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Abraham Accords

Volume 702: debated on Monday 25 October 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Solloway.)

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House for the opportunity to hold this short debate, and to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his attention this evening. As our main proceedings have finished early, I will limit my remarks to about an hour, as I clearly have a fair amount of time! I am only joking, of course; I will try to speak briefly.

This debate has three purposes. The first is to note and celebrate a significant development that has occurred within the last year in the middle east. The fact that Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—we note the concerning situation in Sudan that we have heard about today and was addressed in an earlier statement—have come together and taken a material step forward in the relationships, normalising relations between the nations, the faiths and the peoples, is potentially a substantial step forward.

The second point that I would like to raise this evening is how we can nurture this fragile agreement and help it to continue and to broaden the circle of nations that have taken part in it. The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, has said that this is a bit like a wedding, in that we have had the party and made vows to each other, but the true test is whether that can lead to a lasting partnership. That work really is required now. As with any marriage, it is up to friends, allies and supporters to ensure that we help it to succeed in the months and years to come.

That brings me to the third point that I would like to raise this evening. What is the role for the United Kingdom, and for our Government in particular, in taking this forward?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this debate. I spoke to him last week about intervening tonight. He asks what the United Kingdom can do. Does he not agree that the anniversary of the Abraham accords is the perfect opportunity for this House to reaffirm our commitment to the state of Israel and to peace in the middle east as a whole, and to recognise the achievement of continued peace during this past year? We can celebrate that here, and Israel also deserves some credit for what has happened.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. One of the purposes of this evening’s debate is to pause for a moment and celebrate the state of Israel and those other countries of the Gulf and north Africa, many of which are great and long-standing allies of this country and friends with deep associations, which we should be supporting. The events of just over a year ago, when some of those countries were able to come together and sign the accords, were very significant, and I do not think we should underestimate the profound change in the relationships that underpins those accords.

There have always been relations between those nations in one form or another—often discreet and sometimes covert. Some of the individuals who have helped to broker agreements, or tried to do so, have built relationships themselves, person to person. My uncle, Eli Rubinstein, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Israel, was the chief negotiator at the Camp David accords. He told me that he would meet privately and holiday with his former interlocutors from Jordan, Egypt and other states who had been involved in those negotiations, in order to continue the friendships that they had built up. However, that is nothing compared with what we are now seeing as a result of these transformational changes. In the past year alone, 200,000 Israelis have gone to the United Arab Emirates, mostly to Dubai, for holidays and weddings. Synagogues have been set up in hotels for Rosh Hashanah. There were synagogues in ballrooms in the four-star and five-star hotels that many are familiar with in the United Arab Emirates. That is something that could not have been imagined just a year or so ago.

Economically, the ties are already increasing at a rapid pace. At Dubai Expo, Israel became one of the 191 countries to have its own stand. That was the first time that Israel had been welcomed to a trade exhibition in an Arab nation. Already, almost $700 million of bilateral trade has occurred between Israel and the UAE alone. Latterly, that has been surpassed by one single transaction between the sovereign wealth fund of the UAE and Israel.

We have seen other things that were almost inconceivable just a few months or years ago. There have been joint efforts by Israeli and UAE organisations and businesses to take forward the port of Haifa. It has not come to pass but, none the less, there has been a proposal by UAE interests to purchase a football club in Israel. We have seen collaboration on covid vaccines and research, and we have even seen a kidney transplant facilitated jointly by the UAE and an Israeli donor programme. The list goes on.

Beyond those two nations, others have joined in different ways. Some prominently, such as Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, and others in simpler ways that we should not underestimate, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enabling flights over the kingdom for the first time, thereby enabling the thousands of tourists and businesspeople—the human interactions that could not have happened otherwise. There is increased sharing of intelligence and security, and greater religious tolerance has been encouraged.

On Saudi media, for example, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca urged Muslims to avoid passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm towards Jews, which will make a difference over time. Of course, it is not just the citizens of these countries who see it. People growing up in all parts of the middle east share the same media and look at the same websites, and they will see those images of Israelis, Muslims and Arabs from the Gulf nations meeting, sharing bread, doing business and sharing innovation, technology and security.

The benefits to the UK are also clear. Of course we, other than perhaps the United States, are the deepest ally and friend of many of these nations. We have huge trade in innovation, technology and security interests, all of which becomes simpler and easier for us to do knowing that relations are gradually normalising between these nations to which we already have strong ties.

The accords will also benefit interfaith relations here in the UK, as our Jewish and Muslim communities are able to see the normalisation of relations, with more tolerant and sensible language being used in the middle east, and peaceful co-existence beginning to happen, if only in a small way.

In May 2021, during the Gaza conflict, we saw a serious diminution in relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in this country—perhaps the worst seen for several years. There was an increase in hate crime, as recorded by the Community Security Trust with respect to antisemitic abuse and by Tell MAMA with respect to Islamophobic and anti-Muslim hate crime. We saw terrible incidents, such as the convoy of vehicles through Golders Green in north London. The relations that are now building between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries in the Gulf can only be positive in helping to build ties and break down barriers.

It is easy to be cynical about what happened a year ago, but the Abraham accords have proved to be remarkably resilient. They have survived the change in US Administration. Although, of course, it would be natural for an incoming Administration to be reluctant to take up with the same zeal something that was such a signature of the previous Administration, we have now seen positive and encouraging signs from Secretary Blinken, who has said that he, too, wants to take forward the Abraham accords and widen the circle of nations that are part of them. He has had positive conversations, of which he has spoken recently, with other countries in the Gulf and the broader middle east. He said the accords were

“an important achievement, one that not only we support, but one we’d like to build on… we’re looking at countries that may want to join in and…begin…their own relations with Israel.”

Most recently, I was heartened to see Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Adviser, raise normalisation with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. That would, of course, be a major step as Saudi Arabia is the most significant regional player but, short of normalisation, there could be smaller steps that Saudi Arabia might consider. I have already mentioned that it gave support in one form or another to Bahrain to participate and that it has enabled flights over its airspace, so it may be willing to take steps short of outright acceptance and normalisation. Of course, progress might be possible with other nations such as Oman.

The accords managed to survive the 11-day Gazan conflict, which tested relationships both here and in the middle east. All of that points to the accords being substantial and lasting. However, we should not be naive. Such developments may look like the dawn of a new era in the middle east, but they could easily unravel. That might happen were there an escalation in the conflict between Israel and Gaza or Palestine, or between Israel and Iran, or on many other issues that might galvanise sentiment in the Gulf and help to see that progress set aside.

The draws me to the thrust of the debate: what is the role of the United Kingdom and our Government? As I have suggested, we have an important role to play. Short of the United States, we have the deepest and longest-standing relationships in the region in diplomacy and security, as well as the relations between our royal family and those of Gulf nations. We also have huge numbers of citizens who know and have relatives in those respective countries. There must be an important role for us and our other allies—in Europe, for example—to help to stiffen the sinews and give the Abraham accords lasting impact.

In many respects, it is disappointing that the UK was not closely associated with the work done last year. In 2019, I was privileged to represent the UK at the Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain organised by Jared Kushner, the then special adviser to President Trump. It was easy to be cynical of that initiative—it was very unlikely that the Israel-Palestine conflict would have been materially advanced by that conference or by Jared Kushner’s proposals—but, from spending time there, it was clear that deep relationships were being built between nations in the Gulf and the United States and, above all, with Israel, and that they might just bear fruit. On one day—it was not widely publicised at the time—a number of delegates from a range of countries, including Arab nations, visited a synagogue in Bahrain. We could see at the conference that things were changing. Perhaps it is a pity that the UK was not at the forefront of what came next, but it is easy for us to take it forward now.

What would I like us to do? I see my right hon. Friend the Minister in his place, and he has already spoken publicly about the United Kingdom’s support for the Abraham accords, including, I believe, earlier in the year at an event here in the House of Commons. There is an opportunity for us to use our diplomatic power, our diplomatic and security relationships and our rapidly building commercial ties actively to get fully behind the initiative. Through that, we can support those nations who have already signed up to the Abraham accords, to help ensure that we do not see that progress slip through our fingers. We can also think carefully about which other nations might be willing to sign up to the accords or to take steps in that direction. I have mentioned a few. Saudi Arabia would be the most significant, but others might be easier and faster to achieve, and we are particularly well placed with our relationship with Oman.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Foreign Secretary will take that forward. It seems to accord with all our foreign policy objectives. It helps us to build and deepen relationships with our friends and allies. It helps to bring lasting peace to the middle east, one step at a time. It helps us to bring different communities and faiths together for the benefit of individuals living in the middle east and in our country. It also helps to point towards a better future beyond the middle east, showing that long-standing enmities can be set aside and that, with a leap of faith, we can make moves towards peace and a better future.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) for securing this debate and highlighting an incredibly important event. The Abraham accords were indeed an historic moment, beginning a new chapter in Israeli foreign policy and regional collaboration, hopefully bringing us all a step closer to resolving one of the major issues driving instability and conflict in the middle east.

As my right hon. Friend said, the UK enjoys excellent relationships with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel. Those strong relationships are built on a mutually held desire to further the cause of peace and stability in the region and the wider world. A recent example was when the Prime Minister welcomed the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to London last month, demonstrating the strength of our historic relationship with the UAE and our commitment to working together to advance regional prosperity, peace and security.

The United Kingdom and Bahrain also have a close and long-standing relationship—one reinforced during my recent visit to Bahrain. We benefit from a genuine and open dialogue, working together on mutually beneficial issues while also being able to speak frankly when we have concerns. Meanwhile, the UK is Israel’s largest European trading partner, with total trade worth around £5 billion last year—a significant increase on the 2019 figures. We are working together on a new, ambitious UK-Israel free trade agreement that will modernise our trading relationship, covering new areas such as technology and data.

Israel remains an incredibly important strategic partner, and we collaborate closely on issues such as counter-terrorism and cyber to address our shared national security threats. The recent Carrier Strike Group engagements, including at the port of Haifa, demonstrated the strength of UK-Israel defence ties. I am happy to make it clear that our commitment to Israel’s security is unwavering.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the fact that good friends of the UK came together through the Abraham accords to be good friends to each other. Those three great friends of the UK chose a path of peace, collaboration and prosperity between societies, cultures and, as he was right to point out, peoples. We were one of the first countries to welcome the accords and to celebrate the other normalisation agreements that followed with Morocco and, as my right hon. Friend said, Sudan.

During the last 12 months, we have been celebrating and reinforcing the agreements, although that period has of course proved a challenge. We are pleased to see that the three nations have grasped the opportunities that normalisation presented. We have seen burgeoning economic partnerships in travel, technology, energy, climate and more. Just last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid made his first official visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain, thus enhancing bilateral ties.

A new Israeli embassy has opened in Manama. Direct commercial flights have commenced and agreements have been reached on sport, health and environmental protection. During my visit to Bahrain, I had the pleasure of being at a bilateral lunch when the new Bahraini ambassador to Israel received a phone call telling him that he was going to be Bahrain’s first ever ambassador to the state of Israel.

For me, perhaps one of the most wonderful and moving moments is when I had the pleasure, during Hanukkah last year, to be present at the virtual lighting of the Menorah. It was an event where I, the Ambassadors to the Court of St James from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel came together in this iconic Jewish festival. It showcased the strength of commitment from all sides to this agreement to reinforce the longevity and prosperity of their relationship.

My right hon. Friend was right to mention the fact that the United Kingdom has helped to celebrate through this year. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) for organising a reception here in the House of Commons where representatives from Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates came together to celebrate the anniversary of the Abraham accords.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newark mentioned the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians and he was absolutely right to do so. It is important that these agreements also lead to tangible benefits for the Palestinian people. Sadly, the escalation in violence that we saw in May of this year and the loss of life that resulted is yet another reminder that we collectively have a responsibility to break the cycle of violence using our strong and strengthening relationships with all the parties.

As the Abraham accords demonstrated with the suspension of plans for annexation, normalisation has had a positive track record for delivering progress toward shared goals. The UK is committed to making progress towards a sustainable two-state solution that ensures a safe and secure Israel living alongside a safe and secure Palestinian state based on 1967 border lines, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states. We believe that negotiations will be the only way to get this outcome that will be supported by Israelis, Palestinians and the wider international community. Echoing the words of Israel’s Minister of Defence, Benny Gantz, the accords have opened a “window of opportunity” to advance steps towards a political middle east peace process.

We want to see greater co-ordination and co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly on economic initiatives, to help improve the day-to-day lives of Palestinians and build increased dialogue. It is incumbent on us all to seize the opportunity afforded to us by the accords and make meaningful progress towards sustainable, long-term peace in the region.

We welcome recent engagements between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian leadership, including the meeting between Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Defence Minister Gantz on 29 August this year.

I am due to visit Israel in December—my first visit as the Minister for the region, although, of course, not my first visit to the country. I will then have completed the trio of the Abraham accords’ initial signatories, having visited the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain earlier this year. I look forward to discussing what further opportunities the accords bring, not just regarding our respective relationships with Israel, the Arab Emirates and Bahrain, but to see what we can do to use the accords to further peace and prosperity in the region more widely. Of course, we have encouraged other nations to seize this opportunity and to normalise their relations with the state of Israel. We urge further direct engagement and call on all parties to work together to tackle the immediate and long-term threats to peace and security.

The Abraham accords demonstrate how normalisation can bring people together to forge new friendships and, as my right hon. Friend said, perhaps most importantly to nurture hope. We will continue to intensify our diplomatic efforts in the region, focused on creating the conditions for long-term, sustainable peace. I look forward to working closely with my opposite numbers in the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, and, indeed, any other country that wishes to join and support the normalisation of relations, and bring peace, strength and stability to the region.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.