Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:19 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs 6:19 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, who I know has devoted a great deal of time to promoting better relations between the people of the three great faiths and to working for peace in the Middle East.

This debate has been of a consistently high quality. I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, only in being rather more pessimistic and in setting out the potential for the situation to deteriorate and the urgency of the need for more British and European engagement. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke of two intractable problems, but I would add a third. The whole question of the development of the Arab world, and the failure of Arab political, economic and social development—of which one or two people have spoken; such issues are raised in successive Arab Human Development Reports—is a third problem which may get worse.

The situation is not stable, with further deterioration possible not only in Iraq but also in Israel and Palestine. In Iraq we face the risk that some European governments may wobble in their commitment to what will necessarily be a painful and long-term engagement in rebuilding. The United States continues to resist full multilateral engagement, and Washington's illusions after the war that democratisation could be imposed remarkably quickly, remain in some sectors of the Bush administration. Clearly we are going to have to work in Iraq with a succession of imperfect regimes, as indeed post-Ottoman Turkey was a succession of imperfect regimes. We will not get a fully democratic Iraq, and that is something with which we will have to negotiate, deal and engage other Arab states in coping with.

On Israel/Palestine, the settlements continue to expand, as my noble friend Lady Williams remarked, and Palestinian infrastructure continues to be destroyed. Both sides are becoming increasingly embittered. One now has to ask whether a two-state solution remains possible. The Palestinian Authority scarcely exists any longer, and so the question of how one starts to negotiate a two-state solution becomes ever more difficult. Those of us who see ourselves as good friends of Israel worry about the deterioration in the quality of Israeli life, Israeli culture and Israeli democracy.

Then there is the problem of the development of the Arab world as a whole, about which the Bush administration wishes to launch a major initiative for the June G8 summit, which is another clock that is ticking. Rapid population increase; failures of economic development; deterioration in the quality of education about which the Arab Human Development Reports made some very sharp criticisms; the mixed record in terms of government-controlled media; and the fearful nature of so many regimes, mean that we have tremendous difficulties in coming to terms with how we encourage their slow progress towards more open societies.

The confused response of different Arab regimes to the Americans' first draft initiative demonstrated just how fearful they were. So did the collapse of the Arab League summit last weekend, which seems to me a very serious development. I was encouraged by the quality of the Alexandria document produced at a meeting two weeks earlier of a limited number of people from civil society organisations in those parts of the Arab world where it is possible for such organisations to operate. However, some of the questions posed in the Alexandria document about the encouragement of civil society across the Arab world were clearly more than many Arab regimes could stomach. There is rising anti-Americanism across the Arab world. There is a perception that the West is at war with Islam—something which could translate into reality if we are not careful.

There are conflicting rationales for not tackling all of these problems at once. We hear from Washington that we cannot tackle the Arab-Israeli peace process until democracy has been promoted across the Middle East. We hear that now in place of the old argument that we could not deal with Jerusalem until we had conquered Baghdad. The whole democratisation of the region is very much the flavour of the month in Washington, without a full understanding of just how long-term a project that is.

From Arab regimes, in turn, we hear that political and economic reform is not possible until there is a Middle East peace—a good excuse for kicking the difficult problems of modernisation to the side. But we have to move together on all of these fronts.

In that respect, current American policy and the current quality of the American debate is not helpful to those of us who wish to move forward constructively. Many of us are concerned about the fundamentalist undertones in the Washington debate. Several times a week, I receive from the Middle East Media Research Institute an e-mail report about the extremist language one hears in the Arab state-owned press—against the West and against Judaism, and so on. But I also receive from a number of American websites some pretty good examples of extremist anti-Islamic language used in the right-wing talk radio in the United States and in the think-tank community in Washington.

I read Charles Krauthammer's speech in January to the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute—one of the most influential institutes in the current Administration in Washington. Some of the language that he used was about what he called the "existential enemy"—which is,

"Islamic fundamentalism in both its secular and religious versions".

I am not quite sure what "secular Islamic fundamentalism" is, but he clearly believes that it is for the same thing. Had I been reading that from an Arab government's point of view, I think it would have persuaded me that I could not trust the Bush Administration on the greater Middle East initiative. That sort of extremist hard-line language, talking about a war between the West and Islam, is not one with which I would be comfortable. If I were advising an Arab government, I would certainly be extremely nervous about it.

There is a risk that Europe's secular societies will find themselves caught between contending fundamentalisms—three narrow and negative versions of three great religions, each claiming exclusive possession of the same sacred sites and Holy Land. We must be careful not to let the long-term struggle to combat Islamic terrorism deteriorate into a war against Islam. We hear in some parts of the West suggestions that we are engaged in a war against Islam. In this respect, I agree strongly with the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Skidelsky, that we have to look at ourselves and the problems that we went through in our states and societies during the painful process of modernisation, to recognise the difficulties which traditionalist Arab regimes now face.

We want the Arab states of the Middle East to go through the process, from traditionalism to open societies and democracy, without the sort or wars, expulsions of minorities and genocides of the fascist and communist regimes that European societies themselves went through. That is difficult, and we are asking them to go through it more quickly than we did.

As we criticise Islam, we have to recognise the history of our own religion—and I say this as a Protestant—including the witch hunts by the narrow Protestant sects in Britain, the Netherlands and the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries. We should recognise that the Roman Catholic Church regarded Catholicism as incompatible with democracy as recently as 60 years ago. The Spanish Roman Catholic Church really came to terms with democracy only 30 years ago. So suggestions that Islam is entirely different and incompatible with democracy slides over our own mixed history.

Many noble Lords have talked about Israel and Israeli responsibilities. I want to say one thing to those who have spoken passionately in support of Israel's current position. We are entitled to judge Israel by higher standards. That is precisely because—and I was brought up to believe this—Israel and the Jewish tradition is so much one of culture, civilisation and, recently, democracy. That means we must ask the Israeli Government to resolve the deliberate confusion about whether they want to occupy the entirety of Israel/Palestine. The expansion of the settlements, the expansion of the roads across the West Bank, the building of the wall where it is now, all look as if Israel wants to occupy the whole of Israel/Palestine west of the Jordan. I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, say that Israel should change the route of the wall. That is something we all now have to say loud and clear. A wall on the 1967 boundaries would be acceptable in a way that the current wall is not. The alternative—to face up to possibility that the two-state solution is no longer possible—is hardly thinkable: either the expulsion of the Palestinians, or a secular state in the long run, with a Palestinian majority.

So where do we go from here? What should we be doing? Many of us have welcomed Her Majesty's Government's engagement with Arab states across the region. We think it was right for the Prime Minister to go to Libya—not a very pleasant state, but we have to deal with states that are imperfect. It was similarly wise to engage with Syria, another extremely unpleasant state in many ways, but we have to try to encourage them where we can, as with engagement with Iran.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that the European Union as a whole needs to become more active on all fronts. We cannot safely leave the initiative to the United States, especially under this Administration. That means we need to revive the old European Union's Barcelona process, even with all the obstacles that process has faced. We should be putting more effort into encouraging education at all levels across the Arab word, perhaps with a new Euro/Arab university. We should be providing Arabic materials for the Internet, which all of the reports on the region say are most desperately needed. We should be promoting economic development as far as we can, and we should be making the difficult case that women's rights are essential for economic and social development. We have to revive the road map, through the United Nations, and to maintain our deep commitment as it moves forward. We have to recognise that, as it moves forward, the cost in terms of financial assistance—and potentially in terms of troops to police an interim settlement—would be very considerable. But conflict prevention is cheaper than state rebuilding, as we are now painfully discovering in Iraq.

I repeat: the situation is not stable. It has the potential to get worse rather than better. That is why we urge Her Majesty's Government to give this region the highest priority.