Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:18 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 5:18 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, perhaps one ought to separate the rest of the Middle East from Israel and Palestine. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that some optimistic things are happening in the rest of the Middle East. Iran, despite all the setbacks that it has had recently, is evolving its own pastoral democracy. It may yet submit to good international practice about its nuclear programme and perhaps improve its record on human rights. Iraq, after the removal of Saddam Hussein, may—with patience and a lot of imagination—become a federation with lots of autonomy for different parts of Iraq.

With respect to what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, I do not know how far the Middle East extends, but I am also very cheered that Libya has now decided to give up its nuclear programme and submit itself to international routes. Those are causes for optimism, but when we look to the core of the problem, I am afraid that I am completely pessimistic. I do not believe that any of the road maps or extended road maps that are about to be proposed will solve the problem in the slightest. We shall still be discussing the Middle East problem—with regard to Israel and Palestine—in 10, or perhaps 15, years from now.

I say that because, like many noble Lords, I have taken part in lots of debates about this question, read lots of books and thought about both sides. There is so much justice and injustice on both sides that it is hard to see where the virtue lies and where the problem is. It is possible to fear for the existence of Israel, given the history of previous Arab attacks and the recent spate of terrorism; but it is also possible to criticise Israel for its behaviour towards Palestinians within the Occupied Territories and elsewhere.

It is possible to understand the injustice done to Palestinians over their territory, and possible to understand why Muslims around the world feel that to be rank injustice—greater than any other injustice in the world. It may be a deeper cause of terrorism than any other that one can think of. At the same time, one can see the weakness of the Arafat regime, and the sort of terrorist tactics used by Fatah and Hamas are obviously not the way in which to solve the problem of Palestine. Indeed, I do not think that even moderate forces on both sides, such as they are, could possibly gather together and make the slightest impact on a solution to the problem. Not only are extremists in charge but, on both sides, the more extreme forces are more in power than ever before.

While I respect the right of Israel to live and hope that it will prosper, it is possible to distinguish between Ariel Sharon and Israel. It is possible to say that Israel deserves a better government than the one that it has; perhaps if it did have a better government, the prospect of peace would be better. It is possible to say that if Arafat was not the weakling that he is—if he had followed democratic practices and had a vibrant Palestinian national assembly—with a lot of local support, enough to be able to rule over terrorist forces and stop them, perhaps we would be better off. But that is not the situation. Indeed, the weakness of Arafat and all that has happened since 1999 has worsened the situation and made the terrorists more powerful. Given that that is the case—and either we are all to blame for it or none of us is to blame for it—it seems wildly optimistic to think that there is a solution to this problem that will be arrived at through negotiations. I say that because I do not actually believe that the two-state solution is a stable one.

The problem with the Israeli-Palestine situation is that some of the ideas on both sides are rooted in a land-obsessed nationalism, and there is not enough land to accommodate both Israeli and Palestinian demands. There just is not enough land—that is the end of the matter—especially when one considers the potential entrance to both those entities by Palestinian refugees abroad and the number of Jews who might want to settle in Israel, as is their right. I do not know how one can accommodate all those people in the amount of land that there is. While the notion of the state that each side wants is based on land, I do not know how one can reconcile the demands of both those peoples and hope that some reconciliation will take place. That has nothing to do with whether Israel should withdraw from occupied territories, whether a wall should be built or any of those things. The problem is that a rather old-fashioned 19th-century nationalism is now playing out its final tragedy in the Middle East.

This was the case in Europe, once upon a time, and millions died for Alsace and Lorraine. Now those places are completely irrelevant, and nobody knows where the border of France begins and the border of Germany ends. However, that took 90 years of war before it was settled. The key that Europe found was that prosperity comes not from territory but from trade and economic growth. Once one begins to believe in the possibility that one can have a win-win solution through trade and economic growth, one can stop being obsessed about land. We are nowhere near that situation in the Middle East. Unfortunately that is the case—and we cannot actually start dreaming of some sort of economic union for Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and so on.

It is hardly something that any government can accept, but, given the current pressures that there are on both sides, from within and from without, I do not see how a solution can be arrived at. As has already been said, 2004 is not the right year to expect a solution, because of the American presidential elections. I do not know why we should believe that in 2005 and 2006 American presidential policy on Israel should improve in any way. I do not know why either Mr Kerry or Mr Bush, were he re-elected, should make any difference, given that Mr Bush was unable to make any difference after being in his most powerful position, having won the Iraq war. If, in that position, he could not move either side an inch from their positions, I do not know what should make us optimistic about a solution.

Just because there is a problem does not mean that there is a solution. I am increasingly beginning to think that if a solution to the problem arises it will not be because the US or EU or anybody in the outside world intervenes in the Israel-Palestine question. I am sorry to say this, but I believe that it will come when, eventually, after the exhaustion of continuous killing, both sides realise that if they do not live together they will not live apart. There is no other way except for an internal solution, without outside interference. When that will arrive, I do not know; but I certainly do not see it arriving within the next decade or so.