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Israel and Palestine

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 5 March 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the current proposals for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

My Lords, we are extremely tight on time. In view of the great interest in this debate, I ask all noble Lords to watch the clock and ideally to come in just below two minutes rather than above.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for replying to this debate, and to all noble Lords, who will no doubt make distinctive contributions despite the time constraint.

A few months after I was born in 1936, a royal commission on Palestine set up by the Government concluded:

“An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country.”

Some 78 years later, following interminable cycles of war, occupation and violence, the Israelis and Palestinians are still locked in a desperate and dangerous impasse out of which they seem unable to escape.

All this is against an even more ominous background where much of the Middle East has sunk into a dark age of wars of religion and ethnic conflict. In these circumstances, the most dangerous thing of all would be to continue with the status quo and to assume that there is no hope of progress on Palestine. On both sides, the insecurity, fear, frustration and anger can be a recipe only for an endless cycle of violence—a time bomb that threatens continually the peace and security of the Middle East and of the international community.

This area is and will remain vital to Britain’s security and economic well-being. Both are at great risk without a solution to the Palestinian problem. Beyond that, Britain, responsible for the Balfour Declaration, still has a moral obligation to play an active role in seeking a just settlement. Today we have a State of Israel—though it is not yet secure—while Palestinians have been driven out of much of the land of Palestine. Many now live as refugees elsewhere in the West Bank, surrounded by Jewish settlements, or in the most desperate conditions in Gaza—all this despite a British Government mandate as long ago as 1920 to guide Palestine to independence.

Since then, on the Palestinian side, there have been repeated failures of leadership, internal divisions, missed opportunities and appalling acts of terrorism. As to Israel, I draw a sharp distinction between the Jewish people and the policy of certain Israeli leaders and extreme religious groups. I condemn utterly the re- emergence of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. The Holocaust was an unimaginable crime against humanity. The Jews deserve and need a secure home in Israel for those who want to live there. They have created a remarkable nation in a short time. But I have to say in no uncertain terms that Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, which amount to more than 500,000 people, have emerged as the gravest impediment to a peaceful settlement. They also contravene the Geneva Convention and conflict with Article 2 of the UN charter, which prohibits the acquisition of territory by the use of force. As the late Mr Sharon once said:

“It is impossible to have a Jewish democratic state and at the same time control to all of Eretz Israel. If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all”.

It is worth reminding our Israeli friends that we in Britain have extensive experience of occupying other people’s territories on different continents, of taking other people’s land and of discriminating between religious communities in Northern Ireland. We know from experience that this can be the recipe for anger, despair and violence. It is striking that so many Israeli intelligence, armed forces and security leaders have said in recent times that war will not solve the problem, and that occupation of the West Bank and, in effect, Gaza undermines Israel. But the determination of some Israeli politicians, egged on by extreme religious groups intent on the occupation of Judea and Samaria, to go on ignoring this advice can only inflame the problem and provide a powerful argument for Islamist recruiters. The international community has been regularly supine in confronting the issue of settlements, partly perhaps from a reluctance to counter Israel’s democratically elected politicians, however extreme their views.

Against this background, the prospects for a two-state solution are receding. Secretary of State Kerry’s sterling efforts have produced regrettably few results, perhaps because he addressed only part of the problem. But the international community cannot give up. Credible polls show that the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians still want a two-state solution. The only alternatives are the status quo or a binational state of some kind. Both are a dead end. The status quo means drift, more settlements, Gaza imprisoned and isolated with more extremism, and Israel retreating to another Masada fortress. Growing international support for recognition of Palestine as a state and as a member of UN bodies and of the ICC will be complemented by growing international isolation of Israel as a pariah state, with the prospect of intensified sanctions, particularly on those in Israel who do business with the settlements. There is no secure future in the status quo for Israelis or Palestinians.

As to the binational state or one-state solution, Kerry’s withdrawn public reference to apartheid was in fact right. The population trends show that there are at present 6 million Israeli Jews, with a similar and rapidly growing population of Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. If this is to be a Jewish nation, it would, in all likelihood, lead to an apartheid nation of Bantustans, where democracy would be undermined by the treatment of Palestinians as second-class citizens. Israel would be at serious risk of no longer providing a permanent home for the Jews, but of destroying itself through civil strife and international condemnation.

However, time and events are rapidly eroding the prospect of a two-state solution and it is imperative that international efforts should not lose momentum. As Israelis go to the polls, the international community, not least the European Union, needs to get the message across that, given leadership and determination, Israelis and Palestinians can still reach a two-state solution and that the dangers for all parties in the alternatives still outweigh the challenges of reaching a peace settlement.

The elements are well known, as has been restated so many times since Resolution 242 nearly 50 years ago. The Israelis for their part must show readiness to end their occupation of the West Bank and the imprisonment of Gaza and to remove settlements in return for firm security guarantees. The biggest problem on both sides remains lack of political leadership and trust. The international community has to do yet more to find ways to encourage a climate for renewed discussion. That includes an unequivocal stand on the issue of settlements and the condemnation of all violence.

At the same time, the Palestinians must be brought to demonstrate their unified determination to construct a viable state: a state which links Gaza and the West Bank, both of which must be the focus of negotiations. Jordan and Egypt in particular should be invited to contribute to this process. It requires imagination and fresh thinking. Any political agreement must be supported by the equivalent of an economic Marshall Plan to rescue Gaza and to rejuvenate the Palestinian economy.

Against this background, I now believe that if we are to remain a serious international player, HMG must give impetus to the peace process by recognising a Palestinian state without delay. Two factors persuade me of this. Negotiations will have a better chance if some equivalence of status is created between the two parties, and the Palestinians need such a spur to work hard to construct a viable state. It is worth noting that Israel was not a fully viable state when the British Government recognised her in 1948—and nor today do we recognise some of her borders or Jerusalem as her capital. On Palestinian recognition, we are lagging behind not only opinion in Europe but that in Israel itself, where there are open calls and petitions from senior and credible figures for Israeli recognition of Palestine on the basis that Israel’s safety and security depend on the two states existing side by side.

The inclination by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to wait for something to happen must be replaced by a will to succeed in reaching a comprehensive settlement. That will must be supported rigorously and robustly by Britain, the EU and the wider international community. I look forward to hearing from the Minister the position that HMG take on this vital issue.

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for initiating this debate and for an excellent speech. If I may say so, if I do that on behalf of all of us, we need not repeat that phrase at the beginning of every speech.

I have explained before my interests and my belief that the biggest enemy of the peace process is the occupation and the so-called settlements—in reality, massive towns and vast agricultural estates. Today, I want to encourage reconciliation work between the different religious leaders in Jerusalem of the three faiths to whom it is especially sacred, and also between the many strands within each faith, which are particularly obvious in that part of the world.

The faith leaders have a duty to reach out to each other and to work to recognise and respect the religious sensibilities of the others. That is easier said than done, I fully realise, but that only emphasises its importance. The conflict is primarily about land and ethnicity, but faith is a key expression of the differences, and all the faith leaders have, after all, a commitment to peace in their own way. The Holy Land has been scarred by religious wars throughout history. If organised religion could now contribute to the peace, progress would be easier.

My Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord on having introduced this important debate and having given such a clear analysis of the situation, I simply say that if we are thinking about the men, women and children in Palestine and the men, women and children in Israel, we have to look to long-term, sustainable solutions. We must beware of attempts at short-term fixes; we need to find something that will last. By definition, if something is going to last it has to have the support of the maximum number of people on all sides. With our special moral and historical responsibilities, which the noble Lord rightly underlined, we have to think of that principle all the time. The solution in the end will be with the people and their leaders in the region.

If there is one thing that I think that we should say as friends of the Israeli people and friends of the Palestinian people, it is that counterproductivity is the real enemy. Just as it was totally counterproductive of those within Gaza to fire their rockets into Israel and led to great grief on the part of many of us who see ourselves as close friends of the people of Gaza, one must remember that there had been years of provocation, with the ruthless blockade which was systematically destroying the economy and the social welfare structure of Gaza. One has to think of the West Bank checkpoints, the daily humiliation of the people of the West Bank, farmers separated from their land, and the rest. One has to think of the recent proposal by the Cabinet in Israel to make it a Jewish state.

From that standpoint, it seems to me that we must back to the hilt the principle of a two-state solution, which will give both sides the confidence of international respect as they go about trying to find a long-term solution.

My Lords, the time has come for the active involvement of the regional Arab states in reaching a solution for the whole area. I fear that Israel probably does not take the UK or Europe seriously as impartial fixers, because of their fixation on Israel while they remain relatively silent on terrible situations in, for example, North Korea, Russia and China. Israel sees the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe and this country, connected with intransigence by Palestinians of violence, and that makes Israel more intransigent.

The Kerry proposals are as good as any, but, in addition, Hamas and Gaza must be disarmed, there must be no more tunnels and disarmament must be covered by UN inspectors. We should call on the Palestinians to renounce their arms, recognise their neighbour state and get on with creating a homeland for Palestinians wherever they may be, and not set up another rogue, extremist state. There must be two states. That means that Palestine must recognise Israel. Palestinians have been unwilling ever to accept a Jewish presence and that is more of a problem in the area than the settlements, remembering how Gaza was evacuated. One state, we know, is impossible and has never worked where there is a Muslim majority around the world.

The Palestinians have turned down a two-state solution many a time, while we know that Israel accepts it. The Palestinians need a democratic leader, a man of peace. They must make the citizens of the new Palestine be existing residents and not continue to call them refugees. They must gather in their refugees from the diaspora. If they do not do that, I have to believe that their intention is to overrun Israel. They say that, “Palestine should stretch from the river to the sea”—a Judenrein state—whereas Israel has 1.8 million Arabs.

The solution depends on normalisation. There are many partition states, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but in the end there must be normalisation.

My Lords, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said, there will be a two-state solution, which I passionately want, only if the Israelis and Palestinians sit down and negotiate. I worry that nothing much has moved on since it was said about President Arafat that he missed no opportunity to miss an opportunity. There can be no quick, misguided fix of recognition of the state by the United Nations.

Let us be clear. Many noble Lords have talked, or will talk, about the requirements of Israel towards that peace negotiation. I would like to use the short time I have to talk about the requirements of the Palestinians as well as of the Israelis. There has to be a cessation of rockets and mortars from Gaza. There were 4,036 rockets in 2014 landing on Israel. Just think—if rockets were being fired at the Peers’ Entrance of this place there would soon be a militia acting in response. There has to be a cessation of tunnels. These are attack tunnels; they are not just for goods and supplies. It is people going down these tunnels to come out at the other end and attack civilians within the State of Israel. These tunnels are being built with concrete and building materials which should go to the building and restoring of the houses, hospitals and schools within Gaza.

As has been said by noble Lords, one of the requirements would be the granting of citizenship of the new state of Palestine to all who live in the West Bank and Gaza. On the subject of those refugees who live in UNRWA refugee camps, I was appalled by the way they live and the fact that there is no barbed wire between those camps and the Palestinian mansions of those people who lived in Gaza and the West Bank before the refugees came. Then there are the divisions between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas needs to change its vocabulary if there is to be peace in the Middle East.

My Lords, in the few moments available to me I will focus on just two issues. The first is the question of recognition. In his very powerful speech, much of which I agreed with, my noble friend Lord Luce argued that we should recognise the state of Palestine immediately. My concern is that it seems to assume that the only obstruction to the peace process is the Israeli political position. Of course, it is a massive obstruction, and, of course, settlements are an enormously controversial and difficult issue—I find that my Israeli friends have great difficulty in explaining to me the rationale behind this policy—but there are also problems on the Palestinian side, including their unwillingness, for internal political reasons, to address the key question of right of return, for example, and their unwillingness to address seriously the key question of security on the West Bank. The last thing that the Jordanians, let alone the Israelis, need is a fragile and insecure state on their border. These questions have to be addressed and we have to be sure, before we go through a process of formal recognition, that there are sufficient levers on the Palestinian side as well as the Israeli side to force the two sides to the appropriate compromises.

My second point is on the two-state solution itself. I think that pretty much everyone agrees that this is still the only reasonable and viable way forward. However, in considering the two-state solution, I ask that there be a degree of flexibility in the application of the Clinton parameters. Clearly, in broad terms these must be right, but the post-1918 settlement in the Middle East has unravelled almost totally, and borders in so many parts of that region are in question. We should look at a broader approach to this whole question of the two-state solution and in particular we should seek to draw Egypt and Jordan into a four-way negotiation so that the borders can be created in a way that produces a viable Palestinian state and will meet the needs of the Israelis, the Palestinians and their nearest neighbours who are most closely concerned—Egypt and Jordan.

My Lords, the flourishing of the freedom to practise religion is essential to the viability of a two-state solution. This freedom is under increasing pressure. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cope, that faith leaders have a duty to act together—but there are other factors. On 17 February, without notice, the Israeli police entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, blocked the entry of worshippers and pilgrims, and closed the church for four hours. This sort of action represents the all too frequent disruption that the Christian community experiences—action that often increases around Easter. Muslims suffer, too. All West Bank Muslim males aged 16 to 45 are routinely banned from praying at the al-Aqsa mosque on security grounds.

Freedom to practise religion is further exacerbated when it strikes at the work of the church in cross-community support. The Cremisan situation is a particular example here. The Israeli plan to site the separation barrier through land which supports the livelihoods of more than 50 Christian families and the two religious communities which run a school and a vineyard puts at risk a delicate infrastructure. The school, which educates people from across the Palestinian community, will be separated from its pupils. The land—a vital source of income—will be annexed and what remains will be separated from the community’s buildings. Israel asserts that the separation barrier is necessary for its security; that is a legitimate concern. Whatever the outcome, the route of the barrier will be illegal unless it divides the settlement of Har Gilo on the Green Line. This does not appear to be the current intention of the Israeli Government.

The problem with interference in the practice of religion and the frustration of Palestinian Christians’ attempts to serve the whole community is that it actively undermines the position of moderate voices in the Holy Land. We must remember the call for the recognition of Palestine, made by the Christian leaders in Jerusalem and endorsed in a joint statement on 13 October last year by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Clifton and the Bishop of Coventry. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what particular steps are being taken in regard to the situation in the Cremisan valley and, more generally, to the supporting of communities of faith in the practice of their religion, which must be an essential element in the securing of a long-term, viable and stable peace.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. We must never forget that this is not simply a question of one people seeking autonomy from another. As Max Blumenthal said in his book Goliath, this is about,

“people living under a regime of separation, grappling with the consequences of ethnic division in a land with no defined borders”.

To that I would add that it is also about people living under the daily grind of occupation.

Last year Laurence Brass, the former treasurer of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, spoke out about the miserable conditions he witnessed when he visited the West Bank. Following criticism of his statements he was supported by former Israeli ambassadors and a former Israeli Attorney-General, who praised his willingness to see the grim reality on the ground in the West Bank—and to that we must add the appalling situation in Gaza.

Time is running out and I fear that the resilience and amazing good humour of the Palestinian people is at breaking point. With the help of British aid, the Palestinian Authority has built the necessary structures for statehood and, despite the longest occupation in modern history, the Palestinians are highly educated and have universities, hospitals, a rich cultural life and leaders who believe in peace.

I would love to see the Government recognise Palestine as a first step towards breathing new life into the peace process. It is in the interests of all who love Israel, Palestine and the wider Middle East that we, as a Government, and our international partners do all that we can to support the moderate, secular Palestinian authority.

My Lords, I shall necessarily speak in telegraph-ese in this absurdly truncated but remarkably timely debate, for which I thank my noble friend Lord Luce. I will make four salient points.

First, it is frequently asserted that the two-state solution is dead or dying. I disagree. No one has yet put forward a viable alternative to it that has any chance of assuring Israel’s future security, the rights of the Palestinian people and the peace of Israel’s Arab neighbours. The international community needs to persevere with that approach, however unpropitious the circumstances.

Secondly, over many decades I have in good faith argued with my Arab friends that they should give absolute priority to the peace process and not pursue status issues which might damage the prospects for such negotiations. I no longer hold that view. The Netanyahu Government have tested it to destruction by their policy of expanding settlements and by their abuse of their undoubted right to self-defence through disproportionate use of force in Gaza. I believe that Britain should support, not just abstain on, the recognition of Palestine’s status. It is the only viable way of promoting the legal, practical and political case for a two-state solution.

Thirdly, Mr Netanyahu has, with the help of Republicans who should know better, ridden roughshod over every convention of international diplomacy by pursuing his election campaign in an overseas legislature. I shall reciprocate and say that I hope that the Israeli people, in their wisdom, in this month’s election will choose a new Prime Minister and a new Government who will be ready to revive the negotiating process.

Fourthly, I trust that whatever the outcome of those elections, and whatever the outcome of our elections, our Government will work tirelessly with our European partners and the US to revive the peace process and will not be discouraged by all the difficulties which will inevitably arise. To neglect this issue or to relegate it to the “too difficult” slot would be to court a subsequent painful reminder that the Middle East will never be at peace without a solution to the problem of Palestine.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, in introducing this debate, said a number of very wise things, but I thought that he was less than balanced and less than fair in ignoring entirely the many attempts over the years by Israel to establish a dialogue leading to peace. Just to take the most recent examples—because the problem has existed since the beginning of the Jewish-Palestinian relationship in that area—there was the rejection of Ehud Barak’s proposals at Camp David and the consequences of the Israelis withdrawing from Gaza, which, far from leading to peace and stability, actually created a nest of terrorism and constant missile attacks on Israel. Naturally, that has left Israeli public opinion with the idea that, far from there being a necessarily positive relationship between sacrificing land for peace, there is probably an inverse relationship between the two, which is a major factor in the present situation. There was also the period when Israel declared a unilateral suspension of all activities related to building settlements. For nine months, the Palestinians did not respond at all; they let the opportunity go completely.

Nevertheless, I share some of the concerns that have been expressed about the policies of the present Government and of Mr Netanyahu. It was a profound mistake, last year, to suspend peace talks because of the formation of the Palestinian unity Government. If there is going to be peace, it obviously has to include Gaza as well as the West Bank and it has to include Hamas as well as Fatah. The Israelis themselves would set no value whatever on a deal with Fatah if Hamas could go on exercising violence and threatening the existence of Israel.

What is more, clearly there can be no settlement unless there is unity in the Palestinian camp, or at least a consensus between the major parties in it, for the simple reason that, otherwise, anything that was agreed by Fatah or by Mahmoud Abbas would be denounced by Hamas as treason to the Palestinian cause, and there would be no possibility of a settlement. Therefore, it seems to me a positive, not a negative, feature that the two Palestinian groups have come together. That should have been welcomed rather than treated as a reason for suspending all contact with the other side.

My Lords, I am sure we all agree that this is a timely debate because it would seem that, elsewhere, energy has gone out of the Middle East peace process.

I recall that in the aftermath of 9/11, there was much talk of not taking any significant action as a consequence until there was some measureable progress in the Middle East peace process. Nevertheless, despite no progress at the time, much action was taken. That action has provoked the reaction across the Muslim and Arab world with which we are all too familiar, with the unfortunate shifting of the focus away from the Middle East peace process to the fight within Islam between Shia and Sunni states and groups. The Iran nuclear threat has also now gained a higher profile than the Middle East peace process.

The downside of this diversion of focus has allowed the Israelis to continue their settlement programme, making the ambition of a two-state solution that much more difficult to achieve. I wonder now whether a two-state solution is still viable or whether, when compared to a one-state solution, it remains the least unattractive of a series of unattractive options.

If one comes to the conclusion that a two-state solution is still the best—or the least worst—option, I hope that Her Majesty’s Government, notwithstanding other distractions, will continue to discharge our historic and moral obligation to promote vigorously their pursuit of a peaceful two-state solution in the best interests of the Israelis, the Palestinians, the region and our own wider security.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said that settlements were the biggest impediment to peace. I do not agree. However, that does not mean that I approve of settlement-building—far from it. I am a declared friend of Israel, although certainly not a fan of the present Government. I believe that occupation is toxic to Israeli polity and society, as well as miserable for Palestinians. However, the lack of progress in peace negotiations cannot be blamed solely on Israel. As the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said, the Palestinians have rejected many opportunities.

I was unable to participate in the debate on 29 January. However, reading it afterwards, I was struck by the number of speakers who talked about how unilateral recognition of a state of Palestine would send a message or a signal, or be a symbol—of what I was not quite clear. A sustainable long-term settlement can be achieved only through bilateral negotiations involving difficult compromises on both sides. Unilateral recognition of Palestine is a cul-de-sac, not a catalyst for progress. It might satisfy an urge among some of us for “something to be done” but it does not achieve movement.

Israel set no preconditions for the resumption of direct talks in 2013. It is broadly assumed that it would give up all but about 3% of the West Bank through land swaps. Israel needs recognition and security, and the confidence of having a predominantly Jewish, democratic state. Former UK chief negotiator Dennis Ross recently wrote:

“It’s fair to ask the Israelis to accept the basic elements that make peace possible—1967 lines as well as land swaps and settlement building limited to the blocks. But isn’t it time to demand the equivalent from the Palestinians on two states for two peoples, and on Israeli security? Isn’t it time to ask the Palestinians to respond to proposals and accept resolutions that address Israeli needs and not just their own?”.

I agree with those remarks.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

First, I strongly endorse the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and indeed those of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I was very interested to hear his support for the recognition of Palestine. That is something which I, too, support, as I made clear in the debate on 29 January. I will not repeat it today. Nor do I underestimate the political problems that the Israeli Government face. None the less, I think that it is a sensible way forward.

Instead, I would like to support the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, in drawing attention to conditions on the ground in Gaza. The chief executive of Medical Aid for Palestinians has just returned from there. He has reported that he has never seen the place more depressed. Only 5% of the money pledged last summer to rebuild has actually arrived. As for health, he reported that there were, again, severe shortages of drugs and consumables. Many of the medical staff have been unpaid or getting only 60% of their salaries, and there are 8,000 unexploded munitions around the place, which are a terrible danger to children, several of whom underwent surgery while he was there.

Lastly, I draw attention to an article in Haaretz on 26 February by Gideon Levy. He reported that “Gaza’s disaster is dreadful” and cited the case of a baby girl in Beit Hanoun who froze to death in the makeshift shelter in which she and her family had been living,

“since their house was bombed. ‘She was frozen like ice cream,’ her mother said”,

of the last night of her baby’s life. These are the realities on the ground behind the endless diplomacy. A two-state solution cannot come too soon.

My Lords, one would have thought, with our Government’s promotion of democracy worldwide, that when Hamas won the election in Palestine in 2006, which was monitored by the European Union, we would then have talked with Hamas leaders to find out their agenda for the future of their country. Instead of taking that opportunity, the election result was not accepted and Hamas retreated to run the Gaza enclave, as we know, where the people have been held in an open prison and attacked viciously by Israel ever since. The Gazan people stand guilty of defending themselves.

Another opportunity was missed when the European court ruled last December that Hamas was no longer to be categorised as a terrorist organisation—a ruling which has been appealed by the European Union and ourselves.

When I and other parliamentarians have met Khaled Meshaal and other Hamas leaders over the past few years, they have been quite clear in their position, which is that while Hamas cannot bring itself to recognise the right of Israel to exist, it recognises, however, the existence of Israel within the 1967 borders. It offers an indefinite truce—a hudna—with the State of Israel within those borders and demands the release of prisoners, including those parliamentarians who were arrested after the elections in 2006. They do not mention the right of return for all the refugees spread all over the Middle East.

They are very clear about these messages. I have heard them on two occasions; others have heard them, too. I heard them transmitted again yesterday evening at a meeting in this place—not by members of Hamas, in case your Lordships all want to duck under the desks. They want the opportunity to give these three messages face-to-face to European and American negotiators. Will the Minister tell us why this cannot happen?

My Lords, in this Room there is a surprising degree of consensus. We all support a two-state solution; we regard the status quo as tragic and unsustainable; we oppose the settlement policy; and we all broadly know what the boundaries of the two states will be. That leaves us with two big unanswered questions, which are linked. First, what sort of state do noble Lords believe that the proposed Palestinian state will be as things now stand, realistically, and what will be its model—Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, Lebanon, Egypt or Qatar? It is not shaping up to be Sweden, nor is it shaping up to be Israel. This may be controversial, but it is simply a realistic view of what is happening.

Who, then, would wish to live next door to a neighbour likely to prove violent? That is the second question. For 40 years, Israel has been asked by well meaning noble Lords to surrender strategic defence positions to Syria as an act of trust in the Assad family. Who would volunteer to have the Assads running the next-door borough council or to have Hamas there—except in the fantasy version of the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge—or Hezbollah, or ISIS? Noble Lords urging unilateral recognition step around this problem by the extraordinary feat of neglecting to mention Hamas at all, or pretending that it is something it is not. The failure to grapple with this is astonishing.

There cannot be peace in the Middle East until we can imagine a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state, willing to let the Jews live in peace. It is just nonsense to say that there would be peace without settlements, because there was no peace before settlements. Why do we talk of a 1967 border? It is because there was a war in 1967 that created it. We are often told that the Jews should learn the lesson of the Holocaust. That is quite right, and one of the key lessons is not to trust the security of the Jewish people to compassionate, liberal people who cannot recognise murderous extremists when they are staring in our faces and pointing guns.

My Lords, the politics of humanity demand the ending of the blockade of Gaza, the phasing out of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and fair access for all the world to the holy places of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Of course, Israel’s security is critical, but it cannot trump the interests of peace. Security can be handled by many techniques and by disarmament, but above all by local and regional agreements. Funds pledged for Gaza must be paid up. This is urgent to prevent children dying from a poor diet and cold and wet conditions. Life-saving repairs must be done now.

We have the right to demand that Israel ceases collective punishments and all illegal acts. Keeping international law will earn respect for Israel, and build confidence for two-state and wider agreements. This would benefit the whole of the Middle East and the Islamic world. Recognising the notional Palestinian state would be a step towards two full states before it is too late. Peace must prevail. Our Government should stop balancing interests and help all sides to behave humanely. Palestine deserves the complete self-determination that Israel has enjoyed for so long.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and congratulate him on obtaining the debate and all speakers for their much too short but expert contributions. The Opposition of course support what has been British foreign policy now under Governments of all colours for many years: namely, a two-state solution to the tragic impasse—I use the same word as the noble Lord, Lord Luce—that has existed for far too long. The impasse has resulted in so many lives being lost, so much agony for Israelis and Palestinians alike and so much danger to the rest of the world.

As good a symbol as any of this long-standing tragedy is Gaza today, and all those killed and injured, so many children among them, in last summer’s events. The human cost of the failure to negotiate a lasting and sustainable agreement is all too apparent in the continued trauma, destruction and insecurity, not just in Gaza but in the West Bank and in Israel itself. We of course support Her Majesty’s Government in their contribution to the reconstruction effort in Gaza, but we are concerned that too much of the money pledged by international donors has not translated into actual disbursements. I wonder if the Minister could comment on that.

It is one of the concerns of the donors that there has been a failure so far of the technocrat unity Government agreed by Hamas and Fatah in April last year to take control of Gaza. We believe that it is important, if we are not to see some ghastly repeat of last summer, that the international community remains focused on efforts to stop Hamas building up its arsenal and rebuilding tunnels or firing thousands of rockets into Israel itself. We want to see the blockade of Gaza ending. The cycle that we have seen in recent years of rocket attacks, periodic incursions and permanent blockades has not brought the lasting peace and security that Israeli citizens deserve and the justice that Palestinians have long waited for.

My Lords, at the risk of disobeying my former Chief Whip, my noble friend Lord Cope, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for tabling today’s debate. It is indeed timely. It is a subject on which all noble Lords have made significant contributions, despite the narrow limit of two minutes for most of those taking part in this debate. In response, given my own time limit of 12 minutes, I shall address the main themes that have been raised today: the UK Government’s position on the Middle East peace process; what the parties must do; what the regions should do; and Gaza.

I start by saying that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for making clear the Opposition’s position in continuing their support. I am clear that the way in which the British Government can play a constructive part and speak with a strong voice is by speaking as a united Government and Opposition.

I turn first to the Government’s position on the Middle East peace process, and how we see the prospects for a two state-solution for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The UK’s long-standing position on the Middle East peace process is well known; we support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. Such a vision is based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as the shared capital, and a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees. We share the deep frustration felt in this Room today at the lack of progress towards achieving this vision. We will continue to push for progress towards peace and lead the way in supporting Palestinian state-building and measures to address Israel’s security concerns.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, asked why we do not talk to Hamas. Our policy on Hamas remains clear: it must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previously signed agreements. Hamas must make credible movement towards these conditions, which remain the benchmark against which its intentions should be judged. We call on those in the region with influence over Hamas to encourage it to take those steps. Further, the noble Baroness asked a specific question about the European court decision to annul the Hamas EU designation. The court judgment is procedural and does not mean that the EU and UK have changed their positions on Hamas. The effects of the EU Hamas listing, including asset freezes, remain in place. We will work with partners to ensure that the Hamas listing at the EU is maintained. Hamas’s military wing has been proscribed in the UK since 2001 under separate UK legislation, which is not affected by December’s EU General Court judgment.

While the UK has not yet recognised a Palestinian state, the Government have long said that they would like to see a sovereign, independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian state living in peace and security, side by side with Israel. We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a moment of our choosing and when we judge that it can best help bring about peace. We remain convinced that only negotiations can deliver a solution that ends the conflict once and for all, and that they are the most effective way for Palestinian aspirations of statehood to be met on the ground. That is what we are continuing to work towards. Either we move towards peace, as noble Lords have said today, with the strong support of the region and the wider international community, or we face an uncertain and dangerous future.

Several noble Lords referred specifically to the peace process itself and strongly commended Secretary Kerry for his tireless efforts to deliver a final status deal. We strongly support his work. Whatever the disappointments of 2014, Secretary Kerry has made it clear that progress was made. But it is vital that Israel and the Palestinians take advantage of any momentum gathered; it is vital that they commit to restarting the process, and focus once again on finding common ground.

So what must the parties do? They must take steps to build an environment conducive to peace, and they must avoid actions which undermine the viability of a two-state solution. In this regard, I am as one with noble Lords who are deeply concerned by Israel’s decision to freeze the transfer of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority. This is contrary to Israel’s obligations as an occupying power. We urge Israel to fulfil its legal obligations under the 1994 Paris protocol, transfer the revenues without delay and refrain from taking any further punitive action, including announcing new settlements.

We have repeatedly condemned Israel’s announcements to expand settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including east Jerusalem. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, pointed out, as well as being illegal under international law, settlements undermine the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and those working for a sustainable peace.

The Palestinian Authority must also show leadership. It must recommit to dialogue with Israel and to making progress on governance and security for Palestinians in Gaza, as well as the West Bank. We note the Palestinian Authority’s recent decisions to sign a number of conventions, including the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. While we understand that the Palestinian Authority is seeking alternate ways to deliver the state that the Palestinian people deserve, there can be no substitute for negotiations with Israel. Negotiations must remain the focus.

What should the region do? I agree with all noble Lords who made the strong point that the international community can and must do more to support US-led efforts to find a viable, permanent solution to the conflict. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that regional players have a significant role to play. Through the Arab peace initiative, Arab states have offered Israel the normalisation of relations in the event of a comprehensive peace agreement. This opportunity must be seized upon as part of a relaunched negotiation process. It signals the benefits that peace would bring for the entire region.

We also agree on the need to promote economic development for the Palestinians to support the political process. That is why we are supporting the Office of the Quartet Representative, whose economic initiative aspires to grow rapidly the Palestinian economy over a three-year period. We are aware of the Israeli peace initiative and the work on the important role that civil society has in generating ideas to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Europe must also remain a key partner in the peace process. In December 2013, we led EU efforts to set out an unprecedented package of political, economic and security support that Europe would offer to both parties in the event of a final status agreement. That package remains on the table, should the parties return to negotiations—but much more needs to be done, and we will continue to work closely with our EU partners to support both sides in taking bold, necessary steps.

My noble friend Lord Cope and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark referred in particular to the duty of the faith communities in their varied forms. I agree with my noble friend Lord Cope that there is a duty on religious leaders to play their part on the route to finding peace. It is vital that Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan work together to maintain the long-standing status quo at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and other historic sites. Freedom of religion must be protected. I know that the Government have worked strongly to support the position of those of all faiths in the area and that these matters are discussed at the Human Rights Council and in the United Nations. All those of faith have a role to play.

There must also be progress for Palestinians in Gaza. Noble Lords, in particular my noble friend Lady Morris and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, described the terrible situation there. At the Cairo reconstruction conference, we pledged a further £20 million to kick-start Gaza’s recovery. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked about disbursal. We have disbursed a quarter of our funding, but we agree that other donors have not come up to scratch and we call on all donors to fulfil their financial pledges to aid the reconstruction efforts in Gaza without delay. I should point out that our pledge of £20 million was in addition to our earlier provision of £19.1 million in UK aid in response to the crisis. That relates to Gaza itself, not the wider area of reconstruction.

There is a problem with money, but there is also a physical problem with being able to get materials into Gaza to enable the works to make progress. This is partly caused by the security situation in Sinai and the Egyptian response to that, and partly by the situation between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. There are limits to what donors can achieve without a political solution. As a priority, we continue to urge both parties to ensure that the ceasefire is durable. It must address Israel’s security concerns and ensure that movement and access restrictions are lifted. We therefore urge the parties to resume serious negotiations to reach a durable ceasefire and tackle the underlying causes of the conflict.

We strongly believe that dialogue is the only way to ensure a lasting solution to the Middle East peace process. We will continue to work closely with the US, the EU and the wider international community to re-energise the process. Once a new Israeli Government are formed following elections on 17 March, the international community must take note to redouble its efforts working with the new Government to move the process forwards. Ultimately, Israeli and Palestinian leaders must show the courage, determination and creative leadership to make the compromises that a deal will require. When they show such leadership, we and our partners will be ready to show our full support.

Sitting suspended.