Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:10 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 5:10 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for the way in which she introduced this debate. Like her, I was able to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and some surrounding places early last month. The atmosphere was quite tense, with Israelis suffering fear as a result of random suicide attacks, while Palestinians tended towards despair as a result of military occupation and attendant humiliations. Both fear and despair all too easily lead to more violence. Both sides also see themselves as victims—of terrorism and hostile neighbours, on the one hand, and of military force and great injustice on the other.

Despite this gloomy situation, a strong will for dialogue and effective negotiations exists. Evidence for this lies in the Ayalon-Nusseibeh agreed principles, the Geneva accord and the work, at senior professional level, of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, known as IPCRI. Let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, that IPCRI has done, and is doing, excellent work on cleaning up educational material and removing from it what one might call sectarian prejudice.

From these positive and negative experiences which greet any visitor to the region, can one give advice to outsiders? I believe that the message to Europe and the United States should be, "Do not allow yourselves to become polarised in favour of one side or the other. Do not be swayed by the politics of the latest atrocity. Devote your whole energy to working for peace through a two-state solution".

What can we do in our own right? I suggest, above all, that we should be realistic, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Hannay. There is disillusionment caused by the failure of the Oslo agreement and the sense that all dialogue since 1993 has proved fruitless. Further disillusionment arises from the derailing of the road map. Both these were essentially top-down plans and both ignored the religious dimension. I therefore follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry in suggesting that we have to take religion very seriously as the motivating force of some of the most extreme people.

We should support the Alexandria declaration by religious leaders in the region and the follow-up work now being done. It is vital to agree on the common values of the three great monotheistic faiths. Religious harmony on the future of the holy places would be an enormous help. Religious principles for handling the intractable issue of refugees would be a boon. Religious mourning, even, with commemoration and repentance for the many atrocities on both sides, would pave the way towards peace.

Realism also prompts us to understand how the political leadership on both sides is widely distrusted. It demands that we accept the difficulties caused by the American presidential election this year. Despite these factors, the issues will not go away—neither the Israel-Palestine conflict nor the wider questions surrounding Israel and the neighbouring Arab states. We should therefore do our best to keep these issues at the top of the agenda for the European Union, the G8, the Arab League and the United Nations, if only because the Middle East is capable of unsettling the whole world.

Realism indicates that 2004 is unlikely to be the year for big negotiations or big agreements. It should be used to improve the situation in small ways. Now is the time for conflict management and for seeking detente. We should learn from the methods used to end the Cold War, looking closely also at the relations between Israel and Syria after 1974, and between Jordan and Israel in the years leading to 1994. Co-operation between all parties is most urgent on security and intelligence, leading, if possible, to truces and ceasefires. Co-operation can be informal, asymmetrical, but reciprocal. This can lead to a lowering of the risks and to informal "rules of the game" emerging. Confidence-building over practical matters is essential. Tripartite working parties have already had some success. Verification and monitoring are most likely to be needed. Analytical problem-solving workshops, independently facilitated, may prove useful, perhaps at the level of presidential advisers.

I conclude with some thoughts on the European Union. I agree somewhat with the noble Baroness, Lady Northover—the European Union should develop its common policy towards the middle eastern states in as much detail as possible. This should build on economic strength both in terms of trade and of aid. We should use every possible instrument to promote detente and co-operation. To give one small example, the ERASMUS programme for students and scholars should be extended to both Israelis and Palestinians, including those living outside the West Bank and Gaza.

The common approach of the EU needs to be explained to the people of Europe. How, otherwise, can they know what it is? There are already links between many NGOs in Europe and the Middle East. There is endless scope, therefore, for developing such connections for the benefit of all. With clear exposition of policy, many individuals can become involved and begin to have a helpful role.

History is highly relevant in relation to the present impasse. I therefore venture to suggest that leaders, both at the European Union level and in its member states, should begin to acknowledge, in public, that we have all had a certain historical moral responsibility for allowing Hitler's genocide to happen. This had lamentable consequences in Israel's expulsion of part of the Palestinian population and its subsequent move into the occupied territories. I say this not to inspire feelings of guilt but to encourage the taking of responsibility for the present, so as to help produce a just and peaceful future. The European Union can make a big contribution, and we all have our parts to play.