Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:09 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Weidenfeld Lord Weidenfeld Crossbench 6:09 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for an opportunity for plain talk—plain talk about the Middle East. The catastrophe of these events on the Israeli-Palestinian front no longer brooks evasion and half truths. Cobwebs of cliches and stereotypes must be removed. After listening to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I submit, more convinced than ever, that the constant demonising of Israel, the Israeli Government and General Sharon—and the very view that there is a moral equivalence between barbaric terrorist attacks of suicide bombers and self-protective actions of retaliation—is not only unfair, it is also injudicious and unhelpful. It is unhelpful if you want the Israeli electorate overwhelmingly to press for negotiations and make major sacrifices.

Let us take the reaction to the killing of Sheikh Yassin. If British Intelligence and Czech resistance could justly earn their laurels for killing Reinhardt Heydrich, the Gestapo leader; if Special British Forces, commandos and SAS in successive wars can be justly praised for their lethal sorties behind enemy lines; if Prime Minister Blair and President Bush can urge their forces to get Saddam and bin Laden alive or dead, why are the people of Israel denied their basic right of self-defence? Yassin was the plotter and planner of a thousand deaths of men, women and children—Jewish and Arab children; Arab children, whom he sent into voluntary death, and Arab women. On 14 January this year Yassin issued a decree that entreated women to join the menfolk and become suicide martyrs.

I assure your Lordships that I have no doubt that there are many cases of gross injustice and utter folly committed by successive Israeli governments, but I submit to you the words of Chaim Weizmann, that moderate and wise first President of Israel, when addressing a British Royal Commission in 1935. He said:

"The Jewish/Arab conflict is not a conflict between a right and wrong but between two rights and two wrongs. However", he continued,

"ours is the smaller wrong".

These words have stood the test of time and are valid right up to the present.

The other day a leading Palestinian said to me in a private conversation that every time an Israeli describes the West Bank as Judea in Samaria any self-respecting Palestinian winces and clenches his fist. I fully understand his feelings, but what muscular motion or body language should express the feeling of an Israeli or indeed a Jew, who searches in vain for any Arab school atlas or wall map with any sign of the existence of the State of Israel?

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has come away with very distressing images of Palestinian suffering in Gaza as a result of the unending Jewish occupation. By focusing on effect we tend to neglect the cause of the tragedy and the course of history. The continuing occupation is the result of the continuing intifada, and not the other way round.

The Camp David and Taba discussions, and the resulting outline agreement, were supported by 80 per cent of the Israeli electorate, yet they were brought to nought by Arafat and not by Barak. Unless you call liars and cheats President Clinton, Ehud Barak and the majority of all those present, this is the very truth. That the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are a major, terrible road block to peace is clear, but they can, to a meaningful extent, be removed through negotiation—as they were after the peace with Egypt. And it was the much abused Ariel Sharon who, with settlers kicking and screaming, dismantled the settlements.

Terror existed before the first settler set foot in the West Bank. Before 1967 the terrorists were known as Fedayeen.

The mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians while Arafat is in power excludes in my view any real prospect of serious negotiation. Why do I mention only Arafat and not Sharon? Because, while Israel is a democratic society and the electorate responds to terror with unshakeable solidarity, it would equally respond to real, confidence-building initiatives on the Arab side by a moderate Palestinian leader supported by the majority of the Arab world. So far, confidence-building gestures from the Israeli side, such as the withdrawal from Lebanon, have been interpreted as weakness and have only put more heart into the intifada.

The United States must soon revive with full vigour the negotiations prescribed by the road map. Europe, Russia and the UN must follow suit, but let Europe speak openly and gravely to Arabs as well as to Israelis; let it not simply see itself as a counterweight to an allegedly wholly pro-Israeli America but weigh honestly charge and counter-charge without bias and bile. That applies particularly to the media in Europe and this country. The story of an all-powerful Jewish lobby in the United States is a popular myth, or at least a very simplistic concept. The support for Israel in the United States, where I have been recently and visit constantly, is deeply embedded in the public and by no means confined to Christian fundamentalists and the much derided neo-conservatives. Throughout the USA, in the middle west, the south and on the east coast, sympathy for Israel and the rejection of Palestinian terror is much in evidence. Paradoxically, the most potent critics of the Israeli case are the media controlled by Jewish shareholders. In America there are lobbies of every kind and description as part of the political system. Arab Americans are financially very potent and politically very influential; American think tanks and academic centres of Middle East Studies are awash with Saudi money, not to speak of the numerous religious centres which propagate the Wahhabite sect of the Islamic faith.

The defection of Gaddafi's Libya from the circle of terror-supporting Arab regimes is a landmark of progress. Gaddafi's son, in a recent interview, firmly insisted on radical reform in the Arab world as the order of the day. The right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister should be congratulated on this diplomatic success. But when he speaks of the next steps in the war against terror, encouraging Middle East regimes to accelerate the progress of democracy, and when he throws a lifeline to those variously described as rogue states, failed countries, tyrannical dictatorships, he should not waver but ask for positive action before admitting new members to the club of respectable countries. He will soon be receiving the Foreign Minister of Syria, a country whose regime has hideous credentials and is a veritable dinosaur in the zoo of the tyrants.

Only a few days ago, one of Sheikh Yassin's disciples, who operates out of Damascus, spoke from there by telephone relayed by loudspeaker to the people of Nablus. He threatened death and apocalyptic revenge on the Jews. Syria's young dictator might or might not favour reform; he is in practice captive to the influence of his father's old vassals. Gaddafi's earlier misdeeds pale before the massacres committed by Assad the elder. America's presence in the neighbourhood caused Damascus to co-operate and to expel Iraqi extremists, but as soon as Bashir Assad scented an American reverse he returned to his old stance.

In a recent debate in your Lordships' House the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, referred to the brutal and systematic incitement of schoolchildren through textbooks and obscene films. Syria can and must be influenced. The intellectual class feels oppressed and is beginning to raise its voice against the Ba'athist regime, which still operates on an emergency law dating from March 1963. In the north of Syria the Kurds, long suppressed, are battling for their human and civil rights. When Her Majesty's Government see the Syrian envoy I hope that they will not mince words and insist on Syria expelling the terrorists from Damascus—which is not, as the Syrian Government contend, a mere address for their information services, but one of the headquarters of international terror. Syria must also give genuine guarantees that its army will one day leave Lebanon, a country which it has economically exploited and, through making the Bekaa valley a centre for the international drug trade, also morally perverted. If the Syrian Government do not comply, the United States must not be discouraged from applying sanctions against the Syrian regime.

And so here the circle closes: if Hamas and Hezbollah can be contained and disarmed and Israel's borders be secured, the work and prospects of the quartet would stand a much greater chance of success. They could then influence, indeed lean on, Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and reach a fair settlement on the basis of two states and a compromise on Jerusalem. But this presupposes a sense of purpose and iron will and a measure of unity between Europe and America, an aim for which no sacrifice is too great.

In conclusion, I appeal to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams—whose staunch and convincing defence of human values at one time influenced me to cross the Floor and join her new party—to pause and reflect that in the Israeli/Palestinian crisis settlements can be relocated, protective fences re-routed, but innocent civilians, women and children, who are purposely and systematically murdered or maimed, cannot be brought back to life.