Israel — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:38 pm on 28th February 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Liberal Democrat 7:38 pm, 28th February 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government how they will work with the Government of the United States to ensure that Israel complies with United Nations resolutions and international law.

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this is again a very important moment to have a debate on this matter. I am grateful to the House for giving me the opportunity this evening.

Over the weekend it was good to see for once-unusually, and I suppose sadly-the unanimous decisions of the UN Security Council calling on Colonel Gaddafi to account for the abominable behaviour that he is wreaking on his own people. In contrast, how depressing it was to see-once again, and probably for the 42nd time-the previous weekend's United Nations Security Council session being ruined, even recklessly sabotaged, by another US veto concerning the Israel/Palestine issue. A seemingly unanimous decision in a moderately worded resolution asking Israel to obey its international law duties in occupied Palestine was deliberately-I am sad to use the verb-wrecked by the US. This time it caused universal resentment, even hatred, towards America among some of the other Security Council members. Some of them kept silent counsel, but they did so with great sadness.

Once again the US refused to condemn behaviour which even President Reagan repeatedly described as totally illegal: the continued colonisation of the West Bank and, of course, East Jerusalem. Once again the Arab street sees the double standards of the US. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and was quite rightly expelled after a year. The UN, quite rightly, did not hesitate then. Israel invaded the West Bank 44 years ago, but it is still there. I warmly congratulate the UK Government as well as the EU on their much more decisive stand in contrast to the still lingering, miserable and self-inflicted humiliation which is further eroding America's already tattered so-called leadership of the western world.

Indeed, Barack Obama made it even worse by allowing the long-suffering Department of State-and I have enormous sympathy for many of its senior officials dealing with this matter-to leak the sad news that he imposed the veto with a heavy heart. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, was even allowed to make some harsh comments on the illegal colonisation policy. Even the former Israeli consul-general in New York, Alon Pinkas, said that this should be the last-ever veto since Americans in general were sick and tired of the continuing charade carried out in their name. Even Israel military radio carried a reaction of disbelief.

The cynical use of the veto by America so blatantly and so often is a madness that must not continue. Furthermore, against the background of the momentous events now in surrounding Arab countries, where the essence of the people's democracy is rising up against tyranny and the abuse of power, we see just how monumental have been the mistakes made by the US and by us, too, the West as a whole, in the frenzied, relentless search for oil at any price-any political price and any price of freedom. The whole history of the West's presence in Arabia is indeed a saga of wretchedness and despair for ordinary citizens in most of these countries, much of that manifested now in the words used by the rioting crowds in the various squares in the various countries when they are interviewed by the media.

As in Latin America for so many years, we remember with pain that the US in particular has always preferred the brutal dictator regimes, as it does now in Arabia. Surely now is the time for the former imperial powers and the US to restore the balance of hope in this crucial area by following an ethical foreign policy, as well as by curbing arms sales and stopping support for unacceptable regimes, even Saudi Arabia with its corrupt royal dictatorship. Above all, now is the time for Israel, too, to show decency and wisdom at long last in its policy towards the cruelly treated Palestinians. Make no mistake, Israel is a country that I greatly admire, and I have done so for many years. I admire many of the people there. It is a great country. It has a great contribution to make in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, however, across the fence, we see Fatah struggling for the legitimacy that it lacks in the Arab street. That is one reason why it will not join in negotiations until Israel acknowledges its offences under international law and the Geneva conventions on the treatment of civilians and shows a complete change of heart. That is a responsibility that is as solemn for an occupying power as it is for a country that actually owns the territory legally. Can the present Israeli Government-who so sadly include a number of rather extremist members, though I will not mention any names tonight, and who have been such a disappointment-accept this reality at long last? I hope so. In doing so, they would be meeting the fervent wishes of millions of decent, fair-minded Israeli citizens who want peace and security and good relations with their Arab and Palestinian neighbours.

With the Palestinians seemingly prepared to accept that a two-state outcome will accord them a mere 23 per cent of the original combined mandate territory, there is no longer any rational reason for Israel to prevaricate even if aided by a totally incompetent American support stance. That will mean that the settlers have to leave the illegally occupied lands. Let us repeat that loud and clear. The Israeli Government can easily provide financial assistance for resettlement back in Israel proper. There is, for example, plenty of spare space if the Negev, too, is properly developed with infrastructure and modernised in the future. This process has not yet even begun to take place on a massive scale. While they are about it, surely the Israelis can modernise their hopelessly outdated election system and reduce the blackmail of the tiny extremist parties in the Knesset.

Yes, it will mean that the international community has to accept the inclusion of Hamas in any fundamental, realistic negotiations for peace. It is outrageous that it has been excluded when it is the main Palestinian political grouping capable of securing a genuine democratic majority. What a contrast to the Fatah president's desperate and lamentable efforts to secure street support, having already blatantly exceeded the mandate period. At long last elections are now in the offing, thanks to the pressure that he was facing, but it will be outrageous if the Palestinian Authority seeks to exclude Hamas from the West Bank election activity-or, indeed, per contra, if Hamas seeks to consolidate one-party rule in Gaza, which is surely just as unacceptable, preventing other parties there from having a say. Leading Palestinian political commentators of all groups were certainly too eager to express support for the dodgy dictators, some of whom have now been removed, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. We are also now observing the events in Yemen.

Any elections in the near term must restore the confidence of the street in the West Bank. They must help local voters feel that they are playing a full part in the wider Arab uprising which we are now excitedly witnessing. Huge problems are still being caused by the long-running American stupidity and carelessness in the Middle East. They will take time to sort out. Israel must show it can rise to the occasion at last. As William Hague stated on 14 February:

"We are calling for both sides to show the visionary boldness to return to talks and make genuine compromises ... the entire international community, including the United States, should now support 1967 borders as the basis for resumed negotiations. The result should be two states, with Jerusalem as the future capital of both".-[Hansard, Commons, 14/2/11; col. 716.]

After all the tears and madness of history, cannot the world work for the two friendly states, side by side, erasing the tragedy of Israel's failure to be magnanimous and generous after its spectacular 1967 victories? Then we could perhaps see a rewritten version of the Balfour declaration. Let me try this one to see if it is congenial: "As long as it is not to the detriment of the 62 year-old state of Israel, a renewed homeland will be created for the state of Palestine, a modern democratic and progressive republic, with financial assistance from the international community, the two neighbours respecting human rights and their reciprocal friendship, producing in due time the near east common market for the prosperity of all".

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Conservative 7:46 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Dykes for securing this timely debate and also for the way in which he has presented it. I believe that the only hope for the development of civilisation is to advance towards a society of states under a rules-based international order. The argument is that there is a community or society beyond the nation state of which we are all part and being part of that club comes with international rights and responsibilities.

The alternative to a rules-based international order is anarchy in which the powerful do as they will while the weak suffer as they must. That is the completely opposite end of the spectrum from which I am sure we all entered politics. We wanted justice to trump power and protect freedom and if anything have a bias to the weak and the oppressed. This too was the desire which led to the creation of the United Nations out of the carnage of World War II. Article 1 of the UN Charter says:

"To bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes".

Why is that relevant to this debate? Well it is relevant because we have voluntarily agreed along with 191 other nations to work for peace within a framework of law and non-violence. Why is that especially relevant to Israel? The state of Israel exists in international law only because the United Nations Special Committee of Palestine in 1947 proposed that it should be along with an Arab state of Palestine and because United Nations Resolution 181 said it existed in international law.

I would argue therefore that there is a special reason for the state of Israel to look benevolently upon the United Nations institution for it, more than any other nation or institution, has realised the aspirations of a Jewish national homeland and enshrined that in law. It therefore requires it to comply with its requests expressed through resolutions and work with the United Nations despite its manifold imperfections to bring about the creation of a viable Palestinian state as equal partners in an international society of nation states.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 7:49 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, on having so firmly introduced this debate today. I would just like to make two or three points. First, I think historically it is a major tragedy that we have seen the United States behave as it has at the United Nations in recent weeks. It is while the United States still has ascendency in the international community that it is so important for it to throw its weight behind the strengthening of international institutions and international law. That is in the interests of the future of the people of the United States because it will not always have that ascendency. It will then-too late, perhaps-realise the importance of having strong international institutions and the rule of international law.

Secondly, what is so sad about what the United States has done is that it is absolutely counterproductive to the security of Israel. It will not help the people of Israel. No one cares more than I do about the future of Israel; I have many friends in Israel. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bates, and the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, in introducing the debate, referred to the people of Israel letting down themselves. Many people in Israel want the debate in Israel to open up. They have a completely different perspective on the future. They see that the future of Israel, the strength of Israel and the safety of Israel lie in negotiated settlements and making peace with the people in the surrounding area.

If there is to be peace in the region, it is essential that negotiations are as inclusive as possible. That is where the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is so right again-he has done it before-to emphasise the importance of Hamas. At the moment, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy: we strengthen the extremist elements in Hamas. They are not all extremists in Hamas; we should be strengthening the more moderate elements and bringing them in to help move the negotiations forward.

Finally, let us just remember that when we talk about aggression and the threat of aggression, of course it is wrong to kill innocent Israelis. That cannot be condoned, but what about the bombardments of the so-called buffer zone within Gaza? What about the 52 innocent people killed within the buffer zone last year? What about the embargo and the damage that it has done to the health, well-being, industry and economic life of Gaza? Is that not aggression? From every standpoint, the American position has been disastrous.

I congratulate the British Government with one reservation. Having made such a courageous, firm and sensible stand at the UN, why on earth did the Prime Minister at this very juncture go with a group of arms salesmen to the Gulf, sending a completely contrary message to that which is inherent in everything that we are arguing about how peace and security need to be achieved? That was counterproductivity of the first order.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat 7:52 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I apologise to the House for my delay in attending the debate of my noble friend Lord Dykes. I was detained in my room momentarily.

It is nearly 18 years since the Oslo peace accords showed a ray of hope for a peace settlement; but 18 years later, we find ourselves at an impasse. The history of US involvement in recent times-we can go back to the Camp David accords, the Madrid conference, the Clinton parameters and Annapolis-should have yielded greater results than they have. Of course, it does not fall to the US alone to secure peace in our time in the Middle East, but recent US efforts have been particularly disappointing. We have had fine rhetoric since the inauguration of President Obama and the expression of lofty ideals, but we are no closer to a solution than at any time before Oslo.

If the US continues to be rebuffed in the manner that it is being rebuffed at the moment by the Israelis, the question is to be asked whether the will for peace exists between the Israelis and the Palestinians, because there will be a comprehensive peace only if both sides are prepared to sit down to sue for peace, irrespective of the position of other powers.

There is little to bring Israel to the table when it can create facts on the ground with impunity in its settlements, its separation wall and, above all, its electoral system, which allows for its most extreme elements to sit at the table. The Palestinians, too, have settled for a dual-track strategy: that of securing economic growth by Fatah in the West Bank, while Hamas seems to be torn between being, on the one hand, the Government in Gaza and, on the other, still playing the role of insurgent when it suits it. Fatah, we hear, will try to seek a unilateral declaration of independence, but that, while giving it legitimacy, will not give it back East Jerusalem or freedom for the Occupied Territories and will certainly not give the people who languish in the camps the right of return.

My noble friend Lord Dykes talked of the democratic trends in the Middle East. If there is one silver lining, it is that the Arab nations together, once they move to more democratic and legitimate frameworks, could secure Israel by normalising relations with Israel. That would be a significant step forward. The West should stand by to facilitate that through encouraging democracy and pluralism in those countries but, ultimately, the peace, such it will come, will have to be made between the two countries alone.

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 7:55 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for introducing the debate on this important subject. I start by declaring an interest as the incoming chairman of the Anglo-Israel Association and say that as someone who was a strong advocate in the early and mid-1990s of what became the Good Friday agreement solution in Northern Ireland, I am strongly committed to historic compromise as the means to overcome the tenacious problems of ethnic, religious and national political divides.

I want to concentrate on the issues surrounding the United States, the United Nations and our foreign policy in recent days. One point has to be made about the decision made by the American Administration in the lead-up to the recent United Nations vote: 110 congressmen wrote to the Administration to say, "Do not support this anti-Israel resolution". In the end, the Administration compromised. Critical points were made about Israeli policy. I say wryly and not with overwhelming pleasure after 30 years experience of the Irish question that 110 congressmen is 109 more than you need to countermand any dialogue between our Foreign Office and the State Department. We must respect profound political realities for any United States Administration.

On the United Nations decision, one point made by the American ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, seems to me of some substance. She argued that, had the United States not vetoed the resolution, it would merely have hardened opinion on both sides. More profoundly, it is clearly the view of the United States that the United Nations-its resolutions and its theatre-is not the context for the resolution of the Middle Eastern problem. That is the message that the United States is sending to us. We may not like it, but we have been sent that message very firmly.

The problem is seen more profoundly as one of land for peace and of convincing enough Israelis, in the aftermath of the disappointment that many Israelis feel about the consequences of withdrawal from Gaza, in both the political class and the population at large, that land for peace is a gamble that they can take on. That is the fundamental problem. It is not helped by one-sided denunciations of Israel and the failure thus far in the debate to acknowledge the consequences for many Israelis and the disappointment felt because of one risk that was taken: the withdrawal from Gaza. That is the reality with which we are now faced in this context. The United Nations and its resolutions are, in a sense, background music.

Photo of Lord Tugendhat Lord Tugendhat Conservative 7:59 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for launching this debate. The best reason for working closely with the United States in the past was that it always seemed to have the best chance of bringing about a just and peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Sadly, we now seem to have reached the point where that is no longer the case. Israel remains obdurate. The United States is unwilling to act as a candid friend. The result is the recent vote in the United Nations Security Council, in which the United States found itself isolated, as did the Israeli position of settlements and occupation. I hope that the United States will learn from this embarrassing debacle, which has separated it from almost all its closest friends and allies. It is still the best hope for securing a just resolution to the Israel-Palestine dispute.

However, we, and other countries who believe that Israel's current contra mundi defiance is against its own long-term interest as well as a danger to peace, should no longer wait on the United States. At this critical stage in the Middle East, when hope and fear are so finely balanced, we must be open and frank about our abhorrence of Israel's current settlements policy and the concomitant occupation that it involves. We should bear in mind the wise words of David Shulman, the Renee Lang professor of humanistic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, when he talks about,

"its relentless, daily, dehumanizing grind".

We must make clear the extent to which that policy diminishes our friendship for the Government-as distinct from the people-of Israel, with the practical consequences that must inevitably flow from this. It is very sad that we should be in this position. As the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and others have said, there are many in Israel who do not share the views of its Government. I pay particular tribute to those Israeli soldiers who recently produced the book, Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldier Testimonies 2000-2010. It is to those voices in Israel that we should listen and not always to some of the advocates of the hard-line policies of the Government that we hear in this House.

Photo of Lord Janner of Braunstone Lord Janner of Braunstone Labour 8:02 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, does this House recognise that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East? Democracies, like Israel or this country, do not always elect the Governments whom we would vote for. However, in my view, Israel continues to play an important role in the international community. It represents a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. It represents democracy, liberty and freedom in a region that has long been filled with tyrannies and dictatorships. We have all seen the people's aspirations, which have long been suppressed, now released in recent revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and now Libya, which we should welcome. We should recognise the fact that the only democracy in that area is the country that Members of this House have been attacking so readily this evening. The instability of the region has always been a major problem for Israel. However, the current revolutions in the Middle East present an opportunity for Israel and the world.

The primary role of a nation state is to defend its borders and citizens from attack. Israel faces a tough task. Its duty is to defend its citizens. Hamas is not a Government and Gaza is not a nation state. Hamas has been praised. However, Hamas is a terrorist group, which rains terrors on civilians in Israel. These terrorists ignore international law and they, not Israel, should be the key focus of this debate. Let me make it clear to this House: Israel does not target citizens, unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, which target citizens in many parts of Israel. Mistakes occur in warfare, just as mistakes have occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq. When these mistakes happen, investigations are launched and, where possible, justice is delivered. I would have been interested to hear how the noble Lord who triggered this debate would himself have responded if we in this nation suffered from attacks from terrorist entities, which is the position that Israel has to face. Many of these terrorists were funded and armed by an Iranian regime dedicated to the destruction of Israel and to attacks on Jewish people around the world. The true question for this House is who the real abusers of international law are: Israel, which defends its citizens, or the terrorists who target them.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Liberal Democrat 8:05 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on introducing this debate tonight. I have somewhat had my breath blown away by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Janner.

The international community is outraged by the behavior of Colonel Gaddafi towards his people in Libya and has rightly condemned his actions, which have violated human rights and international law. The reaction from our leaders has been swift and decisive. Sanctions are being imposed and bank accounts frozen-quite right too. Any Government who behave in this way should receive the same response. Why, then, has the Government of Israel, who defy all international law, never been called to account by the international community and, why, just last week-as we have heard from other noble Peers-did the USA veto the UN resolution on settlements after calling for a freeze on those settlements just a few months ago? Why has this happened when the behaviour of Israel towards the Palestinians lies at the very root of the problems in the Arab-Muslim world?

Tonight, I want to raise briefly the subject of prisoners and their treatment by Israel. At the end of January, there were 5,642 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, 621 of whom are still awaiting trial and 219 of whom are being held in administrative detention for no good reason, without any charge or prospect of trial. Since 2000, over 7,000 children have been held in Israeli prisons. There are currently 221 children in prison. A horrifying report has been submitted to the UN by the Defence for Children International. I beg your Lordships to read the report. Most children had been accused of throwing stones and were subjected to various forms of torture and forced to sign statements written in Hebrew. There is no time to give the detail. However, this is a sure way of providing embittered terrorists who will hate Israel for the rest of their lives.

After four years in prison, three members of the PLC are now threatened with deportation from their homes and constituencies in East Jerusalem and have taken refuge in the Red Cross. Is imprisonment for winning an election permitted under international law? I think not. Israel is immune to international law. We have to face this. The USA and Europe collude in it and I hope that the Minister will tell me why.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 8:08 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, we have had a stream of similar questions over the past few months evincing a disproportionate focus by this House on Israel, now evident in the turmoil in the Middle East. These questions are based on some implicit but unsustainable assumptions-for example, that Britain has any influence over Israel and Palestine or that it should be following and supporting American policy, which has been criticised here tonight. The UK risks becoming a spent force in this area because it is no longer seen as even-handed by Israel. The Foreign Secretary's recent comments have made this situation even more partial. The judgment of the UK Government and their advisers over the Middle East is suspect. We have got it wrong for years.

As we speak, international humanitarian law is being ignored to the damage of millions in the region. Israel has not been the focus of the rising-up by the peoples of Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt and Libya. Indeed, I once heard an ambassador from the region say to an audience that the Arab states did not really care about Israel at all, but it was a useful deflection from the problems internal to their states.

As far as the UN goes, one would have thought that to point out that Libya and Bahrain have seats on the United Nations Human Rights Council would suffice to make one sceptical, but the law and the resolutions are not clear. The fundamental issue is that Israel itself owes its existence to the League of Nations and the UN and has a right of self-determination and self-defence, which has been rejected wholesale ever since 1947 by its neighbours. For example, today is the last day of Gilad Shalit fortnight. This young Israeli solider has been held for four years but Hamas and denied all visits, even from the Red Cross, in breach of international humanitarian law. This is one matter that the UK Government can take up if they wish to promote the rule of law in the region.

The UK can also be constructive in building normal relations. The noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, made a moving and impressive speech on 11 February describing the work in which he is involved in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together in education, health and the environment and in fostering economic prosperity in the West Bank.

The UN is not the place to bring pressure on Israel to end the occupation and to freeze settlements. That has to be done by negotiation. This Government must support a two-state solution and reject the delegitimisation of Israel. They could encourage and help Arab leaders to invest in infrastructure, housing and general state-building for a future Palestine. They could promote the education of Palestinian youth towards a future of peace and co-operation, not rockets and hatred. They could rehabilitate housing so that refugee camps become decent habitats. There are obvious opportunities and responsibilities for the UK Government if they heed the voices of reason.

Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Liberal Democrat 8:11 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I compliment my noble friend Lord Dykes on securing this short debate. I know that he, like me, seeks a lasting peace in the region based on a two-state solution with a secure state of Israel alongside a very viable Palestinian state. Of course, it is helpful if United Nations resolutions are complied with but, as my noble friend Lord Dykes pointed out, they are resolutions of the General Assembly, not of the Security Council. Israel has complied with every resolution of the Security Council, with all its faults. In fact, it complied with only one, on Lebanon. There have been no others.

However, my view is that, contrary to the name of this debate, trying to solve the long-standing conflict by United Nations resolutions is not the way forward. As my noble friend Lord Dykes suggests, Her Majesty's Government and the United States could have a role, but I am certain that the first step must be, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to the negotiating table. I would add to that "without preconditions". That is the problem. The Palestinians say they will not go to the negotiating table unless something happens-for example, no settlements. The Israelis say they will not go unless they are recognised by everyone. My view is that the United States, the United Kingdom and others should ensure that they sit down at that negotiating table without any preconditions whatever. Once they are there at that table, I believe that things can be solved. For those who study the region-I am a former chairman of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel and I have studied it deeply-there is a desire for a solution. Most people know what that solution will be-where roughly the border will be. Once there is a border, the settlements that are on the non-Israeli side of the border will no longer be there as settlements. You solve it at a stroke. At the same time, we have to ensure that there is no psychological and practical warfare on Israel, where the towns of Sderot and Ashkelon in Israel are bombarded by rockets, producing a psychological and practical fear in Israel; it is this that produces some of the attitudes of the Israeli Government, of which many in this House might disapprove.

I ask noble Lords to think about the fact that our duty as a country is to get these people to the negotiating table and to bear in mind that this is not only about Palestinian refugees; 800,000 Jews fled Arab lands, of which 600,000 found a home in Israel. Refugees, sadly, are part of life. Many of us have been refugees or have parents who were so.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 8:15 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I come to this debate as a committed supporter of Israel and a committed critic of its Government: as a committed supporter of a two-state solution and an opponent of the settlements. The question of the legality of the settlements in international law is perhaps more arguable than is normally thought to be the case, but that is an irrelevance here; I certainly oppose the settlements. Whether, in the reported words of a distinguished Member of this House, this makes me an intelligent but prejudiced Jew, I do not know-I leave it to others to determine.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, in his criticism of the political system in Israel. Interestingly, of course, it is a very pure form of proportional representation, which presumably he would like to see in this country. He also referred to the 1947 resolution that created the state of Israel: a resolution that, if it had been complied with, would have led to the creation of an independent Palestine. It was not complied with because Egypt and Jordan decided not to implement it. Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt occupied Gaza. The reality is that, 60-odd years later, many of the states in the region still do not recognise the existence of the state of Israel-and more particularly, and crucially, neither does Hamas. If Hamas had followed Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in recognising the state of Israel, it would certainly be a legitimate partner in a dialogue. That is clearly a consolation that all of us here in your Lordships' House would like to see.

I will refer not so much to the general issues but to small yet positive steps that might be taken-and indeed have already been initiated-in developing the democratic structures within Israel and potentially within Palestine. So far as Israel is concerned, they relate to the Israeli Arab community. In my former days in the Local Government Association, I managed to initiate a scheme for capacity building within the Arab municipal sector in Israel, supported by the previous Government, with a modest amount of funding that is still available during the current year. I hope that the present Government will continue with that programme, and seek to extend it to the Palestinian Authority itself. It is clearly in everyone's interest-other speakers have referred to this-to promote democracy and state building within the Arab world. Here is an example of where it can happen.

The event two years ago in Israel, which saw people from local government in this country going over to work with newly elected Arab mayors, can be repeated-I hope it will be repeated. This is a principle that might well be extended to the territories. The Local Government Association signed agreements with both the local government associations of Palestine and Israel, and here local government can play a small positive role in developing the kind of structures-and ultimately the kind of contacts-that can only help lead to a peaceful resolution. If we were to concentrate more on the practical issues and a little less on the rhetoric about the serious problems of the region, we might see more progress.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 8:18 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I think we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Dykes for giving us an opportunity to address this serious question again, albeit in a very short time. Most of us have only three minutes. I will raise just three points; the first is an observation, the second is a fear, the third is an appeal.

My observation is that in these conflicts in general, and in this conflict in particular, it is not only those who are in the conflict who are exceptionally passionate about it; those outside who have any interest and concern-indeed, almost anyone who gets involved-are passionate on one side of the argument. It seems extremely difficult to contain the problem and feel strongly about it, but not feel strongly for one side and against another. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, will recognise that very much from our own experience, and we have seen that demonstrated here tonight. When people become very passionate, it becomes difficult to think clearly and reflectively about a problem.

My second point expresses a fear. I have been going backwards and forwards to the region for a number of years. When I first started to go, I was a little optimistic about the possibilities. In Israel, I met people in the Government, in the Opposition and in civic society. I met people on the Palestinian side in Fatah and Hamas, and in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and I had a sense that people wanted to move forward, but in the past couple of years I have felt that opportunity for progress slipping away. A two-state solution would be an ideal thing to achieve, but increasingly it is beginning to slip off the agenda. Israel is the country that needs a two-state solution because I cannot for the life of me see how you can have a Jewish democratic state unless you have a homeland for the Palestinians, yet it is becoming harder seriously to believe that a two-state solution remains possible.

I hope that I can be persuaded otherwise by the facts and I want to see it, but those who believe in an historic existential right for Israel to extend the whole way from the sea to Jordan are mixed together with those who would like a two-state solution but feel that there is no possibility of a partner for peace in the Palestinians and those who want a two-state solution but now see no prospect of one. They are all mixed together and there is almost no other side of the argument in Israel. That is extremely worrying.

My final point is an appeal for international law. I tried to address the question of Gilad Shalit, which was mentioned by noble Baroness. I met his family and senior officials in Hamas and they said, "We found that this is the only way we can get our prisoners out. We cannot get them out by legal means so we get them out this way. We have found that we can do a deal with the Israeli Government". I hope for his sake and for his family that Gilad Shalit gets home soon. I hope that the Palestinian prisoners also get home soon, but that is what happens when international and domestic law are set aside because of passions. I appeal for a return to the rule of law, for without it there is only chaos in the Middle East.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 8:22 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for giving us the opportunity to debate this crucial issue this evening. As several noble Lords have said, the movement for democracy across the Middle East, while causing short-term anxiety about the loss of life and the intransigence of some regimes, must ultimately offer a precious moment when new politics and real change can be delivered. That is why the Foreign Secretary was right to say that the turmoil in the Middle East should be used as a springboard to reignite the peace process.

At the same time, it goes without saying that we have to be sensitive about our comments and/or interventions when the region is in such flux, particularly in the context of our own history. That is why the United Nations, imperfect though it is, continues to provide a respected forum for determining the common good and the rule of international law. That is why it continues to have an important role to play in the Middle East peace process.

We remain concerned that the peace talks initiated by the Obama Government appear to have stalled. No one underestimates the difficulty of the task involved in bringing the two sides together for meaningful dialogue, but with any new Government there is hope for a fresh approach and a renewed determination that they might make progress. In addition, President Obama himself signalled from an early stage that this would be a priority for his Administration and we desperately want him to succeed, but since the 10-month moratorium expired last September Israel has resumed construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem-an act that it knows to be provocative not only to the Palestinians but to much of the rest of the world.

We also know that the Obama Administration has called on Israel to cease construction and return to the peace talks. However, that appeal appears to have been ignored and it may well be time to face the fact that diplomatic initiatives of the past need to be backed by other forms of pressure. Perhaps the Minister can update the House as to any discussions that are taking place between the Foreign Secretary and his US counterpart in this regard.

This brings us to the recent UN resolution that condemned the Israeli settlement construction in Palestinian territory. It was a resolution in accord with the stated policy of the US, but nevertheless the Administration chose to stand alone and veto it at the Security Council. As we have heard, their justification for this decision was that it would complicate efforts to resume the peace talks. With some sadness, I have to say that this position might have had some legitimacy if there had been any evidence of a pending breakthrough in kick-starting the peace talks, but as things stand, the US position has weakened both its own role and the UN's voice in bringing the parties together, and has regrettably encouraged further illegal construction of Israeli settlements.

I welcome our own Government's intervention on this, and the fact that we supported the UN resolution, and I hope that the Minister can update us on some further discussions that have taken place behind the scenes on this. Whatever route it takes, and whoever ultimately succeeds in bringing the two sides together, it remains the case that any settlement should include a two-state solution, with a permanent end to hostilities, an agreement on the boundaries of a new country of Palestine, an end to the West Bank settlement expansion, and a resettlement of illegal occupiers.

Finally, I hope that both our own Government and the United States can seize this chance and play their role in bringing about a lasting Middle East peace settlement based on these principles.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy) 8:26 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, I give warm thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for opening this brief debate in such a robust fashion. I will come to some of his points in a moment. It has inevitably been a somewhat staccato debate, given the very short time in which noble Lords have been able to speak, but quite often in these very short debates we get the distillation of remarkable wisdom in very few words. Some very profound things have been said very clearly by a number of your Lordships who obviously have a huge hinterland of knowledge, but three minutes places a severe limit on what can be said. Whether in my few minutes I will be able to comment on every one of the contributions is in the hands of the gods. If I cannot do that, I apologise in advance, and will certainly discuss with or write to noble Lords who feel I have not addressed their points sufficiently.

Before I come to the detailed points in the debate, let me say that the United Kingdom Government are committed to upholding international law, as enshrined in the United Nations resolutions and the Geneva Conventions, and the Israel-Palestine conflict which we have been debating this evening is no exception. Our commitment was most recently demonstrated when, on Friday 18 February at the UN Security Council, the United Kingdom and others, including France and Germany, voted to reinforce our long-standing view that the Israeli settlements, including those in East Jerusalem, are illegal under international law, are an obstacle to peace, and constitute a threat to the two-state solution. It was a matter of regret that it remained a draft resolution, and that the UN Security Council could not speak with one voice on this issue. A number of your Lordships have concentrated on that very point.

The reasons for the US veto were given at some length by the spokesperson. They are, in a sense, the US's own reasons. They argue, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, reminded us, that the UN Security Council was the wrong place, and that pursuing the issue there might make negotiations harder. The US delegate also reminded us that they rejected the legitimacy of settlement activity, which may be some sliver of comfort for those who have found this such a pity, but that they saw this as the wrong forum in which to push forward the proposals of the Palestinians and the Palestinian-initiated draft, and therefore opposed it. We were in regular contact with the US on the run-up to the vote. I have been asked what contact there has been between the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The answer is that there has been contact; there was in the run-up and there has been since on this matter. The Foreign Secretary made it clear that Israel's obligations under international law are central to making progress toward a two-state solution. That remains our view.

I have heard some argue that current events in the region mean that this whole matter may be pushed aside by the turmoil that we have seen in north Africa and elsewhere. I think that that is completely wrong. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said as much this afternoon in his Statement in another place. We believe that Israel's security and the realisation of the Palestinians' right to statehood are not opposing goals at all. On the contrary, they are intimately intertwined objectives, and we should push ahead and make them with the MEPP, which becomes even more vital in the present circumstances.

Our main goal is to work with the United States and other international partners to return the parties as soon as possible to direct negotiations towards a two-state solution, on the basis of clear parameters. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, with his great experience cast doubt on whether the two-state solution is still possible. We believe that it is, and that it remains a goal, and that we should go for an agreement on the borders of the two states, based on 4 June 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps, as may be agreed between the parties. That is the first basis of our approach. The second is to have security arrangements which, for Palestinians, respect their sovereignty and show that the occupation is over and, for Israelis, protect their security, prevent the resurgence of terrorism and deal effectively with new and emerging threats. That was a point of view that the noble Lord, Lord Janner, and others put in this debate, where we have witnessed the same divisions of view as exist in the wider world about this whole difficult matter, even in our brief contributions.

Thirdly, we believe that a just, fair and agreed solution to the refugee question should be the basis of progress. Fourthly, we believe in the fulfilment of the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem. A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.

In a few more of these precious minutes, I turn to a number of specific points raised. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, spoke out very forcefully of his regrets about the position of the USA. Without necessarily approving of it-on the contrary, we voted the other way-I have tried to describe the view that the United States took. He also urged, as have other of your Lordships, both in this debate and many others, that we should talk to Hamas. The United Kingdom's view is that we should not talk to them until it renounces the ideology of violence, and that it should begin to emerge as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. That is the view of the Government at this time, although I know that some of your Lordships disagree with it.

My noble friend Lord Bates made an impassioned plea to comply with UN resolutions and reminded us of the vital point that the UN gave birth to Israel. Therefore, it is the duty of Israel to do all that it can to comply with UN resolutions. The noble Lord, Lord Janner, said that in many respects it has-but clearly in others it has not.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, also said that negotiations ought to include Hamas, and made some sharp remarks on arms sales. He criticised my right honourable friend and his colleagues for travelling through the Middle East and arguing both that there should be more democracy and that there should be an arms trade. He has to face the fact, as my right honourable friend said, that democracies have to arm. The question is whether they should be armed by Chinese or Russian weapons, which are in ample supply-they can produce all kinds of unregulated, dangerous and lethal weapons-or whether the legitimate and properly controlled arms exports of this country should continue to play a part. That question has to be answered before one denounces completely the arms trade of this country.

My noble friend Lady Falkner spoke, as always, with great feeling. She asked whether we could normalise relations between the Arabs and Israel in the right context. I believe that we can. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, put the point of view of the United States quite fairly, as I, too, have done. We do not agree with it, but now at least we understand where they are coming from. My noble friend Lord Tugendhat gave an eloquent plea to listen to the moderate voices of Israel-those who really want to secure the longer range security of Israel, rather than some of the more extreme voices that many of us feel are anti-Israeli, though they come from Israeli personnel.

I have mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Janner, who believes that Hamas are terrorists. I have stated the UK Government's view towards them. My noble friend Lady Tonge, who is immensely experienced in these issues and in the details, asked about Palestinian prisoners. We raise the issue continuously, particularly the very worrying concerns about underage and juvenile prisoners and how they are held. We raise them all the time with the Israelis and will continue to do so. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, mentioned the virtue of the kind of approach outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Stern, the other day: to make enterprise and business the way we can see Arabs and Israelis sew themselves and work together again, rather than be in endless conflict. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, took the side of those who said, like the Americans, that the UN was not the best forum for the way forward.

I think I have covered everything, including the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about the Foreign Secretary speaking with the Americans. He does so all the time. I have now run out of further time, so will say only that we believe in a peaceful and safe future for Israel that is best secured through a peace with the Palestinians which can, in turn, lead to a peace with the entire region that will strengthen the stability of the region. That is our hope and intention; we have demonstrated it by our position in the recent vote, and we have demonstrated it by our continuous actions. We will continue to do so in order that we can move forward through the agonising difficulties and divisions which this great issue has produced again and again.