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East Jerusalem and the West Bank

Volume 729: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will ask the Government of Israel to return to its original owners expropriated land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank which has not been developed or is used only for military training.

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know from my reply on 16 June, we are very concerned about Israel’s policies on developing settlements. It is Britain’s long-standing policy that settlements are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. During his recent visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories, my honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Alistair Burt, stressed the need for the parties to return to negotiations on the basis of parameters set out by President Obama in his speech on 19 May—that is, the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, as well as security arrangements that protect Israel and respect Palestinian sovereignty.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Does he accept that my Question is a modest attempt to prevent new facts on the ground being created in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are bound to pre-empt the negotiations that he mentions? Are we not already faced with a single-state situation, with Bantustans in Ramallah and Gaza, and will the quartet act positively to redress the most unequal balance?

The quartet, alas, in its recent meetings found itself unable to establish even enough agreement for a statement, so this indicates the continuing difficulty, tensions and disagreements underlying this whole scene. The noble Lord is absolutely right about the creation of facts on the ground, which are obviously an obstacle to a return to negotiations and a serious impediment to the long-term prospects for peace. It is particularly concerning that the building of settlements and these demolition programmes in East Jerusalem, which are illegal, are continuing, particularly the very provocative building and demolition operations going on in the Sheikh Jarrah district. I have to agree with the noble Lord, but these are matters that we keep raising with the Israeli authorities. These are not just UK matters; they concern all countries that want to advance the peace process, including of course the United States.

My Lords, the noble Lord said that Mr Burt raised the hope of the United Kingdom Government that there would be negotiations, but he was not explicit about how the Israelis responded. He has implied negativity but has not been explicit. Can he explicitly tell your Lordships’ House what the Israelis did say in response, and, if it was negative, does the noble Lord really believe that there is any realistic possibility of negotiations with a Netanyahu-led Government?

I was not explicit because, as the noble Baroness will know—she is better equipped than most of us in these sorts of areas—what one often gets when making representations that are not welcome to the recipients is a shrug of the shoulders and a polite nodding of the head but no action. I am afraid that the most visible action is of the opposite kind—buildings have continued to be demolished, which gives rise to a question about the prospects for progress.

No one can disguise the fact that most of the responsible world—the Arab world, the western world, the European Union, the United States, the UN—believes that the present fluidity and turmoil in the region provides an opportunity for Israel and a Palestine that we hope is moving towards a united Government, although it is not there yet, to start serious negotiations. That is what we want, but it has to be said that this has appeared not to be the opinion of the Israeli authorities at the moment. Their inclination appears to be just to hunker down and hope that something else will turn up.

It is not a situation in which we are optimistic. None the less, we think that continual pressure and the continuing presentation of the realities of the destructive path on which an Israel that refused to negotiate would set itself will eventually move things, but I cannot pretend that it will happen tomorrow morning.

My Lords, my noble friend made much of the fact that the Minister declared that the settlements were illegal under international law, but is my noble friend aware that if the Minister had gone further and said that there might therefore be a case for materials produced in those settlements to be boycotted, he would be in breach of the new anti-boycott law which the Knesset introduced on 11 July? What is Her Majesty's Government’s response to the introduction of that law? Does my noble friend agree that it seriously undermines not only freedom of speech in Israel but even Israel’s credentials as an open, free and democratic society?

I myself—and I think this would be a government view—do not very much like the shape of the boycott law, which seems to intrude very greatly on the freedom even of speech about what can be traded and developed in the relevant areas. However, I understand that the matter will come before the Israeli Supreme Court and has been challenged, so maybe it is premature to make final judgments on it. Generally, we think that boycotts are not the way forward—they impede the sensible development of trade—and we should perhaps not forget that, although much of what I have had to say is gloomy, trade and activity, not in Jerusalem but elsewhere on the West Bank, are developing really rather well, and many people, including in your Lordships' House, are well aware of some of the remarkable enterprises that are springing up in places such as Ramallah and elsewhere.

My Lords, do Her Majesty's Government believe that there should be no return of land until there is a final settlement? The noble Lord will know that that statement was made back in 1967. Is that still the view of Her Majesty's Government today?

I think the noble and learned Baroness is aware that this question has come up very recently in discussion. I believe that that statement was made by a former Foreign Secretary, George Brown MP, many years ago after the 1967 war and the Israelis’ occupation of the West Bank after they were attacked. I do not believe that it forms part of the entirely new and fluid situation that has developed long since then, or of the new realities that we have to face in moving to negotiation. I will check the precise legal status of that statement, which was valid all those years ago, but I do not think it is at all relevant to the way in which we want to go now.

My Lords, are not the attitude and policy of the Administration of the United States of America key to a resolution of these matters? Can my noble friend say whether they are pressing as hard as Her Majesty's Government are?

My noble friend is right to say that the influence of the United States on the situation is major, although it may not be absolutely as final as it is sometimes argued. The European Union has its role and individual nations have theirs. The United Kingdom continues to be able to play an influential role and maybe could do even more. But obviously if the United States is not, as it were, on side, little progress will be made. We all hope that the very fine speech made by President Obama indicates the way he wants to go and that he is allowed to go that way. However, we would be blind if we did not recognise that there are formidable political forces in the United States which seem to stand in the way of sensible progress on this issue.