the last Parliament.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that the Balfour Declaration comes in three parts, not two? The first part is about a national home for the Jewish people. The second part is about protecting the civil and religious rights of Palestinians. The third part is about protecting the political status of Jews in any other country. That is not what the Arabs have done.
I agree with that understanding of the declaration, but I will move on.
Arabic is Israel’s official second language—I thought it was English. Many of the road signs are in Hebrew and Arabic. Just like all Israelis, the Israeli Arab community have freedom to practise their faith. The Palestinians today refer to Israel’s war of independence as “al-Nakba”, meaning the catastrophe, when an estimated 750,000 Arabs fled from the fighting. While there is much debate about their reasons for leaving, the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, David Ben-Gurion, had called on all Arabs within Israel to stay and live as equal citizens in a Jewish state. While Israel protected those Arabs who remained, the neighbouring Arab nations refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees; instead, they confined them to refugee camps and have denied them citizenship to this day.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the reason why a lot of Palestinian refugees and their descendants do not have citizenship in any other country is that they rightly consider themselves to be Palestinian and they will not accept citizenship of any country other than their own? They are not being refused citizenship; they are declining to take it—they are holding out for their right to be citizens of their own homeland, just as we enjoy that right here.
I do not accept that at all.
I’m sure you don’t!
If the hon. and learned Lady is so sure, perhaps she can read the rest of my speech, but in the meantime I shall carry on.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not.
It is all too often overlooked that Balfour’s second condition, that the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country must not be prejudiced, was almost entirely ignored by neighbouring states. Over 800,000 Jews were expelled from countries in the middle east and north Africa following the United Nations decision to partition Palestine in 1947. More than 200,000 found refuge in Europe and north America, while almost 600,000 were successfully resettled in Israel. These Jewish refugees were absorbed as citizens and their contribution to society is well known today.
While those Jewish refugees have been forgotten by the world, there have been over 170 UN resolutions on Palestinian refugees and 13 United Nations agencies and organisations have been mandated or created to provide protection and relief for them. Today, Palestinian refugees are the only refugee population in the world whose status includes subsequent generations, with 5 million people defined as Palestinian refugees. To put that into context, the number of Palestinian refugees alive who were personally displaced in the 1948 war of independence is estimated to be 30,000.
It is only right that the UK should use this landmark moment to give fresh impetus to the stalled peace process and support the resumption of direct peace talks without any preconditions. That remains the only way to complete the vision for two states and two peoples. As the architect of the Balfour declaration, Britain retains a key role in this process. I applaud the Government’s principled stand at the Paris peace conference earlier this year when they asserted that international conferences without the involved parties cannot achieve peace. Only direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians will result in the two-state solution that we all agree with.
Just as the Jewish people have a legitimate claim to the land, so too do the Palestinians, who deserve a sovereign state of their own. A viable, thriving Palestinian state could offer much to the region. With the highest education rates in the Arab world and the potential for a seaport in Gaza trading with the world, a sovereign Palestinian state would have enormous potential, living in peace alongside a safe and secure Israel. The two countries could be a dynamo for great growth in the area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In 2015, I had the opportunity to tour Rawabi in the west bank. Does he agree that Rawabi gives us a glimpse of what a future Palestinian state could look like and aspire to?
Yes, I do. I have also viewed Rawabi, which not only is a great example of what can be achieved in peaceful co-existence with other parts of Israel, but gives a great opportunity to the very people who need assistance. I very much agree with my hon. Friend.
It is time that the Palestinians and their Arab brothers reversed the fateful decision in 1947 to reject the internationally endorsed partition plan. It was a historic mistake, which began the cycle of violence that continues today. That is why the gradual warming of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbours is so especially encouraging. With shared concerns over Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and destabilising influence, Israel is now working more closely with the likes of Egypt and Jordan as well as countries that do not even have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.
In recent months, there has been a regional push towards a peace process and talk of a revival of the 2002 Arab peace initiative. This year, our Foreign Secretary said aptly that Israel’s Arab neighbours “hold the key” to the peace process. It is only with the support of these Arab partners that the Palestinian Authority will be able to make some of the difficult compromises needed by both parties in the peace talks. The Palestinians need support from their Arab brothers to return to peace talks, and I urge the Minister to encourage dialogue in that regard. Will he update the House on the progress of on any initiatives that he has promoted to achieve that?
Polling regularly shows that more than half of Israelis and Palestinians still support a two-state solution, so the window of opportunity is still open—but it might not be forever. Inexplicably, the Labour party’s youth wing has this month seemingly repeated the historic mistake of the Arab leadership in 1947 by rejecting a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. I hope that does not become official Labour party policy.
I point out to the hon. Gentleman that whatever anybody thinks, it remains Labour party policy to support a two-state solution. The Labour party has supported a two-state solution throughout its history, and, as Harold Wilson said, it would not have been possible
“for a political party to be more committed to a national home for the Jews in Palestine than was Labour”.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful clarification. I hope that that remains the stance of the Labour party, and I am sure that he and other sensible members of the Labour party will continue to ensure that it is.
I have huge respect for the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), who has just spoken, and for a number of his colleagues who feel the way he does. However, the problem is that the leader of the Labour party has said that Hamas are his friends and has invited them into the House of Commons. Everyone looks to the leader of the Labour party to understand what the party’s policy is on Israel and on the horrific things that have gone on in the party to do with anti-Semitism. That is the issue that the public and Jewish people have. There is the feeling that the current Labour party, with the honourable exceptions of people such as the hon. Gentleman, are hostile to the state of Israel and the Jewish people.
I think that that intervention was not directed to me, but perhaps to some other Members in the Chamber. I thank my hon. Friend for it anyway.
The Labour party’s official position has just been confirmed, but it seems to me that the next generation of Labour activists do not believe that the Jewish people have the right to self-determination in their historic homeland. Zionism is entirely compatible with a two-state solution; it does not reject the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Legitimate criticism of the Israeli Government’s policies and actions should be and is justified, just as we in this House rightly criticise the Governments of liberal democracies, but to deny the two-state solution is to side with the hardliners in both camps. The leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition compounded the mess last week when he declined an invitation to attend a dinner to commemorate the Balfour Declaration next month. Hamas’s official English-language Twitter account welcomed that decision.
The horrors of the second intifada abruptly ended a period in which Palestinians and Israelis were interacting more closely than ever on a day-to-day basis. A whole generation of Israelis and Palestinians has now grown up with close to no knowledge or experience of the other side. That is a major obstacle to the long-term viability of any future peace agreement.
My hon. Friend is being generous in taking interventions, and the point he is making is extremely important. Does he agree that one of the most striking things for someone who visits Israel, and has the opportunity to speak in private both to Palestinians and Israelis, is the sense of regret and tragedy on both sides about the decline of engagement and economic interaction, and the fact that they used to do business with each other on a daily basis? That is very sad.
Without a doubt; I have had the opportunity to meet people on both sides of the debate in Israel—and, indeed, outside it—and I do not think that the assistance of those who would term themselves Palestinian refugees, who live in places such as St John’s Wood, is always productive. Sometimes I just wish that they would keep out of the problem and let others who are actually affected by this issue on a day-to-day basis find their own resolution. We do not need assistance from outside people.
As I said, the Government should be proud of their announcement this year to invest an unprecedented £3 million in peaceful co-existence projects, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. Alongside honourable colleagues here, I have seen some of those projects, so I know how they plant the seeds for peace and understanding. It is hugely symbolic to have made that important contribution this year through that financial remuneration. I could ask the Minister whether he will seek more funding to go further and achieve more good things in the country.
Although a unified Palestinian leadership is an essential component in the successful outcome of any peace process, I have severe doubts about recent developments between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas is, and remains, a terror group committed to the destruction of Israel. The group must be obliged to accept the Quartet principles in full and unconditionally, including full disarmament. Israel cannot realistically be expected to enter into peace negotiations without Hamas taking that crucial step. Does the Minister agree that Israel’s measured response to the unity agreement is laudable and that its continued co-operation with the Palestinian Authority is an important source of stability at this sensitive juncture? I would be grateful if he could address that in his summing-up.
Those are the principles that led to the successful conclusion of the struggle and the troubles in Northern Ireland—that violence had to be given up and there then had to be the recognition of mutual respect to have talks. What followed from that was the destruction of weapons. If those principles are good enough for a part of the United Kingdom, they are good enough for a part of the world that we believe in.
I am sure that the Minister heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments and will take them on board.
In conclusion, when Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent his letter to Lord Rothschild in 1917, I doubt he would have imagined that we would still be debating it 100 years later. With his short letter, he initiated a process that both granted international legitimacy to the Zionist dream for a return to the homeland and gave it the prerequisite legal grounding in international treaties. The legal legitimacy of the state of Israel is simply not up for debate. The Palestinian people, Israel and the wider international community continue to live with the consequences of the Arab leadership rejecting the internationally endorsed UN partition plan in 1947. The establishment of a Palestinian state is long overdue. I hope that we can see some progress in peace talks; that would be a fitting tribute for this centenary.
Israel has achieved so much in the less than 70 years since it was created. I hope that we will take this landmark moment to reflect on the many successes of Israel and commit to further strengthening our relationship with such a key ally. As the Prime Minister said only today at Prime Minister’s Question Time, we should be “proud” to do so.
On a point of order, Sir David. Just to be safe, I refer Members to my interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Thank you. I will call the three Front Benchers to speak at about 3.40 pm, which gives us about 40 minutes for Back Benchers. I will not impose a time limit, because I do not think that is practical, but I ask Members to keep their contributions to about two or three minutes. That will give everyone an opportunity to speak.
It is always a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and it is a great relief today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this important debate, which provides an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the Balfour Declaration, 100 years on.
The state of Israel was born in the wake of the holocaust—the Shoah—which was a meticulous plan on an industrial scale to wipe out an entire people because of their faith and cultural identity. It was shocking not only because of its depravity, but because of the complicity of many individuals and leaders who looked the other way in the face of unspeakable evil. It is a sad truth that we still need to counter those who seek to deny the holocaust.
Resurgent anti-Semitism is the only form of racism that unites far right and far left. My own party has serious questions to answer about a minority of members and supporters who stain the reputation of a movement rooted in equality and in an abhorrence of all forms of discrimination and racism. Although they are a small minority, they feel able to act with impunity when there should be zero tolerance. To Conservative Members, I say: let us not play party politics with these incredibly sensitive issues. It was not that long ago that senior Tories talked about there being too many Estonians and not enough Etonians in the Thatcher Government.
Why is anti-Semitism so salient to this debate? Quite simply, for many Jews around the world, Israel is the safety net that gives meaning to the phrase “Never again”. The reality is that contemporary anti-Semitism is predominantly tied up with attacks on Israel that cross the line in their use of anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery.
There are many people and organisations who legitimately criticise the policies and actions of the Israeli Government but are not in any way anti-Semitic. They have every right to do so without facing the false accusations that sometimes damage those who claim to be Israel’s friends. However, 100 years on from Balfour, this country, more than any other, has a duty to ensure a balanced scorecard when it comes to judgments about the state of Israel—a small country the size of Wales that has always existed in a hostile neighbourhood and attracted hatred, venom and the daily threat of violent terrorism. It must be acknowledged that Hamas and Hezbollah continue to use violence, not politics, to pursue their objectives. Globally, Israel is a lightning rod not just for anti-Semitism but for people who loathe western values. It is often forgotten that that is what much of the hostility towards Israel is actually about.
Modern Israel is a vibrant democracy with a free judiciary and an independent press. How many countries put former Presidents and Prime Ministers in the same prison cell block? That is just one slightly strange example. Israel is at the cutting edge of the global technological revolution and of life-changing medical and scientific advances. For the most part, Jews, Arabs, Christians and Muslims live side by side in peace. Its stance on LGBT and women’s rights is often an example to the rest of the world.
It is only right, however, that we acknowledge that Israel must face up to some harsh realities. West bank occupation dehumanises both Palestinians and young Israeli soldiers. Security must be the No. 1 priority for any Government, but the time has come to consider a different framework that protects Israel’s security while allowing maximum freedom for Palestinian residents. Settlement expansion is wrong and unnecessary in advance of a final negotiated settlement. Inequality and poverty have disproportionately affected Israeli Arabs. More should be done to put that right.
Like many supporters of Israel, I continue to believe in a two-state solution that guarantees Israel’s security and normalises its relations with the mainstream world alongside a viable Palestinian state that can offer dignity and opportunity to all its citizens. The harsh truth is that the political leadership on both sides cannot—perhaps will not—make the compromises necessary for that to happen. Let us hope that that changes, because bitterness, hatred and division grow every day, leading to no progress and, more importantly, no hope.
The Balfour Declaration was right, because it laid the foundations for the recognition that the Jewish people had a right to self-determination in their own country—the true definition of Zionism, which is a word that has been distorted and demonised by those who do not really believe that Israel has a right to exist. Of course, there are a tiny minority whose Zionism means expansionism and the appropriation of more land, but they do not speak for the vast majority of Israelis or friends of Israel around the world.
I doubt that Balfour believed he was beginning a process that would lead to the creation of a utopian state. Israel is far from that, but nor should she be too often singled out for disproportionate, ill-conceived criticism and wrong-headed calls for boycotts. Our country should be proud of the Balfour Declaration, while also championing the importance of a two-state solution and the rights of the Palestinians to have the dignity of statehood. In this place, perhaps the greatest tribute we could pay to the legacy of Balfour would be for more of us to reject the entrenched divisions of the past and claim the right to define ourselves as friends of Israel and friends of Palestine.
Order. I remind hon. Members that if they speak for longer than three minutes, I will not be able to call all Members who wish to speak.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to speak in this important and timely debate. Since the declaration and the foundation of the state, Israel has become one of the UK’s most important trading partners on the international stage, with record levels of trade, intelligence sharing and ever closer academic, cultural and scientific collaboration. The bilateral relationship runs deep, and it all started as a result of Balfour. I am not oblivious to the fate of the Palestinians—having visited the west bank, I am all too aware of it—but the solution lies in producing a two-state outcome to the current impasse.
Allied to the Balfour Declaration is the issue of Zionism. The Balfour letter expresses
“sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations”.
What we mean by Zionism is the belief that there should be a Jewish state in the land of Israel. The Zionist movement received cross-party support in the UK at the time, as well as Government backing in France, the US and other countries. Sadly, it appears that “Zionist” has become one of the most misunderstood and misused words in the English political dictionary. Legitimate criticism of the Israeli Government’s policies and actions should, of course, be permitted, just as we rightly criticise the Governments of other liberal democracies, but we must clearly set ourselves apart from those who hate Israel and call into question its right to exist as a Jewish state.
The excellent design for the new holocaust memorial and learning centre near Parliament was revealed only yesterday, and I look forward to seeing it built. In this centenary year, we need to recommit to the values of freedom and tolerance that we share with our friend Israel and proudly celebrate the incredible contribution that Israel has made to this world, which was started by that letter.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this important debate. The Balfour Declaration marked a milestone in the Zionist movement’s struggle to secure Jewish self-determination in the land of Israel, where the Jewish people have roots that go back 3,000 years. The strong support of the Labour party and the labour movement was shown in the party’s war aims memorandum, which was published in August 1917, three months before the declaration. The enlightenment’s failure to address anti-Semitism, illustrated by the Dreyfus case and followed by the horror of the holocaust, intensified the need for action. It was not until 14 May 1948 that the state of Israel was declared following UN resolution 181, which was passed in 1947 and called for the partitioning of the land into Jewish and Palestinian states. Palestinian leaders rejected that proposal and five Arab countries attacked the fledgling Jewish state.
What has the state of Israel achieved since 1948? It is a tiny country of 8 million people, smaller in land size than Wales and 10 miles wide at its narrowest point; 74.7% of its population are Jewish, 17.5% are Muslim and 2.7% Christian. It is a refuge for millions escaping genocide and persecution, at the same time creating a dynamic and diverse democracy that includes 17 Arab Members of the Knesset from six different political parties. Israel has a strong record on gay rights and has many leading hospitals such as Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where both Jewish and Palestinian doctors treat patients of all religions and all backgrounds equally.
Israel has produced 12 Nobel laureates since 1966, nominated for achievements in chemistry, economics, literature and peace. Their inventions include innovations such as a walking system for paraplegics and Babysense, which helps prevent sudden infant death syndrome. Israel has an outstanding record in providing international humanitarian aid in countries such as Indonesia and Haiti, and currently Syria, with 4,000 wounded Syrians treated in Israeli hospitals.
Israel faces many challenges, but it is a beacon of light in a troubled region. It is a permanent part of the middle east. As the nation state of the Jewish people, it is here to stay. It is tragic that Palestinians remain without their state. Their leaders rejected the 1947 UN proposal for partition, and subsequent opportunities at Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001 and Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008 were discarded. New efforts are required to enable Israel and the Palestinians to return to direct negotiations to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That Palestinian state should have full international backing. If that becomes a reality, the Balfour statement’s vision can be fully realised.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this debate. I want to reflect briefly on some of the circumstances that led to the declaration. In preparing my speech I have drawn heavily on the work of Simon Sebag Montefiore and an excellent article he recently produced in The Sunday Times.
Zionism may have been a word that was coined as recently as 1890, but the aspiration to return to an ancient homeland dates back nearly two millennia, to AD 70 when the Romans defeated the Jewish revolt, marking the end of the Jewish state until its revival in the modern era. Support for the return of the Jewish people to Zion has been present in a strand of evangelical Christianity in England since at least the 17th century. Indeed, it formed part of the background to Oliver Cromwell’s decision to readmit Jewish people to England in 1656, some 366 years after their brutal expulsion in 1290.
Prominent evangelical Christian figures in the 19th century such as William Wilberforce also backed the idea, and support for a homeland for the Jewish people gathered pace after a series of horrific pogroms in Russia in the 19th century. As we have heard, Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Foreign Secretary at the time, was also sympathetic to the cause, as was Lloyd George, the son of a Baptist minister and well versed in Bible studies and the evangelical interest in Zionism to which I have referred.
The debate raged in London, in the Cabinet room and in drawing rooms, while General Allenby and his forces moved ever closer to Jerusalem, about to become the first Europeans to control the city since the expulsion of the crusaders by Saladin in 1187.
There was significant opposition to the declaration from figures such as Lord Curzon, but Balfour and Lloyd George ultimately prevailed, and a compromise was reached to ensure it was clear that the text acknowledged the rights of both the Arab population of Palestine and the Jewish people.
Although the declaration is dated 2 November, it was not published until the 9th. The night before, Lenin seized power in Russia. Historians have speculated to this day on what might have happened if that profoundly world-changing event had occurred earlier, but, close as it was to the publication, it did not halt the declaration.
As we have already heard from many participants in the debate today, the declaration set in train the events that eventually led, some 30 years later, to the recreation of the state of Israel. Like others, I believe that is a cause for celebration, and that we in this country and in this Parliament should take pride in the role that the Balfour Declaration played in leading international opinion and promoting Jewish self-determination. Our role in helping to create the state of Israel and its many achievements over its 69-year history is, as others have said, something to commemorate with a sense of pride.
On the eve of this important centenary it is heartening to know that the UK-Israel bilateral relationship is stronger than ever. This debate is also a timely reminder that, just as the UK helped to create the modern state of Israel, so we in this country should help to finish the work that began with the Balfour Declaration and its aspiration to safeguard the interests of both sides. That means redoubling our efforts in supporting the search for a peaceful negotiated settlement, to give Israel the security that it needs and to deliver a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. I urge the Minister to recommit to those important goals this afternoon.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Sir David.
I was recently privileged to meet survivors of the holocaust and veterans of the Kindertransport. Their moving and humbling stories were a timely reminder of the importance of the existence of the state of Israel. Their stories were also a timely reminder that we must always speak out against injustice and abuses of the rule of law and on behalf of refugees’ rights.
Many of my constituents have written to me urging me to speak about the rights of Palestinians in this debate. They have pointed out that the Balfour Declaration disregarded the rights, wishes and claims of the Palestinian people, who made up nearly 90% of the population in Palestine in 1917. The land was not, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) said, desert. It was towns and villages in which 90% of the Palestinian population lived.
The Balfour Declaration and Britain’s subsequent acts when Palestine was under its control created the framework for Palestinian dispossession and the establishment in 1948 of a state whose basic laws and subsequent policies have privileged the rights of Jewish inhabitants above those of Palestinians. I saw that with my own eyes when I visited the west bank and Israel with the cross-party parliamentary delegation last year, led by the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding and Human Appeal.
Is the hon. and learned Lady equating the survivors and victims of the holocaust with the plight of the Palestinians now, because that is a very serious thing?
Of course not. My point was that hearing stories of the abuse of human rights in Europe reminded me that we must be alive to the abuse of human rights anywhere in the world.
Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?
I will in a moment, but I want to continue.
When I was on the west bank, I observed two parallel systems of law in the military courts, where human rights and basic legal process are not observed, and that is of particular interest to me as a lawyer.
I also saw that the proliferation of settlements in the west bank is sadly making a two-state solution almost impossible. I think all of us in this room agree that a two-state solution is the answer. I can certainly say that is the policy of the Scottish National party, as it is of the Labour party.
My constituents have asked me to say—I am conscious that other people wish to speak—that the true legacy of Balfour is 5 million Palestinians living in refugee camps or scattered across the globe; a 50-year occupation of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the west bank; and a 10-year illegal and inhumane blockade of the Gaza Strip. The point of my contribution this afternoon is to say that two wrongs do not make a right, and that the second part of the Balfour Declaration has not been fulfilled.
Just to be clear, when the hon. and learned Lady talks about treatment of different groups under Israeli law, she is not suggesting for a moment, is she, that Israeli Arabs are in any way different from Israeli Jews or Christians before the courts and law of Israel?
No; as I said, I was talking about the treatment of Palestinians living in the west bank in the military courts, which I observed with my own eyes, and which has been widely reported on by lawyers from across the globe.
Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?
I do not want to take up too much more time, Sir David. I have taken rather a lot of interventions. I just want to say that it is a matter of law that the establishment of settlements in the occupied territories is contrary to international law under the fourth Geneva convention. That is recognised by the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Court of Justice. By all means, today, let us celebrate and protect the state of Israel; but let us not forget, as British people, the other aspects of the Balfour Declaration, and our responsibility to make sure that the rights of Palestinians living in the west bank and occupied territories are respected.
I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this timely opportunity to debate the beginnings of one of modern history’s most remarkable stories: the rebirth of the state of Israel, the Jewish state.
The Balfour Declaration was described by Winston Churchill in 1921 as “manifestly right”, and we can wholeheartedly endorse that view today. It is manifestly right that we mark its centenary with pride—and that the Government do so too. Israel’s achievements since its establishment speak for themselves. It has one of the world’s most diverse societies, and its economic successes and commitment to the same values that we hold so dear in this country make it a close and vital ally. Israel’s commitment to liberalism and tolerance shine brightly in a region where, sadly, persecution and a denial of basic human rights are all too common. To celebrate the Balfour Declaration, therefore, is to celebrate everything that our nations have achieved together, and serves as a reminder of what two countries can accomplish if they embrace the shared principles of freedom and liberalism.
As we celebrate how far Israel has come, however, it is important to remember that today, in 2017, more than 30 members of the United Nations still refuse to recognise or maintain diplomatic relations with the state of Israel, including 19 of the 21 Arab League states. I believe that that is an absurdity and a stain upon the international community. Let us be clear: Israel’s existence is not up for debate. Indeed, few states have such legitimacy in law as Israel. Let us consider, for one moment, the fact that the content of Foreign Secretary Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild in 1917 became international law after being incorporated into the San Remo resolution in 1920, and was further unanimously endorsed by the League of Nations in its mandate for Palestine in 1922.
All states should recognise Israel, as Britain did in 1950, but does the right hon. Gentleman think, also, that all states, including this one, should recognise the state of Palestine?
All states in the international system should, I believe, work together for the realisation of the two-state solution. That should be the objective of our foreign policy.
If anything, the lack of recognition by so many UN member states and the resurgence of a vile anti-Semitic ideology around the world underscores again the need for the Jewish homeland.
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Does he agree that the issue is not just about supporting Israel’s right to exist; it is about supporting its right to defend itself?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about recognising that the country that will take the primary responsibility for defending the state of Israel is the state of Israel itself. We should defend that principle.
At this centenary moment we can with sadness observe—and we have this afternoon observed—that we have yet to see the completion of the vision for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Jewish state. That has been a difficult path, marked with false starts and missed opportunities, and it will ultimately require bold leadership and difficult compromises from both sides if progress is to be made. On my most recent visit to Israel in February, I was struck again by the number of Israelis from different walks of life who told me of their deep desire to live in peace and security. Those words, “peace and security”, are heard time and again in speaking to Israelis. I remain hopeful that we can reach that point, but, if we are being realistic, recent history does not provide much encouragement. The successive failures of the Palestinian leadership to grasp opportunities have already been pointed out this afternoon. I am reminded of the famous quotation by the former Israeli diplomat Abba Eban:
“Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.
It is a great tragedy that Palestinians have been let down by successive poor leadership and poor decisions.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues to redouble their efforts in pursuit of the two-state solution, and to do whatever they can, in a challenging and difficult environment, to get the two sides to speak to each other and pursue that course. I also encourage him to enjoy celebrating the Balfour centenary, and to do so with pride. It is important that we all do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I welcome the opportunity to debate such an important subject, which is still the source of much suffering in the middle east.
The state of Israel has come to exist over the last 100 years, and the document we are discussing is largely symbolic of changes in attitudes, certainly within this country, to the notion of a Jewish nation co-existing in Palestine; but is crucial that we understand that the 50 years following 1917 probably played a far more important role. It is clear that the vision laid out in the letter was always almost certain to fail. A new state located in a place at the expense of those currently inhabiting it would always be problematic, and it has proved to be that way. Britain has a clear historical connection to both the people of Palestine and the people of Israel. The letter, in my view, goes beyond that and sets out a moral obligation and responsibility to ensure that both are protected. It would not be right to mark Balfour’s letter purely through the prism of when it was written, and not to reflect on the current situation in the middle east.
The sad truth is that, while the current situation exists, we are no closer to the vision—if it can be called that—laid out in the Balfour letter. Some 5 million Palestinians of varying descent live as displaced refugees, living by and large in poverty across the middle east; 2.5 million live in torturous conditions in the occupied west bank, and 1.7 million people live in the largest open prison camp on the planet, in Gaza, with no basic rights, no citizenship, and no hope of a lasting future. Given that the current Israeli Prime Minister is intent on further expansion, the border is more undefined than ever and, sadly, lasting peace is further and further away. The Government must recognize just how far away we are from a peaceful solution.
We must recognise that our role has created untold suffering. We have a humanitarian and moral obligation, set out by Balfour, not to leave things unfinished. We must not allow the continued suffering of the Palestinian people and accept it as the norm within the region. We must compel, and recommit ourselves to helping, both sides to find a lasting peace. If the Government are truly committed to a two-state solution, there are steps that they can take, and there are a few things that I want today to call on them to do. One is investing in infrastructure in Palestine, so that we can rebuild. The Government can also go a huge way to ensuring that prejudice and the suppression of the civil rights of Palestinians are brought to an end, by making a commitment to the legal recognition of Palestine. That would be a small but momentous step and might help to create the conditions for peace.
I remind the House not to look at Balfour through the prism of the time when it was written. We have failed the people of Palestine and with each passing day we fail more of them. We must help to find a way to help them out of their suffering and not speak of peace but commit ourselves to trying to make it happen.
Sir David, 2 November 2017 is a big day—my 32nd birthday, the airing date of the episode of “First Dates” on Channel 4 that features my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), but, most importantly, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. In the declaration, the Scottish Conservative MP Arthur James Balfour gave hope and opportunity to a people long beaten, purged and exiled simply because of their religion.
There will be many celebrating the centenary in my constituency of East Renfrewshire, which is home to more than 50% of Scotland’s Jewish population. The Jewish community is an integral part of East Renfrewshire, whether it be with Mark’s Deli, Sora’s Cafe and L’Chaim’s Restaurant, which serves delicious kosher food, or the Maccabi Youth and Sports Centre, all of which are in Giffnock. I am privileged to serve a vibrant Jewish community, whose members all add a vitality to the area.
The people of East Renfrewshire have a strong affinity with Scotland, Britain and Israel, and the centenary of the Balfour Declaration presents a unique opportunity to reinstitute peace talks without precondition, as we work towards a two-state solution, but this cannot be an outreach to terror. We cannot extend the hand of friendship to legitimise the murder of Israelis of all creeds, but we will only see lasting safety and security through such talks. This month in Egypt, Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation deal, ending their decade-long split. Does the Minister share my view that any agreement must ensure the Hamas terror group’s demilitarisation, given its open commitment to the destruction of Israel?
The positive legacy of Arthur James Balfour can be seen in the value of the trade in goods between Scotland and Israel, which stood at £120 million in 2016. Let us build on that figure and ensure that we do not squander this historic opportunity to strengthen Scotland’s ties with Israel, just as Balfour himself did a hundred years ago.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. It goes without saying that I am a proud supporter of Israel. I am pleased to celebrate the centenary of the state of Israel today and to support the future of the nation of Israel too. I make no bones about that.
I was also pleased to see our Prime Minister come out and say that we wish to celebrate the centenary with our friends in Israel. Indeed, this year the Government defended Israel against the bias of the United Nations by putting the UN Human Rights Council on notice and saying that they will vote against every motion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless the body ends its “disproportion and bias” against the Jewish state. That is the clear opinion of our Government and our Prime Minister, and we congratulate her on that. The Prime Minister has said that the Balfour Declaration was
“one of the most important letters in history. It demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people…Born of that letter…and of the efforts of so many people, is a remarkable country”.
In the very short time that I have, I also welcome the impending visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to London, which will happen later this year. It is unfortunate that in a world that attempts to abhor any form of intolerance, there exists an intolerance towards Israel that is widely accepted, including in the form of boycotts. It is clear that there are none so intolerant as the tolerant. The academics who are training students to boycott Israel are happy enough to save their rhetoric on a USB, which was designed in Israel. I wonder whether they would be happy to boycott Israeli medical breakthroughs if they needed them themselves.
The boycott of Israel will not bring understanding; it underlines division. The boycott of Israel is not a form of justice; it is just hatred, which has never brought peace. I am happy that our Government are standing behind the Balfour Declaration. I am happy that we are open to help in the peace process and happy that our alliance with Israel in no way makes us an enemy of Palestine or any Palestinians. I am happy to see the great influence and help that Israel has been in the hundred years since being reclaimed as a homeland. I look forward to seeing just how much more Israel can impact on our world for good with the technological breakthroughs that it is becoming renowned for.
Happy 100th birthday, Israel. We are happy to see you back home and to see you thriving.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this debate on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. As we mark this 100-year milestone, it is important to reflect on Israel and its place in the world.
As we have heard this afternoon, Israel has made a significant number of contributions to the world, not only in trade but in far-reaching inventions, medical breakthroughs and humanitarian relief. Indeed, Israeli charities are leading research into assistive technology to improve the wellbeing and social inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide. Those charities include Beit Issie Shapiro and Wheelchairs of Hope.
Yet Israel can perhaps be most proud of its significant humanitarian work across the globe. The Jewish state is at the forefront of providing effective and speedy life-saving relief to other countries, following natural or man-made disasters. Just last month, Israeli NGOs sent search and rescue teams to southern Florida, Haiti and the Caribbean, in response to Hurricane Irma, as well as to Texas and Mexico. Israel’s Foreign Ministry also sent supplies and donations to those in need via the US embassies. Additionally, Israel has sent teams in recent years to Nepal, Japan and Italy following deadly earthquakes and tsunamis. In many cases it has provided post-traumatic care, even when aid groups and others have left a region.
It is important that we reflect on the humanitarian aid that Israel has given, and also on the way that Israel reaches out to the world. With little fanfare, the Israel Defence Forces have quietly helped beleaguered Syrian civilians on Israel’s northern border, in a massive, multi-faceted humanitarian relief operation, which includes treating chronically ill children who have no access to hospitals. The IDF have also built clinics in Syria and supplied hundreds of tonnes of food, medicines and clothes to villages across the border.
Last year I visited an Israeli NGO, Save a Child’s Heart. It treats children from across the region, provides live-saving medical treatment to Gazan children suffering from heart conditions, and trains up doctors from the Palestinian territories, so that they can take that expertise back to their own hospitals.
Ultimately, it is through endeavours such as those I have mentioned, and by reaching out into the world, that we can hope to bring about peace and real change. As we move beyond this significant anniversary, we must do all that we can here to support Israel in doing that.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this very important debate.
The centenary of the Balfour Declaration should not be celebrated in any way, but should instead be a time when we can pause, think about the situation that we are in now because of this statement by a previous parliamentarian, and look carefully at its impact on the situation today. Our responsibility as a country is to find a solution to the problems in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Examining the rights and wrongs of the past does not solve anything, but they do give us a context in which to move forward and find a solution.
If we look at the wording of the declaration—I will not read it again, as it has already been read out a number of times—we see that the first part has been achieved. The second part has not. Indeed, in my view the Palestinian people’s situation is much worse than it was in 1917.
I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On my recent visit to Jerusalem and the west bank, I was shocked and horrified at the way that Palestinian people are living and being treated in the occupied territories. I found the trip emotionally draining, but I am so pleased that I went to see for myself the reality of the situation.
I saw illegal outposts, often surrounding Palestinian communities, being built at a rapid pace in area C. I saw communities under threat of demolition. I saw water being diverted away from Palestinian communities to serve the illegal outposts, and I visited the military courts. The way that children are being treated—indeed, the way that our delegation was treated—in those courts was horrific. It is not what I would expect anywhere in the world—being lied to and being thrown out of court, first for “security reasons” and then, we were told, because it was too crowded. It was an utter disgrace. Finally, we saw the intimidation that everyone feels from the IDF presence in the occupied territories. The horror of the wall; the sight of young people walking around the Old City with machine guns on their back—it was horrific.
I absolutely respect the right of the state of Israel to exist and to be recognised, and the right of its people to live in peace. I also accept all of the wonderful things that, as a state, Israel does. I absolutely accept that, but I also respect the right of the Palestinian people to have a state, to be recognised and to live in peace, on equal terms.
It is time that the British Government take responsibility for the actions of Lord Balfour and the Government of 1917, and do their part in fulfilling the second part of the Balfour Declaration. I will quote John Kerry’s speech on middle east peace in December last year, when he said, “Britain has an enduring responsibility to the two peoples in the Holy Land”—a responsibility which is not fulfilled by leaving the strong and the weak to “sort it out between themselves”, or by waiting for President Trump.
I would like the Minister to respond to a couple of issues. The British Government should recognise the state of Palestine, to fulfil our moral obligation to the Palestinian people, including the 5 million refugees, who have a recognised right to return. The Government should do everything within their power to get a two-state solution and urgently ensure that international law is upheld in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
I am going to move to the two Opposition Front-Bench spokespersons now, because we only have about 20 minutes left. I ask them both to keep their remarks to around five minutes each, because I think we all want to listen to the Minister and give Dr Offord a chance to sum up the debate.
I am grateful to you, Sir David, for the opportunity to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party. The Balfour Declaration has clearly been one of the pivotal events in the tragic and often violent history of the middle east, but I do not think that its centenary can be met with unbridled celebration and joy. The Balfour Declaration and the thoughts that went into it have contributed to the history of the middle east in the past 100 years being more tragic and more violent than it might otherwise have been.
Before I explain that, I will reiterate the SNP’s position, which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) outlined. We fully support the principle of the establishment of a two-state future for the middle east. We absolutely support the right of Israel to continue as an independent state. We support early and, I would argue, immediate recognition of Palestine as an equal state to Israel. I want to see a future in which the two can co-exist as equals in every way, with each fully recognised by the international community, each fully recognising the rights of the other and each fully accepting the responsibilities under international law.
That means that the state of Palestine has to take appropriate action against any of its citizens who engage in acts of violence against Israel or any of its citizens, and it also means that the state of Israel must stop using those murderous attacks as an excuse to launch military action that it knows for certain are likely to result in the deaths of innocent children and other unarmed civilians. Two wrongs do not make a right. As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said very powerfully, the first step in any peace process is that all the killings have to stop.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way briefly, because we are short of time.
When the hon. Gentleman alleges that Israel is looking for an excuse to bomb people in Gaza, is he suggesting that the Israeli Government want to do that, and that the Israeli people have some desire to wipe the people of Gaza off the map? Is he saying that the people of Israel have no right to defend themselves against rockets being fired into Israel? What exactly is the point he is making when he uses the word “excuse“?
The point I am making is that I entirely respect the right of any nation to use targeted and appropriate military action to defend itself against an aggressor. All too often, the military action from Israel has not been targeted, and arguably it has not been proportionate. The number of civilians who have been killed is far too high for it just to be an accident.
Let me also make it clear that it is completely unacceptable for anyone to use legitimate criticism of the actions of the state of Israel to defend or justify any form of anti-Semitic racism against Jewish people in Israel or anywhere else. People should never blame an individual for the disagreeable actions of the Government of the country in which they live.
I said I would come back to my reasons for saying that I did not think the Balfour Declaration was something to be celebrated without at least some sense of regret. The first part of the declaration has been mentioned, but a huge principle of it has been completely ignored in the past 70 years. The rights of the Palestinian people, certainly in the parts of Palestine that are illegally occupied by Israel, have been violated time and again. Until that stops, we cannot celebrate the Balfour Declaration. We cannot celebrate it while one of the main parties to that declaration is deliberately and repeatedly violating some of its most important principles.
We also need to look at the background of the declaration, and I am surprised that no one has picked up on this point. The declaration was not the act of a Foreign Minister who was a friend of Israel or who cared particularly about the welfare or plight of Jewish refugees. A few years earlier, when he was Prime Minister, the same Arthur Balfour had talked about
“the undoubted evils which had fallen upon portions of the country”—
“from an alien immigration which was largely Jewish”.—[Official Report, 10 July 1905; Vol. 149, c. 155.]
Those are not the words of a friend of the Jewish people; those are the words of a racist and an anti-Semite. I believe that that was part of the attitude behind the whole Balfour Declaration and all the manoeuvring and double-dealing that went into it. It was not primarily about the welfare of the Jewish people; it was primarily about ensuring that the desperate problem of Jewish refugees was kept away from the shores of Great Britain. The parallels with the plight of Syrian refugees today are far too obvious to have to be made explicit.
As far as the wider foreign policy agenda was concerned, many of the actions of Balfour and his successors were more about looking about the narrow, selfish, colonial interests of the United Kingdom than about caring for the people of Israel or Palestine.
As I have very little time, I really cannot give way.
I genuinely wish Israel well. I wish my Jewish friends and those who want to celebrate well, but in all conscience I cannot celebrate with them this year. I want to be able to celebrate with them in future. I want to be able to celebrate the fact that this year’s celebrations gave an impetus to creating the kind of middle east that we should all be looking for: a middle east where the two peoples who call Palestine/Israel their ancient homeland can genuinely live together in peace and security. I believe that a significant and symbolic step towards that would be for the United Kingdom to recognise Palestine and at the same time call on Palestine to accept its responsibilities as a nation among the international family of nations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Like many others, I will begin by thanking the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing the debate. The centenary of the Balfour Declaration is an opportunity to reflect on the history of the state of Israel and Britain’s role in the region, particularly as a friend and ally of Israel.
Back in 1917, Arthur Henderson, the then leader of the Labour party, 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.”
We remain committed to those important aims today. We want a viable and secure state of Israel alongside a viable and secure state of Palestine.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am reluctant to, because we have so little time and I want to hear the Minister’s response. I am sorry.
There can be no military solution to this conflict. Both sides must stop taking action that is going to make peace harder to achieve. That means an end to the blockade and settlements and an end to rocket and terror attacks, but it also means that those on the extreme fringes on both sides of this debate who believe in a one-state solution must step down from their entrenched positions. Until both sides can live in security, it is difficult to imagine the ambition of a negotiated two-state solution becoming a reality. Leaders on both sides must behave like statespeople. The Israeli Government must stop the building of settlements, and the Palestinians must do far more to stop and condemn the epidemic of terror and rocket attacks against Israelis.
Later this year we will also mark another important anniversary. It will have been 70 years since the UN partition plan that specifically addressed the idea of two states with an international zone in Jerusalem and guarantees for the rights of religious minorities. The Labour party has been clear that it would recognise the state of Palestine. When will the Government do the same?
As we have heard today, the Balfour Declaration did not only agree to the establishment of a national home of the Jewish people, but clearly stated that,
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
There is more work to be done. The levels of poverty and the lack of opportunities open to those living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly in Gaza, are shocking. Oxfam estimates that about 80% of the 1.9 million population are reliant on humanitarian aid to survive. Gaza needs more than simply aid; its residents need to be empowered to support themselves. The unemployment rate is 41%—one of the highest in the world. We must ensure strict adherence to international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The UK should use all diplomatic means to pursue accountability for all violations of international law, such as through bilateral relations and multilateral forums such as the UN Human Rights Council.
I will finish with a few questions for the Minister. Last December, UN Security Council resolution 2334 was passed and adopted. It stated that settlements have no validity and pose a major obstacle to a two-state solution; it also condemned all acts of violence against civilians and urged the Palestinian Authority to confront all those engaged in acts of terror. What steps have the Government taken since last December to put these recommendations into action? Over the coming weeks, there will be a number of events to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. I will be grateful if the Minister elaborates on the wider ways that the Government are marking this important anniversary.
In many ways, the anniversary is a sobering reminder that the words that Lord Balfour wrote all those years ago are still not a reality. What steps will the Government now take to make sure that today’s speeches result in a more proactive approach towards the middle east peace process?
As an old friend from Bury, it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing the debate and the thoughtful way he navigated the balance required as the mover of the motion, while making his position perfectly plain.
I would like to put some things on the record about the Balfour Declaration and that aspect of a regular and important topic of debate in the House. I will not be answering all the questions that have been raised, but I will go through the debate, check the questions and put an answer in the Library, so that colleagues will be able to see not only the answer to their own questions, but everything else.
I have listened to debates on this topic for the best part of 30 years now. I have heard colleagues speak with real knowledge, real passion, understanding and a democratic commitment to respecting the opinions of others. If the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is to be settled in the way we would like and every part of the Balfour Declaration fulfilled, as we all want, the positions of tolerance, understanding and passion that colleagues have displayed in the debate today will be beneficial.
The contributions have been mostly thoughtful and balanced—I will not go through them all. There has been the odd ember on which it would be possible to pour fuel, but I will not do that. I cannot single out too many Members in addition to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, but I want to mention another old friend of more than 30 years, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), who is a former Minister for the Middle East. One would have to go a long way to hear a more balanced, succinct and poignant explanation of the Balfour Declaration, and commitment to peace, than we heard in his speech.
I would also ask my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) not to bang on about his age. Some of us in this room were the future once, and some of us think we still are, so I ask him to go easy on that.
My right hon. Friend talks about peace. I wonder whether he welcomes, as I do, the Prime Minister’s words at Prime Minister’s questions today. She concluded by saying that it is important that we recommit to ensuring that we provide security, stability and justice for Israelis and Palestinians through securing peace. May I ask the Minister if that demonstrates that the Government give that the highest priority?
It does. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I will mention our commitment for the future, as colleagues were keen for me to do so.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, but only once more; otherwise I will not get everything on the record.
Does the Minister agree that ascribing colonialist motives to Britain and to the Balfour Declaration, as we heard from the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), is complete nonsense? Britain restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine until the war, and then put holocaust survivors in camps in Cyprus to prevent them from going to Israel as well. How could that be described as colonialism?
The hon. Gentleman has made his point. If I may, I would like to get back to what I want to put on record about the declaration.
The Government are proud of the role that the UK played in the creation of the state of Israel. We will welcome the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guest of the Government on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. We will mark the centenary with pride and respect, but also with a degree of sadness, as issues between Israel and the Palestinians remain unresolved.
Although history is not everything, it is important to recall the context in which the declaration was written. It was a world of competing imperial powers, in the midst of the first world war. Jews had suffered centuries of persecution, and in that context, establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they have strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do. That is why we are proud of the role that the UK played—a vital role in helping to make that Jewish homeland a reality.
Today, we continue to support the principle of such a Jewish homeland, and the state of Israel. Israel is a symbol of openness and a thriving democracy. It is a beacon for upholding the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The energy, innovation and creativity of Israel’s people stand out as an example to the world, and the existence of the state of Israel is not up for discussion.
The UK’s relationship with Israel is a partnership that continues to grow in areas such as trade and investment, innovation and technology, and defence and security, as a number of Members have mentioned. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary met Prime Minister Netanyahu in February and March, and reiterated the UK’s commitment to building on the strong ties that already exist between our two countries.
Although it is of course right to mark the Balfour centenary, we understand and respect the sensitivities many have towards the declaration and the events that have taken place in the region since 1917. That is why we are resolutely committed to establishing security and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians through a lasting peace. The UK remains clear that the best path to peace lies in a two-state solution, and we believe the declaration remains unfinished business until a lasting peace is achieved.
We are clear that a solution can only be achieved through a negotiated settlement that leads to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and with a just, fair and realistic settlement for refugees. Just as we fully support the modern state of Israel as the Jewish homeland, we fully support the objective of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, and we also recognise the continual impediment constituted by the occupation to securing those political rights.
The Foreign Secretary reiterated the UK’s support for a two-state solution when he visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in March, and also expressed concern about Israeli settlements and demolitions. It has long been our position that Israeli settlement activity is illegal under international law. The viability of the principle of two states for two peoples is being undermined by the increased pace of settlement advancement, plans for the first new settlement deep in the west bank in more than 25 years, the first new housing units in Hebron for 15 years, and the retroactive approval of unauthorised settlement outposts.
I am gravely concerned by reports this morning that the Jerusalem municipality planning committee conditionally approved building permits for 178 housing units in Nof Zion, a Jewish settlement within Jabel Mukaber, a Palestinian neighbourhood of east Jerusalem. As a strong friend of Israel, and one that continues to stand by it in the face of bias and unreasonable criticism, we are continuing to urge Israel not to take such steps, which move us away from our shared goals of peace and security.
We should also be clear that settlements are far from the only problem in this conflict. As the Quartet set out in its July 2016 report, terrorism and incitement also undermine the prospects for a two-state solution. We deplore all forms of incitement, including any comments that could stir up hatred and prejudice. We have regular discussions with both the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel, in which we reiterate the need for both sides to prepare their populations for peaceful co-existence, including by promoting a more positive portrayal of each other. Hamas—an organisation supporting violence and denying the existence of the state of Israel—cannot be part of that future unless it moves towards the Quartet principles.
Our unwavering commitment to the two-state solution is why the UK has also been a leading donor to the Palestinian Authority and such a strong supporter of its state-building efforts. The Department for International Development is developing a programme of support for projects intended to bring people together.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I cannot—there are only two minutes left, and I have to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon back in.
We are proud of the role that we have played in the creation of the state of Israel, but it is perfectly clear that there is more to be done. The matter needs attention on both sides, and the Government certainly intend to do it. I enjoy such debates—we know a lot about the issue—but I look forward to the day when we are no longer debating the two sides. We are good on the arguments, but I want to have a debate where we are talking about the solution, not the arguments.
We have had a fairly good debate. It was more positive than I anticipated, so I am grateful to the Members who have contributed. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah), my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), and the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott).
In the very short time I have left, I want to pick up on two issues. First, I will be pleased to welcome Bibi when he comes to the United Kingdom. I met him on his last visit and I hope to meet him again on the next. Secondly, some Members seemed to imply that land was seized from 1970 onwards. If they look at the Ottoman land code of 1858, they will understand that that was impossible.
I thank the Minister, who is not only very good on this subject, but a very good Minister. We are grateful for his support and the comments that he has made today. Long may we go forward and celebrate the Balfour Declaration.
Motion lapsed, (Standing Order No. 10(6)).