Israel and the Peace Process — [Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
2:30 pm

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John Woodcock (Shadow Minister (Transport); Barrow and Furness, Labour)

May I say what an unexpected pleasure it is, Mr Walker, to be serving under your chairmanship for the first time today and how delighted I am to have secured this important debate? It is pleasing to see such a good attendance today, especially as the House is about to rise for the Easter recess. I will try to be brief, as many Members wish to speak.

The best political debates are often driven by simple arguments. The Member whose debate it is rises and cuts through a confusing mass of factors and statistics, and then sits down. Everyone then wonders why they have not considered such an obvious and compelling solution before. I am afraid that we will not have one of those debates today.

A false sense of clarity and simplicity risks holding back the international community from making the most positive contribution that it can to the middle east. Over the next 90 minutes, I hope that we can draw out some of the hidden complexity of a situation that is all too often portrayed in black and white terms over here. Many Members will want to set out their own experiences of visiting the region and give their own perspective on the prospects for peace. That was one of the principal reasons that drove me and my hon. Friends to call for this debate today.

First, it is important to set Israel’s place in the middle east, and thus the importance of the peace process, in its proper context. We often hear two polar positions, often simultaneously, and they are both wrong. Both are fuelled by a two-dimensional view of the region that gets filtered through the media here.

On the one hand, we hear that the lack of lasting peace in Israel is inextricably linked to everything else in the middle east and has been the central catalyst of all the unrest in the region for decades. That view has led to the belief that if only the Israelis and Palestinians could agree, all other troubles in the region would melt away. That view was always hard to justify in a region that saw an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq and where regional minorities such as the Kurds have been consistently marginalised and oppressed. The Arab spring surely, finally, explodes the myth of the ubiquity and centrality of Israel in middle east affairs.

On the other hand, there is the view that Israel is an impregnable island that is prosperous, supported by the west and secure in its own borders. It is the plucky hard man to its sympathisers and the oppressor state to its detractors.

However, after a visit to the region, we can appreciate that this is a tiny nation that is bordered on all sides by states that are at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to its very existence. The existential threat to Israel consists not only of the rockets that are fired daily across its southern borders, but of the nuclear ambitions of Iran. It is not a country that is secure within its own borders. Certainly, if that level of threat were posed to the UK, we would not ignore it.

Israel has reached out to its neighbours where it could. Anxiety over the events of the Arab spring led not to a reaction against the welcome prospect of greater democracy across the middle east, but to an uneasiness that the fragile accommodation with its neighbours could be lost in the chaos and uncertainty of those months. It is a country that is focused on reaching out now. In 2011, Israel exported goods worth some $6 billion to its neighbours in the middle east and north Africa. It joined in a campaign with the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian Government to have the Dead sea declared as one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Such examples show that, at its best, it can work constructively with its neighbours.

Conversely, although Israel is acutely aware of its deep connection to the countries that surround it, it is not prepared to subcontract its basic need for security to anyone. Above all, its innate quest for security has gone hand in hand—from its inception to the present day—with a deep commitment to the progressive values that we hold dear in this country, especially on the Opposition Benches. It is a country where women enjoy equality; the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community flourishes; there is a free press; the powerless are protected from the powerful by an independent judiciary; trade unions are well-organised and strong; educational excellence and scientific innovation are pursued; religious minorities are free to practise their creeds; a welfare state supports the poor and marginalised; and there is a fully functioning, vibrant, participatory democracy.

It would be absurd to suggest that Israel is loved across the middle east. Yet as we look at the hope and uncertainty generated by the Arab spring, the freedoms enjoyed by Israelis are inescapable to anyone in the region with access to the internet and social media. When millions across the middle east are desperate for leaders they can hold to account, Israel’s robust media and the tough stance it regularly takes to senior figures is a genuine beacon for those values.

Alongside the threat of rocket attacks still experienced by Israeli citizens, there is, of course, a real sense of injustice among many Palestinians in Gaza and the west bank. There is grinding economic hardship and rampant unemployment across huge swathes of the population. The genuine fear that the advancing settlements could prove permanent, the claims to return and concerns about integration for Israeli Arabs fuel the frustration at the lack of progress in the peace process. The Palestinians’ suffering and sense of injustice is prolonged with every passing month in which their dream of statehood is not realised.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

In my hon. Friend’s discussion about the injustices towards the Palestinians, what does he say to the accusation against Israel of the imprisonment of Palestinian elected parliamentarians and the continued denial of their right to travel to the west bank to take part in the parliamentary democracy of Palestine?

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John Woodcock (Shadow Minister (Transport); Barrow and Furness, Labour)

My hon. Friend raises a valid point. Israel has taken measures to protect its security in several areas, which has caused deep discomfort to

many people in Israel and here. What I am trying to set out in this speech is the context behind which some of these decisions are taken.

Viewing from a distance often gives the impression that the principal blockage to lasting justice for both Palestinians and Israelis has been the intransigence of a dominant state, secure in its borders and willing to let every opportunity for peace limp by. If we are to promote peace effectively rather than act as a drag on it, we need to expose that analysis as flawed on every count.

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Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

Just to be clear, will my hon. Friend tell the House what Israel’s borders are, including Jerusalem?

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John Woodcock (Shadow Minister (Transport); Barrow and Furness, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend wish me to pronounce them? If only it were that simple. Of course, his question underlines the primacy of negotiations, which I will expand on later in my speech. If colleagues do not mind, I will rattle through the rest of my speech, so that I give other people the chance to contribute.

We must not underplay or be seen to underplay the toll on Israel from the terror and threats from its neighbours, which have been endured by Israelis for decades and up to the present day. Equally, we should not overlook the fact that weighing on the whole of Israel and its politics is the threat that Iran, whose leader vowed to wipe Israel off the map, could acquire the means to do just that.

The fact that Iran continues to channel funding and arms to Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, gives a wider context to Israel’s determination to maintain its security, if one were needed beyond the sustained campaign of terror that has claimed so many Israeli lives over the years. And let us never hold back from pointing out that the lives lost to Hamas are also counted among Palestinian families in Gaza, where the terrorists maintain their yoke of oppression by murdering political rivals and cruelly using civilians as human shields.

Although times remain far too hard, we should continue to trumpet the economic progress being made on the west bank and recognise the contributions that have been made not only by progressives in Israel but by the Quartet, led by Tony Blair. Most of all, we need to give full consideration and exposure to the complexities of the peace process, which are so rarely reflected in reporting over here.

A peace process capable of lasting success will be achieved only if the realities on both sides are understood and addressed. During the past few years, there has been pessimism on all sides about the peace process, particularly from the Palestinian leadership about the progress of negotiations. However, the international pressure needed for both the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table must be applied to both sides alike. That includes pressing the Palestinians to put to one side past failures at the negotiating table, so that they can seek to make some headway now. For all the justified international condemnation of continued settlement building, the fact remains that there is only one side at the table at present, and that is Israel.

Fundamentally, everything we do must underline the message that there is no alternative to returning to talks, in order to make the difficult compromises that are necessary to achieve peace. So I ask the Minister to say in his response to the debate what his Government are doing to persuade both Israelis and Palestinians that peace talks are the only thing that will bring them dignity, prosperity and their own state, which they deserve.

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Andy Slaughter (Shadow Minister (Justice); Hammersmith, Labour)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

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John Woodcock (Shadow Minister (Transport); Barrow and Furness, Labour)

If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will not give way, as I want to get through my speech and allow other people to make a contribution.

We should apply pressure with hope gained from the knowledge that this is not year zero. In fact, at key points in the past it has been Israel that has been prepared to offer up a great amount for peace, only to find that the Palestinian leadership were unwilling or unable to reciprocate. The current Palestinian Authority leadership are a moderate Administration who have achieved much in terms of state-building and reform, but they often say that 20 years of negotiations have brought them nothing. However, that view is fundamentally undermined by the facts, and it also risks undermining what little faith remains in the prospects for a peace process.

There have been huge disappointments for both peoples, and the rapid progress envisaged in the 1993 Oslo accords has certainly not been realised. However, we must also be clear that every time that substantive negotiations have taken place, progress has been made and substantial Israeli offers have been given.

Let us not forget what Oslo achieved and what remains from that agreement today. Oslo was the beginning of a working relationship between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a relationship that has now been successfully restored despite the violence of the second intifada. Oslo was also the beginning of Palestinian self-governance over the vast majority of the Palestinian population living in the west bank and Gaza strip. And at Camp David, although the final status agreement that had been hoped for was not realised, the offers given and the understandings that were later expressed in the Clinton parameters demonstrated a seriousness about achieving peace.

The details of Israel’s offer to the Palestinians at Camp David were never officially released and there are differing accounts of what happened. According to numerous reports, however, the proposal to the Palestinians by Ehud Barak, the then Israeli Prime Minister, included an Israeli withdrawal from more than 90% of the west bank and 100% of the Gaza strip. However, after the second intifada and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, no serious Israeli politician can assert that offering land for peace will, on its own, bring peace.

To get back to the table, Israeli Governments have understandably had to take additional robust and sometimes very controversial measures to protect their people from terrorism. There is currently a dangerous pause in the negotiations and pressure is building up to explore alternatives, such as the one-state solution. Let us be

clear—that solution would mean both the end of the only Jewish state and the end of Palestinian dreams for their own sovereign state.

In that light, I want to express my support for the universal jurisdiction reforms that have now been completed; they were begun by the previous Labour Government and are still backed by Labour in opposition. Those reforms are vital to ensure that bogus arrest warrants are not issued against visiting Israelis, so that the UK can remain involved in efforts to break the impasse and can continue strengthening bilateral relations.

There are real barriers to a new peace process. Ultimately, there will have to be huge and difficult compromises on both sides. That will require trust, which is thin on the ground at present.

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Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, Labour)

Can my hon. Friend tell us how the Israelis can possibly seriously negotiate the end of settlements while they are still building settlements? Does he agree that that is a huge barrier to the resumption of peace talks?

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John Woodcock (Shadow Minister (Transport); Barrow and Furness, Labour)

It is wrong, unhelpful and should not happen, but it is the responsibility of all sides. Ultimately, the Palestinian leadership are refusing to come to the table to make sure that that is not a fundamental barrier to the resumption of talks, which absolutely has to happen.

If the international community is to help engender the trust that is needed, it must approach both sides equally. That means eschewing the flawed caricature of, on the one side, plucky underdogs desperate for peace but systematically robbed in each negotiation and denied, on the other side, by an intransigent state that is happy to sit tight. The true picture is much more complicated than that and if Britain remains determined to recognise that basic fact, it can be a real force for good in the difficult months ahead.

As we encourage the movements for democracy in the middle east, we should celebrate Israel as a progressive beacon in the region. For all the optimism generated by the Arab spring, it remains beyond our wildest hopes that every country affected will emerge with the kind of liberal constitution that enshrines the progressive values that Israel has upheld since its inception.

However, Labour Friends of Israel is avowedly pro-Palestinian. It is because we want a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure and progressive Israel that we are so determined to remove the blinkers that risk holding back the international push for peace in the middle east. Let us use the ties of history, trade and diplomacy, and the reserves of good will where they continue to exist, to play our full part in seeking a process that will lead to a sustainable two-state solution. For the good of the people of both Israel and Palestine, we cannot afford to let pessimism rule the day.

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Charles Walker (Broxbourne, Conservative)

Time is limited and interest is high, so speeches should be short.

2:49 pm
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Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green, Conservative)

This is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship in one of these debates, Mr Walker. I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness

(John Woodcock) for securing the debate. I must apologise; I cannot stay for the full debate because of other appointments.

This debate is an important step in rebalancing some of the discussions that Members have had in the House. The debate outside the House is fraught with difficulty and nuances, and it is important that both sides here get a fair hearing. Peace and the two-state solution can be achieved only by direct peace talks. I doubt whether any hon. Member would argue for a single-state solution—Palestinian or Jewish. One of the fundamental barriers to such talks is that Hamas, as part of the coalition that forms the Palestinian Authority, refuses to accept the Quartet principles, which are that the state of Israel be recognised, previous diplomatic agreements be abided by and parties renounce violence. Until Hamas accepts those principles, there can be no lasting peace in the region. There cannot be negotiation when one side at the table seeks to wipe the other off the map.

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Bob Stewart (Beckenham, Conservative)

A Member from Northern Ireland is here. The peace process there went ahead with the Provisional IRA still on active operations, so perhaps one of those principles is not sacrosanct.

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Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green, Conservative)

That, of course, is an interesting point of view, but the Governments were able to negotiate with parties that were willing to do so.

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Nigel Dodds (Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Belfast North, DUP)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green, Conservative)

I will in a moment. I do not have any great knowledge of the Northern Ireland peace process. Perhaps my colleague, the right hon. Member for Belfast North does.

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Nigel Dodds (Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Belfast North, DUP)

Before Sinn Fein was admitted to the talks in Northern Ireland, it had to sign up to the Mitchell principles, which were about decommissioning commitments, peaceful activities and a political way forward, so it was clear that it could not come to the table while still avowing terrorism.

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Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green, Conservative)

I thank the right hon. Member for that clarification. That is an amazingly pertinent point.

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Lee Scott (Ilford North, Conservative)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the main difference between the two peace processes is that, to the best of my knowledge, Sinn Fein at no time called for the destruction of Northern Ireland?

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Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green, Conservative)

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. It is difficult to negotiate when one side simply wants to wipe the other off the face of the earth. Both sides will have to make difficult compromises. We have seen that in this country. In any conflict resolution, both sides have to make compromises, but so far the emphasis seems to be on asking Israel to make all the concessions.

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Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke, Conservative)

Does my hon. Friend agree that Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly called for an immediate return to direct peace talks and has made a series of significant compromises and unprecedented gestures to the Palestinian Authority to encourage them to return to the table, but to no avail?

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Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green, Conservative)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Prime Minister Netanyahu is often demonised. I have no doubt that he can be a forceful and difficult character, but would people not want their Prime Minister to be forceful and to stand up for their security when their country was in an almost permanent state of war and they were fielding suicide bombers and missiles fired into their territory?

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness made the good point that we have to remember that Israel is a beacon of democracy in a part of the world where democracy is in short supply. Religious minorities of whatever shape or flavour have freedoms. Minorities have freedoms, to pursue their religion or their sexuality, and even to stand for Parliament. It does not really matter what shape, colour or religion someone is; they have the ability to follow their beliefs, and that is not seen elsewhere.

It is important to acknowledge that no democracy is flawless. Democracies always find unilateral concessions more difficult because public opinion must be taken into account; a dictatorship does not have to deal with a free press, a democracy or opinion polls. It is important to remember that Israel has a record of making concessions on land swaps for peace. I repeat: if peace and a two-state solution are to happen, concessions on both sides will be essential.

An independent Palestine can happen only through direct negotiations, with mutual respect, agreed borders and an agreement to end the conflict. The right hon. Member for Belfast North made a good point: negotiations cannot be entered into without the renunciation of violence in some shape or form. A deal is on the table, but the UK Government must ensure that both sides are asked to return to it without conditions and without one side being asked to concede all its leverage in advance. It takes two sides to negotiate, and Her Majesty’s Government must ensure that both sides return to the table and that both sides are treated equally.

2:56 pm
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Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Woodcock on securing this debate. Given the number of hon. Members who want to speak, there will inevitably be a shortage of time, so although we might disagree on some things today, perhaps we can all agree that it might be appropriate to approach the Backbench Business Committee to request a full debate in the main Chamber on Israel and Palestine.

I had a sneak preview of what my hon. Friend was going to say, because it appeared on epolitix.com earlier today. He called for people to avoid black and white analyses and to recognise the hidden complexities of this part of the world. I agree with him about that. He said:

“But most importantly, the international pressure that is needed for both the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table needs to be applied to both sides alike.”

I struggled to understand, or to hear from him, exactly what pressure he felt should be applied to Israel, but perhaps he can clarify that in due course.

My hon. Friend went on to say that this is not year zero and that

“at key points in the past, it has been Israel that has been prepared to offer up a great amount for peace and has found the Palestinian leadership unwilling or unable to reciprocate.”

That is not my understanding, and an awful lot of people around the world would dispute it. He mentioned Camp David, but not Taba, which came afterwards, when the Palestinians did not walk away. What ended those negotiations was the change of Government in Israel. Surprisingly, he did not mention the Arab peace initiative either. It is the 10th anniversary of that initiative, which offered full recognition of Israel and full peace in return for full withdrawal and a just and agreed solution to the refugee problem on the basis of UN resolution 194. This week, Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, described that as Israel’s worst missed opportunity, and that is the view of many around the world.

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Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend support the Palestine Solidarity Campaign? If so, can he tell us why there is no mention of a two-state solution in the campaign’s objectives and why its logo shows a land without the state of Israel?

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Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

I like my hon. Friend a great deal, but that is nonsense. It would be a bit like my standing up and asking whether he would condemn the Israeli tourist board, which was done over by the Advertising Standards Authority only last week because it published a map of what it described as northern Israel, but which included part of the west bank. We should have a better level of debate than that.

More recently, Israel has called for talks without preconditions. Let us remember what provoked the current round of stalled talks: the Palestinians applied for membership of the United Nations, which Israel claims for itself not as something negotiable but as a matter of right. If anybody questions Israel’s right to membership of the United Nations, they are regarded as delegitimising Israel, which is one stage short of anti-Semitism. I fully accept that Israel should be a member of the United Nations and should be recognised within its internationally recognised borders, which are not difficult; they are the pre-1967 borders laid down in numerous UN resolutions. However, if Palestine applies to the United Nations, that is seen as provocative. It is sometimes called a unilateral act. I cannot think of much that is more multilateral than going to the United Nations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness says that there are complexities, but

“viewing from a distance often gives the impression that the principal blockage to lasting justice for both Palestinians and Israelis has been the intransigence of a dominant state, secure in its borders and willing to let every opportunity for peace limp by.”

He is right that it is important that we do not view the issue from a distance, but that we all go to see what is happening on the ground. I do not mean just visiting offices in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or even Ramallah; I mean going to Sderot and talking to people there about how they live in fear of rockets. It is important to do so, and we do. It is also important to go to Gaza, where 38% of people live in poverty, 85% of schools must run on double shifts and 80 million litres of sewage are dumped into the sea every single day.

It is important to go to the west bank, and not simply to say that settlements are bad without working out the results or to talk to people like me about it. We should talk to Israelis themselves: people in Peace Now who talk about how continuing to build settlements is torpedoing the two-state solution, as its website says. It is important to look at Jerusalem. People talk about the settlement freeze offered and maintained by Netanyahu a few years ago. It is important to understand that it was not a settlement freeze; it was a freeze of some settlements, and it did not apply to Jerusalem.

If hon. Members do not believe me, they should talk to Israeli organisations such as Ir Amim, which says:

“Since the Six-Day War and the change in the boundaries of Jerusalem, Israel’s Governments have tried to maintain the Jewish demographic advantage in Jerusalem. They have done this by controlling the physical space of the east part of the city and increasing attempts to ‘Judaize’ East Jerusalem.”

Ir Amim says that the continuation of settlement building and the restriction of residency rights in East Jerusalem is destroying the two-state solution.

Hon. Members should go to see what is happening in the Jordan valley and Area C. They should not take my word for it; they should talk to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or go there with the Israeli organisation B’Tselem and see what it says about the dispossession of Palestinians, including the Bedouin, in Area C.

Perhaps we should ask a reputable body to investigate, such as the United Nations. It is doing so. It has declared an investigation of settlement building in the west bank, to see what should be made of it. As a result, Israel has cut off contact with the United Nations Human Rights Council and threatened sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. About the initiative to investigate settlements, this was said not by some strange marginal figure but by Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman:

“We are dealing with al-Qaeda terror on the one hand and diplomatic terror by Abu Mazen on the other”.

So now referring something to the UN Human Rights Council is regarded as diplomatic terror.

Freezing settlements is not about imposing unreasonable preconditions. Without it, I do not see how the peace process can go forward. A Palestinian by the name of Husam Zomlot, who is known to many of us—he used to work over here—gave a good analogy: “It’s a bit like saying you should negotiate who gets which bit of the pizza, but while that’s going on, one of the parties is eating the pizza anyway.” That is what is going on at the moment.

In conclusion, I have deliberately used sources that are not Palestinian. Some of them are United Nations sources; in the main, they are Israeli sources, including the newspaper Haaretz and groups such as Peace Now, Ir Amim and B’Tselem. Those organisations are not looking at things from afar; they are there, and they are Israeli. Most of their members would say that they are Zionist. They, too, would like friends of Israel abroad, but what they know and say to us is that true friends are not simply cheerleaders. True friends tell home truths every now and again, and they might like friends of Israel groups in the outside world to do a little more of that.

3:05 pm
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Bob Blackman (Harrow East, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Walker. I, too, congratulate John Woodcock on initiating this important debate. It is apposite that we consider the issue shortly before Passover and Easter, when the Holy Land will be at its peak in terms of individuals choosing to go and see the holy places of three of the world’s great religions. That must be recognised when we consider that part of the world.

I first visited Israel some 15 years ago as a tourist and went around on buses seeing at first hand how ordinary Israelis live, as well as the tourist sights. Equally, I saw how Palestinians lived alongside Israelis. It is clear that there is an appetite on all sides for a proper and full peace process. I always challenge people by saying that they should not discuss places such as Israel, the west bank or Gaza unless they have been to see them. It is the only country in the world that I know of—I have visited a few, but not all of them—where a person can stand on one side of the country, see the other and know that they are surrounded by hostile neighbours, many of whom wish to wipe them off the face of the map. Unless we appreciate that, it is difficult to understand the security position in which Israel finds itself.

Israel is a special place in the world. It has been under threat, and its borders have been formed by wars, whether in 1948, 1967, 1971 or at any other time in the recent history of that part of the world. It is therefore difficult to know what the settled borders of the state of Israel are, and what the proper borders of a fledgling Palestinian state would be.

I have had the opportunity to visit Israel with Conservative Friends of Israel and to see the security position at various different points in the country, and that is terribly important. We must consider the border with Syria. In many ways, the tension has decreased over the years as a peace process has evolved with Syria. Equally, on the borders with Egypt, friendly relations have been built up over a consistent period. On the border with Lebanon, however, the view is that it is just a question of when a war starts, not if, and how bloody it will be. That brings home the problems.

I have also had the opportunity to go via Jordan to see the west bank with Palestinians, meeting many people from the Palestinian community. I believe that it is right to see things from both sides in order to get a balanced view of the issues. Interestingly, when I went via the Allenby bridge from Jordan into the west bank and Jerusalem, there was a huge queue, huge security and huge problems for anyone accessing the bridge, irrespective of their status. We went the day after Yom Kippur last year, and the queues to get in were horrendous. That is important.

Undoubtedly, Palestinian leaders echo the universal condemnation of Tony Blair and his so-called peace mission. They regard it as a total waste of time and money, and would welcome an alternative set of means for promoting peace. They do not see it as a way forward. The interesting thing is that Britain is engaged in assisting the Palestinians and in ensuring that the security forces in the west bank are given the opportunity to have full and proper training so that they can enforce security. That is helping considerably.

The concern is that the mood among members of the Palestinian community is that time is somehow on their side and that the longer they leave things, the better the position that will emerge for Palestine in the long run. That is a very short-sighted view, because the progress of settlements in East Jerusalem will shortly—I would say within the six months—render a Jerusalem that is the capital of Israel and a Palestinian state almost impossible. Those settlements and the motorways—effectively—that link them are proceeding rapidly, which will make a two-state solution difficult.

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Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, Labour)

I, too, have visited many of the areas the hon. Gentleman speaks of. Has he been to Gaza and seen the economic and humanitarian results of the blockade? I can assure him the people of Gaza do not think time is on their side—quite the opposite, in fact.

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Bob Blackman (Harrow East, Conservative)

I thank the hon. Lady. I say quite openly that I have not visited Gaza. That is why I am speaking instead about the west bank and why I made the point I did.

The problem that has emerged with the peace process is that we have, for far too long, had talks about talks about negotiations. We need to get both sides round the table to ensure that there are proper, face-to-face negotiations. In that regard, there is a duty on the Government of this country, which is widely respected in the region, where it has deep historical ties, and which is, in many ways, trusted by both sides.

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Bob Stewart (Beckenham, Conservative)

The fact of the matter is that good people have been trying since 1967 to bring the two parties together, but all attempts have failed. We can all sit here piously saying that people should get round the table and negotiate, but some Methuselah, perhaps, has to come along and devise a way to bring that about. Until that happens, we will not have progress. That is what we must achieve somehow.

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Bob Blackman (Harrow East, Conservative)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is clear that we need to break the logjam. Mention was made of the peace process in Ireland, and I certainly never thought we would see a peace process there in my lifetime. I welcome what has been done there so that we can have a proper democracy and a proper arrangement between people on that island.

Similarly, we have to break the logjam between Israel and Palestine, but there has to be good faith on both sides. As my hon. Friend Mike Freer rightly reminded us, Israel has, over the years, agreed to put the issue of settlements on the table. To get peace with Egypt, there was an agreement to remove settlements, and they were removed; to get peace with Gaza, settlements were removed; and to get peace with the west bank, settlements were removed. The Egyptian peace treaty was highly successful, but such success has not, sadly, been the case in Gaza, and that is a problem for the Israeli Government.

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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Labour)

I do not know how anybody can say that the issue of the settlements in the west bank was somehow solved by

a treaty. When was the hon. Gentleman actually in the west bank? Every time I have been there, the settlements have increased, and the settlers’ violence against innocent Palestinians has increased exponentially. What land is the hon. Gentleman talking about? It is not the one I visit.

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Bob Blackman (Harrow East, Conservative)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I was in the west bank last October—

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Bob Blackman (Harrow East, Conservative)

I saw many settlements. I also saw how the Palestinian people have been sold out by their own lawyers—their own people. Palestinians have sold land to the Israelis and given them the opportunity to build houses on it. They had claims over that land, but, unfortunately, they sold them. They went through the courts, and their lawyers sold them out. It is difficult for someone who has been through a legal process to complain when it has gone against them.

Where we go now is quite clear. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups oppose Israel’s right to exist and they refuse to accept the Quartet principles. Until such time as they openly say, “We accept Israel’s right to exist”, no meaningful peace talks can take place. That is where the British Government have a clear duty. They must ensure that pressure is put on the state of Israel and the Palestinians to enter negotiations in line with President Obama’s excellent speech setting out how the peace process could proceed. The Israeli Government were quite keen to commit to that up front, but the Palestinians seem to want to delay; they do not seem to want to enter talks. They must understand that unless they enter talks rapidly, the prospects for a two-state solution will diminish by the day, and we could end up with a three-state solution—the state of Israel, a Palestinian state in Gaza and a Palestinian state on the west bank.

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Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton, Labour)

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. His premise is that the situation can be solved by dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians, but is not the real problem that the bigger split in the middle east is between Iranian-led Shi’as and the rest of the Arab world? Until that issue is solved, Israel and the Palestinians will remain proxies for that debate, and it will not be solved locally.

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Bob Blackman (Harrow East, Conservative)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly, the elephant in the room is Iran, and the United Nations will have to resolve that issue.

I end with the hope that this process will see our Government operating a more level playing field, putting pressure on the state of Israel to negotiate, but, equally, putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians and emphasising to them that the need to have urgent talks is paramount. Those talks need to be without preconditions and need to come with an expectation that they will result in a lasting peace and a just settlement for everyone. In that way, the issues in this part of the world can be settled in a manner we would all like, and everyone can live in peace and harmony, religions can be respected and people can promote the economic prosperity they want.

3:18 pm
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Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside, Labour)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Woodcock on securing this important debate.

Until the events of the Arab spring, it was generally suggested that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the key issue—indeed, the only issue—in the middle east. It is now abundantly clear to everyone that that is not, and never was, the case. Despite that, it is vital that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is resolved. Both peoples have the right to self-determination, and it is a tragedy that Arab and Jewish nationalisms came forward at the same time and became embroiled in such conflict.

Israel, of course, has been under threat since it was set up in 1948. The issue since then has been not its borders, but its existence. In 1948—1947, to be more precise—the United Nations made one of a number of offers of a state to the Palestinians. However, Arab states invaded the new state of Israel and rejected the concept of a Palestinian state at that time.

Much discussion centres around the significance of Israeli settlements. The origins of that settling movement were in the 1967 defensive war, when Israel, whose existence was threatened by all its neighbours, went to war, won that war, survived and as a result ended up occupying lands beyond the boundaries that it had had before. I do not want to go into any long, historical debate, but it is significant for everyone to remember that at the Khartoum conference after the ’67 war the Arab states came together and uttered the “three nos”—no peace, no recognition, no negotiation. It was after that that the settler movement went forward so that we are in today’s situation.

That interpretation of settlements is, of course, valid only for people who accept the existence of a state of Israel, and look at settlements as land occupied as a result of war, which was then not negotiated on. The people who do not think Israel should exist at all use the word “settlements” in a rather different way when they talk about Israel as being occupied Palestine. When I listen carefully to people who criticise the state of Israel, it is sometimes clear, sometimes less so, on what basis they are speaking.

We are told that the current major impediment to peace is the existence of the Israeli settlements. The obvious question that must be raised when they are described in that way—not as undesirable but as the major, or only, obstacle to peace—is why Israel’s forcible withdrawal of 8,000 settlers, and its soldiers, from Gaza in 2005 was followed not by peace in Gaza but by the election of Hamas, which declared that it would fight for ever to get rid of all the state of Israel, and by the continuation of rockets being fired from Gaza to Israel—to Sderot and other places.

Hamas has a charter that is blatantly anti-Semitic and talks about Jews ruling the world and being responsible for the Russian and French revolutions—events that I seem to remember took place before the state of Israel was set up. Of course, Hamas was and still is supported and armed by Iran, which also armed Hezbollah in Lebanon and has been moving missiles and arms to Hezbollah there in recent weeks. The forcible removal of 8,000 Israeli settlers from Gaza by the Israeli army

did not result in peace at all, so the settlements are not the only obstacle to peace. I support what the Israeli Government of the time did. It was the right thing to do, but it is clear that settlements are not the sole obstacle to peace.

Peace—recognition of the rights of Palestinians and Israelis in two states—can come about only through negotiations, and anyone who wants that end knows that negotiations must be about borders, the status of Jerusalem and refugees. A number of very detailed and protracted negotiations, involving international support, have taken place and come fairly close to resolving some of those difficult issues, but they have never quite been concluded.

Each side will have its explanation of who is at fault. Gilead Sher, a senior negotiator on the Israeli side who has worked extensively with Palestinians, and who to this day is working on the west bank persuading Israeli settlers to prepare to leave, has said clearly that a solution was never reached in the negotiations in which he was involved, because the Palestinians were not willing to signal an end to conflict. They could not or would not do it. That view was echoed by President Clinton who tried so hard to bring about a solution.

What is happening now, and what is there for the future? The past is relevant and important in this protracted and difficult conflict, but people must look to the future if a solution is to be found. In recent years, major progress has been made by the Palestinian Authority on the west bank, working with Tony Blair and the Quartet in developing the economy of the west bank and instruments of government for a future Palestinian state.

That work has been done effectively, but it is extremely disturbing that at this moment, as the Palestinian Authority is talking to Hamas about a unity agreement, the architect of those substantial improvements in security and in Palestine’s economy and autonomy, Prime Minister Fayyad, is being told that as a result of the unity negotiations he should go. There is intense pressure on him. Last week he was going; this week it is a little less clear. That is an ominous sign. The Palestinian who has worked to develop a Palestinian state and economy is now told by Hamas that his services are no longer required.

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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Labour)

I respect my hon. Friend’s strongly held views on these matters, but she has spent all her time talking about the Palestinians. As we heard from Opposition speakers, at the moment the Israeli state is demolishing houses, surrounding and crushing east Jerusalem, moving large numbers of people out of their homes and, it would appear, condoning an attempt to emasculate the Palestinian community in east Jerusalem. Surely she should talk about what the Israeli Government are doing, because they are obviously not aiding the peace process.

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Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside, Labour)

I certainly do not support every move of the current Israeli Government, but I have to remember that under previous Israeli Governments, whom I did support, it was the Palestinians who were the block to peace; whatever policies may be going on that people may disagree with, the fundamental point here is that it is the Palestinians who at this moment are refusing to go to the negotiating table and settle the conflict, when there is an opportunity to do so on the basis of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The only way forward is a return to negotiations on the basis of two states living in co-operation and peace. I hope supporters of all the parties involved will do their best to bring those negotiations forward, so that there can indeed be an agreement leading to a peaceful future.

3:27 pm
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Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton, Conservative)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and I thank John Woodcock for securing the debate.

Ever since the state of Israel was set up it has been under attack, and all of us in the Chamber can agree that there should be a state of Israel. We represent constituencies all over the country, but I suggest that someone who represented a constituency into which rockets were fired daily would want to take pretty strong action.

We all accept that there are faults on both sides. However, given the constant pressure from virtually all Israel’s neighbours, and the fact that the Iranians say that Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth, it is necessary to keep a strong, powerful Israeli Government, to try to contain what could happen. Iran is a huge threat not only to the Israelis but to the whole region. I suspect that many of its Arab neighbours are just as frightened of Iran as Israel is. That key matter will need to be sorted out in the future, but I will not go into it now.

It is right for us to have this debate, but we must deal with it in a commensurate manner. We must accept that Israel will retaliate when it is attacked. We may sometimes believe that it over-reacts, but if we were facing such attacks we would probably react in a similar way. In the end, the only way peace will break out in that part of the world is through prosperity and trade. While hostile acts take place, that will not happen. I know that the Israeli President is keen on creating greater trade in the region, but that is a huge problem with the security situation as it is.

We believe in a two-state solution, but that will be difficult to achieve if Hamas and other organisations will not come to the negotiating table. I ask our Ministers and Government not only to take a strong position in the region and to give Israel good advice when she needs it, but to make sure that they are fair in their dealings with Israel and the whole region and that there is a two-state solution and a state of Israel.

3:30 pm
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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

I will be brief, Mr Walker, so that the Front-Bench representatives have time to respond. I am grateful for this debate and hope that it will lead to a full day’s debate on the Floor of the main Chamber, because enormous issues are involved.

I have visited Palestine and Israel on many occasions and would characterise Palestinians as being under occupation, under siege or in exile. Having visited many Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, I have felt the sense of anger, hopelessness and depression that people who, along with their grandparents, parents

and now their own children—great-great grandchildren—have spent 60 years in refugee camps thirsting for the right to go home. They have been living in poverty, under oppression and with a sense that, for many generations, whole lives have been lived in limbo.

I recall meeting those who were removed from Palestine in 1948 and who went to the Gulf states and Iraq. They were eventually moved out of Iraq into Syria, and I met them languishing on the border between Iraq and Syria. Have a thought for how they feel, think and look at the world. Have a thought for the plight of the 1.5 million people in Gaza who are effectively in imprisonment and cannot travel to the west bank or Jerusalem. Some are elected parliamentarians who cannot go anywhere. Have a think about them and about what the situation does to the psyche of young people growing up in imprisonment, unable to do anything other than watch the world on TV and computer screens. That is the reality for many Palestinians.

Some talk blithely about the need for negotiations and for promoting a two-state solution, which is fine, but look at the criss-cross roads all over the west bank, and look at the settlements and at the water that has gone. I applaud what my hon. Friend John Woodcock has said about the need for an ecological approach to the River Jordan. We could start by not abstracting all the water from it, a practice that is leading to the Dead sea disappearing, literally, before our very eyes.

The march for Jerusalem will take place this month. The campaign is calling on the British Government to do a number of things and I would be grateful if the Minister said what support they can give it. The campaign wants to stop the systematic demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem; stop the building of illegal settlements and their structures; stop the granting of discriminatory and insecure residency rights to Palestinians and their arbitrary expulsion from that city; and stop the expulsion of many from Jerusalem. Homes in Silwan have been destroyed to make way for the city of David.

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Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, Labour)

Will my hon. Friend ask for those who are firing missiles into southern Israel to stop? His list will be incomplete if he does not put that part of the picture in place.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

I have never supported anybody who fires rockets at someone, but I ask my hon. Friend to get a sense of reality and to compare rockets with the 1,500 people who were killed during Operation Cast Lead, when F16 jets using phosphorous bombs killed innocent women and children. I am not in favour of rockets or bombing. We will achieve peace only if there is real recognition of the rights of and injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. That includes ending the settlement policy, ending the occupation of East Jerusalem, and ending the whole policy of the expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

Israel is a very rich and very powerful nuclear-armed state situated in a region where it is in a position to threaten any of its neighbours at any time. I suggest that the way forward in the region is to end the injustice suffered by the Palestinian people, end the occupation of the west bank and the imprisonment of the people of Gaza, and allow those who have been stuck in refugee camps for so long to return home.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

No, I will not.

Britain was involved in the original partition and in the Balfour declaration, so we have a duty to help promote peace. That means suggesting to Israel that leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council, running away from international institutions and opposing Palestinian membership of the UN are hardly an indication of a process of peace, or of recognition of or respect for international law. They are very much the opposite.

If Israel cannot abide by international law and if it continues to abuse human rights and imprison Palestinians, why is the European Union-Israel trade agreement carrying on as normal, as though there is nothing wrong? That agreement has a human rights clause and that clause should be respected. We should, therefore, enter negotiations and tell Israel that if it cannot abide by the trade agreement’s human rights clause, the agreement itself will be suspended.

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John Woodcock (Shadow Minister (Transport); Barrow and Furness, Labour)

rose —

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Charles Walker (Broxbourne, Conservative)

Order. I believe that Mr Corbyn has finished his speech. I call Mr Slaughter.

3:36 pm
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Andy Slaughter (Shadow Minister (Justice); Hammersmith, Labour)

Thank you, Mr Walker. In the few minutes that I have, I will first declare an interest. My entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests notes that I went to Egypt last March with the Council for European Palestinian Relations.

My hon. Friend John Woodcock has usefully introduced the debate and I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss the issue at greater length on the Floor of the House. The picture painted by my hon. Friend and Government Members, however, is not one that those of us who regularly visit Gaza, the west bank and Israeli Arabs in Israel would recognise. The actual picture is one of occupation.

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Andy Slaughter (Shadow Minister (Justice); Hammersmith, Labour)

I will give way once, and that will be it.

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Matthew Offord (Hendon, Conservative)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. When he went to Gaza, did he visit the Gaza city shopping centre, where many of the goods are provided by Israel at a much cheaper price than those coming through the tunnels from Egypt?

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Andy Slaughter (Shadow Minister (Justice); Hammersmith, Labour)

I am not sure that that is relevant; I wish I had not given way.

The Palestinian people experience occupation, persecution and discrimination. I wish that some of the rights that Israelis give to their own citizens—some hon. Members have rightly mentioned them—were also provided for the Palestinian people. When considering this issue, the judgment of some hon. Members seems to lapse in a way that it would not in relation to other issues.

My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn has given the example of Operation Cast Lead, in which 1,500 people, the majority of them civilians—many of them women and children—were massacred by bombardment from sea, land and air. I visited Gaza two to three weeks after that happened and saw the devastation that it wrought.

Over the 20 years since Oslo, the number of settlements has doubled from 250,000 to 500,000, irrespective of how the Palestinians were negotiating or of which parties were in government.

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Anne McGuire (Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions); Stirling, Labour)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

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Andy Slaughter (Shadow Minister (Justice); Hammersmith, Labour)

No, I will not give way again.

Israel is portrayed as the victim when it is, in fact, a regional superpower, a nuclear-armed state and, above all, an occupying power. It is a power that has occupied a people for longer than anywhere else in the world.

The Minister did not have a chance to answer a question that I asked him during last night’s debate in the House on Jerusalem, so I will ask it again. What stance will the Government take when the Palestinians go to the United Nations, again, in April for recognition? Could the British Government please take a different attitude?

We cannot expect the Palestinians to negotiate while settlements are being built at their current rate. On 18 December, the Israeli housing Minister announced that another 1,000 new settler homes would be built in East Jerusalem. That was a punitive response to Palestine’s admission to UNESCO. How can there be any basis for negotiation when settler violence has gone up by 150% in two years; when Jerusalem is being ethnically cleansed; when there are 5,000 Palestinian prisoners—more than 300 of them in military detention; and when a report, published just last week, said that child prisoners were being tortured and ill-treated in Israeli prisons?

Those are the offences that have to be addressed. It is time that those who rightly support the state of Israel’s being able to live in peace and security, as we all do, opened their eyes to the crimes being committed against the Palestinian people on a daily basis throughout Gaza, the west bank and, indeed, in Israel. Until we have that—

3:40 pm
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Ian Lucas (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Wrexham, Labour)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Woodcock on securing this important and valuable debate. I wholeheartedly support the suggestion of my hon. Friend Richard Burden that we should have a longer debate.

As we have touched on in this brief debate, the question of Israel and the peace process has been of immense—possibly unique—importance as a political issue for 60 or 70 years and longer. We are, of course, in a very novel situation because of the democratic developments that have taken place in the middle east since the Arab spring. Although I accept that Israel-Palestine

is not the only political issue in the middle east, my discussions with new parliamentarians who will be engaged in the issue in countries such as Morocco and Tunisia have shown that it is very important to them. When I have spoken to them, they have asked for Britain to play its role in making progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. It is important to recognise that Britain has a role to play in this changed world.

At the moment, the situation in Israel is very fluid. Israeli elections are likely within the next year, and elections to the Palestinian Authority are also due. We know that negotiations are going on politically between Fatah and Hamas that will have a major impact on Israel and its perception of working with Palestinian representatives.

From the discussions that I have had, I am very aware of the importance of Iran in terms of the perceptions of Israel. When I speak to Israeli representatives both in Israel and here, I hear about the sense of insecurity that exists within the minds of Israelis in relation to that very important issue. I accept that Iran is not simply an issue for Israel. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in breach of agreements is an issue for the world and for the United Nations. That is an extremely important matter.

Of course, I have had the benefit of visiting Palestine and Israel on two separate occasions: first, in 2007, and secondly, last November in the company of my right hon. Friend Mr Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, when I was privileged to have discussions in not only Israel, but Ramallah. On that occasion, I was visiting as a guest of Labour Friends of Israel, and I intend to visit as a guest of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. I hope to visit places such as Gaza later this year.

I thank hon. Members who are here today and who have been engaged with the issue for many years. It is important that the breadth of view that we have heard expressed in the debate today is reflected in the positions that are adopted by the Opposition and by Her Majesty’s Government. Britain has an important role to play in the middle east peace process. We are respected. I do not know to whom Bob Blackman spoke, but Tony Blair is respected. I have had important disagreements with the former Prime Minister on middle east policy at different times, but I have spoken to representatives of both the Palestinian Authority and Israel who appreciate the work that Tony Blair continues to do in the region. It is unfortunate that that partisan point was made in what has been a good debate.

What struck me on my two visits to Israel was that there has been progress in the west bank between 2007 and 2011. Economic progress has taken place, which is welcome and is part of the process of Israel and the Palestinian authority being able to work together. That will change individuals’ lives. We touched on the issue relating to Northern Ireland, which sometimes casts a fog but sometimes sheds light on the middle east peace process. Unless people see that, individually, their lives will be changed by progress in the peace process, they will not buy into that process. There are areas where progress has been made.

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Anne McGuire (Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions); Stirling, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend recognise the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court to instruct the Government to clear the settlement area of Migron? That is one of the largest settlement areas in the west bank and it has very clearly been identified as land owned by the Palestinians. That decision was endorsed on Sunday.

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Ian Lucas (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Wrexham, Labour)

It is very important to recognise that Israel is a democracy and that it has an independent judiciary. We applaud those types of decisions and the fact that, within Israel, those decisions are being taken. However, pressures are coming from the Israeli Government. In the past year, they have talked about withdrawing funding from non-governmental organisations that do not support Israeli Government policy. That sort of thing does not help Israel, but the independent judiciary, to which my right hon. Friend refers, does. It is important that that is preserved. We have a situation in which some progress is being made, but that progress is not within the peace process at the present time. That is intensely frustrating.

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Ian Lucas (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Wrexham, Labour)

I am sorry, but I must make some progress. I apologise to my hon. Friend.

From my observations, the position of the peace process on the ground is intensely difficult. It is true that there had not been negotiations for a long time when I visited in November and that some meetings have occurred this year. We must, of course, welcome the fact that those meetings are taking place, but the settlements are a major barrier to any progress on securing peace. I should like to ask the Minister what efforts we are making to convey to the Israeli Government the importance of stopping settlement building. Unless that happens, the prospects for progress in the peace process are very limited.

I should also like to highlight the issue of UN recognition, because although the Labour party agrees with the Government position on many areas, we fundamentally disagree with their position to date on UN recognition. That is a matter of principle. If we really support a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, we should establish the relevant mechanism in the United Nations. It is very disappointing that the Government took the view that that was not the correct approach.

As no real negotiations were going on, should we not have made an approach to the United Nations, which is a multilateral and respected organisation that had a major role in the establishment of the state of Israel? The state of Israel was, of course, granted recognition in 1947 and 1948 by UN resolutions on which the United Kingdom abstained. Should we not have gone to the UN to try to secure progress? It seems extraordinary that, when progress was not being made, the UK Government were resistant to using multilateral agencies and the most important multilateral agency of all—the United Nations—to secure progress.

I have been privileged to meet some hugely impressive individuals: Dan Meridor, the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, who was in the Palace only last week, and Salam Fayyad, who has been mentioned. Anyone can do business with them and, most importantly, they can do business with each other. Those individuals are

clearly people who can bring and achieve peace in the right circumstances, with pressure brought to bear by the international community.

We all want to see progress in the middle east. It is one of the great political issues of our lifetimes. Progress can be achieved only through a two-state solution. We need to exert pressure from the international community to get the two parties to the negotiating table to seek a solution. If a solution is reached in the Israel-Palestine conflict, we will have a more secure and stable middle east, and an Arab spring that will bring wider democracy to us all.

3:50 pm
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Jeremy Browne (The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Taunton Deane, Liberal Democrat)

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to conclude this short but important debate, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate John Woodcock on securing this important debate. I strongly agree with him that Israel, certainly by the standards of the middle east, is a force for social progress. He lost me a little bit when he argued that socialism had proven to be the greatest international guarantor of religious freedom, but let us move on to wider issues that are specific to the debate.

Israel is an important ally of the UK and a valued friend. I am pleased to note that our bilateral trade increased by 34% last year. I am also pleased to note the continued high-level exchanges on issues of national security, including the current threats from Iran and Syria, and instability elsewhere in the region. We are also expanding our ties in the fields of science, education and cyber issues. These are signs of a strong relationship being made stronger yet between Israel and the UK.

Our relationship with Israel is crucial for our national security and prosperity objectives. However, just as we are building a strong partnership with Israel, we are continuing to enhance our relationship with the Palestinians. That is reflected in high-level visits, including by President Abbas to the UK in January, our flourishing education links, and in parliamentary and cultural exchanges, some of which we have heard about this afternoon. Our open relationship with both Israel and the Palestinians allows us to have frank discussions with both. We do not always agree with each other, but, by ensuring robust partnerships, we will be more able to find ways to address each other’s concerns. I agree with Ian Lucas: the UK is a voice that is heard loudly and clearly in this debate.

Hon. Members will be pleased to note that our recent changes to legislation on universal jurisdiction have been welcomed. We know the Israeli Government felt that this had previously been used inappropriately to target Israeli nationals. Where we identify such issues and can act on them, we will. We will continue to raise UK concerns strongly with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

This afternoon’s debate has demonstrated the high levels of interest, which rightly exist in the House, in the middle east peace process. The goal of the UK Government remains a two-state solution. We believe firmly that it should be based on 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps, incorporate a fair and realistic solution for refugees,

include security arrangements respecting Palestinian sovereignty and protecting Israeli security, and be based on Jerusalem as a joint capital for both states. We remain fully committed to this strategic goal.

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Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde, Labour)

I do not think that anyone would object to, or oppose, the statement the Minister has just made. Each one of those issues is so intractable that it prevents progress on any of the others. Is there any scope to try to make an intervention on just one of those issues—perhaps refugees or settlements—to at least push the peace process forward in a way that has not happened for quite a few years?

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Jeremy Browne (The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Taunton Deane, Liberal Democrat)

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. In the remaining time available, I will try to illustrate precisely how we are advancing those objectives.

We are clear that a solution cannot be imposed from outside. Our current priority remains bringing the parties back to negotiations. We believe that it is only through negotiation and agreement that a sustainable two-state solution can be achieved. The UK will continue to be one of the principal supporters of Palestinian state-building efforts, assisting them to tackle poverty, build institutions and boost their economy. We will also continue, however, to emphasise to all parties the importance we place on direct negotiations, without preconditions.

What we believe is most needed is not a push for Palestinian statehood within the UN or its specialised agencies—that could push Israel and the Palestinians further apart—but a renewed commitment to the peace process. That must involve a demonstration of political will and leadership from both sides to break the current impasse.

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Jeremy Browne (The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Taunton Deane, Liberal Democrat)

No, because lots of hon. Members have made contributions and I wish to try to respond to all of them if I can.

We remain deeply concerned by ongoing settlement activity, an issue raised by many hon. Members. Settlements are illegal under international law, and in direct contravention of Israel’s commitments under the Quartet road map. They make a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, physically harder to achieve. This is made worse by the Israeli Government’s policy of connecting settlements to already stretched water supplies, and of restricting Palestinian movement and access in the occupied territories, including establishing a secondary road system to separate Palestinian and Israeli traffic. The Government have consistently called on Israel to halt all settlement activity and to reverse its recent announcements about expanding existing settlements.

We urge all sides to exercise restraint and avoid civilian casualties. It is unacceptable that Palestinian militant groups continue to threaten ordinary Israeli citizens—a point powerfully made by many contributors to our deliberations. It is also unacceptable that Israel continues to launch strikes that affect, and on occasions kill, ordinary Palestinians. We remain concerned by conditions in Gaza. It is deeply troubling that Gaza, which should have a thriving economy, is currently one of the highest per capita recipients of aid funding in the world. We will continue to press the Israeli Government

to ease the movement and access restrictions that make life so difficult for the people of Gaza and are doing ongoing damage to its economy. Such restrictions do not help the peace process.

The UK has been providing valuable support to Palestinians through our programmes. In Gaza and the west bank, we help to support 5,700 children through primary school, and immunise 2,000 children under five against measles. This type of work—there is much more I could put before the House—is vital to the Palestinian people and helps to keep the prospects of a two-state solution alive, and we will continue to do it.

We continue to follow developments on Palestinian reconciliation closely, including recent meetings between Hamas and Fatah officials. We have been clear that any new Palestinian authority, including any technocratic Government formed to prepare for elections, must be: composed of figures committed to the principles set by President Abbas in Cairo in May 2011; uphold the principle of non-violence; be committed to a negotiated two-state solution; and accept previous agreements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. We will judge any future Palestinian Government by its actions and its readiness to work for peace.

In the context of the dramatic changes in the wider middle east, we continue to encourage all groups to espouse the principle of non-violence and to join mainstream democratic politics, thereby contributing to peace and stability in the region. Hon. Members have spoken about the significance to Israel, and to the peace process, of changes in the wider middle east in the past year or so. The encouraging aspects of the Arab spring highlight the enormous benefits that could follow for Israelis and for Palestinians, and for the region as a whole, were lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians achieved. The opportunity to conclude an agreement based on a two-state solution that is acceptable and beneficial to all parties will not exist indefinitely. It is of the utmost importance to all parties that this chance is taken while it exists. As a result, the UK Government recognise that there is a degree of urgency involved in the process.

I assure hon. Members from all parts of the House that the UK remains fully committed to developing our partnerships with both Israel and the Palestinians. We will continue to work tirelessly in support of the effort to achieve a long-term, durable solution to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long as we judge that a two-state solution remains obtainable, we will do all we can to encourage all parties to obtain it. That remains our objective. I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate, and the wide interest shown in this vital issue of our times.