I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to promote the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace to support coexistence projects and civil society programmes;
and for connected purposes.
As the House knows, recent weeks have seen a flurry of activity on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a UN Security Council resolution; a major speech by the US Secretary of State John Kerry; and a further peace conference in Paris last weekend.
The barriers to a two-state solution are well known. As a strong friend of Israel, I admit freely, but with great regret, that these include the expansion of settlements on the west bank. Settlement building is wrong. It threatens the viability of a future Palestinian state—the case for which is unarguable. It does immense damage to Israel’s standing in the world, and, over time, it will put at risk that which is most precious about Israel’s character: its Jewish and democratic character.
However, as Secretary of State Kerry stated clearly, this is not to say
“that the settlements are the whole or even the primary cause of this conflict.”
There is also the incitement tolerated, and, in many cases, perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority. I am talking about the payment of “salaries” to those convicted of terrorist offences, and the naming of schools, streets and sports tournaments after so-called martyrs, thereby glorifying their violence. Then there is the greatest barrier of all: the rejectionist, anti-Semitic ideology of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, which denies Israel’s very right to exist, and the terrorism that inevitably flows from it.
My Bill today is not intended to downplay the importance of those barriers, although it will help to address some of the pernicious consequences arising from them. Instead, my Bill recognises that, as the example of Northern Ireland taught us, any peace process needs a political dimension, an economic dimension and a civil society dimension. Coexistence projects that bring together Israelis and Palestinians to advance the cause of mutual understanding, reconciliation and trust represent that civil society dimension. The world has paid it too little attention, investing only around £37 million a year in people-to-people projects for Israel and Palestine—that is less than £4 for each Israeli and Palestinian person each year.
Britain exemplifies this problem. From spending a pitiful £150,000 on coexistence projects in 2015-16, the Government, despite repeated warm words to the contrary, appear to have cut this funding altogether in the current financial year. I am pleased that the Secretary of State for International Development seems keen to right that wrong.
The absence of strong constituencies for peace in Israel and Palestine is one of the results. Polling by the Israeli Democracy Institute and the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research last summer underlined the scale of the problem. Although 59% of Israelis and 51% of Palestinians still support a two-state solution, these already slim majorities are fragile, threatened by fear and distrust between the two peoples. Thus 89% of Palestinians believe Israeli Jews are untrustworthy; a feeling that is reciprocated by 68% of the latter. At the same time, 65% of Israeli Jews fear Palestinians and 45% of Palestinians fear Israeli Jews.
We should not place our hopes in the optimism of the young. After all, this is the generation that has no memory of the optimism engendered by the Oslo accords, but whose formative years have instead been marked by suicide bombings, the second intifada and perpetual conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Even if the peace process were in better health, these would hardly be the most solid foundations on which to build a lasting peace. However, we should recall that the seeds for the Good Friday agreement were sown at a similarly inauspicious moment during the height of the troubles, when the International Fund for Ireland was created. Over the past 30 years, it has invested £714 million in grassroots coexistence work in Northern Ireland. In all, more than 5,800 projects have been supported since it was established to promote economic and social advance and to encourage contact, dialogue and reconciliation between nationalists and Unionists throughout Ireland. That investment has helped to provide the popular support that has helped to sustain the Good Friday agreement over nearly two decades.
With that example in mind, my Bill requires the Government to promote the establishment of the proposed international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. This has been designed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of more than 90 organisations building people-to-people co-operation and coexistence. The fund aims to leverage and increase public and private contributions worldwide, funding civil society projects and joint economic development that promote coexistence, peace and reconciliation. It is envisaged that the $200 million-per-year fund—four times the current level of international support for people-to-people work in Israel and Palestine—would receive contributions of approximately 25% each from the US, Europe, the rest of the international community including the Arab world, and the private sector. The fund is not, I should emphasise, intended to receive support that otherwise would be provided directly to either the Palestinian Authority or to Israel.
We know that the coexistence projects in Israel and Palestine work. After two decades, there is now a significant body of evidence, based on academic and governmental evaluations, indicating the impact that coexistence projects can have. That impact, moreover, has been achieved in the face of considerable challenges. According to the United States Agency for International Development, those participating in people-to-people programmes report higher levels of trust, higher levels of co-operation, more “conflict resolution values”, and less aggression and loneliness. Evaluation of individual programmes underlines that impact.
Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow—MEET—is a truly inspiring project that brings together young Israelis and Palestinians to learn about technology and entrepreneurship. It found a 60% increase in the number of students who value working with someone from the “other side” after just one year on the programme. The Parents Circle Families Forum, an organisation of more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost a family member in the conflict, found that 70% of all participants had increased trust and empathy and that 84% were motivated to participate in peacebuilding activities in their communities.
I would ask, too, whether the Department for International Development can point to anything in its current funding that has moved the conflict closer to resolution. If coexistence work is to be held to a standard that demands that it demonstrate how it helps solve the conflict, surely other strategies that have not by themselves moved the ball forward should be held to the same standard.
Support for a renewed effort to promote coexistence work is strong and growing. It crosses international boundaries and political parties. The Quartet’s most recent report recommended a focus on civil society work for the first time since its founding. The Vatican, Jewish organisations and politicians on both left and right in Israel have all raised their voices in support. On Capitol Hill, two US Congressmen—Jeff Fortenberry and Joe Crowley—have worked across party lines, introducing a Bill in support of the international fund in the best traditions of US global leadership.
In this House, 56 of my Labour colleagues signed an open letter to the Secretary of State for International Development last month endorsing the fund, and I am delighted today to have the support of Members from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. I am particularly pleased that Sir Eric Pickles, chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, is listed as one of the supporters of the Bill.
The late Shimon Peres, one of Israel’s founding fathers and most indefatigable peacemakers, once said:
“The way to make peace is not through governments. It is through people.”
He knew that, even in the most challenging of times, we must never give up on the search for peace. By supporting my Bill, the House can underline its support for that search.
Question put and agreed to.
That Joan Ryan, Ian Austin, Mrs Louise Ellman, Stephen Kinnock, Catherine McKinnell, Stephen Twigg, Chris Davies, Sir Eric Pickles, Will Quince, Paul Scully, Craig Tracey and Mr Alistair Carmichael present the Bill.
Joan Ryan accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on