My Lords, I draw your attention to my entry in the register of interests, which includes board membership of the Jerusalem Foundation, where I had the honour to serve for a short time with my noble friend Lord Weidenfeld.
Despite having only a few minutes allocated to me, it would seem appropriate to echo the words of my noble friend Lord Carrington and pass condolences to both the State of Israel and the family of the late Ariel Sharon. There is a lot we can learn from his life which, while controversial, nevertheless included taking some enormous steps to promote peace in the region, such as agreeing the road map and the withdrawal from Gaza, despite facing enormous pressures internally and externally. I hope that his passionate and determined pursuit of peace towards the end of his life will encourage others to follow his example.
This debate refers to a wider Middle East peace settlement and there is often a tendency in such debates to focus just on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is not necessarily the main cause of regional instability. However, in my opinion, economic prosperity for all the parties in that region is one of the keys for peace. This debate is focusing on the efforts made by the EU, and quite rightly, as since 1994 the EU has provided more than €5.6 billion in assistance to the Palestinian people. The United Kingdom has been a very large contributor to this sum. Between 2008 and 2012 it was the third largest contributor of direct financial support after Holland and Sweden, with the United Kingdom’s contribution being about 10% of member states’ specific contributions.
Some of this direct funding has gone to support the rehabilitation of the private sector in Gaza, which must be very welcome. However, the recent European Court of Auditors’ Special Report No. 14, which was published in 2013, draws attention to some very worrying observations, such that a “considerable number”, in its words, of civil servants in Gaza were being paid without going to work or providing any public service. Furthermore, it is now clear that a significant proportion of the Palestinian Authority’s budget, in part financed by the EU Pegase programme, is used to pay a salary to Palestinian prisoners in Israel, many of whom have been convicted of terrorist activities. This now runs at a rate of nearly £3 million per month and, perversely, the longer the sentence, the greater the salary. While Israel has commendably started to release prisoners, as the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, said, the president of the Palestinian Authority has publicly called such convicted terrorists “heroes”. This does not bode well for changing the mood in the region towards peace. The EU would do well to heed the warnings by listening to the concerns in its own auditors’ report and further reflect on whether it should allow its—and our financial—support for Palestine to be used, in effect, for prisoner salaries.
The EU could do much more to promote peace in this area. Specifically, the funds would be much better used in following the example of the Portland Trust, based here in the UK, and using our resources further to promote Palestinian economic growth, which did in fact achieve an impressive 4.25% in 2013. It is by promoting the prosperity of the region that the EU will enhance the peace process.