Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I first of all thank all noble Lords who have put their name down to speak. I am sorry that the time is so short, but I will thank them all now and hope that that is reciprocated, which might save noble Lords a few precious seconds on their allocated two minutes.
At the outset, let me declare my interest: I am Jewish and I support the right of the State of Israel to live at peace. However, that does not mean that I believe that the country’s Governments are beyond criticism; nor do I believe that any critic of Israeli policy is automatically anti-Semitic. That having been said, what I hope this short debate will concentrate on is how we might promote better understanding of one of the most contentious issues of our time.
Let me start, topically, with freedom of speech. Just yesterday, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who is in her place this evening, and other noble Lords spoke with eloquence and passion on the intimidating environment in our scholarly communities which is suppressing constructive discussion on the Middle East. The vicious approach to debate, or rather to the stifling of debate, taken by some—for example, those who violently disrupted an Israeli speaker at King’s College, London, last month—does nothing to foster greater understanding of the Middle East in the UK; quite the contrary. The KCL Action Palestine society, which spearheaded the disruption of KCL’s Israel society event, is a committed supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. The BDS movement continually smears the only democratic state in the region by comparing Israel to the apartheid South African regime of yesteryear. This is as intellectually bankrupt as it is dishonest: it is almost like comparing BDS to the National Socialist Party in pre-war Germany. Let us be clear that the overarching aim of this particular movement is to quash constructive dialogue and end any hope of a viable two-state solution.
To achieve its ends, in recent years BDS has engineered votes to boycott Israel at some of our top universities, which really should know better. In recent months, students at the School of Oriental and African Studies voted overwhelmingly to boycott Israel, and only last week the co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club, Alex Chalmers, while lamenting that much of the student left has,
“some kind of problem with Jews”,
resigned in the light of the club’s decision to support Israel Apartheid Week at the university this week.
Elsewhere, the movement has been particularly successful in galvanising support for BDS against Israel in the UK’s influential culture and entertainment sectors, culminating in a letter last year signed by 1,000 artists indicating support for a boycott of Israel. Interestingly, Professor Stephen Hawking publicly boycotted one academic event in Israel. It is perhaps worth noting that his extraordinary speech-generation device’s most important component is a silicon chip that was designed in Israel. A leading commentator writing about the professor’s decision asked whether the solution to this problem would be for Professor Hawking to boycott himself.
While advocacy for supporting boycotts represents a disturbing trend in any sector, the prominence and success of the movement in areas which should thrive on free expression is particularly distressing. Last year, more than 300 professors committed themselves to boycotting Israel. Campuses should be at the forefront of charting a way towards the peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not spaces to further entrench differences and incite hostility and, dare I say it, bigotry.
Parliament is at the heart of the academic issue. There is a blatant double standard here, which we as legislators have not addressed. There is evidence that we permit the funding of some educational departments by authoritarian states with abhorrent track records on human rights and free expression, yet UK institutions are somehow at the forefront of calls to ban Israeli academics and students on the basis of their nationality and, probably, their religion. The connection between the funding of universities by vehemently anti-Israel regimes, the constraining of free expression and referenda to ban Israelis must be exposed. While we in this place advocate free expression and a two-state solution, elsewhere, we permit the clandestine manipulation of research and teaching on the Middle East to the opposite effect.
Let me now, at last, be more positive. I was especially pleased to learn just last week of the Government’s follow-through on their commitment to prevent public authorities, such as local councils and universities, boycotting products from Israel. The statement by Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock in Israel was welcome news for all those who cherish free speech.
I am also encouraged to see Israel’s linkages with Britain grow with unabated rapidity in recent years. In science and technology, one of the UK’s leading country priorities is Israel. The development of the UK Israel Tech Hub, the Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership, and a top-level UK-Israel Life Sciences Council bring together millions of pounds in funding and some of the world’s brightest minds to collaborate on a number of fronts, including heart disease prevention, regenerative stem cell research and battling multiple sclerosis. UK-Israel partnerships are currently producing world-leading innovations in nanotechnology, agriscience, neuroscience and many other specialist subjects.
In the real commercial world, away from some of the bigoted posturing of academe, trade between Israel and Britain is supporting much-needed manufacturing jobs here at home. For example, Rolls Royce has recently won a contract to supply jet engines to Israel’s state airline, El Al—El Al, by the way, is the only airline for which you do not buy a ticket but give a donation. Perhaps some of those academics who parade their prejudices without any sense of responsibility would like to see what the employees of Rolls Royce might say to them about working with Israel. Business and trade is flourishing between Israel and Britain. In the past 10 years, bilateral trade has increased by 60% to over £3 billion per annum. As many as 300 Israeli companies operate in the UK, and it remains a principal destination for capital and market growth opportunities for Israeli entrepreneurs.
Crucially, in the arts sector, last year we celebrated 20 years of the British Israeli Arts Training Scheme. Funded by the British Council and the Government of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture and Sport, the programme provides advice and short-term grants, as well as longer-term programmes.
Fostering connections between Palestinians and Israelis and between Britain and Israel is laying fertile ground from which peace may one day grow. It is in this endeavour that government can be a leading champion. Most important of all, in my view, in the search for peace in the Middle East are the many unreported collaborations where Jews and Arabs are working together on the ground. The Valley of Peace initiative promotes economic co-operation between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians based in the Arava valley. Regional economic collaborations like this are critically important, as an economically viable Palestine is a necessary condition for a peaceful resolution. I could also highlight the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization, which facilitates co-operation, dialogue and interaction between Israeli and Palestinian scholars and scientists. Initiatives such as these are where grass-roots activists and professional leaders are doing the lion’s share of the work to increase understanding and work towards peace.
However, I feel that in order for us to create a society where co-existence can truly thrive, we need to focus on those who will be the future leaders: the children. How can Israelis and Arabs find common ground if they cannot talk to each other? In Israel, Jewish and Arab children attend separate schools, which creates space for fear, stereotypes and inequalities to grow. These children, who might even be neighbours, grow up in two parallel worlds that rarely interact. In order to change this reality, parents and community members in Be’er Sheva have played an active role in developing a future based on equality and respect for their children and their community through the founding of the Hagar Association, Jewish-Arab Education for Equality, an organisation dedicated to creating a shared society and co-existence between Jewish and Arab residents of Israel’s Negev. It is a centre for joint community initiatives which are completely bilingual in Hebrew and Arabic. There are sport activities that encourage Israeli and Arab children to aspire to be the next Lionel Messi.
We need understanding and discussion, and I hope that this debate will encourage that more than boycotts.
My Lords, as in a Bond film, two minutes and counting. Who can be against greater understanding of the Middle East? I adopt much of what the noble Lord has said about BDS, about the foolishness of certain academics and, of course, about the remarkable achievements of Israel in science. But I offer some reflections of caution. Ignorance of the Middle East must be seen in the context of a general lack of interest in international affairs and a greater parochialism in this country. Therefore, one might ask: why single out the Middle East? One might argue that certain other regions have more impact on our national interest—for example, the assertive Russia and, indeed, China.
What story will the Government tell about the Middle East? There are competing narratives about Israel and Palestine. Experts will differ. We were wholly naive, of course, about the Arab spring. Who is the target for any government initiative? Is it the general public or specific opinion formers like parliamentarians?
Finally, our democracy is rightly suspicious of government initiatives on information. The Government cannot force the press or, indeed, television to take on particular issues. Coverage of Parliament today is reduced to humorous sketches, and newspapers cut the number of their foreign correspondents. The noble Lord has made some very good points, but if it were only so that we could have greater understanding. He has very laudable aims, and I agree with so much of what he says about Israel. But, alas, I fear that it will be a great task to increase public understanding.
My Lords, the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Grade, is how to increase understanding of the Middle East. I am just back from an all-party Peers’ visit to Israel and the West Bank. We met Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin, who were far more positive than we had been led to believe. Does the Minister believe that the Israelis are prepared to come to the negotiating table without preconditions?
We also went to Ramallah to lunch with leading Palestinians. I must say that our meeting with them was profoundly disappointing, to the extent that they ended by blaming the British for the lack of a Palestinian state, ignoring completely the fact that prior to 1967 it was well within the powers of Jordan and Egypt, who respectively controlled the West Bank and Gaza, to have created a state of Palestine when there were no Israeli settlers in those areas. Can the Minister say whether the UK Government are making efforts to move the Palestinians out of past gripes and to think positively about what is achievable, and also ask them whether they will come to the negotiating table without preconditions?
We received a frightening presentation on the radicalisation of Palestinian youth in schools and in sport. It must say something when Palestinian sporting events are named after so-called martyrs who killed Israelis. Have the UK Government any views on how to stop this education of hate?
We also visited the town of Sderot and the moshav Netiv HaAsara, right on the border with Gaza. The people there live in and out of bomb shelters, which has saved lives but has caused great trauma particularly for the kids, who know of no life without shelters and safe rooms at home and in school. Have the UK Government views on why this life of trauma receives so little publicity in this country?
My Lords, to my mind, this is a debate centring on disinformation, the deliberate spreading of inaccurate information in order to cover up the truth or to mislead public opinion. Our main sources of information about the Middle East are the media and teaching at universities. Journalists are exceptionally brave purveyors of information, but to a large extent they can go only where it is safe and they can send accurate dispatches only from that region where permitted to do so. Scores of journalists have died or been imprisoned there, and their reports are censored by the majority of countries in the Middle East, without the reader necessarily knowing.
Reporting from the area is bedevilled by the failure to use the right words—for example, not saying the word “terrorist”—and consequent downplaying of the violence. There is disproportionate coverage of Israel, and nothing is ever reported about the Palestinians’ way of life or their diaspora, save for victimhood. Opinion is disguised as news—for example, Tim Willcox of the BBC, at a Charlie Hebdo rally, saying to a Jewish demonstrator:
“Many critics of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well”.
There is a lack of context; there has never been an East Jerusalem, except during the Jordanian occupation period of 1948-67. There is selective omission—for example, the headlines proclaiming that a Palestinian has been killed, when in fact he was brought down after murdering Israeli civilians in the street. That is why it is so important that complaints about the media inaccuracies are handled by independent arbiters, and the BBC has to reform its complaints system.
Our universities have accepted money from various repressive Arab regimes—money directed almost exclusively at teaching Middle Eastern studies and putting in place curricula and professors subscribing to that point of view. An example is the Islamic Centre at Oxford, which has received £75 million from Saudi Arabia and other such regimes. The same is true of nearly every professorial post in this subject. I hope that the Minister will announce an inquiry into the foreign funding of our universities and that university donations are to be made public.
My Lords, Captain Boycott, of course, had his debut in Ireland. The House will be aware that that was not a successful outcome; neither will this present arrangement, as the noble Lord, Lord Grade, indicated. In the western powers, we have an unmitigated and impeccable record of failure to understand the Middle East. We do not get it, not from the 19th century, not the 20th century and not even today. We have supported one dictatorship after another, we have supported regimes that would disgrace anybody, and yet we find ourselves here today; even as recently as after Gulf War 1, we encouraged the Marsh Arabs—remember them?—to stand against Saddam. Then what did we do? We sat back and did nothing, and they were slaughtered, their lands were drained and they were impoverished. But have we learned from that? No. We are doing the same thing again with Assad’s people. We said to them that Assad would be finished in a few weeks or months. We encouraged them to rebel. What are we doing now? We are sitting back and watching Putin and Assad slaughter them.
In terms of understanding and spreading understanding, our own Government and the western powers do not have a clue, and yet we are meddling. We have a potentially nightmarish situation with the Turks and the Russians. With all that hardware flying around, sooner or later something is going to go wrong. We do not understand it. We do not have a coherent, justifiable, morally based policy in that area at all. If the noble Lord, Lord Grade, has done nothing else tonight but raise this subject, I sincerely hope that we will go back to basics and start to relearn what we should have learnt many years ago.
The lightning conductor and fulcrum of Middle Eastern misunderstanding since the late 1940s has been the state of Israel with its polyglot and talented population. Understanding the Middle East today, almost 70 years on, must begin at home in the United Kingdom, which has a particular historical role as the colonial power in Palestine during the run-up to the creation of Israel in 1948. We have not managed so far, despite best efforts, to be at all successful in eradicating anti-Semitism at home in the United Kingdom and thus cannot be sure of our standing in getting greater understanding of Israel, which feels under deadly threat just as some Palestinians feel the same.
Only this month we had, as my noble friend Lord Grade said in his notable speech, seen a particularly nasty outbreak of anti-Semitism among the members of one particular political club in Oxford, its co-chairman resigning as he thought some of its members had “poisonous” attitudes made intolerant statements and had,
“some kind of problem with Jews”.
That 70 years on these attitudes prevail in what should be a bastion of liberalism and tolerance is completely shameful, so robust action must be taken where and when reason is missing. I thus congratulate very warmly the Government on their stand against local authorities who now wish to boycott Israeli goods as their own little contribution to Middle Eastern understanding—nowhere else, just Israeli goods. I want my local authority to deal with flood prevention and potholes rather than developing its own foreign policy in direct contravention of the rules of the World Trade Organization with the sole aim of undermining and delegitimising one state and one state only in the Middle East—the state of Israel.
I say all that not as a Jew but as a Roman Catholic. There are a lot of my lot in Jerusalem and I want them to stay there. I am extremely grateful to the Government of Israel for protecting them and for making it possible for Roman Catholics and other Christians to be in Jerusalem and not to be cleansed and cleared out, as they have been in so many other parts of the Middle East.
The noble Lord, Lord Grade, is right. Peace will come only when individuals on all sides understand the narrative of the other side and open their hearts to their suffering. This is the route to peace between Palestinians and Israelis and here it is in seven stages in two minutes. First, Israel accepts the Palestinian belief that the 1948 declaration of the state of Israel was a Nakba—a disaster —and that the region is their homeland and they want consideration of the right to return. The Palestinians accept that the Jews believe that from biblical times the whole area was their homeland. Yes, the settler issue needs settling. Having understood this historical context and agreeing that they cannot live together comfortably as one state, they agree a confederation of two sovereign states—the state of Israel and the state of Palestine; one homeland, two states.
Secondly, we now have the best international lawyers agreeing to help both sides work on a constitution of the two states. Israel already has a constitutional agreement. Palestine needs one. Also, jointly, they create an overall constitution for the new confederation.
Thirdly, security experts on both sides decide how the separate countries run their own military and police force and how, in addition, there will be a joint military and policing authority working together over the two states.
Fourthly, on trade and investment, and finance and currency, there is already a team of Palestinians, Israelis and investors across the world who have been working on a project called Breaking the Impasse, pledging billions of dollars to invest in the region, particularly in the new Palestinian state, once there is peace.
Fifthly, on the holy sites, we have spoken to rabbis, bishops and Imams about the theocracy of the region and they will work together as they preach, with compassion and within their own golden rule.
Sixthly, the Arab peace initiative, in 2002, was an all-in-one, take-it-or-leave-it offer, and Israel did not respond. A team is now working on a phased implementation of the API. In this way, 22 Arab countries would support the project.
Seventhly and finally, the media, acting responsibly, do not talk up war and killing, but report on the process described here in informed, even-handed, compassionate and positive terms. There we have it. One homeland, two states and peace, in two minutes. I ask the Minister if Her Majesty’s Government might consider convening a meeting of leaders and experts with whom we are working from all sides, in each of these seven fields to try to develop this concept.
My Lords, language is the key to understanding different cultures, so the importance of Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages is obvious. Arabic is the first language of nearly 300 million people, the majority Muslim. A further billion Muslims are not native speakers, but engage with Arabic as the language of the Koran. Its relevance to the UK is cultural, economic and security-related. About 2 million Muslims live here and the next generation needs at least some linguistic and cultural understanding of the Arab and Muslim worlds, and to start young before stereotypes and prejudices take root.
English as a filter can mislead. Many early reports of the Egyptian revolution in 2011 relied on articulate, English-speaking protesters, which suggested that the society was dominated by secular liberals, until Islamist election victories showed otherwise. The right sort of Arabic is important too. After 9/11, the US trained many soldiers in Egyptian Arabic, but then sent them to Iraq. What is right for diplomacy will not be right for religious texts, which will be different again from a regional dialect for the purposes of military operations.
In the UK, many Muslim children attend mosque school and learn the classical Arabic of the Koran. If only they could also learn modern standard Arabic at their mainstream school alongside non-Muslim pupils. Language is a gateway to cultural understanding and hostility is largely bred through ignorance. But only six state schools teach Arabic on the timetable and only 16 of our 130 universities. Proficiency takes time, and three or four years from scratch at university will not produce the level of expertise that we need to assist UK policy on the Middle East. In addition, 15% of British employers want staff with Arabic and an understanding of Arab business behaviour. We need a long-term strategy covering all ages and stages of education. Will the Government work with schools and HE to develop this?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, drew attention to our consistent lack of understanding of the Middle East. In the brief time available to me, I should like to highlight one area of that lack of understanding—the religious dimension. What concerns me is the lack of religious literacy in our society even among opinion formers and decision-makers. By religious literacy I mean, as his grace the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury put it recently, not just propositional knowledge but emotional intelligence that enables us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives. Only with that sort of knowledge will we understand the ideological drivers to discord and violence that poison life in the Middle East, and not just between Israelis and Palestinians. How many understand the disenfranchisement and disenchantment felt in Sunni heartlands, for example?
As religion becomes more and more central to questions of peace in our world, religious literacy in this country is decreasing and religious education is in a pretty poor state. I commend initiatives like that of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has engaged consistently with the Al-Azhar University in Cairo to promote understanding between people of faith. What plans do the Government have to promote religious literacy so that it reaches all parts of our society, not least all parts of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
We have the expertise necessary; witness the long-standing and excellent interfaith programme of the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University or the impressive work of the Woolf Institute in the same university. I suggest that deep religious literacy is a fundamental precursor to understanding the Middle East and more crucial still to winning over the hearts and minds of those committed to violence.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Hague, when he was appointed shadow Foreign Secretary, forecasted that the Middle East would be the epicentre of the world’s problems in the future. It was certainly an understatement. But more latterly, I am pleased that this country has restored relationships with the Gulf states—which were previously ignored—participated in the Iran nuclear process and welcomed President al-Sisi to London inter alia. We as a country have a unique and exceptional understanding of the region.
Very recently, the Cabinet Office Minister, Matthew Hancock, was in Israel, where he launched a most welcome cybersecurity engagement. Of course Israel’s expertise in this area is unparalleled. As my noble friend Lord Grade observed, he made a clear commitment that public authorities here would be banned from boycotts, which again is most welcome news. All this strengthens our bilateral relationship. However, according to the United Nations, more than 400 Palestinians were displaced in the first six weeks of this year because of Israeli demolitions. There have been horrific attacks on Israeli citizens and counter-attacks by Israeli armed forces. It is a tense and dire situation, but with all the horrors across the region, all eyes have moved away from the Israel/Palestine conflict.
But it is all too circular. As long as illegal settlements are being constructed, Mahmoud Abbas has no credibility to negotiate or accept the open offer by the Israeli Government, and that continues to raise tensions. The problem will fester, but surely this is precisely the time for a bold initiative to break the impasse, as inevitably it will return on the radar screen as a focus of concern. Given that in so many respects we have such an excellent relationship with Israel and are committed generously to a two-state solution, surely this is the moment for the British Government to try to promote actively such a dialogue. We do not need any information or analysis from the BBC, the Economist or anyone else. We have skilled diplomats to do this for us. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree.
My Lords, I wish to use the short time available to argue for a better understanding of Israel. This task is urgent because we see now a disturbing resurgence of anti-Zionism that is bordering on the anti-Semitic, particularly, I regret to say, in sections of the left in British politics. Israel is not of course above criticism. It is right that where necessary we should be critical of Israeli policy, conduct and behaviour. But too often this legitimate criticism of specific actions taken by Israel obscures the reality of Israel. When this reality is not heard, it creates a space for those with uglier motivations to build support for grotesque analogies between Israel and apartheid South Africa or even Nazi Germany.
I fear that on the left today what is in jeopardy is support not just for the conduct of Israel but for the concept of Israel. We see senior figures praising as friends those who are committed to the violent destruction of the Jewish homeland. Indeed, we now have the perverse situation where people who consider themselves to be progressive oppose Israel in the belief that they are standing up for liberal values and human rights, but in doing so side with totalitarian Islamist regimes that abuse human rights and prohibit basic liberties.
I believe that it is the duty of progressives to stop the slide from opposition to specific policies of Israel towards opposition to the very existence of Israel. I want us to make the progressive case for a country where women have the right to vote, dress as they wish and say what they wish in a region where, too often, they are segregated and subjugated; for a country that is committed to the free practice of religion for all in a region where religious minorities are frequently suppressed and persecuted; for a country where gay people are not discriminated against, tortured, detained or executed, as they are almost everywhere else in the region; and for a country with a free press, freedom of expression, an independent judiciary and strong trade unions, all lacking in almost all neighbouring countries. There is nothing progressive about siding with those who oppose the very values that we as a society strive to represent, and there is nothing progressive about seeking to extinguish a beacon of democracy, modernity and pluralism in the Middle East.
My Lords, developing relationships in the Middle East, as the noble Lord, Lord Grade, knows only too well, depends almost 100% on building relationships. I serve as trade envoy for Iraq, and in that context perhaps I may thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Maude of Horsham, who is on the Government Front Bench for this debate, for his tremendous work in supporting all of us in the trade envoy network. I have benefited dramatically from his support and hard work and from the way in which he has built up the network. Indeed, three noble Lords who are speaking in this short debate focusing on the Middle East can bear evidence to what I say. We know that it is all to do with personal relationships.
Perhaps I may draw your Lordships’ attention most particularly to a comment made by my kinsman, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, when he declared in his debate a week ago that the BBC World Service and the British Council are outstanding in communicating our values to the world. It is our values that we communicate when we discuss and collaborate with colleagues and friends all over the Middle East, and it is those values that they commend and benefit from; they are what they want. Nowhere better can we look than at the British Council to see how that can be done. I pay tremendous tribute to the retiring director-general of the British Council, Sir Martin Davidson, who did a magnificent job. His successor, Ciarán Devane, has just taken over.
I am very glad that the Foreign Office has managed to retain the budget of the British Council, but I tell the Minister, as he knows well, that this is not nearly enough. The British Council has a unique outreach in teaching English and Arabic, and in understanding. It is fighting extremism in a very soft and gentle way. It is one of the big architects of peace, not just in the Middle East. Somehow, it has been devastatingly underfunded in recent years. It works not just in the Middle East but here in London. At the recent Syria conference I even found some Bromley schools representing the British Council and communicating with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. That is the British Council’s strength globally.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Anglo Israel Association, in which position I am proud to say I follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, who spoke earlier.
I will address the aftermath of Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock’s remarks in Israel on the subject of boycott. Obviously I welcome his remarks, but we are at the beginning of a difficult phase. The Government must accept that there will be a reaction. It is necessary not simply to assert, as the Cabinet Minister did quite rightly in Israel, that trade between Israel and the United Kingdom is at record high levels, but to realise that there will be a strong challenge. It can be dealt with only by insisting that the Government cannot be complicit in the acceptance of a version of the history and conflict of the Middle East that stigmatises one side only.
That is the fundamental problem with the boycott movement. In many respects you can say that it has been singularly ineffectual, but none the less it is based on the idea that it is possible to proceed on the basis that the root of the problem lies with one side of the debate only. For example, I say on behalf of the Anglo Israel Association that I would be very unhappy—I think the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, would be equally unhappy—if any of the groups we encourage to go to Israel were set on a programme where they met only Israelis and not Palestinian speakers, who would put different points of view. That is fundamental to the approach that we adopt. It is very important that we argue, in the struggle for a two-state solution, that any approach based on the stigmatisation of one group is unacceptable. Make no mistake: in the aftermath of the recent statements made in Israel by Matthew Hancock, we are in for an ideological struggle.
My Lords, almost 36 years ago the Conservative Middle East Council came into being. I declare my interests as set out in the register. It was founded after the then nine members of the European Economic Community signed the Venice declaration, which recognised the close ties between Europe and the Middle East, and called for self-determination for Palestinians and for the active participation of Europe in the peace process. Then, Margaret Thatcher thought it imperative that the Conservative Party understood the Middle East and its importance to Britain. Now, with the urgent challenges and complexities facing the region, that understanding amongst parliamentarians of all parties is more important than ever. So it was enormously encouraging during last week’s recess to see delegations from all parties and both Houses visiting countries across the region.
At the beginning of last week I was in Qatar with the all-party group and then I travelled on to Kuwait in my role as trade envoy to meet a delegation of British businesses. I, too, pay a great tribute to my noble friend the Minister. We went to Kuwait to meet up with Ministers and to attend Kuwait’s first international trade show. Trade, as my noble friend Lord Grade so rightly said, is vital because people who are economically active want to live in peace. In both countries we received a warm welcome and participated in refreshingly open and frank conversations, which would have confounded much of the prejudice against the Arab world. The women in both countries can vote, hold office and dress as they like.
That is why the Prime Minister’s key objectives of engagement and commitment to the region, with more visits, more support and more relationship-building, is vital, because it is only when you see it with your own eyes that you truly understand not only the challenges facing the region, but the profound friendships and infinite opportunities that we enjoy with this enchanting part of the world.
My Lords, I declare my interest as vice-chairman of the New Israel Fund UK and as a former chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club.
When I attended the annual NIF human rights award dinner last November, I was privileged to hear the son of Yitzhak Rabin calling for greater efforts to promote peace, and award winners, who included an Arab-Israeli woman who worked with, among others, Russian Jewish immigrants and a Jewish man who worked with Israeli Arabs who was opposed to the price tag extremists. It occurred to me that, sadly, it was virtually impossible to conceive of any other country in the region for which a human rights award ceremony could be held. The sad loss of life in Gaza has been exceeded more than a hundredfold in Syria, where more people have been displaced than the total population of Israel.
I am not an admirer of the present Israeli Government, though as someone with a particular interest in the position of Israel’s Arab citizens I welcome its overdue decision substantially to invest in improving their conditions and opportunities—a view shared by an Arab member of the Knesset I recently met. For all its faults, Israel’s democracy is still functioning.
I have asked more than one advocate of BDS whether they were aware that the judge who presided over the trial of a former president of Israel was an Israeli Arab, and whether they could conceive of a Jewish judge performing a similar role in any of Israel’s neighbours.
Protest is legitimate, but I reject the moral relativism of those who are loud in their condemnation of Israel but whose protests against the brutality of Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, or the dictatorial regimes in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf whom we supply with weapons, are rarely audible or visible to the naked eye.
Peace across the region requires a commitment to democracy and human rights in every country and for people of every faith and nationality. The UK’s foreign policy, including its arms sales, must reflect that commitment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grade, for introducing this debate, to which I wish to add one observation. Democracy is not achieved merely by giving everyone the vote. Freedom is not achieved merely by removing a tyrant. They require a sustained effort of education and a balanced supply of information. Without these, democracy can descend into mob rule and from there to a new tyranny, exactly as Plato thought it would. The results of the Arab spring, four years on, are tragic testimony to this truth.
Democratic freedom is sustained by media that take it as their task to present all sides of a complex issue, and by universities that understand the importance of academic freedom, which means giving a respectful hearing to views different from your own. Today, these values are being undermined. The internet and social media mean that people can go through life without encountering views with which they disagree. Some universities have allowed students effectively to ban the presentation of views with which they disagree. A soundbite culture makes it hard for people to understand the complexities of political conflict.
The human mind finds it hard to handle moral and political complexity and can easily avoid it by dividing the world into the good guys and the demons, and concluding that all you have to do to solve a problem is to first silence, then eliminate, the bad guys. Often in the past they were called the Jews. Today, they are called the State of Israel. That is not good for the future of freedom in the Middle East. I urge the Government to do all they can to ensure that our institutions of education and information honour the principle that justice involves audi alteram partem, which means, let the other side be heard as well.
My Lords, I was fortunate to visit Israel last week, where the Israeli Government expressed to our group of Peers a wish for peace and economic prosperity for themselves and their neighbours. The Palestine Liberation Organization gave a somewhat different and muddled view.
During the British mandate of 1920 to 1947, there was much unrest between the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews. Attacks on, and massacres of, Jews occurred in 1921 and 1929. In 1936, during the Great Arab Revolt, thousands of Jews were attacked and killed; some fled the area. Indeed, in 1939—77 years ago—my father served in what was then Palestine with his regiment, the Royal Scots Greys. I discussed our trip with a great friend who has worked as an NGO in Israel and he asked me, “Is it surprising that the Gaza people behave in the way they do when they have an apartheid or separation wall?”. “Look at the facts”, I said. In 2002, during the second intifada, around 52 Israelis were killed or wounded each week by Palestinian terrorism. After the completion of the security barrier, less than one Israeli was killed or injured a week. Even this figure would not be accepted in the UK. Today, during the recent wave of violence, the odd rocket still keeps falling on Sderot near the Gaza Strip, and Israelis are regularly stabbed, but the suicide and pipe bombers are defeated by the security barriers. These barriers are saving thousands of lives.
Many attempts at a permanent, peaceful solution have been made. Israel has signed up to most but the Palestinians have not. It seems to me, as a Christian, that the Palestinians have no intention of committing to any agreement unless they can have total control of all of Israel.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grade, for his initiative in securing this debate. Although he was keen to focus on the media and academic interpretation of the Middle East—or, more specifically on the Israel-Palestine conflict—I would like to focus on what the FCO could do to improve its understanding of the wider Middle East. However, I concur that we need to ensure an open debate in our academic institutions, while underlining Labour’s commitment to a two-state solution.
First, we must acknowledge that, on the whole, we are not doing very well in relation to our understanding and intervention in the Middle East, as underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester that an understanding of religion is central to moving on here. However, we should note, for example, that not a single diplomat recorded on paper their opposition to the Iraq war. Politicians do need to take some advice from the experts. We got Iraq wrong; we made a mess of Libya; Afghanistan is still in trouble; at one point we were determined to see the removal of Assad from Syria but now it is not so clear. We need to have an honest debate about what is going wrong.
The Environment Minister, Rory Stewart, who previously served as an FCO civil servant in the region, has suggested that the entire structure of the Foreign Office—the incentives, the method of promotion, the recruitment—does not help us to ever acknowledge failure, as is the case with our intervention in the Middle East. He went further and suggested that these institutions are designed to trap us in these countries. Does the Minister agree with that analysis? We need to develop in-depth linguistic and cultural expertise. Can the Minister confirm whether more than three out of 16 Middle East ambassadors can speak Arabic, as was the case just a few years ago? Our diplomats need to spend longer in the region and they need to get out and about, but the safety rules with which FCO officials must comply are so stringent that the chances of gaining on-the-ground intelligence reports are extremely limited. Does the Minister have any ideas on how we can marry safety rules with intelligence gathering?
Finally, we must ask who is leading in the Middle East. Is it the FCO or the military? Do we have the balance right? To take an example, the fact is that we spent 13 times more on bombing Libya than we did on rebuilding the country after the conflict. We cannot disengage from the Middle East but we can make better and more informed decisions about what intervention looks like. It does not always have to be militarily led, our diplomats need better training and understanding, and they need to acknowledge when they are wrong—along, of course, with us, the politicians.
My Lords, this is by way of being my Dispatch Box swan song, unless I am summoned back here some time before 11 March. It is a great privilege to have the responsibility of winding up this debate. It has been sober, serious and thoughtful and my admiration for this House has been amplified by the skill with which noble Lords have managed to compress their wisdom, insight and knowledge into two minutes each. That is hugely to the benefit of the cause. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Grade for introducing this debate. The debate has overwhelmingly focused on Israel and Palestine, whereas the Middle East is an arena fraught with conflict and difficulty. Threats such as Daesh have recently emerged, but there is a huge number of issues which confront the stability of the world more widely.
My noble friend Lord Grade makes the case for more understanding. What drives understanding and builds confidence and friendship can be the role played by trade and investment. When people trade with each other, when they invest in each other’s jurisdictions, it builds confidence and understanding; people know each other better. We should never underestimate the benefit that flows from that. My noble friend Lord Grade focused on freedom of speech, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lords, Lord Livermore and Lord Sacks, and my noble friend Lord Patten. All talked about the need for balance, respect, historical truths and to be even-handed, and the need not to take refuge in ancient grievances and distortions of history. Our higher education institutions—our universities—should be places where liberalism in its best sense and the respect for hearing other points of view are absolutely entrenched. I think all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate have understood that and reflected the importance of anyone who goes to university being willing to accept that they are places where open, honest debate must be allowed free rein.
Whether on campus or elsewhere, British Jews, like all communities, must be able to live their lives free from fear of verbal or physical attack. The best way to tackle anti-Semitism is through effective implementation of strong legislation against racial and religious discrimination. Of course, it is important that people in the Middle East itself should be able to be taught together; that will build understanding as well.
A number of noble Lords talked about boycotts and the BDS movement and commented on the announcement made recently in Israel by my successor as Minister for the Cabinet Office, Matthew Hancock. It is important that the BDS movement should be understood as something negative, for the organisations that seek to implement it in terms of the value for money that they get in spending public money for their institutions, and for the bad message or signal that it sends. Of course, where there is an agreed, legally established sanctions regime, that must be respected, but these kinds of movements are damaging. They divide people, reduce understanding, impede the peace process and make it more difficult to achieve the negotiated two-state solution that we all want to see.
The Middle East peace process is something that many noble Lords focused on in the course of this debate. The noble Lords, Lord Palmer, Lord Empey, Lord Stone and Lord Beecham, and many others have talked about the need for the Middle East process to get a new momentum. I cannot possibly do justice to all the points that have been raised but it is absolutely essential that we ultimately see a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. Of course there will need to be agreed land swaps; of course Jerusalem will need to be a shared capital of both states, with a just and agreed settlement for refugees. We know how much frustration there is; noble Lords on all sides of the Chamber have referred to the lack of progress. We know that the current situation is unacceptable and unsustainable. A just and lasting resolution that ends the occupation and delivers peace for both Israelis and Palestinians is long overdue.
We will continue to press both Israel and the Palestinians strongly on the need to refrain from actions that make peace more difficult. There is the danger that the longer it goes on, the more difficult it will be for that resolution to take place. We believe, obviously, that peace will come only through negotiations between the parties. Britain on its own cannot possibly make that happen.
We have a history in the region. It has not always been an easy one but it has been one of deep involvement. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to our failure to understand. I think that in many ways we do understand it better than some others and we are more even-handed than some others. We can play a role in interpretation and mediation and we should not flinch from doing that. We will always want to judge any proposal on the basis of whether we believe it supports progress towards the two-state solution. International action, involving regional players, the European Union and the quartet, can play a role in supporting progress but we will always assess any moves on the basis of whether they support that progress towards the two-state solution.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Risby and Lord Rotherwick, referred to the upsurge of violence across the region since October. We should be clear that we condemn all acts of violence and we urge all sides to work together to promote peace. We want to see an end to these terrorist attacks. Every terrorist attack sets back the peace process and we want the authorities to take appropriate action against those who commit these crimes—and they are crimes. We call upon Hamas and the other militant groups to end the rocket fire and other attacks on Israel. We condemn the use of racist and hateful language. We deplore incitement on both sides of the conflict, including any comments that could stir up hatred and prejudice in a region that has already seen far too much of both.
To conclude, it is clear—if it was not clear before, this debate has made it absolutely clear—that the region faces numerous and serious challenges, for which there are no quick fixes. We must maintain our resolve to seek solutions. I go back to where I started: increasing trade and investment can enhance understanding and mutual interest and can play a part in leading to the conditions in which a sustainable, permanent solution can be found. Obviously, that change needs to be led principally by the region. I pay tribute to the work done by a number of noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, referred to the fact that three participants in this debate act as trade envoys to the Middle East region. The work they do in promoting trade and investment is important and I thank them for their commitment.
Supporting political solutions to end conflict and supporting those whose lives have been shattered by it; tackling the threat of extremism through building countries’ resilience and supporting the development of pluralistic and inclusive societies, which offer the people of the Middle East genuine hope and opportunity; and building on peace and stability to increase our mutual prosperity—these are ways, to go back to my noble friend Lord Grade’s contention at the outset, of increasing our understanding of the region. In addition, by what we do to promote mutual understanding between the communities and countries of the Middle East, we can hope to play our part, and it can be an important part, in securing a sustainable and permanent solution.