With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Balfour declaration—issued on 2 November 1917 by my predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour—and its legacy today.
As the British Army advanced towards Jerusalem in the last 12 months of the first world war, with the aim of breaking the Ottoman empire’s grip on the middle east, the Government published their policy concerning the territory that would become the British mandate for Palestine. The House will recall the material sentence of the Balfour declaration:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
A century after those words were written, I believe that the Balfour declaration paved the way for the birth of a great nation. The state of Israel has prevailed over every obstacle, from the harshness of nature to the visceral hostility of its enemies, to become a free society with a thriving and innovative economy and the same essential values that we in Britain hold dear. Liberty, democracy and the rule of law have found a home in Israel—more so than anywhere else in the middle east. Most of all, there is the incontestable moral purpose of Israel to provide a persecuted people with a safe and secure homeland.
We should not brush aside how the pernicious extent of anti-Semitism in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—decades before the holocaust—created the necessity for the Balfour declaration. It was in 1881 that the most powerful adviser at the court of Tsar Alexander II vowed that one third of Russian Jews would be forced to convert, one third would emigrate and the remainder would be left to starve. The moral case for establishing a
“national home for the Jewish people”
was to provide a haven from such horrors. So Her Majesty’s Government are proud of Britain’s part in creating Israel, and we shall mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration on Thursday in that spirit.
I see no contradiction in being a friend of Israel and a believer in that country’s destiny while also being profoundly moved by the suffering of those who were affected and dislodged by its birth. That vital caveat in the Balfour declaration—intended to safeguard the rights of other communities, by which, of course, we mean the Palestinians —has not been fully realised. In the words of Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, the tragedy of this conflict is not that it is a clash between right and wrong, but rather a
“clash between right and right”.
The Government believe that the only way of bringing peace is through a two-state solution, defined as a secure Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, standing alongside a viable, sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state, the homeland for the Palestinian people, as envisaged by UN General Assembly resolution 181. For Israel, the birth of a Palestinian state would safeguard its demographic future as a Jewish democracy. For Palestinians, a state of their own would allow them to realise their aspirations for self-determination and self-government.
When the parties held their first peace conference in Madrid in 1991, the leader of the Palestinian delegation, Haidar Abdul Shafi, described those aspirations as follows:
“We seek neither an admission of guilt after the fact, nor vengeance for past iniquities, but rather an act of will that would make a just peace a reality.”
I believe that a just peace will be a reality when two states for two peoples co-exist in the Holy Land, and that is the goal we must strive to bring about.
The House knows the troubled history of the peace process so far. The truth is that no direct talks have taken place between the parties since 2014. But the US Administration have shown their commitment to breaking the deadlock, and a new American envoy, Jason Greenblatt, has made repeated visits to the region. The Government will of course support these efforts in whatever way we can, and we urge the parties to refrain from acting in ways that make the goal of two states ever harder to achieve. For Israelis, that means halting settlement activity in the occupied territories. The pace of construction has regrettably accelerated, notably with the approval of the first new housing units in Hebron for 15 years and the first completely new settlement in the west bank since 1999. For Palestinians, it means restoring full counter-terrorism co-operation with Israel, in line with UN resolution 2334, and implementing the recommendations of the Quartet report on curbing incitement.
Britain is one of the largest donors to the Palestinian Authority, with the primary aim of strengthening the institutions that would form the basis of any future Palestinian state. It may be helpful for the House if I set out the Government’s view of a fair compromise between the parties. The borders between the two states should be based on the lines as they stood on 4 June 1967—the eve of the six-day war—with equal land swaps to reflect the national, security, and religious interests of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. There must be security arrangements that, for Israelis, prevent the resurgence of terrorism; and, for Palestinians, respect their sovereignty, ensure freedom of movement, and demonstrate that occupation is over. There needs to be a just, fair, agreed and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee question, in line with UN resolution 1515. In practice, this means that any such agreement must be demographically compatible with two states for two peoples and a generous package of international compensation should be made available. The final determination of Jerusalem must be agreed by the parties, ensuring that the holy city is a shared capital of Israel and a Palestinian state, granting access and religious rights for all who hold it dear.
This vision of a just settlement finds its roots in another British-drafted document: UN resolution 242, adopted 50 years ago this November, which enshrines the principle of land for peace based on the 1967 lines. That essential principle has inspired every serious effort to resolve this conflict—from the Camp David peace treaty signed by Israel and Egypt almost 40 years ago, to the Arab peace initiative first placed on the table in 2002, which offers normal relations with Israel in return for an end to occupation.
I believe that the goal of two states is still achievable, and that with ingenuity and good will, the map of the Holy Land can be configured in ways that meet the aspirations of both parties. A century after the Balfour declaration helped to create the state of Israel—an achievement that no one in this House would wish to undo—there is unfinished business and work to be done. We in this country, mindful of our historic role, and co-operating closely with our allies, will not shirk from that challenge. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement. As we approach the centenary of the Balfour declaration, Labour Members are glad to join him in commemorating that historic anniversary and expressing once again our continued support for the state of Israel.
In 1918, Labour’s first Cabinet Minister, Arthur Henderson, said:
“The British Labour Party believes that the responsibility of the British people in Palestine should be fulfilled to the utmost of their power…to ensure the economic prosperity, political autonomy and spiritual freedom of both the Jews and Arabs in Palestine.”
The Labour party has adopted that position, not least in recognition of the egalitarian goals that inspired the early pioneers of the Israeli state. We think, in particular, of the kibbutz movement—a group of people dedicated to establishing a more egalitarian society free from the prejudice and persecution that they had experienced in their home countries. Even today, despite the challenges that I will address in respect of its relationship with the Palestinian people, modern Israel still stands out for its commitment to egalitarianism—in particular, its commitment to women and LGBT communities in a region where these groups are far too often subject to fierce discrimination.
Today, it is right to think about the successes of Israel, but we must also be aware that 100 years on, the promise in the Balfour letter cited by the Foreign Secretary—that
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”—
remains unfulfilled, and we have more to do. I urge the Foreign Secretary to take the opportunity of the centenary to reflect once again on Britain’s role in the region, as his predecessor did 100 years ago, and ask whether we could do more to bring about lasting peace and stability in the middle east. Can we do more to ensure that the political rights, as well as the civil and religious rights, of Palestinian people are protected, just as Mr Balfour intended all those years ago?
On that point, as the Foreign Secretary well knows, I believe that there is no better or more symbolic way of marking the Balfour centenary than for the UK officially to recognise the state of Palestine. We have just heard the Foreign Secretary talk in explicit terms about the benefits for both Israel and Palestine that the birth of Palestinian statehood would bring. Surely we can play more of a part in delivering that by formally recognising the Palestinian state.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows that in 2011, one of his other predecessors, William Hague, said:
“We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state…at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help to bring about peace.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 290.]
Almost six years have passed since that statement—six years in which the humanitarian situation in the occupied territories has become ever more desperate, six years in which the cycle of violence has continued unabated and the people of Israel remain at daily risk from random acts of terror, six years in which the pace of settlement building and the displacement of Palestinian people have increased, and six years in which moves towards a lasting peace have ground to a halt.
Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House today whether the Government still plan to recognise the state of Palestine and, if not now, when? Conversely, if they no longer have such plans, can the Foreign Secretary tell us why things have changed? He will remember that on 13 October 2014, the House stated that the Palestinian state should be recognised. The anniversary of the Balfour declaration is a reminder that when the British Government lay out their policies on the middle east in black and white, those words matter and can make a difference. With the empty vessel that is the American President making lots of noise but being utterly directionless, the need for Britain to show leadership on this issue is ever more pressing.
Will the Foreign Secretary make a start today on the issue of Palestinian statehood? As we rightly reflect on the last 100 years, we have a shared duty to look towards the future and towards the next generation of young people growing up in Israel and Palestine today. That generation knows nothing but division and violence, and those young people have been badly let down by the actions, and the inaction, of their own leaders. Will young Israelis grow up in a world in which air raids, car rammings and random stabbings become a commonplace fact of life? Will they grow up in a country in which military service remains not just compulsory, but necessary, because they are surrounded by hostile neighbours who deny their very right to exist? Will young Palestinians grow up in a world in which youth unemployment remains at 58%, reliant on humanitarian aid and unable to shape their own futures? Will they inherit a map on which the ever-expanding settlements and the destruction of their own houses make it harder and harder to envisage what a viable independent Palestine would even look like?
I do not know whether the Foreign Secretary agrees with the Prime Minister about whether it is worth answering hypothetical questions, but as we mark the centenary of the vital step taken by a former British Foreign Secretary in recognition of Israeli statehood, I ask this Foreign Secretary how he believes he will be remembered in 100 years’ time. Will the Government in which he serves be remembered for recognising the statehood of the Palestinian people and taking a similarly vital step towards correcting an historic wrong? I can assure him that if the Government are not prepared to take that step, the next Labour Government will be.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the spirit in which she addressed the questions. She asks, if I may say so, the right questions about the way ahead. The UK is substantially committed to the support of the Palestinian Authority and to building up the institutions in Palestine. British taxpayers’ cash helps about 25,000 kids to go to school, we help with about 125,000 medical cases every year and the Department for International Development gives, as she knows very well, substantial sums to support the Palestinian Authority with a view to strengthening those institutions.
When it comes to recognising that state, we judge, in common with our French friends and the vast majority of our European friends and partners, that the moment is not yet right to play that card. That on its own will not end the occupation or bring peace. After all, it is not something we can do more than once: that card having been played, that will be it. We judge that it is better to give every possible encouragement to both sides to seize the moment and, if I may say so, I think the right hon. Lady is quite hard, perhaps characteristically, on the current Administration in Washington, which is perhaps her job—
It ought to be your job, too.
Indeed, and I am hard where it is necessary, but there is a job to be done. At the moment, as I think the right hon. Lady would accept, there is a conjuncture in the stars that is uncommonly propitious. I will not put it higher than that, but there is a chance that we could make progress on this very vexed dossier. We need the Americans to work with us to do that and we need them to be in the lead because, as she will understand, of the facts as they are in the middle east.
We need the Palestinian Authority, with a clear mandate, to sit down and negotiate with the Israelis and do the deal that is there to be done, and which everybody understands. We all know the shape of the future map and we all know how it could be done. What is needed now is political will, and I can assure the right hon. Lady and the House that the UK will be absolutely determined to encourage both sides to do such a deal.
Of course it is right to mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration, but as we have already heard, we often concentrate too much on the first part of the declaration at the expense of the second. Does anyone really believe that the statement—the very clear statement—that
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”
has been adhered to? Does my right hon. Friend not agree that a positive way in which to mark this important centenary would be for the UK finally to recognise a Palestinian state, something many of us in this House believe would honour the vision of those who helped bring about the state of Israel in the first place?
I agree very much with my right hon. Friend that, as it were, the protasis of the Balfour declaration has been fulfilled, but the apodosis has not. It should have spoken of the political rights of those peoples and, by the way, in my view it should have identified specifically the Palestinian people. That has not yet happened, and it is certainly our intention to make sure that Balfour does not remain unfinished business. As I have said, we want to recognise a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, but we judge that the moment to do that is not yet ripe.
While the historical context is complex, we have stressed the need to learn some important and relevant lessons from the Balfour declaration. There is plenty of room for lessons to be learned, and for historic and moral responsibilities to be assumed for the betterment of all the peoples of the middle east today. This must start with the recognition of the state of Palestine as a fundamental stepping stone towards a lasting two-state solution.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s words, at least in principle, on that solution. However, we deeply regret that the UK Government have not fulfilled their commission in the declaration that, as we have already heard,
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
The consequence of this failure remains all too clear. We hope that the centenary of the Balfour declaration will serve as an opportunity for reflection and a reinvigorated peace process across the middle east.
The Scottish National party supports the European Union position of a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, and we firmly encourage Palestine and Israel to reach a sustainable, negotiated settlement under international law, based on mutual recognition and the determination to co-exist peacefully. The SNP has consistently condemned obstacles to progress in the peace process, such as the indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel or the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories.
Opposition Members have repeatedly called on the UK Government to use their influence to help to revitalise the peace process. I repeat those calls and ask the Foreign Secretary what efforts he is making to use his influence to bring about a renewed effort to break through the political deadlock and bring an end to this conflict.
The Scottish Government have been clear that they would welcome a Palestinian consulate in Edinburgh. Will the Foreign Secretary take this opportunity to recognise formally a Palestinian state as a fundamental stepping stone to a two-state solution by enabling the opening of an embassy?
Of course we are doing everything in our power to push on with a two-state solution. I have spoken about the outlines of a deal that everyone can imagine—the land swaps for peace that can be arranged—but it is also vital that we remember that Israel has a legitimate security interest. If we are to get this done, I am afraid it is essential that not just Fatah and the PA, but Hamas as well, have to understand that they must renounce terror, their use of anti-Semitic propaganda and the glorification of so-called terrorist martyrs. They must commit to the Quartet principles, and then there is genuinely the opportunity to get both sides together.
The hon. Gentleman asks rightly about what this country is doing specifically to advance this, and we are engaged heavily in the diplomacy. Not only is the Israeli Prime Minister coming this week, as is proper, to mark Balfour, but Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, will come next year. We look forward to an intensification of contacts with them in the run-up to that visit.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best route to rediscover the unique moral authority associated with the Zionist project, delivering after two millennia a safe place for global Jewry in the remarkable state of Israel, is for the state of Israel itself, secured by the support of the world’s pre-eminent power of 2017, to take on responsibility for the delivery of the unfulfilled part of the Balfour declaration by the world’s pre-eminent power of 1917, which it plainly is not in a position now to deliver itself, and for Israel to share the security and justice it has achieved for global Jewry with their neighbours?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I recognise the great learning and expertise he brings to discussion of this issue and his passion for the cause of finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is something that I agree strongly is in the hands of this generation of Israeli politicians, and they are certainly aware of that. But it is also in the hands of the Palestinians, and as I said a moment ago, they must do certain things if we are to get this process moving. It is also vital, as my hon. Friend rightly observes, that the greatest patron, ally and supporter of Israel—the United States—should play its full role in moving this process forward.
The Balfour declaration recognised the rights of the Jewish people to national self-determination in their historic homelands, which go back more than 3,000 years. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that there are now new opportunities in the middle east to start again to try to secure a negotiated solution to this intractable conflict, so that the Palestinian people as well as the Jewish people can have their own states in the region?
I do indeed recognise the opportunity the hon. Lady identifies. I believe there is an unusual alignment of the stars. Effectively, we have the chance to proceed now with a version of the Arab peace plan that has been on the table since 2002. Nobody ever got rich by betting on a successful conclusion of the middle east peace process, but there is an opportunity and we must do whatever we can to persuade both sides that this is their moment for greatness. That is certainly the case we are making to both of them.
As we celebrate 100 years of the Balfour declaration, does the Foreign Secretary agree that this event can be regarded as an act of great diplomatic skill on the part of his illustrious predecessor, Lord Balfour, in so far as it triggered a process leading to the creation of Israel, thus providing a strong, stable, democratic and non-sectarian ally for the UK in the heart of the notoriously unstable middle east?
I agree totally with my hon. Friend. The Balfour declaration was an historic event that led to a giant political fact: the creation of the state of Israel, which I believe to be one of the most stunning political achievements of the 20th century. As I said, I do not think anybody in this House could seriously wish the undoing of that fact. Nobody looking at Israel—a democracy and a liberal, tolerant society in the middle east—could seriously wish away that achievement. We should celebrate the existence of the state of Israel—we certainly celebrate our relationship with the state of Israel here in this country—but we must recognise and accept that for others the fact of the Balfour declaration carries very different overtones. They remember it in a very different spirit, so it is important we mark this anniversary with sensitivity and balance.
The best legacy of the centenary of the Balfour declaration would be to make concrete progress towards the two-state solution we all want to see. Does the Foreign Secretary agree, in this centenary year, to support and properly invest in the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which could help us to take that big step? I desperately want to see a Palestinian state and have campaigned for that all my life, but it is very important that Members understand there is no legalistic, unilateral or bureaucratic route to that objective. It will not be achieved by being imposed from the outside or by unilateral declarations here or anywhere else. It will only be achieved by getting Israelis and Palestinians to work together to build trust, to negotiate and to compromise, and for economic development and trade in the west bank, and the reconstruction and demilitarisation of Gaza.
I completely agree with the aspiration the hon. Gentleman sets out. I believe that the future is economic interpenetration and mutual prosperity. That is why next year we are investing £3 million in co-existence projects of exactly the kind he describes.
Is there anything we can do about illegal settlements beyond saying that we are very, very cross?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who makes a valid point. Beyond our repeated statements of disapproval, Members may recollect that we led the way just before Christmas last year with UN resolution 2334, which specifically condemned new illegal settlements. The Prime Minister and I have been at pains to point out to Prime Minister Netanyahu, both here in London and in Jerusalem, our view that the settlements are illegal. That is a point on which we will continue to insist.
It is certainly right that the House celebrates the creation of the state of Israel, but it cannot celebrate—in fact, it must condemn—the failure of successive UK Governments to help safeguard the rights of Palestinians. Given our historical role, will the Foreign Secretary set out what single, concrete international initiative he intends spearheading to help secure a viable Palestinian state, and will he set out what conditions would have to be met for the UK to recognise Palestine?
I have been pretty clear with the House already that we see the most fertile prospects now in the new push coming from America, and we intend to support that. As and when it becomes necessary to play the recognition card, we certainly will do it—we want to do it—but now is not yet the time.
Notwithstanding the challenges of unfinished business to which my right hon. Friend rightly referred, does he agree that centenaries can be a powerful way to draw people together, thoughtfully and respectfully, even where, as here, the history is complex and nuanced?
I strongly agree. It has been salutary for people to look back over the last 100 years at the many missed opportunities and at the reasons Balfour thought it necessary to make his declaration. It was not, as is frequently said, simply that Britain wanted to solicit American support in the first world war; it was genuinely because of a need, an imperative, to deal with the pogroms and the anti-Semitism that had plagued Russia and so many parts of eastern Europe for so long. It was vital to find a homeland for the Jewish people, and history can be grateful that Balfour made the decision he did, though we have to understand at the same time the injustice and suffering occasioned by that decision.
In the same week we celebrate the centenary of the Balfour declaration, will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to condemn the actions in Abu Dhabi in recent days, when five Israelis who won medals at the judo grand slam were denied the chance afforded to other athletes of celebrating with their country’s flag and anthem during the awards ceremonies and when one athlete refused to shake the hand of an Israeli athlete? There can be no place for this type of discrimination. If we are to see peace, we have to acknowledge and support both the Israeli and the Palestinian people.
I completely agree. We condemn anti-Semitism and displays of such prejudice wherever they occur. The example the hon. Lady gives shows the paramount need to sort out this problem and end this running sore.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only is Israel a beacon of hope and democracy in the middle east but that our strategic partnerships in the fields of security and defence are vital to the safety of both our nations and should be enhanced and developed?
My hon. Friend is completely right. We have an intensifying commercial partnership with Israel. It is a country at the cutting edge of high technology of all kinds. We co-operate in financial services, aviation and all kinds of fields, as well as, very importantly, security and intelligence, as he rightly identifies.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s measured tone in recognising the rights of Palestinians and the obligations that the Balfour declaration places on the UK Government. When he has dinner with the Prime Minister of Israel, may I suggest that he says that sustainable peace in the middle east can be built only on the basis of equal rights, equal dignity and respect for all, Israelis and Palestinians alike? On the UK Government’s role, will he point out that we will uphold the Geneva convention, which Britain co-wrote and ratified after the second world war, in that we will not trade with settlements that he himself has said are illegal? Finally, may I point out that the House considered the issue of recognition at length and, following considered debate, voted by 274 votes to 12 that the UK Government should recognise the state of Israel alongside the state of Palestine as part of our moral obligation to the Palestinian people, as set out in the declaration?
I certainly agree with the majority view of Members of the House that we must, in time, recognise the Palestinian state. I have to be honest, however: I do not happen to think that now is the most effective moment to do that. In that, we are at one with our partners around the EU. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about boycotts. I do not think that that is the right way forward. I do not think that boycotting Israeli products makes sense. The biggest losers would be the workers from Palestinian and Arab communities who benefit immensely from the economic activity generated by those Israeli companies.
As my right hon. Friend rightly says, we have a long way to go to achieve an end to violence and a two-state solution, but does he agree with me and many of my constituents that this anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate modern Israel, its vibrant economy, its liberty and diversity, its democracy and, above all, the fact that at a time of rising anti-Semitism, it still provides a safe home for the Jewish people?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on speaking up for his constituents. He is right to want to celebrate the existence of the state of Israel, though he must recognise that in celebrating the Balfour declaration we must also accept that the declaration itself, on 2 November 1917, today has different echoes for different people around the world, and it is important that we be balanced and sensitive in our approach.
For a change, will the Foreign Secretary tell me what the Israeli Government have to do to get a peace settlement? A lot of emphasis is put on the Palestinians. How does he think that Donald Trump can resolve the problem, when he has failed to put pressure on the Israeli Government to stop the settlements?
I think the hon. Gentleman answered his own question as he sat down. The Israeli Government need to stop the illegal settlements. They are not yet making it impossible to deliver the new map, but every time they build new units—as he knows, there are new units going up in Hebron in east Jerusalem—they make that eventual land swap more difficult and move us further from a two-state solution. That is the point we make to our Israeli friends—and, by the way, that is the point made by many allies around the world.
It is clearly true that residents of the occupied Palestinian territories do not enjoy the full civil rights promised to them in the Balfour declaration, but is it not also true that neither do the more than 800,000 Jews expelled from countries in the middle east and north Africa? We must remember that 21% of the population of the current state of Israel are Arab Palestinians, whereas there has been wholescale ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab and north African countries, starting in 1948.
My hon. Friend has an excellent point and alludes to the third leg of the Balfour declaration. Balfour spoke of the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities and then of course of the rights of Jewish communities elsewhere around the world. As my hon. Friend rightly says, hundreds of thousands of them were expelled from their homes, too. They will also benefit from a lasting peace between the Arabs and Israelis. That is what we want to achieve and what we are pushing for.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is impossible to reject the Balfour declaration in its entirety, as some may seek to do, and support a two-state solution? Will he therefore join me in celebrating Balfour and commit to redoubling our efforts to achieve a two-state solution and peace in the region?
I certainly share the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm for and passionate belief in the vital importance of the state of Israel, which, as I told the House earlier, I believe to be one of the great achievements of humanity in the 20th century, given all the suffering the Jewish people had been through. It is a great immovable fact—I hope—of geopolitics. We also have to recognise, however, that in the course of creating that wonderful experiment, huge numbers of people suffered and lost their homes. Their wishes and feelings must also be respected. It is in that spirit that we mark Balfour today.
Is it not the case that the rights of non-Jews in the state of Israel are 100% protected as per the Balfour declaration? Does the Foreign Secretary not agree that it would be wholly inappropriate and wrong for anyone to seek to use this centenary to perpetuate the myth and falsehood that the failure to establish a Palestinian state is wholly the responsibility of Israel, because to do so would be to deny the role of neighbouring Arab countries in 1948 in attacking Israel and preventing the existence of an Arab state, and also the failure of the Arab leadership to grasp peace plans as they have been offered?
My hon. Friend is completely right. That is why I speak in the terms that I do about the state of Israel. It is a pluralist society, a society that protects the rights of those who live within it. It is a democracy. It is, in my view, a country to be saluted and celebrated. My hon. Friend is, of course, also right in pointing to the many failures of diplomacy and politics that I am afraid have been perpetuated by the Palestinian leadership for generations. We have to hope now that the current generation of leaders in the Palestinian Authority will have the mandate and the momentum to deliver a different result.
Some Members will be aware that I spent nearly a year and a half in Gaza working as a surgeon in 1991 and 1992. I was there when the Madrid peace process started, and by half-past 4 in the afternoon, young men were climbing on to armoured cars with olive branches. When I came back four weeks ago, my feeling was that we were further from peace than we had been a quarter of a century earlier.
When I spent time on the west bank recently, I saw settlements expanding at an incredible rate. We blame America, and we expect America to come up with a solution, but people in Israel look to Europe, because they see themselves as part of Europe. I think the United Kingdom and Europe need to use their power to secure a new peace process, and part of that is to do with recognition. How can we talk about a two-state solution if we do not recognise both states?
Obviously, I have great respect for the work that the hon. Lady has done in Gaza, and I appreciate the suffering that she has seen there. There is no doubt that the situation in Gaza is terrible. As the hon. Lady knows, the UK Government do a lot to try to remedy affairs by supporting, for instance, sanitation projects and education, but in the end a trade-off must be achieved. The Israelis must open up Gaza for trade and greater economic activity to give the people hope and opportunity, but before that happens, Hamas must stop firing rockets at Israel. Hamas must recognise the right of the Israeli state to exist, and it must stop spewing out anti-Semitic propaganda.
Last year I had the privilege of visiting Israel and the west bank with members of Conservative Friends of Israel. I am bound to say that I was disappointed by the lack of impetus, or of willingness, on the part of both sides to engage and get round the table. Does not the centenary commemoration present an opportunity both for the resumption of direct peace talks, and for the United Kingdom to continue to engage and encourage the fulfilment of that two-state solution?
I absolutely agree. I hope that both sides of the equation, the Palestinians and the Israelis, will study my statement with care, because I believe that it offers a way forward that would be massively to the advantage not just of their countries, but of the whole of the middle east and, indeed, the world.
I welcome much of what the Foreign Secretary has said this afternoon, and the sensitivity with which he has said it, although I think he is making the wrong decision about recognition.
During his visit, will the Foreign Secretary raise with Prime Minister Netanyahu the issue of legislation relating to the annexation of settlement blocs in Jerusalem, which would displace 120,000 Palestinian people? That is clearly an impediment to the achievement of the viable two-state solution that is wanted by Members on all sides of the argument.
I can answer the hon. Lady’s question very briefly. I will certainly raise that issue, as I have raised the issue of illegal settlements in the past, directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is deeply disappointing that the Leader of the Opposition will not attend a dinner to mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration?
I believe that it is disappointing. The vast majority of Members on both sides of the House have said this afternoon that this occasion is of huge importance to the world, because it marks an event in which our country played an enormous part—and, indeed, we still have a large part to play. One would have thought that the Leader of the Opposition would at least be interested in trying to achieve a solution to a problem that has bedevilled the world for so long, and would not, by his absence, be so blatantly appearing to side with one party and not the other. I must say that I find that unfortunate.
The Foreign Secretary’s refusal to treat Palestinians and Israelis equally, as shown by his refusal to recognise Palestine as a state alongside Israel, is exactly the reason the Israelis are building in Hebron and, last week, annexed further settlements in the Jerusalem municipality. What will the Government actually do to honour Balfour’s assurance to non-Jewish communities? So far, apart from warm words, all I have heard is that the Foreign Secretary seems to support trade with illegal settlements, that he is setting new conditions for the Palestinians, and that he is blaming the Palestinian leaders for their own occupation.
It is wholly untrue to say that we have offered the Palestinians nothing but warm words. The hon. Gentleman should consider the huge sums that the UK gives to the Palestinian authorities, the massive efforts that we make to help them with their security concerns, and the intimate co-operation that takes place between the UK and the Palestinian Authority. We are doing everything in our power to ready the Palestinians for statehood, but we do not consider that they are ready for recognition yet. This is obviously not the moment, given the problems that Mahmoud Abbas is experiencing. We think that a much more productive approach would be getting both sides together and beginning the process of negotiation on the basis of the programme that I have outlined today, leading to a two-state solution. That is what we need.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s measured statement, and his optimism about the prospects for a two-state solution with Israel, rightly, living in security. Does he agree, however, that the accelerated settlement-building is not just to be gently deprecated, but is truly egregious, illegal, and a growing obstacle to peace?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and that is the language that we have been using. It is what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has said time and again during his trips to the region. Indeed, whenever representatives of either party have come to this country we have strongly condemned the building of illegal settlement units, and we have denounced the recent acceleration in the building of those units. We think that that is making it more difficult to achieve a two-state solution, but it is not yet impossible, which is why we want to seize this opportunity.
I am proud to sit on these Benches as the first ever British Palestinian Member of Parliament. My family are from Jerusalem. They were there at the time of the Balfour declaration, but, like many others, they had to leave as part of the diaspora.
When it comes to recognition, the Foreign Secretary speaks of playing a card, but this is not a game. He speaks of a prize to be given for recognition, but it is not something to be bestowed; it is something that the Palestinians should just have. Can he not see how Britain leads the world on foreign policy? If we are to have a true peace process, we must ensure that both sides are equal as they step up to the negotiating table.
I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s last point. I am full of respect for the suffering of her family in the face of what took place following the creation of the state of Israel, and I know that the experience of many Palestinian families was—and indeed still is—tragic, but our ambition in holding out the prospect of recognition, working with our friends and partners, and trying to drive forward the peace process leading to a two-state solution is to give Palestinian families such as her own exactly the rights and the future that they deserve, in a viable, contiguous, independent, sovereign Palestinian state. That is what we want to achieve.
I know the Foreign Secretary will agree with me that a prosperous democracy where people can freely practise their religion in Israel is part of what we want to see ultimately in the Palestinian state as well. Can he confirm that he will use every opportunity of this centenary of the Balfour declaration to push forward that long-term goal?
Absolutely: that is the ambition and the goal, and clearly we hope that the state of which I just spoke will be a democratic, liberal state, just as Israel is.
Let us have the busiest MP: Jim Shannon.
As a friend of Israel, I look forward to the day when the Palestinian people can enjoy the security of a sovereign state on the successful conclusion of a negotiated two-state solution. One of the biggest obstacles to achieving that is the Palestinian Authority’s counterproductive unilateral steps to gain statehood recognition through international bodies, so will the Foreign Secretary join me in calling for the PA to stop those harmful measures and instead to express support for the renewal of direct peace talks, because that really is the only way forward?
By far the better way for the PA to achieve what it wants is not to go through international bodies, but to get around the table with the Israelis and begin those crucial negotiations.