Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am most grateful for this opportunity to discuss the current status of the Middle East peace process, and I am particularly grateful that so many eminent and knowledgeable noble Lords will be lending their expertise to the subject over the next hour.
An hour is of course far too short a time in which to do justice to the importance and complexity of the issues involved. Nor would I expect the Minister to disclose the detailed nature and status of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, even if the UK was aware of them, which I rather doubt. We must trust that the US Secretary of State and his team will do their utmost to secure a successful outcome, recognising that we have little direct influence on the process.
However, if that is so, then what purpose might we set ourselves in this debate here today? We could, of course, remind ourselves of the many difficulties involved: the delineation of boundaries, the settlements, the status of Jerusalem, the right of return and so on. For my part, however, I will focus on three issues where I think we could and should go beyond just enthusiastic support for Secretary Kerry, where UK intellectual effort, advocacy and, in some cases, practical involvement might add value to the whole endeavour.
The first of these issues concerns the fundamental proposition that there should be a two-state solution. This has been questioned in the past, and there continue to be voices, perhaps increasing in number, arguing against it. The Foreign Secretary has himself suggested that time may be running out for a two-state solution. That must of course raise the question of what happens if time does indeed run out: what comes next? Some suggest that the time for such a solution is in fact long past—that some sort of single-state solution is the only realistic way forward. Many of these voices, although by no means all, are in Israel. But is it conceivable that an Israeli state that incorporated the present Occupied Territories could remain both Jewish and democratic?
If the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their previous homes is a device to undermine the state of Israel through demographics, as some would argue, then surely a one-state solution would achieve the same end, perhaps even more decisively. The UK Government remain committed to a negotiated two-state solution. This leads me to two conclusions. The first is that the UK needs to engage intellectually with those who argue against such a proposition. We should add our voices to a continuing international effort in this regard, rather than just assuming that the argument has been won for good and all. The second is that we need to do all we can to ensure that the window for a two-state solution remains open for as long as is necessary. While of course we want to engender a sense of urgency, we should be careful about suggesting the existence of cliff edges—or closed windows, if you prefer—lest we paint ourselves into an intellectual corner.
We all hope that something substantive emerges from the current negotiations, but long years of weary experience counsel us to rein in our expectations. In situations such as this, one has to combine long-term optimism with a grimly realistic short-term outlook. However, if the UK view is truly that the window for a two-state solution will soon close, then long-term optimism becomes Panglossian, and we should therefore be thinking now about alternatives, unpalatable though they might be. Is this truly the ground on which we wish to stand? I rather doubt it, and I certainly doubt the wisdom of even hinting at such a thing. The lessons of history suggest that, in cases such as this, one must never give up, never despair, no matter how dark the road might become.
The UK’s position, and therefore its message to others, should surely be that no matter how long it takes, no matter the setbacks, the international community must and will keep coming back to the issue, will keep bringing the parties back together, and will keep banging their heads against the brick wall until the wall one day starts to crumble.
The second issue that I want to raise concerns an important precondition for any enduring agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In political negotiations such as these, it is not sufficient for the leaders to agree upon the terms of a solution. They have to be able to carry with them sufficient of their constituents to enable them to turn any agreement into political reality on the ground. They will never convince everyone, but they need sufficient popular support to sustain them through what will no doubt be difficult and controversial times.
Much of this task will of course fall to the politicians on either side, but I suspect that they will need all the help they can get. So we should think hard about which international actors could wield the kind of influence necessary to condition the debates within both Israel and Palestine. The United States certainly has a role to play here. However, it no longer, I suggest, has quite the economic and moral strength that in old days might have helped it move heaven and earth. The UK is certainly no better placed in terms of direct influence; but perhaps our influence with third parties might be of some use in such an endeavour.
The contribution of the Arab League nations, even when somewhat divided, was an important factor in the recent resumption of talks. They and other countries in the region will continue to be important in the development, and particularly in the acceptance, of any solution. We have many friends among these countries with whom we might constructively engage over the coming months, in support of both the peace process itself and the means by which any agreement might be implemented.
With regard to the Israelis, I regret that we have even less direct influence than with the Palestinians. We seem to have allowed relations between our two countries to enter a sort of limbo. Indeed, it took me most of my tenure as Chief of the Defence Staff to persuade the Foreign Office that I should be allowed even to visit my Israeli counterpart.
I am pleased to say that things have improved somewhat in recent years but we are still playing catch-up, and we are seeing today the difficulties that playing catch-up presents for us when we seek to influence invents within the world. We do, though, have many individuals in the UK who maintain important contacts within Israel. Perhaps we need to think about mobilising this community in support of the current process, and exploring how it might contribute to the debate in Israel. This is no doubt already happening in an ad hoc fashion, but is there not some way we can mobilise this important resource to make up, at least in part, for our lack of direct national influence?
The third issue that I want to touch on is the question of security. One does not have to be a military genius to understand that Israel’s pre-1967 borders were a strategic nightmare. If we were simply to return to this situation, give or take elements of land swap, without providing a greater degree of defensive depth for Israel, then we would be putting in place an inherently unstable arrangement—one that in time would be highly likely to fail. On the other hand, Israel’s demand to exercise unilateral control over Palestinian airspace and in the Jordan Valley does not sit comfortably with the notion of Palestinian sovereignty.
Some have suggested that the answer is to involve NATO. However, the Israelis are very sceptical about such an arrangement. They view with an understandably jaundiced eye the international community’s record in the Lebanon, and would be loath to put their security in the hands of such a force in the Jordan Valley. I believe that the question of airspace control can be worked out relatively easily. There are many examples of allies—which is what Israel and Palestine would have to be—pooling responsibility for air defence and putting in place the necessary arrangements for unified airspace.
With regard to the Jordan Valley, only a degree of international involvement is likely to soothe Palestinian sensitivities. However, international involvement has to be what the Israelis are prepared to accept, even if reluctantly. This is an issue on which General Allen, the previous Commander of US Central Command, is currently working for Secretary Kerry. It is also an issue in which the UK has great expertise and to which it might make a significant long-term contribution. With that in mind, has the Ministry of Defence undertaken any discussions on the subject with the Pentagon? Has the ministry begun any assessment of the likely contribution that the UK might make to an international force? Of course these are early days, and we would not want to get ahead of ourselves, let alone of the negotiations. However, it is an area where some preliminary analysis could be of value, and certainly it is an issue on which we should be liaising closely with the Americans.
There is much else to be said about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but I will close with a wider observation. We seem to be witnessing—finally—the unravelling of the San Remo decisions and of the other attempts to tidy away the detritus of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The UK played a major role in that process. Although we may now be somewhat diminished on the international stage, we have an obligation to do all in our power to help address the consequent problems. Practical support for a continuing and enduring effort to resolve the Israel-Palestine issue must surely be the cornerstone of such efforts.
My Lords, I am sure that I speak for many in the debate when I say that it has been a particular privilege to hear the noble and gallant Lord introducing it so masterfully, with a résumé that was a showpiece of objectivity and constructiveness.
I declare an interest as chairman of the Middle East Committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, where we try to bring together Palestinian and Israeli politicians for dialogue. I have just returned from one such meeting. It also gives me the opportunity to visit the region, which I have done several times in the past year, meeting a good cross-section of parliamentarians, and indeed of political leaders, both in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
I will make a couple of observations. The first is that we should have learnt by now that enduring peace cannot be imposed, and that the danger is that if outside interests, however powerful, significant and critical to the outcome, slip into the error of thinking that they can manage the situation and manage a solution, we will be making trouble for the future. I think that the noble and gallant Lord was arguing that a solution has to belong to a sufficient cross-section of people; it must be owned. I look no further than Northern Ireland, where we have a very good example from our own history of putting that principle into practice. There is a difference between facilitating and masterminding negotiations; we forget that at our peril.
The second thing to remember—again, Northern Ireland is an extremely good example—is that if you are to have a successful outcome, a lot that is going on at ground level is important. It has often been overlooked, but in the lead-up to the initiating of the peace process in Northern Ireland, a lot of work went on among women, for example, at community level. This was terribly important in drawing more people—we have never been able to draw everybody—into a feeling of positive participation in the process, and in enabling them to influence events. Therefore, if we are to make a contribution—the noble and gallant Lord was absolutely right—we must not sit around agonising like a Greek chorus but must get on with offering practical advice and help.
One thing that we should facilitate is round-table discussions on issues such as women’s issues, climate change and its implications, and the problems of youth, into which we should draw, as far as we can, representative people from key elements in both communities. That could be immensely helpful, but, again, it can be done properly only if we have an endorsement of the process by the leaders in both countries, otherwise it looks as though we are just meddling and interfering.
An interesting thought I have heard expressed recently is that we might try to encourage, in third countries, scholarships and support for youngsters from Israel and the Occupied Territories in order that they can experience higher education mutually and together in the same place among others. This could make a powerful contribution.
I have made these observations, but of course there are many other issues such as human rights, the treatment of youngsters in the conflict and so on, which are acute problems that have to be resolved because they are aggravating everything. However, I suggest that the contextual elements in the process are indispensable.
My Lords, I have just come back from a visit to Israel and the West Bank, visiting many places including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Rawabi. I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, for tabling this debate and for his forensic analysis and detailed strategy which I unhesitatingly agree with. It is extremely positive that the two sides are back in the room. This is the first time that there has been a formal and sustained bilateral negotiation since 2008. Both sides have expressed their commitment to bringing about a final resolution to all aspects of the conflict. Although the parties face considerable challenges, there are reasons for hope. This is the feeling I have brought back from Israel and from the Palestinians. Both sets of negotiators are experienced in the process. Israel’s lead negotiator, Tzipi Livni, is Israel’s leading advocate of reaching an agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Her party’s election campaign stressed the importance of finding a solution to the conflict based on two states.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has, not always but repeatedly, spoken of his commitment to a two-state solution, which was so well advocated by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. He has spoken increasingly of the threat to Israel arising from the emergence of a binational state that could threaten Israel’s existence as a majority Jewish state. That is the clearest indication yet that he believes in an agreement based on two states for two peoples. It is in Israel’s best interests as well as those of the Palestinians. I must also acknowledge the work of the US and the personal commitment of US Secretary of State John Kerry.
An example of how a viable Palestinian state is being created came in a heartwarming visit last week to Rawabi, the first Palestinian planned city. It is the largest private-sector project ever to be carried out in Palestine. Initially, it will be home to 25,000 residents, and ultimately to 40,000 people. It is located 9 kilometres north of Ramallah and it needs a wider access road and a more assured water supply—points that I took up with the Israelis and our own helpful embassy in Tel Aviv.
A much improved atmosphere between the Israelis and the Palestinians has been created by the resumption of talks. A joint press conference was held following a meeting at the end of September of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee on economic support for the Palestinian Authority at the United Nations in New York. It was attended by Israel’s Minister for Strategic Affairs and the finance Minister for the Palestinian Authority. The cordial nature of the joint press conference would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. Israel announced a number of measures to assist the Palestine economy, which included 5,000 new permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, bringing the total number of Palestinians earning a living from the Israeli economy to 100,000. It has extended the opening hours of the Allenby crossing between the West Bank and Jordan for goods and people, and it has already implemented 4 million extra cubic metres of water for the West Bank and had promised 5 million cubic metres more a year for Gaza. It has also agreed Abu Mazen’s request to allow the import of building materials to Gaza.
There is much more, which I will probably not have time to list even though our three minutes has been extended. However, I agree with the noble and gallant Lord that three issues exist and that we must all continue to emphasise a two-state solution, not allowing anyone to get off the track, wherever in the world they are, whether in Israel or among the Palestinians. It has to be an enduring agreement, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will reply with a cautious, positive assessment of prospects for a lasting peace.
My Lords, ever since President Obama’s new Secretary of State, John Kerry, began, as his top priority, to reassemble the well-worn components of that oxymoron known as the Middle East peace process, he has been subjected to a deluge of denigration, disparagement and weary cynicism from the serried ranks of pundits, many of whom have broken their teeth on that problem over the years. Now, with the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons and the convening of a Geneva 2 conference aimed at ending the Syrian civil war taking centre stage, that chorus is, if anything, louder. Is that disparagement justified as simple, common-sense realism, or is it a short-sighted unwillingness to recognise an opportunity where one really exists? I unhesitatingly argue the latter, which is why I welcome the noble and gallant Lord’s initiative in initiating this debate.
One reason for thinking that there is an opportunity, oddly, is because the Arab-Israeli dispute is not, for once, the focus of diplomatic preoccupations in the Middle East. That could be an advantage. In the past, excessive public focus on the issue has often led to the rhetorical radicalisation of the respective negotiating positions of the parties. Perhaps all concerned should reflect on whether they can be quite so sure that the outsiders on whom they rely will be ready to pull their chestnuts out of the fire in some future conflagration.
That thought could concentrate the minds of the Israelis, whose US backers seem increasingly dubious about any direct military involvement in the Middle East. It could also concentrate the minds of the Palestinians, whose Arab backers are focusing their efforts on other problems—domestic in the case of Egypt, and international in the case of Saudi Arabia. It could also influence Hamas, which is increasingly bereft of external support. If those trends get the direct parties to the dispute to focus on their own negotiating positions, and on compromises that they will need to strike if a peace deal is to be achieved, the prospects for progress could be improved.
Then there are more classical arguments for giving this renewed effort to reach a negotiated solution a real chance. We should not delude ourselves; the fact that the Arab-Israeli dispute is not currently centre stage does not mean that it has lost any of its explosive potential. Indeed, the fact that we almost certainly face several decades of instability in the Middle East, as the aftershocks of the Arab awakening work themselves out, only increases that potential. Meanwhile the continued Israeli settlement building on the West Bank inevitably pushes the situation towards insolubility and drives Israel towards something that it is no hyperbole to call an apartheid regime. These outcomes must surely be avoided if they possibly can be.
Are there any new elements that could usefully be injected into the process without destabilising it? One such idea might be to give more serious consideration to the guarantees that could be entrenched, both for Jewish minorities in a future Palestinian state, and for Arab minorities in Israel. This aspect has been neglected for far too long. Does it really make sense to think that every single Jewish settler will need to be removed—by force if necessary—from the territory of the Palestinian state, and that the substantial Arab population of Israel should be treated for ever as second-class citizens? I doubt it. That said, the logic of the situation is that outsiders—influential as they inevitably are and will be, and necessary as effective supporters and perhaps guarantors of any negotiated solution—should be less prominent than they have been in the negotiating process. Rather than negotiating, they should be talking with all those who will need to be party to any settlement. I urge—as I have done an awful lot of times—that we should be ready to talk to anyone who is prepared to operate within the scope of the Arab peace initiative. That should include Hamas.
It will be interesting to hear the Government’s views on this, and I hope that we will not remain, as we were in the past, too chained to the axle of American policy. The US is in a different position from us and I hope that we will be able, with our European partners, to play an active role in the months ahead.
My Lords, another US-sponsored peace initiative; again hopes are raised. I follow the noble and gallant Lord in his theme of “never despair”, but it was sad to learn that the Foreign Office tried to put obstacles in the way of him visiting his Israeli counterparts. The broad lines of a settlement are clear; the logistics are not. The international community has tried unsuccessfully the politics of little steps and the politics of the big bang.
I pose three questions. First, is there any serious alternative to a two-state solution? Surely, one state based on the federal principle or a parallel state structure is politically unrealistic. Nor is the status quo a long-term alternative. I recall sitting recently on a beach in Tel Aviv witnessing families enjoying the good life. One can see the short-term attractions of that, but demography puts a major shadow over the longer term. For Israelis, any alternative has major risks. Golda Meir said something like, “If our enemies destroyed their weapons, there would be peace. If Israel did so, there would be no Israel”. Israel points out, of course, the divided Palestinian groups, the reaction to the Gaza withdrawal and the constant Palestinian anti-Israel propaganda. Palestinians see the settlers increasing their stranglehold on both the West Bank and Israeli politics.
The second question is what, then, are the difficulties in making progress? Last year, Tom Phillips, a former British ambassador in both Israel and Saudi Arabia, wrote a most perceptive article in Prospect magazine, with the headline:
“There may never be peace”.
He gave 10 reasons why the chances of a solution had grown bleaker over the past six years. Surely the fundamentals of the problem remain the same. John Kerry is certainly very active but even the great persuader, President Clinton, failed, and there is no Rabin or Olmet on the scene.
Are there any signs of hope? Clearly at the margins, there are indeed such signs. Negatively, the PA has not, as threatened, taken Israel to the International Criminal Court after the authority’s victory at the UN. Secondly, President Netanyahu has released some prisoners and promised more investment, both in the West Bank and now in the gas fields in Gaza. There are welcome developments in the PA economy. The signs that Iran is coming in from the cold, an “Iran spring”, may remove a perceived existential threat to Israel—as may the promised removal of chemical weapons from Syria. The Arab peace initiative has just been reaffirmed. The Arab spring can, of course, work either way.
Yet with all the problems, the efforts are worth while, as the noble and gallant Lord has said. The precedents of Northern Ireland and South Africa are encouraging but it is difficult to counter persuasively the pessimistic conclusions of that old Middle East hand, Tom Phillips, who concluded:
“Failure is the most likely outcome”.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and commend the noble and gallant Lord Stirrup for tabling it. Like all Members of the Committee, I welcome the efforts of Secretary of State Kerry in taking forward this process. One is conscious, however, of the many other crises he is handling—above all, the Syrian civil war with all its appalling ramifications throughout the Middle East. For progress to be made on a Middle East settlement, President Obama will need to use substantial political capital, which may be depleted as a result of the current congressional and budgetary crisis.
It is important to remember that we have been here many times before. I myself participated as part of the British delegation at the Annapolis conference called by President George W Bush in November 2007. Talks subsequently followed, led by the then Secretary of State, Condi Rice, with the Israeli Government of Ehud Olmert coming close to a temporary agreement in its dying days in office. I am conscious of the fact that none of the speakers before me have mentioned the quartet—the body which is seen to oversee and support the Middle East peace process. I wonder if that is the right body to do so any longer. It is one which curiously excludes one member of the P5, namely China, and also Arab countries. I believe that if Arab countries were involved in a remodified quartet, it would lock the Arab peace initiative of 2002 into the negotiation process.
I take this opportunity to welcome the prisoner releases that have been made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which were truly painful for him and for the Israeli Government, and I look forward to a further 26 releases on 29 October. I welcome, too, the economic progress that is being made in the wake of the reinvigorated peace talks. This is long overdue. We have been here before and the outcomes have not always been what we would have hoped and certainly fall far short of economic transformation. This morning’s edition of the Financial Times carries very welcome news that a long-stalled project which involves a British company, BG, off the shores of Gaza, has now received positive support from the Israeli Government. I would welcome any news that the Minister might have in that regard. If this is confirmed, I would see it as a strong signal and I would encourage the Israeli Government to be more generous on economic and social measures that it could make on the West Bank.
It is often said that time is running out on the Middle East peace process. My own view is that time is running out for Israel on this. Earlier this year we lost a Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad—a former IMF economist and a man of extraordinary stature—who resigned. Abu Mazen, President Mahmoud Abbas, is now well into his late 70s. How long will he remain as Prime Minister? It is doubtful whether any significant Palestinian leader after these men can command the political presence to push forward a peace agreement, a process which will be as painful for the Palestinians as it will for the Israelis. A future leader will not have the political strength to do this. Now is the time to move forward and this will require great political courage on all sides, above all from the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
My Lords, according to the polls, most people in Israel and Palestinian territories strongly believe that a peaceful two-state solution is highly desirable and, although expectations are very low, there may be one or two reasons to be slightly less pessimistic. First, talks are going on in secrecy and so far there have been no significant leaks, so that gives no one an opportunity to start sniping. Secondly, expectations are very low so no one will be too surprised at failure. Thirdly, the Arab League seems keen to see some resolution to the terrible impasse that has bedevilled Middle East politics for so long. Fourthly, Hamas might be in a less strong position to undermine any peace deal as they have been significantly weakened by the recent actions by the Egyptians to block their arms-smuggling tunnels.
However, there are very many problems, of which I shall mention just a few: Israel is distracted by the greater danger to its survival from Iran and Syria and may not be giving these negotiations their full priority. It is also painfully aware that its experience of withdrawal from Gaza was not a complete success. Its demands for security on its eastern border with a new Palestine will be very tough—they may indeed be too hard for the Palestinians to swallow. Withdrawal from the settlements and re-housing of huge numbers of settlers will not be a trivial task. Optimism in Israel is not running high.
On the Palestinian side, they are in an even more difficult position. The population desperately needs peace and a land of its own, but the leadership has not always shown willingness to accept a Jewish state. Its rhetoric in the state media has been all about a return to the whole of the land occupied by Israel as well as the West Bank. Perhaps significantly, it cannot be unaware of the impact that a peace deal with Israel would have on its relations with its Arab neighbours to the north. All those regard Israel as the sworn enemy that they seek to remove from the map of the Middle East. Mahmoud Abbas must know how dangerous a peace deal would be to him personally as he remembers the assassination of Sadat when Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel. Hamas is unlikely to make life comfortable for him even in its weakened state.
Against this pessimistic background, what might the UK usefully do in support of a two-state solution? We are of course very limited, but there are some things that are worth our effort. First, we should exert what influence we can on the Arab League to support Abbas and convince him that it will stand by him if he strikes a deal—here, I echo the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. Abbas desperately needs that support, and we have some influence with those countries.
Secondly, we should encourage the USA to keep at it despite its Syrian and Iranian distractions, and make sure that it impresses on the Israelis how important it feels it is that they should do a deal now. It should explain that America’s interest in the Middle East may not be so strong in the future as it becomes less dependent on its oil. The opportunity for American support for Israel may not last all that long. Meanwhile, we should refrain from levelling unhelpful criticism at either side while they are in this tricky phase of discussion. We need to think carefully about whether the criticism will help or hinder the discussions.
These negotiations give little room for optimism, but the fact that they are going on at all is vastly better than a continuing stand-off. Meanwhile, we should use what limited resources we have to help both sides.
My Lords, if Britain and Europe wish to influence the course and outcome of the talks between the leaders of Israel and Palestine, diplomatic pin-pricks and untimely press attacks can have only an adverse effect. The European boycotting of Israeli goods, remotely traceable to beyond the Green Line, is a great mistake and controversial because it also hits Arabic economic interests.
The Israelis feel that that their gesture of releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners serving long, enduring life sentences has so far been accepted without reciprocation or appreciation. A closer look at the biographies and charge sheets of the released prisoners reveals a roll call of the most heinous crimes, resembling some of the horrors to which we have now, alas, become accustomed on the Syrian front.
President Abbas in his recent speech to left-wing members of the Israeli Knesset on a visit to Ramallah said remarkable, reassuring things about the current negotiations. He thought that peace could be achieved within nine months; he tactfully avoided such themes as settlements, right of return or an international campaign against Israel at the United Nations. These are all very good things, but it is important to remember one thing—here, I must disclose that I have all my life been very much involved with Israel. At a very early stage, I was even involved as the chef de cabinet of President Weizman and had a ring-side seat at some of the negotiations with Abdullah of Jordan, who came very close to an agreement then. I can say that the idea of a two-state solution was a dogma of the Zionist redemption. One of the great tragedies was that after the 1968 war, which was imposed on Israel, there was an absence of any agreement on the part of the Arabs about what they wanted. There were the three “noes” in Khartoum—no to peace, no to recognition, no to negotiation—that created a sort of no man’s land at the beginning of the settlement issue. On the other hand, General Sharon’s remarkable feat in getting all the Israeli settlers removed from Gaza shows what can be done.
I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who I know extremely well and who has been on an ideological odyssey, is now absolutely determined that a two-state solution is the only possibility. I think that this country and Europe could alleviate the situation by being much more lenient and understanding of the affairs of Israel. The initiatives now being undertaken in Ramallah and the negotiations between Tzipi Livni and the Palestinians’ opposite numbers have a chance of success. We have to stand by and be genuine neutrals and sympathetic, not partisan spectators.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, for giving us the opportunity of having this conversation. We remain firmly in support of the two-state solution. I do not think there is a difficulty in holding a discussion of other kinds of plans, of alternatives, but I would be disappointed if we were distracted by that process from the two-state solution.
I have tried in the past few days to get a careful, hard-headed assessment of current prospects from those who are most closely involved. I want to focus on two elements, one political and the other economic. On the political one, it is hard not to say anything other than it is great to see the three-year hiatus in the peace negotiations finally broken by the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry and his intention to reach a deal—comprehensive, as he described it, rather than interim—by April 2014 and to know that there are more frequent meetings taking place in which the United States has a far greater involvement and is very pro active. Those who are closest to the process have described John Kerry as being plainly, personally, deeply committed in driving the process. I use the words that they have used to me, and I applaud and congratulate that.
Of course, it may fail. The point has been made today that past predictions of breakthroughs have not always come on stream as we would have wished. Condoleezza Rice expressed that view, as many of us will remember, in 2008. But this is a serious United States push. That is what we demanded they should do, and that is where we should offer our encouragement.
On the economic front, which is being led by Tony Blair on behalf of the quartet, it may very well be that the quartet’s role is now being expressed more in the economic construction, and that is a very useful thing to do. Any political success will have to be underpinned by economic advance. People will feel an ownership of a new kind of economy. They will have an interest in each other’s success. That is vital. The eight-point plan in the economic initiative—and I strongly recommend it to the noble Lords: it is well worth reading—covers construction, including the institution of personal mortgages; agriculture; tourism; telecoms; power; water and light manufacturing. These are all building blocks of a viable economic future. They have been drawn up with the active engagement of the Palestinians and the Israelis. They have been supported by the global investment world and by international donors. The United Kingdom has a proud record of being a significant international donor in that environment. We should be proud of that.
Building two states will, of course, focus on land, boundaries and security, but it should also focus on economic and other institution-building. That is where there is going to be a chance of designing a real future and resilience in that future. The plan that has been guided by the work of leading global consultants is perhaps the most serious that we have seen yet. It is a plan: it is accomplishing a plan which is the hard thing; making one is often the easier part of the process. It is absolutely critical, however, and I hope that in our Parliament we will be cautious about any further name-calling or unhelpful criticism, rather than putting our shoulders behind what seems to be the most serious effort that we have seen in a very long time.
My Lords, I would like to begin by thanking the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject. I know that the Middle East peace process is a subject of deep interest to those here today and to the House generally. I would also like to thank the noble and gallant Lord for leading the UK delegation with Sir John Scarlett at the recent UK-Israel security seminar held at Wilton Park. This is important work that enables us to better understand Israel’s security concerns and explore how these could be resolved in the context of the Middle East peace process. We look forward to the next conference in January of next year.
As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear, progress towards peace through the two-state solution is needed urgently. The ongoing events in the Middle East that have so consistently dominated world media continue to focus all of our minds on the need for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We therefore warmly welcome the resumption of talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington on 30 July, and the resumption of formal negotiations on 14 August, with a view to resolving all final status issues.
The UK firmly supports a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees. This is the only way to secure a sustainable end to the conflict, and it has wide support in this House and across the world. We strongly believe that achieving such a solution is in the interests of Israel, the Palestinians and the wider region. Of course I note the worries of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the concerns voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, but as I said earlier this year, this is a decisive year; this is the best chance in a decade—and perhaps the last chance—of ending this conflict. Britain will be there every step of the way. I hear the concerns of the noble and gallant Lord, but as the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate, it is increasingly clear that time to achieve a two-state solution is now running out.
It is with this in mind that the American Administration have carefully set out the foundations for negotiations to begin. Secretary Kerry worked hard with both parties leading into the resumption of negotiations, emphasising the difficult choices that lie ahead. We do not underestimate the challenges involved, a point that we have made clear to both parties. We continue to applaud the commitment Secretary Kerry has made. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on Secretary Kerry: his passion, determination and commitment were obvious for all to see when he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly.
It is also the courageous leadership shown by both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, and the commitment of negotiators on both sides, that has enabled these negotiations to resume. In this regard, we welcome the decision taken by Israel on 28 July to release 26 Palestinian prisoners in advance of talks. The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, referred to this. The negotiating parties have been disciplined in maintaining a coherent single-track model of negotiation. They have been meeting regularly. At the negotiator level, they have had several rounds of direct bilateral talks, and the US special envoy has been party to a number of these. At the same time, information about the discussions has been well protected from release to the outside world, which we believe is both positive and necessary to reduce the risk of disruption to the process. We continue to support the aims and objectives of the quartet, which we believe are aligned with UK interests.
The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, asked about the Arab League. The UK is working closely with the Arab League countries in support of the peace process. We agree on the importance of working with all international partners to achieve a successful deal and it is clear that the Arab states have an important role to play. We warmly welcome the Arab League’s decision earlier this year to reaffirm the Arab peace initiative and its contribution to the resumption of talks. We are closely engaged with Arab partners and others in the international community to support efforts to achieve a just and sustainable peace.
Looking ahead, it is clear that determined leadership from the United States will remain critical in the months to come. I note the practical suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Britain will do all it can to support the parties and the US in their efforts to achieve a negotiated peace, and we have already played an active role. In September, President Abbas visited London for meetings with my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. In both cases, the Middle East peace process was at the very top of the agenda. President Abbas also met my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and Secretary Kerry. In his subsequent statement, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary reiterated to President Abbas that Britain is committed to supporting,
“the Palestinians, Israelis and the United States to achieve this agreement and the lasting peace that the people of the region need and deserve”.
We will continue to work with all our international partners, including the quartet, the Arab League and the European Union, to support efforts to achieve a just and sustainable peace. Of course, we know the path ahead will be difficult. As Secretary Kerry has noted:
“There is no shortage of passionate sceptics”.
So the immediate political focus between the Israelis and the Palestinians should be on building trust as they take forward the negotiations. Reaching agreement on final status issues necessarily involves detailed discussion about refugees, Jerusalem, borders, security arrangements and Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These issues, especially that of refugees in Jerusalem, are complex, and making progress on them will require difficult choices to be made by both sides.
To avoid drift, Secretary Kerry has explicitly required negotiations to be concluded within nine months, and maintaining the momentum is crucial to meeting this deadline. We therefore welcome Secretary Kerry’s recent announcement that talks are due to intensify in the coming weeks. We will continue to support Palestinian state-building efforts ahead of a deal, including by fostering private sector-led, sustainable economic growth in the West Bank. We also welcome the steps taken by Israel referred to by my noble friend Lord Palmer and the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld. These steps are positive and we look forward to further progress in the days and months ahead, including on some of the issues to which noble Lords referred, such as the rights of minorities, which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay.
I conclude by thanking noble Lords again for their participation in this debate. We will take every opportunity to promote a peaceful two-state solution, which is important not just for the security of the immediate region but of the UK too. The groundwork has been laid, so we now look to President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to continue their strong political leadership, and we will provide support wherever necessary. In parallel, we will continue to call on the European Union, the Arab League and other international partners to unite behind Secretary Kerry’s efforts and do everything possible to support decisive moves for peace.
We are at a critical juncture. Either there is a movement towards peace with strong regional and international support or all of us face an uncertain and potentially dangerous future. Developments since the Arab spring have made progress even more pressing, not least in light of the threat posed by the conflict in Syria and the current events in Egypt. Maintaining the status quo is neither desirable nor practical. The Government therefore remain committed to supporting the efforts of the parties and their shared commitment to reaching a permanent status agreement within the agreed goal of nine months. We firmly believe that if both parties continue to show bold leadership, peace via a two-state solution is achievable.