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Israel and Palestine: Balfour Declaration

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they marked the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration; and what is their current assessment of the welfare of Israelis and Palestinians.

My Lords, I should perhaps explain that the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, was taken unwell this morning and I am therefore standing in her stead at short notice. The British Government have not organised any events to mark the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. However, the Attorney-General and the British ambassador in Tel Aviv attended a dinner event on 12 November in Tel Aviv, organised by the Israel, British and the Commonwealth Association. We were deeply concerned about the welfare of both the Israelis and the Palestinians during the recent Gaza conflict. That violence only reinforces the need for urgent progress towards achieving a two-state solution to secure the long-term welfare and security of both Israelis and Palestinians.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that the Palestinians feel totally betrayed by successive British Governments since the Balfour Declaration? By making our Government’s support for tomorrow’s United Nations bid conditional on Palestine not pursuing Israel through the International Criminal Court, are the Government not admitting that Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank and that they are seeking impunity for that country?

My Lords, the Government are concerned, as far as is possible in an extremely difficult situation, to restart the process towards negotiations on a two-state solution. We recognise that this is becoming increasingly difficult; the Foreign Secretary said in his Statement in the other place only a couple of hours ago that time is running out and if we do not manage to achieve a two-state solution within the next year or two, we may find ourselves looking at some very unpalatable alternatives. That is what the Government are fixed on.

My Lords, it is easy for supporters of Israel or the Palestinians to criticise the other side, so I will not trade missiles with the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge. Does not the noble Lord agree, however, that the important objective now is to look forward and bring the two sides to the negotiating table, and that efforts by the Palestinian Authority to gain recognition at the UN are more of a distraction than a help?

My Lords, it is very important to give some support to the Palestinian Authority. If Israeli illegal settlements continue to expand, the position of the Palestinian Authority will become impossible. Therefore, although we have done our best as a Government to dissuade the Palestinian Authority from taking this resolution to the UN General Assembly at this point, we understand why it feels it necessary to do so.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration makes this an appropriate moment to recall the understanding in Mr Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild that,

“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”—

a tragic contrast to the continuing breach of Palestinian human rights caused by illegal settlements on the West Bank and by ethnic cleansing in east Jerusalem? Does the Minister also accept that, given the almost unanimous consensus to which he has himself referred, a two-state solution is the only way to resolve this long-running dispute in the interests of both Israel and Palestine? It is entirely logical and right that we should not only give unconditional support to the very modest Palestinian hopes for enhanced membership of the United Nations but encourage our friends and partners to do likewise. Finally, I understand that the Foreign Secretary made a Statement in the House of Commons this morning on this subject. I express some regret that it was not thought appropriate to repeat it here this afternoon.

My Lords, I reread the Balfour Declaration before I came in and it is a masterpiece of diplomatic drafting. It is not entirely clear and has a number of deliberate ambiguities within it. Her Majesty’s Government are very concerned to bring pressure to bear on all those who have a stake in the negotiations, including the Governments of Israel and the United States, to exert all their efforts now to restart the negotiations. I stress again that time is not entirely with us. We wish to avoid a situation in which opinion in the US Congress, or perhaps right-wing opinion in Israel in an election campaign, might lead to a demand for retaliation for recognition of Palestinian statehood. We are therefore doing our best to promote the two sides being brought together rather than have them score points against each other.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that, in the interests of peace in the Middle East, Palestinians need to be supported in finding legitimate, non-violent alternatives to the rockets that have been raining in from Hamas on southern Israel? Does he not see that tomorrow’s seeking of some formal recognition falls into that category? Does he not recognise that, if we are not to see Palestinians sign up to a cause to die for, we have to give them hope to live for?

My Lords, we entirely understand that. We have been in active discussion with the Palestinian Authority and with other Governments over the past week about the exact text of the resolution and we are continuing those discussions. If we gain from the Palestinians the assurances that we are looking for, we will be able to vote in favour of the resolution.

My Lords, the argument for a two-state solution is one with which we are in entire agreement and continue to be so. We have also urged, and continue to urge, both sides to behave with legality, because that is a precondition for any kind of stability in the region. However, does the Minister agree that, in order to change what is going on and achieve an enhanced status for the Palestinian people, support at this time would be a very valuable step? Does he also agree that it is extremely unlikely that it would set back any part of the peace process—an argument that has been advanced in this House and which, candidly, few of us understand?

My Lords, we are providing very active support. My honourable friend Alistair Burt was in Gaza and the Middle East last week and we are providing a great deal of financial support both in Gaza and in the West Bank.

Given that the vote at the United Nations is merely symbolic and observer status, exactly like that of the Holy See—the Vatican—should not threaten anyone, will Her Majesty’s Government have conversations with the Americans to remind them of their obligations under the Oslo accords? One of three preconditions from Oslo was that the Americans had to engage positively and proactively in bringing out a two-stage solution.

My Lords, my noble friend knows the complexities of American politics as well as I do, and knows that the United States is in a very different position in terms of congressional politics from us in either of the two Houses here. We have actively to engage with the United States to get it to turn back and towards negotiating a peace process.