Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am very pleased that we have the opportunity to air our views on this matter. I am sorry that it is in what I call the graveyard slot of the week but there it is. That is not my fault; I suspect it is down to the Government Whips but, anyway, I am very grateful that we are having this debate.
Many have dismissed the proposals as yet another plan in the decades-old series of talks which have never produced any benefit for the indigenous people of Palestine but have served as a smokescreen for the relentless expansion of Israel into Palestinian lands, against international law and against United Nations Security Council resolutions. But we have to take the plan seriously so let us look at it, while remembering that years ago, the PLO had already accepted a state on only 22% of the land designated by the original United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine.
This plan consolidates a string of land islands, with more to come—many call them Bantustans—which have been created by the relentless expansion of Israeli settlements into the West Bank, cutting off Palestinian communities from each other. As compensation for the land taken, Israel proposes that the Palestinians should have a patch of desert land near the Egyptian border—a hugely generous gesture. They are promised that roads and bridges, underground and overground, will link these Bantustans and make sure that Israelis do not ever have to come into contact with Palestinians. Many people have described that as apartheid.
I do not apologise for mentioning the two words Bantustans and apartheid because today, as anyone who is a Guardian reader may have seen, there is a letter in it from 50 ex-Ministers and leaders in Europe and across the world, describing the plan as similar to South African apartheid. It is not just me but those people, who include Douglas Alexander, who used to be the Secretary of State for International Development, Ben Bradshaw and Alan Duncan, who are both still in Parliament, the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Patten, who are in this House. I recommend that your Lordships all look at this letter because they have more authority than I will ever have. Who else? There is Jack Straw, our former Foreign Secretary, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, another Member of this House. They are all past Ministers; looking now at the Minister sitting in his place, I hope that he will have similar sentiments when he is a past Minister, even if he cannot have them now. I am only teasing.
East Jerusalem will stay in the hands of Israel, and the Palestinians are told to make their capital in Abu Dis. That is a village just outside the barrier wall, of course, with no access whatever to East Jerusalem or the mosque. Nothing really has changed from the present situation and in case some of your Lordships are happy for the Palestinians to have their own defined borders at last—never mind it looking like a Swiss cheese, as someone once described it—we must add that the most important part of this derogatory offer is that Israel will control all security, all Palestinian territorial waters, all airspace and all the crossings between Palestine and Israel. Palestinians will have no sovereignty.
Hamas, of course, is blamed for almost everything. Last night it was pointed out to me by a colleague that in the 181 pages of the so-called plan for peace and prosperity, Hamas is mentioned 181 times. There is an obsession with Hamas. Nothing is suggested to stop the suffering of the people of Gaza—the slow starvation, deaths, mutilations and misery of the people there, who are mostly refugees themselves—until Gaza is, in the plan’s words, “demilitarised” of the few weapons it manages to smuggle in or make. We know that cannot happen until the blockade is lifted, and the Israeli Government know that.
There is no return for refugees—ever—and no compensation. Many of them have been living in camps on the West Bank, in Gaza and all over the Middle East, including in Syria, where I visited them on one occasion, and Lebanon. All over the Middle East, there are millions of people who have been living in camps for decades, waiting to go home. The plan, in effect, dissolves refugees as a problem; they are not to be considered. UNRWA is to be abolished—it is already starved of funds by the USA—and the Palestinian state, such as it is, and surrounding Arab states will have to find a solution for refugees and their camps. Over 7 million people are, in effect, being ignored; they do not exist, they do not matter. If this plan were ever implemented, there would still be—and the Israeli people need to realise this—a majority of Palestinian people living between the River Jordan and the sea. I shudder to think what will follow. I wonder what other plans Netanyahu has for the future.
The heralded economic plan, which is given much space in the document—I think more than half the document is devoted to it—and its assumed investment from other countries cannot work while Palestine is under occupation. This plan is for continuing occupation; whatever else can be said about it, the people will not have any freedom of movement or freedom for goods. However its promoters try to dress it up, an economic plan cannot work in this situation.
Is it yet another plan that will gather dust, with its failure no doubt blamed on the Palestinians? I am sure that someone in this Chamber—I am not looking at anyone in particular—is planning to say that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity but neither does Israel miss an opportunity to betray an agreement. It has done it many times. It simply cannot be trusted. The Palestinian leaders were not consulted about this before its publication, and neither was anyone else for that matter—we were not consulted in this country. It is just like the Balfour Declaration, in fact: we did that 100 years ago without consulting anybody. No doubt the Palestinians were rather put off by the eviction of the Palestinian delegation from Washington a couple of years ago and the relocation of the US embassy to East Jerusalem. It is not a very encouraging start to a peace and prosperity plan for the country.
There is still no recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state, and yet we are all expected to recognise Israel as a state even though we do not know what that country’s borders are. Let me be clear: I recognise the statehood and the right to exist of Israel and Palestine within agreed borders for both countries—as I have always hoped, on the 1967 peace line. When will our Government recognise the state of Palestine? It is such an important thing for them to do. What is their reaction to the publicised letter from some noble Lords that Palestine cannot refer Israel to the International Criminal Court because it is not a state? Where are the noble Lords, Lord Pickles and Lord Polak, by the way? They are not present, which is a bit disappointing because I was hoping to hear from them. Are they not interested? Do the Government subscribe to this view? Is the Minister acquainted with the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which has long been accepted in international law and under which Palestine certainly qualifies as a state?
Whenever I am asked to talk about Palestine—it happens an awful lot—the word “humiliation” always comes to mind. For decades, the Palestinian people have been humiliated by the actions of Israel and its forces occupying their land. They have been humiliated by the inaction of the international community and the total disregard of UN resolutions. The Balfour Declaration, which was our country’s responsibility, said that
“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
This whole terrible injustice is the responsibility of this country. We started it; we are responsible; they are our people and we should be looking after them. We have denied them any protection and we have also humiliated them by our neglect.
I am told every week by Ministers in answer to my Questions that the Government do not approve of this or that atrocity, they have made representations and had discussions with representatives of the Israeli Government and they thoroughly decry what is going on, et cetera. So why can we not set right a wrong that has caused such misery for over 100 years? The people of Palestine are not going to surrender. They are still there, waiting for justice, and there are very many of them.
On a brighter note, does the Minister agree that now we have our freedom, our country can resume its historic place in the world? We have heard it often enough in the last few weeks: we are free; we can implement our history again; Great Britain can be great again. We hear so much about it from the Prime Minister. If we are set free, we can now have our very own foreign policy, independent of anyone else, and with that we can bring justice to Palestine. Can the Minister assure us that we will do just that and not allow our country to fall under the shadow of the United States of America and its puppet master, Israel?
My Lords, the House should be grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity for this timely debate. I declare an interest: I have been involved in the region for much of my life—during my ministerial days at the Foreign Office, obviously, but also I can never forget my first visit to Israel. I arrived one evening and the 1967 war started the next morning. I was there for the duration of the war and it was an extremely interesting experience in which I had some very deep conversations with Israelis. I should also mention, perhaps, that in more recent times I have been chairman of the Middle East committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
The first salient point in any consideration is that the formal recognition of the State of Palestine is long overdue, because, without that status, how on earth can the Palestinians feel that they have an equal place in any discussions? Secondly, our deep historical responsibilities always come home to me; we played a key part in the creation of the State of Israel. Another point is that, in international friendships, between states as well as between people, candour is absolutely indispensable. I take my friendship with many people in Israel extremely seriously, but that means that we must speak honestly and candidly, very often with them, to the Government of Israel. It also means that in our relationship with the United States, from which I have also gained a great deal in my life—a nation towards which I feel very warmly—candour is indispensable.
At the moment, that candour demands of us that we emphasise the indispensability of justice and respect. No people paid a higher price for the creation of the State of Israel than the Palestinian people. It has therefore been a grinding experience for them over the years to be humiliated, dismissed and denied an opportunity to play a positive and creative part in building their own future and the future of the region.
This present plan brought by President Trump was a disaster. I cannot understand why our Prime Minister felt it incumbent on him to say that it was a stepping stone from which we could build. It was a disaster, and if ever candour demanded that we should say so clearly, this was the time. In the formalisation of the creation of, in effect, Bantustans—the situation is very similar to South Africa, in which I have taken a deep interest over many years—what about the status of Jerusalem as the capital for the Palestinian people? What about the vast issue of refugees? Where were these in the proposals?
In a long life working in the sphere of humanitarian work, international relations and the rest, I have come to certain firm conclusions. One is that we must remember that an enduring peace is a peace-building process; it is not a matter of imposing solutions or of short-cuts. Building peace is a patient, persistent task. If you are to build peace, that means that all parties to that peace feel a deep sense of ownership. We had better face that quickly, because otherwise we are in for a long, disturbing future in the Middle East.
My Lords, if today’s Times is correct, I should start by wishing the noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham, a happy birthday, although I cannot help wondering what sin he must have committed to have to spend his birthday debating the intractable subject of the Middle East peace process. None the less, I wish him a happy birthday.
I read the Trump plan with disbelief and despair. If it were ever to be implemented, it would represent not only a disaster for the Palestinian people and a threat to world peace far beyond the Middle East, giving as it does the green light to annexation and dispossession, but above all an unmitigated and unparalleled catastrophe for the people of Israel.
The safety and security of Israel is, in my view, critical not only for the Israeli people but for the world at large. After the horrors of the Holocaust and the centuries of prejudice, pogroms and expulsions, the ability of the people of Israel to live in security in their own democratic state is essential to the values of a liberal international order. It is something that we must defend to the end.
We have heard some references to Israel and apartheid South Africa. I have always resisted those comparisons; anybody who has had the misfortune, as I did, of spending time in apartheid South Africa knows that the democratic State of Israel is a million miles away from the vile and poisonous ideology of apartheid. The Trump plan, however, resembles nothing so much as a map of the Bantustans. In any event, as I have said in previous debates in this House, there is no escaping the fact that while the State of Israel is a very different place from apartheid South Africa, the situation that prevails in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is very similar to that which operated in apartheid South Africa: the occupation and settlement of land; the checkpoints; the separate laws; the night raids; the destruction of homes and property; the closed roads; the ongoing humiliations; the deepening anger; the loss of hope; the spread of violence; and the steady dehumanisation of one side by the other. None of this should be the least bit surprising. Whenever one people seeks to dominate another through occupation and settlement, it is inevitable that similar methods are used and similar reactions engendered.
That is why the Trump plan represents such an unmitigated catastrophe for Israel. It is not a peace plan: it is a plan for the permanent national humiliation of the Palestinian people. It would make Israel de facto ruler over millions of people who do not wish to be ruled by it. As a consequence, it guarantees insecurity and instability for Israel, Palestine and the whole region for decades if not centuries to come.
I have always supported the cause of a Palestinian state, not only because it is a just outcome for the Palestinian people but also because it is the only just outcome for the people of Israel. Throughout the time of the coalition, I urged the Government to recognise a Palestinian state. Each time I was told that this was not the right time. As every year passed, more settlements were built, more positions became entrenched and more intractability was introduced. Unless we act soon, there will be no viable state to recognise and no viable peace to achieve.
The only long-term resolution of this conflict will come from an understanding that the aspirations of the Palestinian people are little different from those of the Israeli people and that a just peace can be achieved only on the basis of international law. I have heard some Israelis say, “We have tried trading land for peace and it has not worked” but that is not right. There is only one occasion on which Israel has traded land for peace, when it made its historic peace with Egypt and returned the Sinai. It has lived in peace with Egypt ever since, but in Menachem Begin, it found a Prime Minister with courage. Today the Prime Minister’s office is dripping with self-interest and cowardice. Wise men make peace from positions of strength. Fools believe that strength inevitably lasts for ever.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has sadly deceived many of the people of Israel into embracing the fantasy that it is possible to live in security alongside millions of people who are indefinitely denied their national aspirations and daily subjected to humiliation. The renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz has used this analogy:
“the drowning man clinging to this plank is allowed, by all the rules of natural, objective, universal justice, to make room for himself on the plank, even if in doing so he must push the others aside a little. Even if the others, sitting on that plank, leave him no alternative to force. But he has no natural right to push the others on that plank into the sea.”
The Trump plan would push the Palestinians into the sea. As the founder of the State of Israel, David Ben- Gurion, said in a speech to the Knesset:
“our standing in the world will be determined not by our so-called material riches, and not by our military’s bravery, but by the moral virtue of our undertaking.”
It was the wisdom and humility of Ben-Gurion on which the State of Israel was founded. Let us pray that it is not on the foolishness and arrogance of Netanyahu and Trump that it will founder.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for securing this important debate. I also express my gratitude to the Minister and to his officials for the careful but clear Answers to my Parliamentary Written Questions relevant to this debate that he gave on 11 and 13 February.
Your Lordships’ House will be aware from my interventions in earlier debates that I am the only Anglican bishop who is a member of the Vatican-mandated Holy Land Co-ordination group, which visits Christian communities in Israel and Palestine every January. I also make at least one other visit to the region each year and will be on ecumenical pilgrimage there next week. Last year, I was also in Egypt with His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, Coptic Archbishop of London, and other church leaders.
In his Answers to me of 13 February, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said that Her Majesty’s Government want to see
“a contiguous West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as part of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders”,
and I wholly share the Government’s aspiration. However, in describing the plan published by the United States Government, Her Majesty’s Government’s statement that
“All serious proposals for peace deserve a fair hearing”
does, I believe, two things. The chairman of the Vatican Holy Land Co-ordination group, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Clifton, and I, wrote to the Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa on 7 February contending that the analysis of the local churches in the Holy Land is that these are not a serious basis for peace but amount to a codification of the Government of Israel’s positions. Given that previous, serious attempts at peace, when they did not succeed, were followed by prolonged periods of bitter disillusionment, it can bring us no confidence when a plan such as this is published. I have to say that the manner of publication undermined any attempt to bring the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table as an equal partner.
A second and related point is that, even if such arrangements as those proposed by the United States were begun to be enacted, including annexation of territory, I ask the House what peace—if peace it be—can be sustained on injustice? What agreement can there be when one party is not only absent but was not consulted substantively or proportionately in the first place?
My most recent visit to the West Bank, which included Gaza, Ramallah and East Jerusalem, brought home to me the worsening living conditions of the people. There is among the Christian communities a resilient faith and hope for a better tomorrow. But the initial imperative of security, which has created a narrative to justify intervention in more than 50 years of occupation, delivers—as all such unwanted rule does —barriers, confiscation, diversion of resources, curfews, and violence. It is hard not to conclude, as we would in any parallel scenario, that such occupation serves no good purpose.
There is much else one might say, including on what might legitimately offer the State of Israel security on its 1967 borders and its other concerns. One might lament the disappearance of the ancient Jewish communities from across the Middle East and the reasons why. One too might speak of the pressure on, indeed persecution of, the ancient Christian communities of the region. But today I ask again—in some sense I echo other contributors to this debate—whether it is now time for Her Majesty’s Government to heed the views of Parliament and extend full recognition to the Palestinian state?
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am Jewish and have relations who had to flee Europe as refugees or were, sadly, killed for their religion. I understand that the Palestinians are angry. They are confined and suppressed and have no country. I am sure the Palestinian people want a civilised, democratic country, but unless and until their leadership—both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas—accept and recognise Israel’s right to exist, the Palestinian people are in limbo.
I support peace. I support a two-state solution. As anti-Semitism rears its ugly head again across the West, I absolutely support the need for a Jewish homeland. But the Palestinian people are languishing—their children fed hate and incitement against their Jewish neighbours—and continually reject offers of peace. They name their schools after terrorists. Their curriculum and school textbooks glorify suicide bombing and incite children to hate their neighbours.
Does my noble friend agree with me that, unless and until we can create an environment of acceptance, the prospects for peace—from whichever plan or quarter they may come—are vanishingly small? Israel has shown itself willing to withdraw from settlements in the hope of peace, but the evacuation of Gaza led to an intensification of violence, incitement, rocket attacks and terror tunnels.
These United States plans are a catalyst for restarting discussions, not a final version. They are aimed at promoting peaceful coexistence, but trust has broken down. Trust in a partnership for peace needs to be rebuilt, but we also need a home for the Jewish people after millennia of prejudice, oppression and death. As we recall the liberation of concentration camp prisoners just 75 years ago—still within the lifetime of survivors who had nowhere to run to, no country they could call home—the Jewish state is absolutely vital. Every piece of this land has been fought for with huge sacrifices.
Israel’s Palestinian neighbours have not shown that they want a smaller Israel; they seem to want no Israel. There were no settlements in 1948, 1967 or 1973. The problem was not where its borders lie but that it has any borders. As so often in our history, it feels as if the aim is erasing the Jewish state and its people. Yes, criticisms can be levelled at the Israeli Government, as at any country’s Government—I am not by any means claiming that the Israeli Government are perfect—but rewarding Palestinian intransigence has not brought peace. The Palestinians keep falling further behind. Are we really serving them well by encouraging unrealistic positions such as the right of return or even a return to exactly the pre-1967 borders, which proved so impossible to defend?
Israel was built by refugees. Many of those Jews were thrown out of neighbouring lands because of their religion—these were not just refugees from Europe—but they had somewhere to go. I therefore implore the Palestinians to be a partner for peace in the Middle East. The Israeli people want to live in peace. They do not want to dominate the Palestinians. They, and I, respect a Palestinian right to a state, but it must be in peaceful coexistence with an Israeli state.
My Lords, a leading German social democrat declared to his countrymen at the time of the Treaty of Versailles that the hand that signed the treaty would be signing its own death warrant. Such would surely be the fate of any Palestinian leader who dared to sign what Trump called the “deal of the century” or “peace vision”. This bird will not fly.
The initiative was not an unexpected bolt from the blue but the culmination of a series of one-sided initiatives, all taken without any consultation with the Palestinians, brought down like tablets of stone from the mountain. All such initiatives were highly partisan and were greeted enthusiastically by the Israeli Government. These included the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem; the recognition of the exclusive sovereignty of Israel over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; the withdrawal of US aid for Palestinian refugee camps; the closure of the PLO office in Washington; and, of course, the abandonment of US support for the Iran nuclear accord.
Cumulatively, these completely changed the parameters of US policy and distanced the US from Europe, which has become a mere bystander in the region. They were part of Trump’s obsession to reverse all of Obama’s policies. Can we now seriously expect any Palestinian leader to sit at the negotiating table over this deal? They receive only 70% of the West Bank, and land swops of arid land in the Negev. Yitzhak Rabin, a great leader, stressed that it takes two to tango, and was assassinated for his efforts at peace.
We in the UK boast that we understand the Middle East and its history. Therefore, I was surprised at the warm welcome and support given by Foreign Secretary Raab. I suspect, as a former diplomat, that this was not the position of the regional experts in the FCO but rather the wish of the PM not to have too many fights with the US when he is seeking a post-Brexit trade deal. The highest that can be said in favour of this proposal is that, by shattering all the old assumptions, the conflict might then be reconfigured in preparation for a new start on a new track.
My own background is clear. I joined Labour Friends of Israel in 1966 and had the privilege of chairing the Anglo-Israel Association for four years. I, like my friend, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, wish to be a candid friend. I admire enormously the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, the rule of law, the scientific achievements that rival Silicon Valley. I well understand the force of their arguments about the lack of a credible negotiating partner who can deliver, the Palestinians’ peddling of illusions about the possibility of a right of return, their fomenting of hatred against Israel among the younger generation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said, by textbooks and other means, the existential threat to Israel and their concentration on security which follows.
However, Israel has never been in such a dominant position militarily in the region nor perhaps internationally, given their warm relations with Russia and the USA and with several Arab states, particularly in the Gulf. As Israel faces the long-term problems of demography and water supply, now may be the time for some calibrated concessions. Is there no hope of progress? Must we await some cataclysmic event to clear minds? Surely there are some signs of hope in the change of view by Arab states. Who can forget, in 1967, the Khartoum agreement of the “three noes”, and the way in which several Arab states now respond fairly warmly to Israel—Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states—a sea change of considerable importance?
Trump appears to believe that money—some might say bribes—can be decisive. Of course, money can help, but more fundamental are questions of identity. Solomon would surely have avoided a big bang and sought to enlarge islands of co-operation, as my noble friend Lord Stone and his colleagues tried to do. Such might, indeed, happen when a new US Administration takes a more balanced approach, with the emergence of a more realistic generation of Palestinians discarding the unrealistic rhetoric of their fathers, or when this dynamic Israeli society of 9 million people is prepared to look long and seek partnerships, not a humiliating domination of the Palestinians.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for having secured this debate. For many years, I have been both a friend of Israel and a friend of Palestine—not always an easy balance to achieve in the ebbing and flowing of the two-state solution arguments—but President Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” has totally upset that balance. I have long championed Israel’s right to security within its legal borders, but when those borders are unilaterally changed by illegal acquisition or settlement —or even worse, as now, by American presidential diktat—that right to security is questionable, probably meaningless and arguably forfeited.
This deal would effectively mark the end of any acceptable two-state solution. The proposed illegal land grab and the quasi-Bantustan configuration of what would be left would hardly meet the concept of a genuine Palestinian state. The proposed swap of fertile land in the Jordan Valley for dusty land east of Gaza would understandably exacerbate—and it has—Palestinian resentment. With the Palestinians sidelined into the extremities of Jerusalem, gone too would be the possibility of a genuinely shared capital.
Over the years, I have spoken to Palestinians of all walks and politics, and I have no reason to doubt the universal intensity of their feeling. I fear violent consequences if these proposals are acted upon. This purported peace plan will strengthen the so-called resistance, and the spread of Israeli jurisdiction into Palestinian land will further stoke the flames of hatred and despair. I cannot understand how a United States Administration, who so frequently preach the importance of the rule of law, can propose a plan that so patently promotes illegality. The current occupation of the West Bank and the settlements within it are already illegal. Now, as well as entrenching these illegalities, they propose further illegal annexations.
United States presidential diktat cannot make what is illegal legal, whether it is in Jerusalem, on the Golan heights or, more widely, under the new proposals. Nor can the eerie silence of Arab neighbours make it any more acceptable. Currently our Government seem at best ambivalent and, at worst, quietly supportive of these proposals—although I still hope not. Since Sykes-Picot our involvement in this region has been somewhat less than honourable. The Balfour Declaration, and that which followed, undertook to respect the interests and rights of the Palestinians. If I may so: have we heck.
Backing the present Trump proposals would be one further betrayal. They are not about peace; they are about politics—the politics of the United States and the politics of Israel. The consequences could well be frightening. Violence in that part of the Middle East is never very far beneath the surface, and violence stoked by genuine grievances is a dangerous concoction. Before it is too late, we need to find our way back to a genuine two-state solution, opening up the possibility of genuine negotiations and, once again, the chance to be a friend of both Israel and Palestine. For that reason, I hope that the Palestinians continue to reject these dishonourable proposals and that, at the same time, we find the courage to do so too.
My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel. I thank my friend of a long time, the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for many, if not all, of the things she said, and in particular her support for a two-state solution, which I pray for.
However, the Trump plan must be looked at in context. The United States and Israel are both in the midst of election campaigns, as noble Lords might have noticed, even in our newspapers. Both President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly believe that they are playing to their respective electorates: Trump sees votes in producing a so-called peace agreement; Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is just about to come before the criminal courts in Israel, sees it as a vote winner in the Israeli election in a few days’ time. He bases this on justified Israeli fears about its very continuing existence.
President Trump is known as a deal maker, although the deals have generally been about pieces of United States real estate. What is the principle of a deal? It is not to offer your final deal until after your original proposals have been rejected. For any deal to be successful in negotiations, it has to be fathered or sponsored by a body or country that is considered reasonably balanced. I do not think that that can be said of the current United States Administration.
There is a role for the UK, Europe and Arab countries to set out what they see as the road to a two-state solution. I do not think that many in your Lordships’ House will think this is the Trump plan. Yes, the border between the two states needs to be defined. There have long been plans for a land swap. When I say “land swap”, it cannot be of pieces of desert; it has to be of suitable land. That was always the understanding of that land swap agreement. However, the main fault in the Trump plan is keeping so many isolated Israeli settlements. These towns and villages will be surrounded by a Palestinian entity. An Israel Defense Forces presence would thus be required to defend each settlement. Sadly, they would be defending them from a belligerent Palestinian entity.
It is time for the Palestinians and their supporters to accept that the international community will not deliver all that they want. Likewise, supporters of Israel will not get all that they want and desire. It is time for the Palestinians to move on from—I will not disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, by not quoting this—the dogma of Yasser Arafat, who, as a former Israeli Foreign Minister said and as the noble Baroness reminded us, never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity.
It is time also for supporters of the Palestinians to accept that the Jewish populations of the Arab states have fled, as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, referred to. Can anyone name Arab states where Jews can live freely, if at all? I will give just one example among many in the short time that we are allowed. A century ago when the British—yes, we British again—invaded the country then known as Mesopotamia, one-third of Baghdad’s 200,000-strong population was Jewish. That city has recently recorded only five Jewish people remaining, and I think that they have probably gone as well by now. This is the picture across the region. More than 800,000 Jews fled from Arab lands, mostly ending up as citizens of Israel, while in the West the Holocaust and the growth of anti-Semitism led to much-increased immigration from countries such as France. The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, recently asked Her Majesty’s Government in a Written Question
“what assessment they have made of any correlation between the actions of the government of Israel and antisemitic incidents in the UK.”
The truth is that anti-Semitism in the UK and elsewhere existed long before the emergence of the state of Israel. The lies about Jews and their supposed control is not new. You can go back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tsarist forgery published before Israel was even a tear in Theodor Herzl’s eye.
So linking the two or saying that the victim is responsible is absolutely wrong. But let us all agree, hopefully, in this House, that what we aim for is a two-state solution with Israel having secure borders, not impossible borders, and the Palestinians having control over their own destiny in their own state, so that they and Israel can live as two states within the nations of the world.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. As the Prime Minister has rightly said, no peace plan is perfect, but I believe that this plan recognises the reality of the existential security threats that Israel faces, while proposing an optimistic future for the Palestinian people. It is, of course, disappointing that the Palestinian leadership failed to engage meaningfully with the US during the drafting process, so it came as no surprise that it rejected the proposals last month. Yet it was encouraging to see that Israel’s Arab neighbours cautiously welcomed the plan after its publication, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE, which remain under some pressure within the Arab League.
During the 1967 war, Israel gained control of the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, as well as additional territory. Days after the conclusion of the war, Israel said it was prepared to return most of the territory in exchange for peace treaties with its Arab neighbours. The three noes brought an end to this hope: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. I hope that noble Lords will indulge this brief historical recap, which I believe demonstrates that the greatest obstacle to peace is the continued refusal of Israel’s neighbours to recognise its right to exist and flourish as a Jewish state in any part of the land.
This is an opportunity for the Minister to urge our Arab allies to encourage the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and finally accept that the Jewish people have the same right to self-determination that the Palestinians themselves demand. I mentioned that the likes of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain initially welcomed the US proposals before being pressurised. This is no doubt due to a gradual warming of ties between Israel and its Gulf neighbours, caused by growing mutual interests, particularly the increasing threat posed by Iran. Iran has not only breached the nuclear deal; it continues to fund regional terrorist proxy groups including Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, fostering instability and violence. On Tehran’s orders, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has targeted Israeli soldiers with sniper fire and explosive devices in recent weeks and fired dozens of rockets towards Israeli communities. The motive is most likely an obvious one—to derail any long-term agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, meaning that the rejection of President Trump’s proposals is exactly what the Iranian leadership craves. I welcome this Government’s firm response to Iran’s latest breaches of the nuclear deal.
This firm response has been lacking, however, when considering the threat posed to the Middle East peace process by officially sanctioned Palestinian incitement to violence. The practice of honouring terrorists and glorifying them as martyrs is widespread in the Palestinian Authority, with even Palestinian Authority officials praising those who have killed Israelis. The Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza, seeks Israel’s destruction and subjects Gazans to endless rounds of violence. We must confront this anti-Semitism as strongly as we do here at home.
It is also crucial to note that £65.5 million of UK taxpayers’ money annually goes towards the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, which carries out important humanitarian work, including the provision of education and healthcare to Palestinians. However, Palestinian refugee status is inherited in perpetuity, including for those living in internationally designated Palestinian territories, and current beneficiaries of the UN Relief and Works Agency’s aid are evaluated on problematic criteria based on entitlement, not need. The number of Palestinians alive who were personally displaced during the 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbours is estimated to be around 30,000, yet today the UN Relief and Works Agency defines 5 million people as Palestinian refugees, split between the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Palestinian children at UN schools in the West Bank and Gaza are taught that they are refugees, giving credence to the political position that more than 5 million Palestinians have a right of return, which would lead to the end of the Jewish state as we know it. These schools use official Palestinian Authority textbooks, which are currently under review due to their troubling content, including the promotion of martyrdom and the elimination of Israel. Can the Minister provide an update on this review, which should surely be expedited?
There is more we can do to promote peace in the region, starting with the consideration of the best mechanisms for delivering aid to those Palestinians most in need and ensuring that UK taxpayers’ money reduces conflict rather than perpetuating it. Let us give the US proposals an opportunity and hope for their success, as it is ultimately in the best interests of all sides to resolve this conflict.
My Lords, I disagree with this document on at least three principles. First, it is not at all even-handed. It is quite clear that the Palestinians are intended to have to earn certain concessions over four years whereas the benefits for Israel are available immediately. Part of it reads like a proposed diktat to the Palestinians, and I do not think that is very helpful if we want to restart the process of peace negotiations in the Middle East, which we all do.
The second thing I have against this document is the proposal on land. The proposal is to take away large areas of land from the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, and give them to Israel and in exchange, as has already been said, to give the Palestinians an equivalent amount of territory in the Negev Desert. That really is absurd and insulting. It is quite wrong to consider extending Israel’s borders in the West Bank beyond the green line. The green line is the line which the Israeli Supreme Court decided should be the limit of Jewish settlement and Israeli jurisdiction and control, and I do not think we should go beyond that. It would be crazy to suggest doing so, in my view, in the circumstances. Equally, I do not think we should push back the green line or the border further back, because over the past 53 years established communities have been growing and have been very successful. People have been living in that area and have had children and grandchildren and, as always happens in these cases, people are attached to their homes and if we pushed them out of them and said they had to go back to Israel, we would cause just one more problem of displaced persons in the Middle East, one more injustice and one more grievance, and I do not think that would be a good way to go either. The green line is the natural border and should be part of any discussions we take forward at this juncture.
Thirdly, I was very struck by the fact that nothing is said about the great injustice done to the Palestinian refugees, which was not their fault. That is very unfortunate. Most of the refugees left in 1948 in terror, particularly after the massacre of Deir Yassin, which was a hideous war crime. I recognise that there were quite different incidents in other parts of Israel in 1948. The Jews of Haifa tried to persuade their Arab neighbours not to leave, but most of them left because they were terrified. Some of them remained and their descendants are happily living there today, but nevertheless those refugees left in fear of their lives and we have to recognise that.
Equally, it is not at all sensible to think in terms of a right of return. Of course that would be impossible, as has already been said by my namesake the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Gower, who preceded me. That would be very disruptive for Israel, but economically it would simply not be realistic. Anyway, it would cause enormous bitterness between the two parties if 2 million new refugees arrived in Israel. It is absurd. What I think ought to be done is that individuals who left in 1948—they are all by definition in their 70s, 80s or 90s—should be given a right of return. That should be recognised as a matter of law and principle. It is most unlikely that most of them would take it up because it would not apply to the younger members of their families. In return, those who do not want to take up that right could cash it in, as it were, and receive a decent amount of monetary compensation. I am thinking $50,000 a head or something of that sort. Much smaller amounts of money would go to the second generation and smaller amounts still to the third generation. That would be a fair way of recognising the principle of the right of return. It would be regarded as worth talking about, at the very least, in Palestine. Clearly, money would be paid only when there had been a referendum in Palestine that resulted in a majority in favour of a settlement with all the details there. That is my view of the sort of document that we ought to be talking about now. I hope that we can get back to discussing how to solve this problem. It should not be allowed to fester indefinitely; that would be very dangerous.
I fear I must make the final point that we have this problem now very largely because of the extraordinarily bad Palestinian leadership over the last 100 years. Right from the 1930s and 1940s, the then leader of the Palestinian cause, the Grand Mufti, rejected any negotiations and any recognition of Israel and the Jewish settlements in the area. He preferred to go for violence and war. He had his war in 1948. He lost it dramatically and the Palestinians were worse off. He could probably have done a much better deal with the Jewish Agency in the 1930s than the Palestinians got from the United Nations partition resolution. It was another major miscalculation. His successor, al-Shukeiri, also put the emphasis on violence, with terrorist attacks on Israel and by encouraging the Egyptians to prepare a war against Israel. All that ended in disaster for the Palestinians in 1967. We then had Yasser Arafat, who famously turned down Ehud Barak’s offer of 98% of the territories. That is a terrible record. The Palestinians have been betrayed. They have been betrayed, more than anything else by their own leaders, and we now must hope that somebody comes to the fore among the Palestinians with a slightly greater deal of realism and honesty in the message he delivers to his people.
My Lords, we witness daily on our televisions, in our newspapers and on social media the dereliction of lives and property across the Middle East—from Syria, with families wiped out as they flee the bombs of Assad and the Russians, to the plight of innocent children caught up in the civil war in Yemen and the atrocities of ISIS in Iraq. In the middle of all that misery it is easy to suppose that the question of Palestine is no longer a main priority for the region.
It may not be the most pressing, but we must not forget those who day in, day out live lives which no one in your Lordships’ House would consider to be normal. The occupation of the Palestinian territories and the associated hardships and humiliation that brings is now the longest occupation in modern history. But this intractable problem, while not being headline news, still captures, as it has over the years, the minds of leading statesmen in their quest to solve the never-ending conundrum of the Middle East peace process.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for bringing this debate to your Lordships’ House and for giving us the opportunity to discuss the latest proposals for peace. I declare my interests as the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to the Palestinian territories, president of the Palestine British Business Council and president of Medical Aid for Palestinians.
All efforts to promote peace should be welcomed. It is not in anyone’s best interests that this question remains unresolved, but any proposal must be rooted in reality and must always have international law as its compass. I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his robust reiteration, earlier this month, of the United Kingdom’s long-held position of two states, based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the shared capital.
I was particularly pleased by the sentiment expressed by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa in his Statement on the United States proposal, when he said:
“Only the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories can determine whether the proposals can meet the needs and aspirations of the people they represent.”—[Official Report, Commons, 30/1/20; col. 927.]
This sentiment is amplified by the respected Israeli NGO Gisha, which has said of the latest peace proposals:
“A real solution to the conflict cannot be reached by coercion; it will only come by recognizing the rights of all residents of the region.”
The irony is that for the past 18 years such a solution has been available. The Arab peace initiative put forward in March 2002 by His Royal Highness Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the then Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, offered comprehensive peace between the Arab world and Israel in return for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This peace initiative was again proposed earlier this month, at a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Arab countries at the Arab League, as the basis for any deal between Israel and Palestine.
This region is brimming with potential and it is criminal that much of it languishes unused. As I said in the debate in the name of my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley last year—which was a forerunner to this debate—the first, not last, step to unleashing this potential, and to lasting peace and prosperity, is the end of occupation and the recognition of the state of Palestine, alongside the State of Israel, of which my noble friend Lady Altmann spoke so passionately.
I am sure I speak for all noble Lords when I say that I long for the day when we have no more need for debates such as this. However, I fear that the latest proposals for peace, with all the hard work that has gone into them, and however well-intentioned they may be, will not meet the test of answering the needs and aspirations of the Palestinian people because they leave them with no hope of self-determination. As Norman Cousins, the late American political journalist, said:
“The capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life.”
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for securing this important debate. The Balfour Declaration for the creation of a Jewish homeland stated, as we have been reminded, that the rights of existing inhabitants would be fully protected. Over the years, we have seen these rights systematically eroded. The declaration, although politically understandable, was based on a conflict-perpetuating fallacy that people of different faiths are so different that they have to have separate countries to survive. It is a fallacy that perpetuates prejudice and lasting hostility, as seen in the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, and partitions in many parts of the Middle East and—closer to home—in Ireland. This fallacy is inherent in the continuing conflict between two sister faiths in Israel-Palestine. Sikh teachings, put forward at the time of horrendous religious conflict between India’s Hindus and Muslims, emphasised that we should look beyond superficial differences, to commonalities that unite us; that for peace and harmony between people, we must recognise our common humanity.
A few years ago, I visited Israel with the then Chief Rabbi, my noble friend Lord Sacks. We met Jews and Arabs from all walks of life in a beautiful country packed with history; a country that in more peaceful times could live on tourism alone—and a country holy to three of the world’s great faiths. In all the people we met, there was a common yearning for peace, security, food and a decent standard of living. The American so-called peace plan seeks to perpetuate existing injustices against the Palestinian people by legitimising Israeli occupation of illegally seized Palestinian land and by giving Jerusalem to Israel. It is doomed to failure. For true peace, it is essential to recognise and respect common interests.
A viable peace plan should begin with a need to recognise that the involvement of outside powers, on one side or another, inevitably exacerbates conflict. Outside involvement is rarely in pursuit of justice, but in pursuit of so-called strategic interests—trade and political dominance. Such interventions widen conflict and suffering. Can any noble Lord in this Chamber deny that the involvement of Russia and the West in the Middle East has added to the suffering of innocent men, women and children, and the desperate plight of refugees fleeing bullets, bombs and rockets, and the destruction of their homes?
A better way forward would be for the UN to appoint a senior judicial figure, remote from political involvement and acceptable to both sides, to start from small beginnings and look to common issues and concerns. With extensive Israeli settlements all over Palestinian territory, a two-state solution—never a good idea in itself—is also not viable. Instead, both sides should look to easing travel restrictions and developing common social and economic initiatives to break down misunderstanding, leading to greater peace, security and trust. This is not easy but I believe it is the only way forward.
My Lords, it is always an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on securing this debate. I refer your Lordships to my non-financial interests, as disclosed in the register. The noble Baroness certainly has an interest in the Jewish state; I notice that she has asked some 197 parliamentary Written Questions of the Government on Israel in the last 12 months. I am not sure if that is a record. It might be.
We meet for this important debate just a few weeks after Auschwitz remembrance and Holocaust Day, with “never again” ringing in our ears. There are now some 6 million Jewish people living in Israel, of whom 172,000 are survivors and witnesses to those terrible events, so I believe we have a moral duty to protect them from the existential threat that they face from some who, to this day, still call for the Jews to be driven into the sea.
The Washington Institute polled West Bankers last month, and two-thirds said that the top Palestinian priority, in the next five years, is to regain control of all historical Palestine, from the river to the sea, rather than permanent peace with Israel. At the same time, it cannot be acceptable to witness the suffering that happens daily in the West Bank, and in particular in Gaza. Political leaders there suppress their own people, inflicting on them a lifetime of misery, depriving them of basic human needs and devoting valuable resources to war, rather than to the peace that the decent people of that region yearn to see and deserve.
It is only one conflict in the world but, if we were to believe the United Nations and the ill-informed press, it is the only one. This unfortunate and incorrect assessment permeates global politics. Even Bill Clinton said that solving the conflict will
“take about half the impetus in the whole world for terror away”.
I doubt it. The atrocities in Syria, Libya, Yemen and even against the Muslim community in China are sidelined as the Middle East and Israel in particular are criticised. Since 2013, Israel has been condemned in 45 resolutions by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Since the creation of the council in 2006, it has almost resolved more resolutions condemning Israel than it has the rest of the world combined. Is Israel really that guilty or is it just an easy target for what Ben-Dror Yemini calls the “red-green alliance”? The green is not environmentalists but those ostensibly fighting for human rights, but actually supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and even the Taliban. By fighting what they see as western imperialism, they end up supporting a terrible form of fascism.
So it falls on someone else to come up with a proposal, as President Trump has done. It is not perfect, as Members of this House have observed. It suffers from not having Palestinian input, but then everyone knew that, whatever was proposed, their leaders would reject it. Such was the case with the Peel plan, the Woodhead Plan, the Bevin plan, the partition plan—which was opposed, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said, by the Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini—right through to Camp David, without even offering a counterproposal. Of course, Ehud Olmert’s peace plan and now the current US proposal have all been rejected, this one before they have even seen it. The consistent lack of leadership from the leaders of the Palestinian people—who, by the way, have no mandate for that title as they were elected 16 years ago on a four-year mandate—is disappointing.
Arabs living in Israel, however, are afraid of becoming Palestinian citizens because they see how those living in the West Bank are subject to human rights violations on a daily basis. In Israel, Arab citizens participate in general elections and enjoy freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of movement and freedom in academia, which are unimaginable in the West Bank and Gaza. A recent poll showed that 68% of Israel’s Arab citizens said that they prefer to live in Israel rather than in any other country. It is of course worth mentioning that the concept of an Israeli living in nearly any other Arab country is nil, particularly as some 800,000 Jews were summarily expelled from Arab countries, where they had lived for generations and indeed millennia, just for being Jewish.
For any peace plan to have a chance, it will need a dramatic change in the leadership of the Palestinian people. The incitement to hatred that still exists—despicably fuelled by textbooks that we, the British taxpayer, helped to finance, particularly in Gaza, denying the thousands of years of Jewish heritage to the land —has to be addressed by our Government and others in the West who care about the region. In Jerusalem, a city that I know well as chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation in the UK, the plan indicates that all of Jerusalem’s holy sites should remain under Israeli responsibility, particularly with regard to Temple Mount. This represents a significant acknowledgement of Israel’s sensitivity in guarding Jerusalem’s holy sites, as I am sure, if he were in his usual seat, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark would testify; they are open to people of all beliefs and tourists of all faiths.
In summary, we have seen that Israeli Arabs will not welcome this proposal and that the Palestinian leadership refuses to reassure Israeli Jews that a sovereign Palestinian state would not want to threaten Israel’s very existence. So it behoves us, the international community, to engage with the Palestinians to facilitate serious negotiations, using this or any other blueprint as a basis. I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister whether such plans are currently being formulated by Her Majesty’s Government.
I know noble Lords will indulge me a final 10 seconds to wish the noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham, a happy 88th birthday.
My Lord, the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, is to be thanked for introducing this debate.
My wife Hannah and I have just returned from an amazing holiday. We went to Colombia for a momentous family reunion—momentous because until last year none of us really knew that the other members existed. This was an unusually happy ending to a classic Jewish story of death, tragedy, separation and family loss. The original family lived in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, and comprised 51 individuals, of whom only 15 survived the Second World War. Hannah was vaguely aware that there were other branches of the depleted family, but she had no idea who or indeed where. They had been lost for years. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, she received an email from a second cousin living in Atlanta, Georgia: “Are you the granddaughter of Hugo and Matilda Lowy?” Well, she is, and we agreed to meet up in New York. That was a joyous meeting.
Then the subject was raised of the one remaining brother, Isidor, who had survived Auschwitz and who it was rumoured had gone to live in Colombia. The internet went into overdrive and, lo and behold, the missing family was discovered living in Bogotá. In the chaos of the post-war period they had moved from pillar to post, trying to find a new home. Most countries put up barriers to Jewish refugees but, to its credit, Colombia admitted 750 in 1948, and that is how they arrived there.
This was the first family reunion since the one in Vienna in 1927, and what a happy event it was. But what of the others? What of the other family members? What of the millions who perished or were denied entry to other countries? When the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, sees the passion that we Jews have for Israel, it is because so many more of us would have been saved had Israel existed before the war. That is why for us Israel’s safety is paramount.
But there is another side to my family; for we Mitchells, life is always complicated. I have a daughter-in-law who is half-Palestinian. I have been to the West Bank several times and am under no illusion that the Palestinian people are oppressed. The checkpoints are humiliating and the desire for statehood burns brightly. I understand the Nakba—the catastrophe, as the Palestinians call it in Arabic. It is why I have always supported a two-state solution. In 1947, the United Nations agreed that British Palestine was to be partitioned between the Jews and the Palestinians. The Jews were to be offered 55% and the Palestinians 45%. To the Palestinians, that was the first Nakba and they rejected it. When Israel was founded a year later, five Arab countries attacked it with overwhelming armies, but they were defeated. Instead of 55% of the land, Israel ended up with 75%; that was the second Nakba. In 1967, the Arab states again attacked Israel. They lost again and Israel occupied the entire land of British Palestine—yet another Nakba.
Since the Oslo accords in 1993, there have been three intense peace negotiations, and each time the sides have come within touching distance. But each time, at the last moment, the Palestinians withdrew from the negotiations. They have had Nakba after Nakba; disaster after disaster. Now we have Donald’s “deal of the century”, where the Palestinians are being offered 20% of British Palestine—20%, when they could have had 45% in 1948. Barely a peep has been heard from the other Arab states. The Palestinians have become friendless even within the Middle East, and that is the biggest Nakba of all. How has that happened? It is because they have the most terrible, awful leadership, and have had since before Israel was formed.
Now we see Donald Trump on course to win his second term. He will continue to back Netanyahu, no matter how outlandish his demands, and—irony of ironies—the only chance of reversing American policy is held in the hands of a Jewish man born in Brooklyn. His name is Bernie Sanders.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for organising this timely debate on the US Administration’s recently announced proposals for a final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, based on a two-state solution. I will offer some comments based on my own experience, having visited Israel in recent years, and from the perspective of a lifelong businessperson.
I believe fundamentally that economic growth and prosperity for all sectors of society, in particular the youth, are essential for establishing a lasting peace for Israel and Palestine. I respectfully remind your Lordships’ House that this proposal is one of two parts. Last summer in Bahrain the US Administration, along with regional partners, released their Peace to Prosperity economic plan for Palestine. The plan consisted of three initiatives aimed at supporting distinct pillars of Palestinian society: the economy, the people, and the Government. The principal aims of the plan are: to more than double Palestinian gross domestic product; to create over 1 million Palestinian jobs; to reduce the Palestinian unemployment rate to nearly single digits; and to reduce the Palestinian poverty rate by 50%. This plan is only the most recent effort to stimulate Palestine’s economy and governance in advance of statehood. This approach was core to the endeavours by the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, during his tenure as the head of the international quartet for peace.
Whatever we may make of the US President himself, of this proposal, or of any of the many proposals offered down the years, it remains true that Palestinians will not and should not be satisfied with a stalemate that has stymied economic growth and prosperity for decades. According to the World Bank’s 2019 economic update for the West Bank and Gaza, the unemployment rate in the Palestinian territories continues to be unacceptably high. It reached 26% in the second quarter of 2019, almost the same level as it was in 2018. The most recent data agrees that around 24% of Palestinians live below the poverty line. Without a permanent status arrangement, forecasts predict that the Palestinian economy will witness contraction in the coming years— a prospect its already vulnerable population can ill afford.
I have been delighted to see trade increase between Israel and the United Kingdom by nearly 300% over the last decade. However, the political stalemate is limiting the expansion of our economic ties with Palestine, which has a similarly entrepreneurial and dynamic population. Yet, as of 2017, UK trade with the West Bank and Gaza was a mere £17 million. Put simply, we cannot have growth without peace. Despite the stalemate, others are, admirably, trying. I note the initiative announced last year by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development alongside the Palestine Investment Fund and a Dutch development company to finance impact bonds to address youth unemployment. The scheme trains up 1,000 young Palestinians and has raised $1.8 million in investment and $5 million in outcome funds to date.
The private sector seems to be stepping into a vacuum left by the Governments mired in political inertia. I know that British organisations, such as the Portland Trust, have worked tirelessly to stimulate the Palestinian economy. In this respect, can the Minister say what recent efforts the British Government have made to stimulate the Palestinian economy, create jobs for the youth in Palestine and enhance UK trade with the West Bank and Gaza?
Others have pointed to the flaws in this proposal, not least the person and the process behind him, but surely the time has come for Palestinians and Israelis to come together and agree a solution that will revive the Palestinian economy and secure a prosperous future for both people—and for British businesses, which I have no doubt would welcome the opportunity to expand ties with a new, dynamic state of Palestine.
My Lords, I will focus on the so-called Trump peace plan, which is of course nothing of the kind. It abandons prior US policy in the region. It has nothing whatever to do with fairness to the two sides. It is constructed to reflect Israeli power on the ground and abandons the norms of international law about the non-acquisition of territory through military force. The proposals would give US approval for Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and most of Area C, amounting to about 30% to 40% of the occupied West Bank. This contrasts with the 95% or so Palestinian control of the West Bank proposed by Bill Clinton in 2000.
This plan says it will retain existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, not reduce them as international law requires. The new Palestinian state would have at least 600,000 Israeli settlers in it, all protected by the Israeli military. The involvement of the Palestinians in this plan was zero. The plan itself imposes on the Palestinians a large number of unrealistic obligations before they obtain a very small state with very little sovereignty. Israel would have “overriding security control”, with all entry and exit from the new state controlled by Israel. This Palestinian state would have no airport, Gaza would not have an independent port and Israel would control water and the electro-magnetosphere. The plan rules out any Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.
Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian leadership has totally rejected the Trump plan, seeking negotiations on a viable two-state solution based on 1967 borders, in accordance with international resolutions. The Arab League unanimously rejected the Trump proposals at its summit on 1 February and supported the Palestinian approach. Trump’s plan has been rejected by the African Union and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African President, has likened the Trump proposals to his country’s apartheid experience.
Many Israelis have distanced themselves from Netanyahu, and the Trump plan is not in Israel’s best long-term interests. I shall quote from an email sent to me by Breaking the Silence, an organisation of courageous former members of the Israel Defense Forces:
“We were the ones who entered Palestinian houses in the dead of night and patrolled their villages in order to create a constant ‘sense of persecution’, as we were ordered to do. We were the ones who limited their freedom of movement. We were the ones who stopped and searched children whose only crime was to live their lives. All of these things were justified for ‘security reasons’. Now that the idea of annexation is on the table, the Netanyahu Government isn’t even trying to disguise its expansionist aspirations. Now it is clear to everyone: this plan has nothing to do with security, but rather its purpose is to perpetuate Apartheid.”
This strand of Israeli opinion gets little coverage in our UK media; nor does it get much attention from the UK Government. The Government’s response to the Trump plan at the end of January was somewhat muddled, to put it kindly. They have shown little understanding that if the international community allows Israel to proceed with the Trump plan without sanctions, it undermines the Government’s own position on sanctioning Russia over the invasion of Ukraine or any other future illegal actions. When will we see a more muscular response to the Trump proposals and their lack of regard for international law? Perhaps the Minister could draw some comfort from the letter published in the Guardian today from 50 former European leaders and Foreign Ministers expressing their serious concerns about the Trump plan.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for securing this debate, but I have to say that there is an elephant in the room. I am about to speak of things from my own direct personal experience over the years.
By the early 1990s most of the Arab states were tiring of war. This did not necessarily include the PLO but, gradually, prospects for peace began to improve, until there were talks in Oslo directly between the Palestinians and the Israelis and President Clinton presided over the famous handshake on the White House lawn. By that time I had left government and was the executive chairman of Cable & Wireless, a 100 year-old Arabist company with extensive links in the region. In the improving atmosphere—I had been invited to Saudi and had sat at the right hand of Crown Prince Abdullah discussing Jerusalem, something I would have thought inconceivable a few years before—I had a dream that the nexus between Tel Aviv and Beirut could be an off-Europe Hong Kong. They had all the skills and all the enterprise existed there. So Cable & Wireless bought 10% of Bezeq, the Israeli telephone company, we agreed to buy 49% of the Jordanian telephone company, and we were in a contract for about 1.4 million lines in Lebanon when the Lebanese Parliament brought a boycott resolution against Cable & Wireless and sent it to Damascus. Some 36 hours later, a most unexpected reply came: they would refuse the boycott and shortly invite me to discuss the proposal in Damascus. My proposal did not include the Palestinians. These were the early years of mobile telephones, so I decided that we could create a Palestine mobile phone company to be owned and operated by the Palestinians. We had agreed roaming rights throughout the region.
In December 1994, Yasser Arafat came to London and stayed at the Dorchester. I spent an hour with him. I offered Chairman Arafat a Palestinian mobile telephone company which could be set up within 90 days, with roaming rights all over the region. I told him I believed it would be popular with Israeli Arabs as well as Palestinians and would be the first fruits of the new state. He was interested and said he would invite me to Tripoli. The weeks passed, but no invitation came. Then I read that they had granted a licence to the son of the Lebanese Prime Minister. A few weeks later, I read that they had granted a licence to AT&T. Finally, they phoned me and proposed a 60:40 company; we would have 40% and finance the operation. I agreed and negotiations started. Right at the end my people found out that of the Palestinians’ 60% shareholding, 80% would be held by Mrs Arafat in her own name. That was unsustainable.
At the same time, I was working with a group of Palestinians in London. During my time in London I was involved in employment and was trying to get things going there. They told me that they needed a technical school. I had recently retired as chairman of the World ORT union, a Jewish charity which is the largest of the vocational and training schools, with hundreds of thousands of students and good relationships with the World Bank. I came back within a week and said to them, “I’ve got £20 million for you from the World Bank, just give me the site.” They hummed and hawed for months and eventually rang to say, “Can we increase the £20 million to £24 million, as we’ve got people to look after?” That was equally unsustainable. Then the wind changed, Arafat refused to sign and the al-Aqsa intifada started; we were back to where we were and the days of hope had gone.
The biggest cause of poverty in the entire world is the corruption of rulers. If 87% of the Palestinian people believe that the Palestinian Authority is rife with corruption, who am I to doubt it? Until there is more open and transparent government for the Palestinians, I am fearful for their future. Look back over the long decades of war after war, peace offer after peace offer: every offer that they rejected was in time followed by a worse one, time after time. I am certainly not saying that this is a good offer, but I believe it will be better than the next.
My Lords, in 1967 I was a volunteer in the June Six Day War in Israel. I went there to help the war and then to work to help repair the country the following year. Just after the war in that same June, the eloquent Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, spoke at the UN. He said:
“In the institutions of scientific research and higher education of both sides of the frontiers, young Israelis and Arabs could join in a mutual discourse of learning. The old prejudices could be replaced by a new comprehension and respect born of a reciprocal dialogue in the intellectual domain. In such a Middle East, military budgets would spontaneously find a less exacting point of equilibrium. Excessive sums devoted to security could be diverted to development projects. Thus, in full respect of the region’s diversity, an entirely new story, never known or told before, would unfold across the Eastern Mediterranean … The challenge now is to use this freedom for creative growth. There is only one road to that end. It is the road of recognition, of direct contact, of true cooperation. It is the road of peaceful co-existence.”
He went on to say, “Let us be an active part in the constructive solution of peaceful and economic prosperity for all people in the region.” I was 25 then, and this has inspired me ever since to try to bring the people there together in peace.
It is self-evident that peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is only possible if the basic aspirations of both peoples are met. Both peoples aspire to self-determination in their own sovereign, independent state. Nothing in the past 50 years has altered this, regardless of other changes. In 1993, under the Oslo accords, the Palestinians finally dropped their demand for 100% of the land and agreed to accept a state alongside Israel in 22% of the land, meaning the West Bank and Gaza, subject to land swaps. There is an overwhelming international consensus on this framework. Any proposal that significantly deviates from it cannot be taken seriously, however powerful the proponents.
This Trump plan, as a strategy to firm up right-wing domestic support in an election year in both the US and Israel, makes a lot of sense. However, as a strategy to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, it falls short in its current form. It is time now to recognise a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem alongside the Israeli state with its capital in West Jerusalem in the hope that the two neighbouring states will eventually form some sort of confederation. Then, something good could come out of the Trump plan.
Since 1967, I have worked to build bridges: through my work at Marks & Spencer with its suppliers in the region; as the chairman of the British Overseas Trade Group for Israel; with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Egypt; with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, textile workers, high-tech incubators—the noble Lord, Lord Young was a mentor to me all the way through that—and universities and educationalists; and with sensitive, dedicated NGOs across the divide. I have worked to build bridges and show what could be a better future life for the 125 million citizens of Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Palestine if they spent the same time, effort, money and resources on building peace and co-operation with compassion rather than squandering all that on war and enmity.
As we heard in today’s Statement, we in the UK will soon be separated from the EU and will begin to develop a new chapter in our international relations. With our historic association with Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, which are in key positions in the Mediterranean, Africa and, of course, the Middle East, I suggest to the Minister that we form a group here in the United Kingdom that brings together the many experts that we have in this country to discuss how we might help. It would not be seeking to argue the rights or wrongs of either side but to suggest how, perhaps after a long, thoughtful, positive discussion, we might then invite the parties in the region to come here and discuss a workable plan that might be attractive to all sides. Britain was, after all, the mandatory power and the issuer of the Balfour Declaration. We have an historical responsibility that no European country—or any other country for that matter—has. We were instrumental at the start of the separation and thence discord; now, with our new place in the world, let us try to heal it for the benefit of all peoples.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for securing this extremely important debate. We have heard some very moving accounts, not least from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Lords, Lord Leigh and Lord Mitchell.
As the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, spoke, I retrieved a quote that I saw the other day from Bernie Sanders that is really worth quoting. He draws on his own family background and goes on to say:
“I see Israel as having the capacity to contribute to peace and prosperity for the entire region, yet unable to achieve this in part because of its unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. And I see a Palestinian people yearning to make their contribution … yet crushed beneath a military occupation that is now over a half-century old, creating a daily reality of pain, humiliation and resentment.”
It is quite sad. So we come to his competitor, as it were, President Trump, and the plan of his son-in-law, which has been described as the deal of the century. From what we have heard in this debate, it does not look like it is quite that deal.
President Trump revealed the plan on 28 January 2020, alongside the Prime Minister of Israel. As others have noted, no Palestinian was present—not a good omen. As it turns out, the plan does not affirm that Palestinians have rights. Israelis have rights; Palestinians have obligations. The plan would be for Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and most of Area C, amounting to about 30% to 40% of the occupied West Bank. There would be a Palestinian state but with very limited sovereignty. Israel would have “overriding security control”. All entry and exit points would be controlled by Israel. Jerusalem would not be a shared capital. The state would have no airport, and no independent port. All the 150 settlements and over 100 outposts in the West Bank would be annexed to Israel. Israel would be free to expand in the annexed areas. The World Bank identifies 227 individual Palestinian areas in the West Bank, with “contiguity” given simply through a series of tunnels and corridors that might allow Palestinian transport. All these could be closed down if required by Israel. A similar corridor would connect the West Bank to Gaza—I note what my noble friend Lord Palmer said about defending that territory. Israel would be granted “sovereign” control of Gaza’s territorial waters, including Gaza’s offshore gas. Israel would retain overall control of the water supply.
Once the plan was announced, there were immediate fears that Israel would start annexing lands which the United States, not the UN, had taken it upon itself seemingly to grant it. So how was it that the United Kingdom responded so warmly to this plan? The Foreign Secretary stated:
“We welcome the release of the United States’ proposal for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This is clearly a serious proposal, reflecting extensive time and effort.”
He encouraged the parties to give it “genuine and fair consideration”. That was on the very same day that he stated:
“Today, the UK and our international partners have collectively sent a message to Russia that we do not and will not accept its illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. We will impose serious costs through active maintenance of sanctions on those who seek to incorporate Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia.”
Could the Government not see the irony in the two statements they made on 28 January?
The following day, 29 January, when there was an Urgent Question in both Houses, this was added to the Government’s position:
“The United Kingdom’s position has not changed. Our view remains that the best way to achieve peace is through substantive peace talks between parties, leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.”—[Official Report, 30/1/20; col. 1516.]
By 31 January we have:
“The United Kingdom is concerned by reports of possible moves toward annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel. Any such unilateral moves would be damaging to renewed efforts to re-start peace negotiations, and contrary to international law. Any changes to the status quo cannot be taken forward without an agreement negotiated by the parties themselves.”
Any contribution that the noble Lord the Minister played in that shift in the Government’s response to the Trump plan should be welcomed. I noticed that the noble Lord has a bit of a cold, and I hope that coronavirus will not remove him from his current involvement in this and other issues; he has a key position. Like other noble Lords, I seek categoric assurances from him that we will continue to adhere to our support for international law and opposition to the annexation of settlements.
The Arab League has unanimously rejected the Trump proposal. It has stated that there will be no co-operation with any implementation of the plan, which it was expected to fund. However, Israel’s Prime Minister has now said he would reopen a project to build 3,500 homes for settlers in one of the most sensitive areas of the occupied West Bank.
There is talk of realities on the ground, but these must be subject to the rule of law. It is worth thinking about the examples of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which the USSR illegally and unilaterally occupied, then incorporated in 1939. For several decades the reality on the ground was that they were part of the USSR, but international law said otherwise. Britain therefore continued to recognise them as independent, sovereign states, even though they had been forced to become Soviet republics. When the USSR collapsed, these states resumed their independence. Stalin could not unilaterally change international law—nor can Trump.
The international consensus for decades, rooted in international law, is that a proper, workable and sustainable basis for negotiations is a two-state solution, with a shared capital of Jerusalem, based on the 1967 lines. We cannot allow President Trump to rip up a cardinal principle of international law, the inadmissibility of acquiring territory through war. If we turn a blind eye to that, how will Russia interpret this in relation to Crimea, or Turkey in northern Syria, or China in its region?
As my noble friend Lord Oates so brilliantly expressed, it is essential—absolutely vital—that it is recognised that this plan is simply not in Israel’s interests. It would surely mean the end of the two-state solution, as the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, and others have said. A one-state solution has major implications for Israel, which rightly points to its history of democracy. That democracy must be based on equal rights for all its citizens. It is worth thinking through the implications for Israel.
It has become urgent that Palestine should be formally recognised as a state, as others have said. Almost 140 countries have now done that; it is time the United Kingdom did so. In the letter to which noble Lords have referred, 50 former European leaders and Foreign Ministers have expressed serious concerns about the Trump plan. They point out:
“Instead of promoting peace, it risks fuelling the conflict – at the expense of Israeli and Palestinian civilians alike, and with grave implications for … the wider region.”
They urge the international community to
“prevent such a scenario from unfolding”
for the future of the Palestinians, the Israelis and the international rules-based order. The EU has already said:
“Steps towards annexation, if implemented, could not pass unchallenged.”
Now that we have left the EU, what position do we take on this? What will we do? What actions will we take with our allies if the Israeli Government take the opportunity, which they may see as time-limited by November’s US election, and annex the lands that Trump’s son-in-law has offered them? How do the Government prove that we are not in a weakened position, out of the EU and needing a trade deal with the United States? What action will we take if the Israeli Government do not adhere to international law?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important issue. Like many of my noble friends, I have had a long association with Labour Friends of Israel. I am proud of that association and of Israel’s stance on many of the human rights issues we have talked about in this debate.
We have also heard in this debate the long-standing policy of successive British Governments, not just this one, to seek a peace plan for the Middle East based on a viable two-state solution. However, as many noble Lords have said, this plan would give the Palestinians a state only after four years, consisting of just 75% of the West Bank, with fragmented bits of land joined by narrow corridors, plus Gaza linked by a tunnel. In place of East Jerusalem as their capital, they are offered the suburban area of Abu Dis. The plan has nothing in common with the Oslo accords and destroys any prospect of an independent, contiguous Palestinian state. It legitimises the illegal annexation of Palestinian land for settlers and puts the whole of Jerusalem under Israeli control.
As Amir Peretz, leader of the Israeli Labor Party, made clear,
“unilateral annexations or steps that undermine the concept of two states living peacefully side by side is a recipe for further trouble and turmoil.”
Can I ask the Minister whether he or the Foreign Secretary made specific representations to their American counterparts on the idea of an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and tell them what a backward step for peace it would be?
As we have heard, the statement by Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU high representative, stressed the EU’s continued commitment to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, in accordance with the international parameters. Mention has been made in the debate of today’s Guardian letter on the plan from prominent European politicians. Does the Minister, like them, agree with the EU that Israeli steps
“towards annexation, if implemented, could not pass unchallenged”,
as they would impair the fundamental international norm banning the acquisition of territory by force? The Minister must make clear from the Dispatch Box today that Britain as a country still abides by all the international laws and UN resolutions which rule that the annexation of Palestinian land and the building of settlements is illegal, and that it must be condemned, not legitimised in the form of this plan. Labor Knesset Member Itzik Shmuli argued that it would not,
“contribute to security, negates the important recognition of the two-state solution, rejects any chance to achieve separation and will bring about the fatal demand for a single state, which contradicts our national and security interests”,
as the noble Baroness just highlighted. Even Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main challenger in the election on 2 March, has opposed immediate annexation, and, while welcoming Trump’s proposals, suggested that he would not act in the unilateral manner Netanyahu is proposing, and would work,
“in full co-ordination with the Governments of the US, Jordan, Egypt, others in the region and the Palestinians.”
The then Foreign Office Minister Andrew Murrison, in response to an Urgent Question on 30 January from Emily Thornberry, repeated official policy when he said that the UK wanted
“to see a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital and a proper settlement for refugees.”—[Official Report, Commons, 30/1/20; col. 933.]
However, despite these words of comfort, he went on to welcome Trump’s proposals as a possible route towards restarting peace talks, with Prime Minister Johnson arguing that it,
“has the merit of a two-state solution”. —[Official Report, Commons, 29/1/20; col. 770.]
How can they suggest that it will break the deadlock? It beggars belief. To impose something on one of the parties cannot be the basis on which negotiations can begin. Simply adding that they do not endorse the plan’s contents will not change what many will see as a “shameful betrayal”, as Emily Thornberry put it, of previous UK support for a viable two-state solution. As we have heard, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, in rejecting Trump’s proposals declared:
“We say one thousand times ‘No, no, no’ to the deal of the century.”
Murrison’s hopes of a positive response from the Arab nations has also suffered a blow, as we have heard in the debate, with the unanimous rejection of the plan by the Arab League and subsequently the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The Arab League said that Trump’s plan did not satisfy
“the minimum rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people.”
Instead, the Arab League reiterated its support for the 2002 peace initiative, as the noble Baroness has high- lighted, which endorsed a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital. Does the Minister accept that any peace plan without Palestinian participation is no peace plan at all? A lasting and sustainable peace will be achieved only through direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, with compromise and concessions on both sides. This plan clearly fails that test and, far from breaking the dead- lock, will entrench opinions. From this side of the House, we will continue to press for an immediate return to meaningful negotiations leading to a diplomatic resolution.
While there is understandable anger in Palestine over this proposed plan, does the Minister agree with me that this must not and cannot be used as an excuse by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror groups to launch more indiscriminate attacks against innocent Israeli citizens, and will he join me in condemning anyone who takes such action? If the Minister agrees that the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East is through a two-state solution with a secure and viable state of Israel living alongside a secure, viable and contiguous state of Palestine, then—as many other noble Lords have asked tonight—why will this Government not recognise the state of Palestine?
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for tabling this debate and for her ongoing interest in the Middle East peace process. I would also like to thank all noble Lords for their insightful and valuable contributions to what has been a very absorbing debate. We have had moments of birthdays being mentioned. I add my own best wishes to my noble friend Lord Young, who is 88 years young today—he lives up to his name—and who shares a birthday with my daughter. I fear she will be extremely disappointed that Daddy is still at your Lordships’ House. Lady Ahmad will be even more displeased because, at this particular time, I should be at a parent-teacher evening—but such is the challenge of debates that are called in the House.
Leaving my personal challenges aside, we have before us a challenge and an issue that has, again, brought very expert contributions. It would be remiss of me not to look again at the personal insights we got, in particular those of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell. I am sure I speak for all noble Lords when I say that we were truly delighted to hear of the family reunion, which, again, shows the strength of our global links and how, notwithstanding the challenges and the tragedy of the Holocaust—which was poignantly mentioned by several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Leigh—there is still hope from the tragedy and genocide that took place because, even now, families can still come together.
The UK’s position on the Middle East peace process is clear and, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, has not changed. Our view remains, clearly, that the best way to achieve peace, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, stated, is through substantive peace talks between the parties, leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, mentioned, need to be fair, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and with a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees. We had some innovative suggestions on that, including from the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I am sure that other noble Lords reflected on the issue of refugees. The noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, also talked about the importance of the humanity that brings communities and faiths together in the Holy Land.
However, we have to acknowledge that progress towards meaningful peace has stalled. I totally align myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that, despite the stalling and despite whatever is on the table, at no time should this be used as an excuse by those who seek to cause further division. Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s actions, particularly those that impact on the security of the State of Israel, have to be condemned, and rightly so.
We should not forget that this is not just an issue of one religion over the other. I never see this in the eyes of religion. Many Arabs, as I have seen myself, live very peacefully and lead very prosperous lives in places such as Haifa in the State of Israel. They are integrated into society and, as my noble friend Lord Leigh reminded us, into political society in Israel.
However, it is true that the issue has stalled. Israelis and Palestinians deserve better. They deserve a durable resolution that brings dignity and security for all. As my noble friend Lady Morris said, Palestinians deserve self-determination and freedom from occupation—a point which was well made and poignantly articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Oates. Israelis equally deserve to live free of terrorist rocket fire and to enjoy fruitful co-operation with their neighbours in the region. As I said, I have seen directly how communities can live together. There should be a vision. If there is a Palestinian state and Jewish communities wish to live there, they should have that right, as Arab citizens do today in the State of Israel.
My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in his statement on 28 January:
“A peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that leads to peaceful coexistence could unlock the potential of the entire region”.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton, who, as a trade envoy, has sought under challenging circumstances to give hope to people on both sides and the opportunity of a brighter future. The noble Lord, Lord Stone, always provides a sense of hope and optimism. I have seen how Israeli and Arab communities in the West Bank are working together for a common good and common prosperity.
However, this will happen only if the parties can find a path back to negotiations, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, and secure a settlement that is acceptable to all. That is why our first priority must be to encourage Israelis, Palestinians and international partners, including the United States, to find a way to reopen the necessary and essential dialogue. There is no other path to peace.
I assure my noble friend Lord Lothian that we work closely with the US on matters involving the Middle East—but this was and is an American plan. We were not involved in its formulation. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others that the US is aware that our position on the Middle East peace process has not changed. As my noble friend Lady Altmann said, the US proposals are now on the table. The UK looks to the Palestinian leadership to offer its own vision for a settlement, and to find a way to re-engage with the negotiation process so that its direct concerns and priorities can also be discussed.
We hope that President Abbas will return to the negotiations. However, as several noble Lords said—my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower made the point well—we must stress upon the Palestinians and President Abbas that negotiations are the way forward. However, if he declined to negotiate, I assure noble Lords that that would not justify unilateral action such as the annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark referred to in his contribution.
Also, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said, the UK is concerned about the reports of possible Israeli moves towards annexation. We believe that any such unilateral moves would be damaging to the renewed efforts to restart peace negotiations and contrary to international law. No changes to the status quo can be made without an agreement negotiated by the parties themselves. Therefore, let me assure the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we made it clear in our statement recently at the UN Security Council on 11 February that we remain committed to our long-standing position on the Middle East peace process and to previous UN Security Council resolutions. We strongly advocate for a two-state solution and for a meaningful return to negotiations, both in public and in private, to all concerned parties.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked a specific question on the UK’s position on Israeli settlements. That is clear; they are illegal under international law and damaging, we believe, to renewed efforts to launch peace negotiations. We also continue to make clear our view that the only way that we can see proper negotiations is if the leaders of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories can determine whether any proposals might be able to meet the needs and aspirations of the people they represent. Let me assure the noble Lord, Lord Warner, that that remains our position. My noble friend Lady Morris also alluded to this.
In parallel, we will continue our efforts to build the components of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, including through our continued support, through DfID funding and CSSF programmes. I hope that my noble friend Lord Suri is reassured by that. I particularly listened to his remarks on the importance of the private sector, and I am sure I speak for all noble Lords on the contribution in particular of my noble friend Lord Young, who brought great insight into some of the experience he had directly with Mr Arafat and others. Indeed, notwithstanding the lack of traction, I think that that still provides hope that there can be so much that can be achieved together.
Specific questions were raised by my noble friend Lord Leigh on the issue of Palestinian textbooks. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, also alluded to this, as well as my noble friends Lady Altmann and Lord Davies of Gower. Let me assure noble Lords that the UK does not fund textbooks in the OPTs, but we are deeply concerned about allegations of incitement to violence in some of the newer textbooks. Indeed, it was following the UK’s call for action—my noble friend Lord Davies asked this specific question—that the EU agreed to lead an independent review of the content in Palestinian textbooks, which is currently under way. We know that the Palestinian Authority is currently revising its textbooks, collecting a range of feedback, and will update them before the start of the new school year in September. In the interim, let me assure my noble friend that we will continue to raise any such concerns about incitement, as we do elsewhere, and the former DfID Secretary of State did so during a meeting with the PA Education Minister earlier in February.
To conclude, Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve peace, stability and opportunity. Meaningful dialogue offers the only path towards those long-overdue goals. That is why we are urging the parties to find a way to reopen the necessary dialogue. We hope that leaders on both sides will give the US peace plan genuine and fair consideration. The reasoning behind that, as articulated by my noble friend Lady Altmann, is that it offers, we believe, a first step on the road back to negotiations. At the same time, we will continue to caution against annexation, which would undermine the basis for a sustainable settlement and, in so doing, strip away hope for future generations of Israelis and Palestinians.
My noble friend Lord Young talked about the potential that exists when countries work together. The noble Lord, Lord Stone, talked about communities working together, as did the noble Lord, Lord Singh, and my noble friend Lady Morris, among others. I end my comments with a quote:
“Peace with the Palestinians will open ports of peace all around the Mediterranean. The duty of leaders is to pursue freedom ceaselessly, even in the face of hostility, in the face of doubt and disappointment. Just imagine what could be.”
Those were the words of a distinguished leader of the State of Israel, a visionary who knew that the pathway to peace, no matter how bleak the outlook, should be a flame that is never extinguished—the words of Shimon Peres.
My Lords, I would like to comment on every speech that has been made in this fascinating debate, but noble Lords will be relieved to hear that I shall not. I shall just thank all noble Lords. I still think that the British Government have an overwhelming responsibility in this peace process. We really must accept that, do something about it and give it some muscle this time, before more decades of suffering pass for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. I thank all noble Lords for the debate. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Young, gets home while there is still some birthday cake left and that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, will through his front door without having it hurled at him. I hope he will wish his daughter a happy birthday from all of us.