Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Palestinian Leadership in the light of the outcome of the debate on the Resolution on the status of Palestine within the United Nations at the United Nations General Assembly on 29 November.
My Lords, like all Members of this House, I believe that the two-state solution is and must be the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; that is, 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 agreed settlement for refugees.
However, as both the Foreign Secretary Mr William Hague and my right honourable friend Mr Douglas Alexander have said countless times over the past few weeks:
“Time is running out for a two-state solution”.
The news that Israel has seized more than $120 million of the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority has made the situation much more dangerous, as has the announcement that Prime Minister Netanyahu has authorised the construction of 3,000 new homes and settlements and the speeding up of 1,000 existing planning permissions. Indeed, the UN Secretary-General has said that this could be,
“an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution”.
Last week, there was a massive vote at the UN General Assembly in favour of Palestine moving from an observer entity to an observer state at the United Nations. There were 138 nations in favour, including France and Spain; nine against; and 41 abstentions, including the United Kingdom. This was a strong global signal in favour of an independent Palestinian state. It also happened to reflect the views of the British people: 72% of respondents in a recent YouGov poll said that they were in favour of recognising the Palestinian state, and only 6% were against. Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli Deputy Defence Minister, said before the vote that,
“Abbas’s statehood bid can be a game-changer if the American and Israeli governments respond prudently. Or it can be another missed opportunity—and a potentially disastrous one at that—if they respond punitively to a remarkable Palestinian achievement at the UN General Assembly”.
Sadly, prudence has been abandoned by the Israeli Government.
We strongly believe that the British Government were wrong not to support the Palestinian resolution. It is one of the steps to achieve and negotiate a two-state solution. The fact that we abstained was an abdication of responsibilities to both the Israeli and Palestinian people, most of whom wish to live in peace. The vote was also an important means of demonstrating support for President Abbas, crucial at any time but especially in light of the most recent conflict in Gaza, in which the power and influence of Hamas were enhanced. The Palestinians not only wanted Palestine to be recognised as a state—a prerequisite, I suggest, for a two-state solution that is impossible when only one side is recognised as a state—they also wanted a strong leader. They, like the world, wanted tangible proof that diplomacy works better than rockets.
In the House of Commons last week, Mr Hague said that Government relations with President Abbas were excellent. Indeed, I hope that they are. However, I wonder what the Palestinians think of our position now that the feared retributions have begun. I have no doubt that the Middle East will be a priority for President Obama in his second term of office. However, the UK’s abstention will not have helped—quite the contrary—and it will have diminished our position as a global leader in the eyes of the world.
Before the vote, the Foreign Secretary said that recognition at the UN risked paralysing the peace process, but for far too long there has been only paralysis and no process. There has been continued settlement building, and continued rocket attacks, but no process. I utterly condemn the rocket attacks from Gaza. Like many parliamentarians, I have visited Sderot and spoken with the Israelis whose lives are blighted by rocket attacks—and constant fear. However, I have also seen the settlements, which I utterly condemn and which are against international law. Each house built entrenches the Israeli occupation of Palestine and makes Israel and its people less, rather than more, secure.
Last week’s announcement that some of the new construction would be in E1 has alarmed the global community. E1 is a five-square mile controversial development on the outskirts of Jerusalem that would partly divide the West Bank and would hugely complicate efforts to create a contiguous Palestinian state. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has called it,
“the worst slap in the face of a US President”.
I welcome Mr Hague’s comments that:
“Israeli settlements are illegal under international law and undermine trust between the parties. If implemented, these plans would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that makes the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, increasingly difficult to achieve”.
Mr Hague is absolutely right. I understand that Israel’s ambassador has been called to the Foreign Office for a meeting with Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East. Clearly this is the right thing to do, but it will not undo the damage done to Britain’s standing on this issue as a consequence of its misguided abstention. The Minister will know that there has been much press speculation today that our ambassador in Tel Aviv could be withdrawn. I would be grateful for clarification. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had on this issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, the EU’s High Representative?
It is said that Mr Netanyahu is taking these actions with one eye on the elections in January. I suggest that the crisis in the Middle East is too important for the area to be used as a political football. Indeed, it is terrifying. Then, of course, there are the tax revenues, collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, which Israel has refused to hand over and which it will review on a monthly basis. This punitive action is intolerable and again exacerbates tensions and frustrations rather than enhancing the safety and security of Israel. In the past, when Israel has frozen the monthly revenues of the Palestinians it has resulted in the late payment of salaries for thousands of public servants in the West Bank and Gaza.
I wholeheartedly condemn violence but is it any wonder that the level of anger is heightened when men and women can no longer provide for their families? These tax revenues are not gifts to buy treats; they are moneys owed to the Palestinians on which they rely for their day-to-day existence. I would be grateful if the Minister would say what representations the Government have made to the Israeli Government on this critical matter, and what discussions they have had with Secretary of State Clinton.
I have no doubt that the Saudis and other friends of the Palestinians in the Arab world will do what they can to assist financially. This would be an understandable and welcome short-term solution for the Palestinians, but it cannot be sustainable for any of the parties concerned, including Israel. I wonder what the British Government will do on the issue. For the past four years there has been a near-total cessation of terrorist activity in the West Bank, partly as a result of co-operation between the Israel Defence Forces and the Palestinian security forces, organised by Lieutenant General Keith Dayton’s team. However, if the Palestinian economy collapsed as a result of external economic pressures, the situation could easily be reversed and Israel would become even more vulnerable.
The vote in the UN last week demonstrated that the world wants a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a two-state solution in which both states live in security and with dignity. Whereas recognition of Palestine as a state by giving it observer status at the UN is a positive step forward, the subsequent announcements by the Israeli Government are a deeply worrying development that could jeopardise hopes for peace. The UK’s ill judged abstention at the UN was supposed to secure continuing influence with Israel, but there is little evidence of that strategy working. I now urge the Government to co-ordinate their actions with European partners so that further steps can be taken to help ensure that Israel complies with international law and demonstrates a commitment to peace. Most urgently, I trust that all efforts will be made to ensure that Prime Minister Netanyahu hears this message loud and clear when he meets Chancellor Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday.
My Lords, I commend the noble Baroness for securing a debate at this time on an issue that transcends all party differences. On 29 November 1947, the United Nations voted in Resolution 181—with 33 for, 13 against and 10 abstentions: in other words, voted very powerfully—for the establishment of the State of Israel. It also wanted to see the establishment of a Palestinian state. On 29 November 2012, the United Nations voted again, and 138 out of the now 193 member states voted for the possibility of moving towards a new member state. They did not declare that it was a state, only that it was moving towards being a state.
Who voted against? Panama, Palau, Nauru, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, the Czech Republic, Israel, the United States and Canada. How is it possible that the State of Israel, which was brought into being by an overwhelming majority vote in the United Nations, has contrived over the subsequent years to so lose the confidence of other member states that it finds itself with so little support in its opposition to the perfectly reasonable demand for a Palestinian state?
The peace process has been paralysed for years. There has been no peace process for years. I speak as someone who spends a considerable amount of time working on this issue and on events in the region. Huge changes are taking place—and they are not for the better. The world has changed. I do not think that some of our colleagues in this country, in Israel and certainly in the United States realise that the world has already changed. It is the kind of change that took place in the run-up to, and after, the First World War. The balance of power is different. Changes take place because of changes in technology. Having massive military power in the old sense no longer cuts it. It no longer stops or starts major political change.
It is said by many in the Israeli establishment that there is no partner for peace. Therefore, what is the objection to recognising a nascent state that can become a partner for peace? If there is to be a partner for peace, and if the complaint is that Palestinians are fragmented, surely this creates the opportunity for the various elements in the Palestinian state to come together—for Hamas, Fatah and others to become a partner for peace. However, I think that we have gone beyond all of that. It is no longer clear that a two-state solution is possible. If it is not, there are only two other obvious possibilities that I can see. One is a single state, which manifestly cannot be a Jewish state if it is democratic. The other is some form of chaos and war in the region. It is wholly possible that that is what we are looking at: we are sliding into a regional war.
What is the alternative? It is that we look to a regional process to create stability in the region. Noble Lords will not be at all surprised that I speak about such a process because I have been banging on about it for years. I have not for years seen the possibility of Israel and the Palestinians negotiating an outcome, and I do not any more see the United States providing a particularly useful role in achieving it. There was a time when it could have. There was a time when the European Union could have played a role of this kind, but it is so intent on focusing on its internal problems that it has not been able to provide any kind of useful contribution to the peace process. There is a great urgency about the development of a regional process to save us from regional chaos and to give the possibility of the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace and stability alongside the State of Israel.
In this regard, I say with great sadness that our country this time is on the wrong side of history. This is a serious error of judgment. This was an opportunity to rescue the reputation of this country in a region that has not been impressed by the military adventures of the past 10 or 15 years. It was an opportunity for our country to say clearly that we support our friends in the State of Israel but that we do not give them a veto on our policy, or who we talk to, or who we are prepared to engage with. I do not expect my friends to tell me who I can and cannot talk to; I expect them to come along with me to talk to people. If my friends say they want a partner, I try to establish a relationship with that partner. Instead, we as a country find ourselves closing in, in a way which—whatever our Israeli Government colleagues say—is not good for Israel, never mind for this country.
I spent the past weekend organising two international conferences in London. At the second was a very senior Israeli—a senior, very Jewish, very Israeli Israeli. His commitment to his country, in diplomatic, political, academic and security terms, had been, he said, “my whole life”. I asked him what he thought of the vote. He said: “Israel should have supported the vote. It should have made it clear that it wants a partner for peace and wants to give Palestinians an opportunity to get together as a state to be a partner for peace”. Recognition of a developing Palestinian state does not define its boundaries; that is part of the problem. It does not describe its population; that is part of the problem. It does not tell us how we are going to relate the various different Swiss-cheese parts of its territory; that is part of the problem. However, it does give a partner with whom to engage in a peace process.
It saddens me greatly, and frightens me greatly, that we face such dangerous times in that region, from which we will not escape. On this occasion our Government did not do the right thing for the country. I hope that they can review their approach, not in terms of the vote, as the vote is past, but in terms of how we engage to ensure a regional process towards stability. Otherwise we will, I fear, observe a regional descent into chaos.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for raising this urgent, peace-threatening question. Your Lordships may be aware that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter, together with the Roman Catholic bishop, Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton, had written to the Foreign Secretary in some regret at the UK’s abstention from the UN vote on Palestine’s non-member observer status. They—and all of us on these Benches, irrespective of our views on voting or abstention—urge Her Majesty’s Government to do everything possible to revitalise the stalled peace process in the Middle East.
I am particularly grateful that the last speech highlighted the importance of a regional peace discussion. We understand the desire to urge all parties to desist from actions—such as a Palestinian appeal to the International Criminal Court—which would make a restart of discussions, whether completely international or more regional, more difficult. Yet is there not a desperate need to signal that there must be a way forward through international law, which the new Palestinian status surely indicates, lest despair of a two-state solution, or any other solution, lead to the resumption of violence such as the firing of rockets from Gaza, which has already been alluded to? That could slide into the regional war to which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has just alerted us.
My stress on a solution grounded in international law is a point which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter would have made had he been in his place. He is in fact visiting some of his flooded churches today. This stress enables me warmly to welcome today’s news from the Foreign Office of the summoning of the Israeli ambassador to meet the Minister with responsibility for Middle East affairs. Afterwards a spokesman mentioned the Government’s potential “strong reaction” to Saturday’s announcement of Israel’s building plans between east Jerusalem and the West Bank. These plans seem, to my judgment, an absolute roadblock to the resumption of any progress and any new negotiations. There are many things on either side which could threaten the only real option for peace—the resumption of discussions, which is the only real option for security for Israel, as has already been mentioned. Continued building on the wrong side—the wrong side in international law; the wrong side of the green line—is, in my view, the most serious threat of all.
First, my Lords, I apologise: I did not realise that the debate was going to start so very early. However, I am honoured and delighted to be here.
During my career and personal life I am proud to have worked, and continue to work, for both Jews and Arabs who are in Israel and the neighbouring countries. I have spent much of my time building bridges between their communities—working together on our similarities and differences, discussing how we live, and, more importantly, discussing how they can live happily together. That is why I believe it is essential that we work to support both Israel and Palestine to reach a two-state solution where the Jewish have their state—Israel—and the Arabs have their own state: Palestine. The Palestinians’ win at the United Nations General Assembly shows how many countries also agree that they deserve to have their own state. However, the remaining number of noes and abstentions demonstrates how the resolution still needs to be both discussed and developed.
Our Government did not vote yes. Last Thursday in the United Nations they abstained, showing how we in Britain do not completely dismiss the Palestinians’ rights but acknowledge that there are a number of issues that must be spoken about in order for our Government to agree wholly to the increase in Palestine’s status at the United Nations.
The shadow Foreign Minister, Douglas Alexander, spoke in the other place in a debate last Wednesday before the UN vote. He said:
“what I believe will be an overwhelming majority of the 193 members of the UN General Assembly in voting for enhanced observer status for the Palestinians. That vote can, and must, send a powerful signal to the Palestinians that diplomatic efforts and the path of politics, not the path of rockets and violence, offer the route to a negotiated two-state solution”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/11/12; col. 230.]
That is what we must all hope will occur.
As this House knows, only a week before this vote, Gaza and Israel were in conflict with rockets flying from both sides, and, sadly, there were casualties on both sides. Since Israel left Gaza in 2005 countless rockets have been fired from Hamas-run Gaza, and Hamas uses innocent citizens to hide behind. We must all acknowledge Israel’s right to defend its own country. We cannot ignore that Israel, like Palestine, has a right to exist. Hamas saw the results on 29 November as a victory. It is important for the Palestinian people but Hamas is not there to benefit its people. It is not the Government; it is a terrorist group that uses its own citizens as shields to hide its operations. It is a group which publicly announces the annihilation—the annihilation—of the State of Israel.
Whether you say shalom or salaam, it is this word—which means peace—to which we must always return. We must all work together for peace in that area. How do the Government consider the UN results on the status of Palestine will encourage them to go back to the negotiations when they have refused to take part in the past two years?
Before I finish, I would like to tell a fable of a London man who once went to a law society and asked to be recommended to a one-armed solicitor. “Why one-armed?”, asked the official. “Because,” the man replied, “I am sick to death of lawyers saying, on the one hand this, and on the other hand that”. That was a perfectly good reason for wanting somebody with one hand. On the one hand, if you do not recognise that others have a case, you will lose yours. On the other hand, if you do not put your case firmly, then you will not be an advocate for long. And without any hands, you certainly cannot clap. One Hand Alone Cannot Clap is the name of a book that I wrote some years ago about Israel and the Middle East. It is important that we acknowledge that you cannot base arguments or work for peace with only one side. No one would argue against the rights for the Palestinian people to have their own home, and this is also so true for Israel. We must all learn to clap together and to live happily and peacefully side by side.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked a very important and interesting Question. My noble friend Lord Alderdice referred to the United Nations vote in 1947. Many people seem surprised that the UK abstained in the vote to upgrade the status of Palestine at the UN. However, students of history will appreciate—this has not yet been pointed out—that this abstention follows the precedent of Britain abstaining in the 1947 vote on the UN partition plan leading to the creation of the State of Israel. Some things do not change. It has always been a foregone conclusion at this time of the United Nations that a large majority of nations, including the Islamic and non-aligned states, would vote in favour of the UN’s de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood. Some things have changed since 1947.
We can achieve the desirable result of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel only by joint negotiations between the two parties. I quote from a newspaper this weekend, which stated:
“Mr Abbas has said he will not return to talks, which were broken off in 2010, without a freeze in settlement building, ignoring Israeli calls for a resumption of negotiations without preconditions”.
I am against the expansion of settlements. However, even an amateur prophet could have predicted that the Israeli reaction to the UN vote would be to announce the approval of construction of new settler homes. The E1 proposed area which the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred to only has preliminary zoning and planning. Although that is bad enough, it is not actually in the building stage.
I hope that Her Majesty's Government will stress to the Palestinian leadership—which is the point of the noble Baroness’s Question—that if it wants to stop the building, it had better get to the negotiating table as quickly as possible. Surely Mr Abbas does not want the same said about him as was said about Mr Arafat: that he lost no opportunity to lose an opportunity. The man who said that, Abba Eban, an Israeli Foreign Secretary, also once said that if Algeria introduced a General Assembly resolution that the world was flat and Israel had flattened it, it would pass 100 to 10 with about 50 abstentions.
President Abbas is requesting recognition for a state half of which he does not even control. Since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2006, Mr Abbas, as far as I know, has not visited there even once. The resolution pushes further away the prospects for peace. The only way to achieve peace is through direct negotiations, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will stress this to both sides. Unfortunately for ordinary Palestinians, they will see little gain from the UN achievement. The Gaza Strip will remain under the rule of Hamas. The move seems more likely to undermine prospects for reviving the peace process, as described eloquently by my noble friend Lord Alderdice, except for one redeeming feature; namely, improving President Abbas’s reputation on the Arab street. Not negotiating with Israel has been Mr Abbas’s choice in recent years, whether due to his distrust of Israel or due to his own unwillingness to make compromises. The move to the UN looks more like a continuing strategy to avoid negotiations and not a way to revive them.
When Mr Abbas first laid out his ambitions 18 months ago in the New York Times, he made it clear that he would use Palestine’s new status to try to confront Israel in international legal forums. That is not exactly conducive to peace. More than ever, Mr Abbas needed a domestic political win. This has only been heightened since the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. The Palestinian Authority had become largely irrelevant in the international theatre until the UN vote.
It must be noted that, in the past, the quiet co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has led to some genuine progress—not enough by a long way but some at least. What is needed is a de-escalation of tensions and a period in which each side commits, publicly or privately, not to take steps which antagonise the other, whether it is expanding settlements, which I disagree with absolutely, on the Israeli side, or unilateral moves in international organisations or legal bodies on the Palestinian side—and of course a cessation of hostilities from either side of the border.
If I was a public adviser to the Israelis, I certainly would not have advised them to announce the building of more settlements and a holding-back of taxation revenues. Perhaps I would have advised them to concentrate on what Israel does internationally in helping with world relief. When a massive earthquake struck Haiti, Israel was one of the first and most effective responders, using its undoubted technological know-how and experience for the benefit of others. Perhaps noble Lords have forgotten that, during Israel’s stay in Haiti, the medical delegation treated more than 1,110 patients, conducted 319 successful surgeries and delivered 16 births including three in Caesarean section. The IDF search and rescue force also performed very well. On irrigation projects around the world—the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke about the conference that he organised the other day—Israel is a world leader in water technology to develop new water sources, use the water that we have most efficiently and recycle waste water. We need more desalination plants around the Middle East and not just in Israel. On aid or advice to other regimes, according to MASHAV, an Israeli organisation, Israel has used its expertise to transform agriculture from traditional subsistence to sophisticated market-oriented production. It is for this reason that many countries in the developing world have sought partnership with Israel in addressing their agricultural challenges. Since 1958, MASHAV has trained in Israel and abroad almost 200,000 course participants from approximately 140 countries and has developed dozens of demonstration projects worldwide in fields of expertise.
If I were one of those mythical public relations consultants, perhaps I would also talk about the life-saving technology which has emanated from Israel. It is hard to know where to start. Hadassah University and the Weizmann Institute have produced scientists and Nobel laureates responsible for the research and development of important medical advances and life-saving techniques. Israel leads the world in stem cell research, with important breakthroughs in repairing tissues and organs damaged by Parkinson’s disease. Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, headquartered in Israel, is the largest generic drug manufacturer in the world and has made an incredible effort in helping to combat diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Israel has broken ground in fertility treatment. There is the neuromedical electrical stimulation system, a glove-like device that can help paralysed people; there is imaging technology; and there is help for cancer patients and nanotechnology.
The responses from Israel on settlement expansion and tax revenues do not help, but they must be seen in a context where the Palestinians refuse to sit and negotiate and have taken a unilateral step which aggravates the situation. Israel has said time and again that it wants a two-state solution, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Janner. I ask Her Majesty’s Government and all parties to do as my noble friend Lord Alderdice said and work to a regional solution where all parties get people to the negotiating table. It is not too late to do so. There is a chance for a two-state solution, but it is up to us, Her Majesty’s Government and other Governments to help by getting the two sides to that table to negotiate before it is too late.
My Lords, it is obviously a time when we should all turn our minds to how we take things forward. However, in our concern about how we take things forward, it is also important to have some historical context for what has happened, and it is a long story.
We have special responsibility in this country towards Israel because we were one of the principal powers that played a key part in bringing Israel into existence and we must therefore not betray our responsibility in that context. It is also important to remember that, historically and objectively, no people paid a higher price for the creation of the State of Israel than the Palestinian people. It is important therefore to see both sides of the argument in history, because it is not just a current crisis that we face but a deeply rooted history.
I do not happen to believe that the West and our own country under successive Governments have been even-handed in their approach to this situation, when, if any issue in the world demanded even-handedness, it was this one. We have been pro-Israeli, and history will read the message very clearly. We may try to persuade ourselves that we were not letting down the Palestinians but we were, repeatedly. Where has our voice been on the blockade, on the screwing of the economy of Gaza? In two or three years’ time, the one remaining aquifer in Gaza will collapse, because spare parts have not been allowed in through the blockade to maintain it. Ninety per cent of the water in Gaza is not fit for human consumption. The schools, the health, and the economy of Gaza have been screwed.
Almost exactly a year ago I was in the West Bank and Jordan, and up until then I had not realised quite what the settlements meant. They are not just a few nice settlements—Israeli suburbs in the West Bank and Gaza—but fortified encampments with security gates. Palestinian life is absolutely distorted. People are humiliated day after day as they pass through the security gates, where they are treated rather brusquely, to say the least. Farmers are able to get to their land and back again only at certain specified hours. I asked what would happen if a farmer had a heart attack. The UNRWA people told me, “Well, somebody would have to get on to us, and we’d have to try to negotiate an arrangement with the Israelis so that the gates were opened to allow the people back”. We have not faced up to the realities of what is going on.
Another issue worries me very deeply. I recall how in 1967 I was in Israel for the duration of the war. I talked to Israelis then, who said to me, as they listened to militant, pro-Israeli language being broadcast into the country in the excitement of everything that was going on, “It’s all right for these people, but we’ve got to make a future with our neighbours and all the people in the region”. Israelis said that to me. Since then Israelis have refused to serve in the armed services, because they will not be part of what is going on, and other Israelis have made brave stands against these policies. Our absence of even-handedness has let down those brave and courageous Israeli people who have tried to advocate an alternative policy for their country.
We have to look to the future. We must not suddenly switch from our responsibilities. History will not allow us to do that. But it is because we have special responsibility for the creation of the State of Israel that we must always speak honestly and bluntly about what really matters for Israel’s survival. The truth of the matter is that the present policies of Israel—and we all know this—could not be better designed to undermine the future prospects of the people of Israel. They prolong the danger and the threats that will accumulate.
How will we approach the future? Reference has been made to the need for a regional approach, which I am sure is right. We must have a regional approach to secure the future. However, a regional approach cannot impose a solution. No one can impose a solution. The solution will have to be generated by the Palestinian and Israeli people. That is where it will come from. We have an example in our own history, that of Northern Ireland. If it is to work, it must have the commitment of the key parties, which will mean a readiness to talk to people with whom it may not be very easy to talk, just as we learnt that we had to talk to the political wing of the IRA if we were to make progress. That was critical.
However, we also learnt something else in that process in Northern Ireland: that we must keep any preconditions to an absolute minimum because they will only distort everything, and they will not be owned by the participants. Some of the things that as outsiders we see as obviously essential must come from the participants in the negotiations, who have to come to those conclusions themselves. They must go through a process of learning in the negotiations that go on. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, would agree with me that that is exactly what happened in Northern Ireland.
We should also be encouraging and supporting them in practical co-operation. The conference on water organised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, which I was so glad to be able to attend, was a very interesting example of this. It demonstrated how we can help them to get into practical situations in which they see their mutual interdependence.
The most important point of all is that a negotiated, lasting, enduring solution will have to be inclusive. It will have to draw in the widest possible cross-section of people. It is nonsense, and stupidity, to refuse to see that Hamas has to be part of the solution. This can no longer be tolerated, because of course it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It undermines any chance of emerging moderate or more enlightened leadership in Hamas, and plays right into the hands of the extremists, who are there, and who will use Hamas for their own irreconcilable ideological religious—or other—objectives.
This will take a lot of imagination. What is tragic—and I use the word in the real Greek sense—about the vote last week is that we marginalised ourselves. I hope that my noble friend, who introduced the debate with a particularly good speech, will not mind my saying that the Question refers to talks with the Palestinian leaders since the vote. I cannot imagine that we are very high on the Palestinians’ list of priorities for talks at this juncture.
My Lords, I have not previously been involved in the debates on Israel and Palestine and the issues arising from them. I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing this debate, because I wanted to express simply, as somebody who is much more of an observer than many of the experts who have spoken already, the great concern that I have about the situation.
I am progressively more alarmed about this region, which has already been referred to being in turmoil at the present time. This situation does not threaten merely continuing bitterness and violence between Israel and the Palestinians but threatens the region, and may threaten ourselves, in terms of world peace and stability, the possible involvement of the United States, and the consequences of events in Iran. A number of developments here pose the greatest danger to us. I have always supported the State of Israel and its existence. However, the current actions of the Israeli Government imperil the State of Israel itself. Voices of concern and friendship have a duty to speak out at this time.
The New Statesman had a headline this week, that Mr Netanyahu risked condemning Israel to perpetual war. The awful thought, in such a dangerous world, of the risk of continuing and escalating conflict of this kind, must concern us all. This is a time when Israel needs support. The noble Baroness referred to the vote in the United Nations, which was 138 to nine. Of the nine, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, quoted, I had to look up who two of them were. One of them was Palau, which has a population of 20,000; another was Nauru, which has a population of 10,000; and the Marshall Islands came swinging in with a majority vote of 68,000. That is three votes in the United Nations with a smaller vote than the Isle of Wight in a constituency election. France, Italy and Spain came out against Israel, supporting the adoption of observer status for the Palestinians, while Germany, Holland, Australia and the United Kingdom abstained. I must say to my noble friend that I was disappointed that we abstained. I understand why the Foreign Secretary made that decision, but the Israeli reaction since has been a real slap in the face for him and others who had hoped for a more moderate response.
I say to the many noble Lords who express strong support for the State of Israel: does anyone in Israel still care about what the rest of the world actually thinks? It is deeply depressing at the present time. We have seen Mr Netanyahu going to America, snubbing the American President and marching straight off into a meeting of AIPAC, where he got a heroic reception, as he would. Against that background, it is deeply worrying. The Israelis are losing the support of countries that would have supported them strongly in the past. I had these thoughts even before the announcement of the disastrous reaction to the vote in the United Nations. Although the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, rather glossed over the decision to go ahead with preparations for E1 and the impact these have had on East Jerusalem, along with tax withholding and going ahead with more settlements, I certainly understood why Ban Ki-Moon said that it would be an “almost fatal blow” to hopes of peace. I am not sure that the present Israeli leadership under Mr Netanyahu actually has any intention of ever going forward with a two-state solution. I am afraid that that is the impression he gives outside the country. Everyone goes along with it, saying “That’s our policy”, but I am not sure whether he is ever going to move on it.
I much appreciated the speech of my noble friend Lord Alderdice. He and I know very well the old cry, “Not an inch and no surrender”, which I had shouted at me often enough in Northern Ireland, along with people trying to hit me over the head, but we knew that it was not the way out of the problem. Progress had to be made on both sides and, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, it had to involve the people on both sides. They have to understand their best interests. No sensible Israeli wants to be in a state of perpetual war. The Israelis cannot want to be in that continuing situation, and no Palestinians want to find themselves in the present miserable situation.
Against that background, the scale of change that is taking place in the world and in that region cannot be overstated. I have seen, and no doubt so has Israel, the visits that are now being paid to Gaza. The Prime Minister of Egypt has been to Gaza, as has a senior representative or perhaps the Emir of Qatar. Senior representatives from Bahrain have been there, and now I see that Mr Erdogan of Turkey is talking about going as well. These developments are profoundly significant. Whether these decisions and the reactions to them are to help the election campaign of Mr Netanyahu in January—we are promised the election of an even more hawkish coalition—is not known, but one does weep very seriously, not least because we still have the elephant in the room in the shape of Iran and its nuclear weapons. One wonders what kind of approach a more hawkish coalition might take to that.
I will just add this. I used to visit America on behalf of Northern Ireland, and I found that many of the expat Irish—the Irish lobby—were much more inclined to scream “No surrender” or “A united Ireland at all costs”, and then I would talk to the Irish-American politicians like Ted Kennedy, Daniel Moynihan or Tip O’Neill, and they were the sensible ones. Charlie Haughey used to be picketed when he went over because the Irish lobby there thought he had sold out on Irish independence. The British ambassador to the United States would say to me, “The green lobby, the united Ireland lobby, is jolly strong over here, but it is not a patch on the Jewish lobby”. The truth is that the Jewish lobby in the United States has done no service to Israel and it has done no service to the standing of the United States in the region. Let us think back to when President Clinton could stand between Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat. He was seen as an impartial assister towards peace. America is now seen to be one-sided, voting against the Palestinian resolution and no longer commanding confidence. A nation of the power and scale of the United States could easily be a tremendous force for good in the region.
I believe that we are in a serious and rapidly developing situation, one that makes the world more dangerous. For all who care about the future of Israel and its continuing existence, and not least providing a civilised life for all those in the region, it is desperately important that they realise that a change of course must be undertaken. They must get rid of all the conditions, sit down and try to find a genuine approach towards a two-state solution, or I fear for where the future may go.
My Lords, I had something of a conversion experience, I suppose it might be called when, like many, I went to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for the first time in 2001. Up to that point I had read of the declining circumstances in Palestine, but I was and remain inexorably concerned about the security of Israel. For my whole adult life I have been an inveterate supporter of that country. I am a huge admirer of Israel in all sorts of ways, just as I am of the Jewish community in this country. It was not necessary for my noble friend Lord Palmer of Childs Hill to remind us of the philanthropic tendencies of Jews. In this country they have an unrivalled record of philanthropy. The tragedy is that a great country and a great people have so demeaned themselves and behaved in a manner that is not just contrary to international law but contrary to simple morality and decency that I genuinely believe that they are now on a suicide path. They are losing former friends and, I suspect, ordinary citizens across the world in droves. That is a tragedy.
I was so committed to the survival of Israel that the only time I have ever offered to fight for anyone was in 1973. I wrote to the Israeli embassy here, but fortunately for me the state of Israel was rather effective at rebutting the attack and I was not called up. When I first went to the region I could not believe my eyes. Anyone in the House who has not been there and who doubts the horrors of both the West Bank and Gaza should go. I am always surprised at how many of my Jewish friends have not been to either of those places, but in a sense I do not blame them because I think they realise how unhappy it would make them to do so. I have been four or five times over the past decade, and I always work with Jewish charities and marvel at how brave and brilliant they are. I would mention Ir Amin, B’Tselem, Machsom Watch and a number of others. Machsom Watch is comprised of 500 middle-class Jewish women who go out on rota every day to stand at the checkpoints and observe the conduct towards the humiliated and harassed Palestinians, and at night they put what they have seen on the web. What a restraint that is. A woman who took me to a checkpoint said that she was called in by one of the commanding officers. He said, “We are both Jews and we should not be arguing about this”, but then she noticed on the wall behind his head a sign that read, “Our task is to make life as impossible for the Palestinians as we can”. That about says it all.
I turn to the circumstances prevailing in Gaza. We hear a lot about Israel getting out of Gaza and the Gazans messing up their opportunities. Well, for the majority of those concerned, getting out of Gaza was very much a utilitarian decision. Maintaining 8,000-plus settlers in Gaza was simply beyond the scope of the state of Israel and was counterproductive. Today, the situation is appalling. I will read out some statistics that I have dug out. According to UNWRA, 38% of Gazans are poor, 44% are food insecure, and 80% depend upon food aid. Gazan poverty is the world’s worst, but the only one created deliberately. The blockade has caused 17% more Gazans to be in the poorest category since 2005. More than a third of them—and more than half the young people—are unemployed. Hundreds of factories stand idle and they produce exports only at the rate of 3% of the level before the trouble. Eighty-five per cent of their fishing grounds and 35% of their agricultural land cannot be accessed because of restrictions. Eighty-five per cent of schools are run on double shifts, because others have been bombed. Ninety per cent of the water is contaminated. It is rather ironic that my noble friend talked about the prowess of Israel in water production when it has decimated the water supply in Gaza. As a result, over 50% of children have chronic diahorrea. Gideon Levy, in an article in Haaretz in July, told of the way water is used in the West Bank as a tool of colonisation. He wrote this dreadful account:
“The Civil Administration is supposed to take care of the people's needs. But it does not stop at the most despicable measure—depriving people and livestock of water in the scathing summer heat—to implement Israel’s strategic goal: to drive them from their lands and purge the valley of its non-Jewish residents”.
One needs at this point to repeat—and go on repeating—that Israel is split from top to bottom. One quarter to one-third of Israelis, by other people’s calculations, are totally opposed to what is going on in Palestine. Would that they were sitting here and speaking on the side of all, or most, of the speakers tonight. I have met some of these people, and they are brave, because they are subject to huge pressure. They are called self-hating Jews, I believe.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, said—absolutely rightly—that our Government have employed double standards towards Israel for decades, and it has got worse, not better. Thank goodness that after this latest scandal of, I think, 3,000 new colonists in East Jerusalem cutting East Jerusalem off from the West Bank by the E1 block, the Foreign Secretary has at last come out with a firm statement. I have been in this House since 2008, and I cannot tell you the number of times that we have had statements from spokesmen from Governments of all persuasions which add up to nothing. There is never any action. My feeling is that action is not just in the interests of the Palestinians or of peace in the Middle East, let alone in the wider world, it is in the interests of Israel itself. That is what drives me on this issue and makes me unwilling to hedge about and avoid the charges of anti-Semitism which always follow plain speaking on this subject, I am afraid to say.
I feel passionately that our Government, having made a start at what I call plain speaking in relation to plain facts, should pursue that path and if necessary be independent of the United States, which is in a particular relationship with the huge and powerful Jewish community there, as the noble Lord, Lord King, vividly explained. We must be independent and do what we think is right for Israel, the Palestinians, the Middle East and the peace of the world. If we do that, a lot of people in Palestine will listen to us.
In 2006, I had a meeting with Dr Ismail Haniyeh, one of the hate figures, who is the leader of Hamas in Gaza. I have to say I was immensely impressed by the man. Unless I have lost all my touch for understanding the reactions of people, I was impressed. I spent an hour with him man to man. He is dying for an opening and for some encouragement because he never gets a dividend for anything Hamas does, except more colonisation and more repression. There is hope to be had if we as a country can be brave with our policy, and I hope that the Government will carry on from where they now are.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I declare an interest as a former British official in the Middle East and as a UN Under-Secretary-General in that region. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, referred earlier to the great Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, who once noted that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Now the boot is on the other foot. The Israeli Government have elevated a significant diplomatic setback in the UN—one in which it was supported by only one out of the 27 members of the EU—into a significant regional and international crisis. I fear that the hard-line stance of the current Government is resulting in a haemorrhaging of support for Israel itself. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, referred to support for the resolution from Islamist and third world countries. The fact is that all the democracies of the world, with three exceptions—the United States, Canada and the Czech Republic—voted against Israel or abstained. That in itself is a stunning development in the history of diplomacy in the Middle East, and one that Israel needs to take careful note of. Never has its isolation been so marked.
It says a lot of Israel and of the Israeli press that these developments are followed closely and in a critical way. The newspaper Haaretz this morning is more scathing of the Israeli Government than many of the remarks made by noble Lords. Even the centrist newspaper, the Yedioth Ahronoth, is critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies and where they are leading Israel. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, have referred to the regional element of peace. Where do we stand on that? Israel has peace treaties, of course, with two Arab countries: Egypt and Jordan. Those peace treaties are being sorely tested these days. It is very difficult for a democratically elected President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, to stand up and argue to his people that this peace treaty is right and must be adhered to. Jordan, wisely guided by King Abdullah, is also suffering great strains, and I fear there is no doubt that the majority of Jordanian public opinion is quite critical of those peace treaties.
We have heard much about Gaza. Where have Israeli policies led there? I will tell you: next week, Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, will enter Gaza, and he will enter as a victor in the eyes of Palestinians. I do not think Abba Eban would recognise Israeli diplomacy today. Israel must rescind the actions announced by its Government in the last 48 hours: namely the declaration of more and more settlements—another 3,000 dwellings—and that planning will begin for settlement in E1, the land block between East Jerusalem and the heart of the West Bank. Everybody knows what that means. It is meant to be the end of the possibility of a Palestinian state. If that were not enough, $120 million—£75 million—of taxes owed to the Palestinian Authority have been seized by the Israeli Government in the past few days. Prime Minister Erdogan—a strong critic of Israel—will also visit Gaza soon. This is not diplomacy, and it is not diplomacy that is serving the state of Israel. Time, in my experience, is running out for a two-state settlement. We would all bitterly regret that and, most of all, it would cause great pain for the state of Israel.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond for the Government to this debate, brought by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, about the discussions that we have had with the Palestinian leadership in light of the Palestinian resolution at the UN General Assembly last week. It is an important and timely debate and I welcome it. I know the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a matter of great interest to the House and, as always, involves great emotion and sincerity of views on all sides. Achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of this Government’s top international priorities.
The UK has long been clear that we support a negotiated settlement, leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as a shared capital of both states and with a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees. That is the only way to secure a sustainable end to the conflict, and it has wide support in this House and across the world.
However, there has been a dangerous impasse in the peace process over the past two years, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Alderdice. The pace of settlement building has increased, and we have seen new and concerning reports of this in recent days. Continued rocket attacks on Israel and continued settlement building have resulted in frustration and insecurity deepening on both sides and the parties have not been able to agree a return to talks.
We are grateful to Egypt, the United States and the UN Secretary-General for their role in bringing about a ceasefire in Gaza last month. We now need to build on this to bring about a lasting peace, including, as my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury said, the opening up of the blockade in Gaza for trade as well as for aid; and, of course, also an end to the smuggling of weapons. The crisis in Gaza and tragic loss of Palestinian and Israeli life show why the region and the world cannot afford a vacuum in the peace process.
The frustration felt by many ordinary Palestinians about the lack of progress in the peace process is wholly understandable. We condemn illegal settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, because it threatens the very viability of the peace process and a two-state solution that we all support. After many decades, the Palestinians still do not have the state they aspire to. That is why we have consistently asked Israel to make a more decisive offer to Palestinians than in the recent past, and have also called on Palestinians not to set preconditions for negotiations.
We agree with my noble friend Lord Palmer that the parties must get back to the negotiating table. Only today, our consul-general in Jerusalem conveyed this view to the chief Palestinian negotiator. The only way to resolve the dangerous impasse in the peace process is a rapid return to credible talks. This is the Government’s guiding principle, and it was this concern that determined the Government’s approach to the Palestinian resolution at the UN General Assembly last Thursday. Nevertheless, we respect the course of action chosen by President Abbas. There is no doubt that he is a courageous man of peace. Let me be clear: we want to see a Palestinian state and look forward to the day when its people can enjoy the same rights and dignity as those of any other nation. That is why we stress the urgency of negotiations leading to a two-state solution.
Noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater, raised questions and concerns about the assurances that the Government sought from President Abbas and the position we took in relation to the vote. The Government, I suppose, judged that these assurances would help facilitate a return to negotiations. However, our priority now is to try to restart those negotiations. We call on all parties to show the political will necessary to achieve this. We will redouble our efforts to restart the peace process and continue our strong support for the two-state solution. As I have said to this House on many occasions, and indeed only recently, 2013 will be a crucial year for the Middle East peace process. We have urged Israel to avoid reacting to the resolution in a way that undermines the peace process and a return to negotiations. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Israeli Foreign Minister on Friday and the Israeli Defence Minister on Saturday. He made clear that we would not support a reaction that sidelined President Abbas or risked the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
We are therefore extremely concerned by the decision of the Israeli Cabinet to approve the building of 3,000 new housing units in illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This Government, along with our European partners, have consistently made clear that settlements are illegal under international law and undermine trust between the parties. If implemented, these plans would alter the situation on the ground on such a scale that it would make the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, increasingly difficult to achieve, if not impossible. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford was right to raise settlements as a pivotal issue. Such plans undermine Israel’s international reputation and create doubts about its stated commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians. We need urgent efforts by the parties and by the international community to achieve a return to negotiations, not actions that will make that harder.
In all the conversations that the UK has had with Palestinian negotiators, and those that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have had with President Abbas in the past week, relations have been excellent. That deep friendship will continue. The financial and political support that the UK gives, with very strong cross-party support, to the Palestinian Authority, which is among the foremost in the world, is understood well by the Palestinian Authority and will, of course, continue. We want the Palestinian Authority to succeed and we believe that President Abbas is the best interlocutor that Israel will have to bring about peace. We continue to be in regular contact with the Palestinian Authority, and officials in our consulate-general in Jerusalem had meetings in Ramallah today to reinforce the UK’s firm commitment to and support for the Palestinian Authority. My right honourable friend Mr Burt is planning, possibly this evening or tomorrow, to speak to the Palestinian chief negotiator.
We have been clear that we deplore the recent decision of the Israeli Government to build 3,000 new housing units and to unfreeze development in the E1 block, and the confiscation of this month’s clearance revenues. This threatens the viability of the two-state solution. On Saturday, the Foreign Secretary publicly called on the Israeli Government to reverse this decision. In common with steps taken by other European partners, including France, the Israeli ambassador to London was formally summoned to the Foreign Office this morning by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Middle East, who set out the depth of the UK’s concerns about the recent Israeli decision.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked what representations had been made to Israel on the confiscation of customs revenues. The Minister for the Middle East conveyed our serious concerns about this decision to the Israeli ambassador this morning. The national security adviser, Sir Kim Darroch, reinforced this concern to his Israeli counterpart when they spoke this afternoon. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, also raised the question of what consultations we have had with the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. We have had a number of consultations with key international partners since Friday, including with the office of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and with the US Administration. We note the strong statements of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and Secretary of State Clinton on these issues.
My noble friend Lord Alderdice raised important points based on greater experience. I am grateful for his contribution and also for the tone of his contribution. It is of course right that a regional initiative is important. Egypt’s success in relation to the Gaza ceasefire is just one great example of this, but I am sure my noble friend will agree with me that the US must now step up to the mark, as real progress will be made only with its positive involvement.
The noble Lord, Lord Janner, is right when he says that the future has to be agreed through diplomacy, not rockets. The recent conflict in Gaza left 160 Palestinians and six Israelis dead. That is not the way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, raised important issues, noting that in order to lay the foundations for future agreement, we must understand history. I agree that an even-handedness in this matter is as much in the interests of Israel as of the Palestinian people. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, also raised the issue of settlements. I hope he feels that I have dealt with that already.
Palestine is now a non-member observer state at the United Nations but, sadly, the situation on the ground remains the same. The only way to give the Palestinian people the state they deserve, and the Israeli people the security they are entitled to, is through a negotiated two-state solution. That requires both parties to return to negotiations, Israel to stop illegal settlement building and Palestinian factions to reconcile with each other.
The past month has highlighted the fragility of the situation in the Middle East and the coming year will prove crucial if peace is to be achieved. Urgency is required to ensure that we grasp the opportunities that will be presented. We encourage the US, with the strong and active support of the UK, the EU and the international community, to show decisive leadership and do all it can in the coming weeks and months to drive the process forward.
If progress on negotiations is not made next year, the two-state solution could become impossible to achieve. That is why the Foreign Secretary has said to the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that such an effort would need to be more intense than anything seen since the Oslo peace accords. We are ready to throw our support behind this to find a solution to the conflict before it is too late.