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House of Lords Hansard
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06 May 2020
Volume 803

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the announcement by the government of Israel of its intention to commence discussions from 1 July on applying Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements and other territory in the occupied West Bank.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

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My Lords, we are deeply concerned by reports that the new Israeli Government coalition have reached an agreement which may pave the way for annexation of parts of the West Bank. The United Kingdom’s position is clear: any unilateral moves towards annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel would be damaging to efforts to restart peace negotiations and contrary to international law.

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I thank the Minister for his Answer, but

“no country, however large, can dismember its neighbour and break international law without consequences.”

These are the words of Boris Johnson when Foreign Secretary, in an article published on 22 February 2018 criticising Russia for its annexation of Crimea. The Minister accepts, as I understand it, that the possible annexation by the Israeli Government of land on the West Bank would likewise be illegal, but otherwise the Government’s response is an exercise in hand-wringing, as evidenced by the response today and by the answer given yesterday to the Written Question put down by my noble friend Lady Northover.

The possibility of a just, two-state solution is being dismantled before our eyes in favour of a one-state imposition, all endorsed by President Trump. What is the Government’s position? Do they accept the inevitability of annexation or will they condemn and seek to prevent it? We are entitled to know; the Palestinians are entitled to know as well.

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Can we please have short questions? These are not speeches in a debate, it is Question Time.

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My Lords, the UK position is absolutely clear. Any unilateral moves towards annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel, as I have said, would be damaging to the restart of any peace negotiations and, as I say again, contrary to international law.

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Calling for harm to Jews, holding the British-Jewish community responsible for the actions of Israel, suggestions of disloyalty, conspiracy or undue financial power and Nazi comparators are all outwith the agreed IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Does the Minister agree that robust criticism and debate, while vital for democracy, are undermined by those who demean and dehumanise through hateful and abusive language?

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I agree with the noble Lord. As he will know, the Government are a strong supporter of the IHRA definition; in that regard, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Pickles. The United Kingdom stands very much on the sentiments that the noble Lord has expressed. Any kind of bigotry or hate against any community is unacceptable.

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My Lords, the last time I was in Israel, I told the mayor of Jerusalem that the settlements were a mistake. He said: “What do you want me to do, police the ethnicity of land sales between Israelis and Palestinians?” If most Palestinians recognise that a land swap for the settlement blocks is the pragmatic way forward, should not we in the UK be doing the same?

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My Lords, as my noble friend will know, our long-standing position remains that the United Kingdom believes in a peace negotiation, a settlement between both sides based primarily on the 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, as would allow understanding of the position on the ground. Our position in that regard has not changed.

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I call the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon. He is not there. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree that everyone who wishes the best of futures for both Israel and the Palestinian people should be giving all the support they can to the people trying to bring about a two-state solution, and that therefore no support for any unilateral action should be given? It does not matter who is taking the unilateral action, whether it is Israel, the Palestinian people or any other actor in this conflict. Real friends of Israel should surely be against any unilateral action, which is bound to be only an obstacle on the road to peace, and that should apply to land annexation by Israel or calls from the Palestinians for boycotts and sanctions against Israel. Can the Minister confirm that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government is still to do everything to help bring about an agreed two-state solution for both parties?

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My Lords, I have already stated the Government’s position and I am happy to restate it. We believe in a two-state negotiated peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

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My Lords, the Israel Attorney-General’s office has warned the Israeli Prime Minister that annexation could trigger an International Criminal Court investigation into senior army officers and others. Will the Government co-operate if such an investigation occurs?

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My Lords, I am not going to speculate on what may or may not happen. It remains very clear that we support a negotiated settlement between both sides, as I have said. As for anything which the ICC brings forward, we are supporters of the ICC, as the noble Baroness will know.

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I refer the House to my interests as stated in the register. At his last speech to the Knesset on 5 October 1995 on the ratification of the Oslo accord, Yitzhak Rabin stated:

“The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley”.

Just one month later, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and others signed an Early Day Motion as a tribute to the murdered Prime Minister, describing him as

“a man of great courage and vision who led his country … along the path towards peace”.

The noble Lord was right to do so then and, I guess, would do so again. Does the Minister agree that the Council for Arab-British Understanding would be fulfilling its mission and be in tune with government policy by writing to the Palestinian leadership and other Arab states urging the Palestinians to sit down and talk peace directly with the Israelis?

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My Lords, I agree with my noble friend on the vision and the courage of the sadly passed-away Prime Minister Rabin. He brought peace to the region and his vision is what is needed now. Of course, I support all negotiated settlements, and we call upon both sides to sit down together and reach an agreement that works for Israel and for the Palestinians.

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This proposal—so far it is only a proposal—over long-disputed territory has been taken out of context. I hope the Minister appreciates that. It relates to the Jordan valley, which has always been part of likely land swaps. It forms part of an overall vision to have a Palestinian state in the remainder of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The outright rejection of the entire US plan and adherence to past, failed plans are certain to condemn all sides to continued conflict. The Saudis have called on the Palestinian leadership to engage in direct negotiations with Israel on the merits of the US proposals. Can the Minister tell the House whether the UK Government have made representations to the Palestinian National Authority to do the same and get on with negotiations?

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My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that we implore both sides to sit down and negotiate so that an agreement can be reached in the interests of both peoples.

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My Lords, it is clear that annexation does not mean the takeover of the West Bank, but the takeover of some parts that have been on the table in every suggested peace deal for decades—namely, in land swaps such as in the Jordan river valley, as has been mentioned, in exchange for land elsewhere. Does the Minister agree that this is a vital opportunity for Mr Abbas to negotiate again for a two-state solution?

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My Lords, I agree that what we want to see and what is required—it has been a long-standing position, and we remain steadfast—is a negotiated two-state solution that works for Israel in terms of its security concerns, and provides for a sovereign Palestinian nation.

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My Lords, I fear that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We might have got one or two more supplementary questions in had not some of the others been so long. I thank everyone who has taken part today. That concludes the Virtual Proceedings on Oral Questions. Virtual Proceedings will resume at a convenient point after noon for a Private Notice Question on the impact of Covid-19 on higher education.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.