Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour 3:51 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I am delighted to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. They have injected into the debate not only passion but common sense, two essential ingredients if we are ultimately—and I stress "ultimately"—to see peace in that area.

The noble Baroness spoke of the tragedy of the Middle East and I share her view—I think it is a tragedy. When Israel was formed, and despite the incursions of various Arab states, the atmosphere was very optimistic. There was a sublime idea that, somehow, Israel could offer the world an example. I think that, basically, that is still true. She spoke also of her right to be critical of the leaders of Israel, and to some extent I share that view as well. Perhaps we can also agree that the present leaders of Israel are not wholly wrong. Ultimately, however, I endorse the opinion of Shimon Peres, who spoke movingly the other day about Israel's mission, a mission which I wholly support.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, spoke of his optimism. I share that view, too. In the long term, however, we have to be patient. It will not happen by next June. It may take several years before the situation in the Middle East settles down. As the noble Lord rightly emphasised, however, the situation is by no means confined to Israel. If Israel did not exist, the avarice of some Arab leaders would not, in my view, disappear. Barbarism would simply be transferred to other countries and other places. Saddam Hussein was, sadly, not unique. I can recall going to Saudi Arabia in 1996. In Riyadh, the first thing I was shown—shown with pride—was the execution locations. I was absolutely horrified and my hosts were gratified by what they were able to show. That is all too common among some tyrannical Arab leaders today.

Although I have reason to doubt the purposes stipulated for the invasion of Iraq—a view which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, advanced today—the removal of Saddam Hussein has been beneficial for the people of Iraq and the people of the whole world. Iraq is a much better place without him. But why, oh why, do we have to pretend about the weapons of mass destruction that the Iraqis are supposed to have had? In my view it is an absolute irrelevance.

I believe that a durable peace will ultimately be possible in that area, but I doubt whether it is advisable to pretend that it can be achieved by the end of June or in July of this year. As I said, I think that it will take many years. It follows, therefore, that Iraq must be given time in which to settle down. Although I think that immense difficulties will confront that country, I share the noble Lord's ultimate optimism about it. The welfare of that country and its people must now be given precedence over the convenience of the United States and other occupying countries. The election in the United States must take second place to that.

Regrettably, however, the situation in the Middle East is far more volatile than it has been for some 50 years—the assassination of Sheik Yassin, Hamas's attacks on defenceless Israeli men, women and children, the Israeli assaults on Gaza and other outposts occupied by Palestinian Arabs—it goes on and on and on. Will there be an end to this dire escalation of violence?

I believe firmly in a Jewish state—a state which embodies all the democratic values for which the founders of Israel stood and fought. They were compelled to fight to exist, and exist they certainly did. Over several years, Hamas has refused to come to terms with this unalterable fact. In my view it still does. Its former leader, Sheik Yassin, vowed its destruction. He was not simply a spiritual leader, as some would suppose. He was far removed from being a benign figure in a wheelchair. He believed in the destruction of the state of Israel. He supported the idea of suicide bombing to achieve that. He opposed vitriolically any possibility of agreement between the two sides. That was the nature of the man. Nevertheless, I wholly oppose his assassination, on two essential grounds. First, it was inimical to the long-term viability of a democratic Israel. Secondly, it would have been more likely, if he had died from natural causes, that his supporters would not be able to pretend that he was a so-called martyr.

I do not think that Sharon's potential political demise, followed by the possible election of Benjamin Netanyahu, would represent a real improvement. Both support the barrier. I think, like several Likud ministers, that it is the antithesis of a durable peace. That is also the view of the majority supporting settlement evacuation who, tellingly, have also pointed out that this appeared to be consonant with Sharon's own plans.

I do not conceal from the House that Israel and the Palestinians face turbulent times. It is idle to think that Israel should turn the other cheek when confronted by vicious assaults from Hamas. Would we, if faced by a similar situation? We certainly did not when faced by the murderous ambitions of Al'Qaeda. After all, Israel cannot ignore its own electorate any more than we can. But it is one thing to repel attacks, another to behave proportionately and have a more positive response than sheer violence. That is the stance of the Israeli Labour Party, Shenui, Arab parties and all those who support the view that, ultimately, it is in the interest of Israel to have a lasting peace.

Unfortunately, that will not happen rapidly. It is vital that, somehow or other, Palestinians must be identified who are prepared and disposed to negotiate. That is a condition precedent for any advance. I do not accept the doctrine, promulgated by some in the Israeli Government, of being able to eliminate violence first and speak later. Dialogue with moderate Arab Palestinians is an absolute prerequisite. It is essential to give them a distinct role. It may be difficult to do it at the present time but, ultimately, it has to be done.

Israel's position needs to be more widely understood, not least by the European Union. Trade between the expanded European Union and Israel is vital, especially if we are to witness peace in that area. Ultimately, it is better to talk than to engage in bloody war.