Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:03 pm on 22nd January 2008.

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Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 9:03 pm, 22nd January 2008

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for bringing about this debate tonight. We are all in his debt for doing so, and for allowing us the opportunity to have this discussion. The noble Lord played a distinguished role in the peace process in Northern Ireland as leader of the Alliance Party, as one of the negotiators involved in the Good Friday agreement, as Speaker in the Northern Ireland Assembly and recently in his work for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. He should know that in Grand Committee this afternoon in this House, Members of all parties paid tribute to the work of that commission and the progress it has made. He speaks with considerable authority and experience on these matters.

He has acknowledged that some of his views on the development of peace processes have changed. This evening, as on other recent occasions, he has made it clear that he is committed to the concept of the inclusion of the extremes as a necessary prerequisite. I think he would agree that this was not his starting point on these matters, but it is now his current position. There is no doubt at all, as I said, that he speaks with considerable knowledge of what has happened in Northern Ireland. I hope he will forgive me for also saying that he is perhaps influenced to a degree by his training as a psychiatrist in the ways he thinks about issues of human hurt and healing. If you take the Northern Ireland settlement as an example of community psychotherapy as it now operates, you can see that the noble Lord's work and training have not been in vain.

It is therefore with some reluctance that I question at least some of the assumptions that lie behind the noble Lord's argument today about the applicability of the Northern Ireland model to the Middle East. It is true that since Annapolis a kind of conference table has been constructed, even if it is not exactly along the lines that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, would like to see. The broad principles which underlie the approach of the quartet were summarised a long time ago, in the Rose Garden, by President Bush. Flanked by, among others, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, who is not as loved on the Liberal Democrat Benches as much as he might be, the president said:

"It is untenable for Israeli citizens to live in terror. It is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation. And the current situation offers no prospect that life will improve. Israeli citizens will continue to be victimised by terrorists, and so Israel will continue to defend herself ... My vision is two states, living side by side in peace and security ... The Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement negotiated between the parties, based on UN resolutions 242 and 338, with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognised borders".

That scenario imposes heavy costs on Israel. But it is also clear that in President Bush's mind there was no place in this dialogue for parties which continue to use terror and deny the right of the Israeli state to survive. That is the broad context in which we are moving forward. Those remarks were made in June 2002 and, five and a half years on, in terms of the definition of the tragedy of the situation, they were fairly accurate.

Members of the House will be aware of the remarkable think tank associated with the name of Mr Peter Hain, the former Northern Ireland Secretary and now Works and Pensions Secretary. We were impressed that it had not produced any pamphlets, lectures and so on, but that can be misleading because it has made us forget that Mr Hain, as Northern Ireland Secretary, produced one major lecture at Chatham House, which I was fortunate to hear, in which he outlined his vision of the lessons of Northern Ireland for the Middle East and elsewhere. His argument there—which has, to a degree, been argued by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, today—was that the key thing in the Northern Ireland process was the avoidance of preconditions and that, for example, to say that Israel's right to exist must be accepted may be not an enabling precondition for the Middle East peace process.

That is not my view of what happened in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. In effect, all the parties were told in political terms, "You can have whatever settlement you want as long as you accept the principle of consent, power sharing plus an Irish dimension". It was Henry Fordism in politics; that is what they were all told. It is true that preconditions as regards arms being handed over were flouted, but on the broad political structures both the British and Irish Governments made it absolutely clear that there were very firm preconditions. Indeed, it was very interesting that Mr Hain, in answering questions, respected this difficulty in the way he dealt with the matter in discussions at Chatham House on that day.

The media today stress the lack of optimism of both Israelis and Palestinians about the Annapolis process. In fact, this lack of optimism is not a particularly significant indicator of the prospects of success one way or the other. Both peoples have long and bitter experience of the other. The citizens of Gaza who are suffering because of Israel's decision to close the local power station can hardly be expected to like it. The people of Israel recall that Israel left Gaza in 2005 and since then Gaza has been used not as a platform for democratic and economic Palestinian uplift but for attacks on Israel. Since then, more than 1,000 rockets have been fired into their state.

What matters is something else. Most Israelis have for a long time, according to polls, been in favour of an historic compromise. The most recent polls, which I read at the weekend, showed that 71 per cent of Palestinians, too, want their leaders to seek a peace settlement with Israel. Interestingly, for what it is worth, the same polls showed a drop in confidence in Hamas. These are difficult matters. All of us who are familiar with Northern Ireland know that these polls can be misleading but, none the less, they represent a comparison of like with like within the same polling organisation over a period of time.

In the end, everything here depends on the role of political elites. It is not true, as it is often sentimentally said of Northern Ireland, that the people were ahead of the politicians; it was the political elites that drove the process and surprised the people by achieving a result. Achieving a settlement in the Middle East will be a far more difficult task than it was in Northern Ireland. In the past two months two remarkable books have been produced from within the Jewish tradition and the Palestinian tradition: Professor Ruth Wisse's Jews and Power and Professor Sari Nusseibeh's Once Upon A Country: A Palestinian Life. Both books are written with profound and deep culture and historical imagination, yet the differences between both writers on fundamental points of politics and religion are greater than the differences that existed in Northern Ireland, if you take two books written by representative intellectuals of the two communities in the 1990s.

We have to respect how difficult this is going to be, given the generosity and wisdom of both those writers. Indeed, if we are to use an analogy from Ireland, it is more the Troubles of 1921-22 than those of the 1990s that are applicable. At that time the British state made a decision, in dealing with a revolutionary challenge, to make a deal with a more moderate faction and then at a later date allow the irreconcilables of that deal to come into the process; that is, if any Irish analogy applies in the first place.

In the time that remains for me, which is running out fast, I shall make some brief points about other differences that exist. One has already been alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—selfish strategic interest. The Middle East is awash with selfish strategic interest: Iraqi, Iranian, Chinese, Russian, American and so on. In Northern Ireland the precondition part of the agreement was dealt with when the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, declared in 1990 that Britain had no selfish strategic interest in Northern Ireland. The Irish state, for its part, eventually moved to remove its territorial claim from the constitution. Again, there is no comparison in the state of play within these movements. We now know that British intelligence had a very high level of penetration of the IRA and therefore knew a great deal about its level of war-weariness, in a way that no one knows about where Hamas and Hezbollah are to this day.

Then there is the level of hatred. Noble Lords may have listened at the weekend to the report on the BBC website of the words of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the goading, ghastly, horrific language that was used, about Hezbollah's possession of the body parts of Israeli soldiers. No IRA leader, no matter how cruel or solipsistic, would ever have used such language. It is a simple fact; that would have been beyond the pale. Again, it is an indication that we are dealing with deeper hatreds here, and we have to respect that. The noble Lords, Lord Kilclooney and Lord Maginnis, have just reached their 70th birthdays—people will know that they are very lucky to have done so because they survived assassination attempts—and they would say that no IRA leader would use such language.

I want to talk about the conflicts forum. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is a distinguished member of its advisory board. I have looked at some of Dr Assam Tamimi's texts. Dr Tamimi is controversial because some sections of the media have raised the issue of his views on suicide bombing, but I was more concerned about the general political tone: glee that earlier peace deals had failed, a sense of catastrophism and pleasure in the mounting catastrophe in the Middle East. That is really worrying. It is something the Israelis would find it difficult to cope with.

I understand and respect the good intentions behind the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. More than most people in this House, I know how much he has contributed to the peace process in Northern Ireland. However, inclusivity is not in itself a magical solution. It depends above all on the mood of the revolutionary movement you are dealing with. Is it war weary? Is it resigned, which was the case with the IRA in the 1990s, or is it maximalist, enthusiastic and increasingly bitter, which looks to be the case with Hamas and Hezbollah in the first decade of the 21st century? I regret that there is no sign that the resigned, war-weary mood that overtook the IRA in the 1990s is taking over Hezbollah and Hamas in the first decade of the 21st century.

Despite its great importance, we can at times overemphasise the Arab-Israeli dispute. We must remember also the work of the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, on the Arab Human Development Report when he was the UN. It stressed the general issues of economic failure in that region, some of which are not fundamental consequences of Israeli policy. That was very important work by the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, which also is worth placing in context. I thank again the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for giving us the chance to have this discussion this evening.