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Palestine: Recognition — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:32 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat 4:32 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, we might now add Spain to the words of the Motion. I am gratified that so many Members wish to take part in the debate, and I am conscious that the House expects to rise at seven o’clock. I join in that expectation, as I am booked on the last plane to Edinburgh, so I will attempt to be brief in my opening remarks.

First, I declare two interests. I was for seven years president of the excellent charity Medical Aid to the Palestinians. I am delighted that the current president, my noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton, will be taking part in the debate. Secondly, I am a paid-up member of the Friends of Israel, for the very good reason that I think that it is important always to distinguish between the State of Israel and the policies of the present Government of Israel. They are not the same, and too many people equate the two rather sloppily.

When I was leader of the Liberal Party, my Palestinian friends used to say, “It’s all your fault. It was under a Liberal Administration that the Balfour Declaration was first promulgated in 1917”. I am very proud of that, but I also remind people of the second part of that declaration, which states,

“it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

I am afraid it is that section of the Balfour Declaration which has so often been forgotten.

As a young MP, I went on the parliamentary delegation to the General Assembly of the UN in 1967. I remember the excitement and enthusiasm of sitting in on the meetings with Lord Caradon, who was then our representative at the UN, when we secured UN Security Council Resolution 242. There was a sense then that this was the start of a really effective peace process, after the war in that area. How sad it is that more than 45 years later, we have to say that that optimism was completely misplaced.

Then in 1980, when I was party leader, I took a delegation of six colleagues around the Middle East to study the situation in detail. We were extremely well received by Heads of Government including President Assad in Syria—the dictatorial father of the current President—President Sarkis in the Lebanon, President Sadat in Egypt and King Hussein in Jordan. The one place where we were not received by the Head of Government was Israel. Why? Because Prime Minister Begin disapproved of the fact that in Damascus, we had had the temerity to have a meeting with Mr Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO. The fact that we had spent time in that meeting trying to argue him out of a section of the PLO covenant and into recognising the State of Israel was beside the point. We had spoken with the unspeakable. It is interesting how history repeats itself: just as it would not speak to the PLO then it will not speak to Hamas now, for exactly the same reasons.

On other occasions, I have visited the border towns in Israel of Sederot and Ashkelon. I therefore fully understand the sense of fear and terror under which they have to live, with the quite unacceptable raining down of rockets from Gaza on to these communities. These are not only disastrous but positively counterproductive for the peace process. The rockets of course inflict casualties on the citizens of Israel, but none of these casualties justifies the reaction of the Government of Israel in their two invasions of the Gaza Strip: in 2009, Operation Cast Lead, and, in 2014, Operation Protective Edge. In the first invasion, some 1,400 Palestinians were killed and in the second some 2,500—500 of them children. I visited Gaza again after Operation Cast Lead and I find it difficult to describe in the House the scale of the devastation that had been inflicted, never mind the deaths. Houses, schools, factories and even hospitals were destroyed in that operation. Indeed, I am surprised that there has not been a stronger reaction among the taxpayers of the European Union and the United States, considering that the airport opened by President Clinton in 1998 was destroyed. That airport cost us $86 million.

In 2002, the Arab Heads of State launched the Arab peace initiative, which promised to fly the Israeli flag in embassies in every Arab capital. It was an amazing breakthrough, repeated in 2007. Last year, some of us had the privilege of meeting upstairs in a committee room a group of Israeli businessmen. I say that they were businessmen because they stressed that they were not politicians. They were launching an Israeli peace initiative in response to the Arab peace initiative, and arguing that the peace process really ought to be conducted at international level by the Heads of Government. That is still a compelling process, given that the Israelis and Palestinians seem unable to reach any kind of peace agreement themselves.

Unfortunately, the present Government of Israel under Mr Netanyahu have consistently rejected those initiatives and continue to build settlements on the West Bank, now occupied by half a million citizens of Israel. They are, of course, totally illegal, as defined by the international court. Mr Netanyahu rejects that court: he even rejects the Israeli Supreme Court when it criticises the route of the security wall. Israel does not like the reference to apartheid, but the separate roads on the West Bank that can be travelled on only by Israeli citizens, and which I saw on recent visits, are strongly reminiscent of what I used to find in South Africa, as is the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel itself. In 2012, the 27 European Foreign Ministers issued a report saying that the attitude of the present Government of Israel threatens,

“to make the two-state solution impossible”.

The truth is that, under the present Administration, Israel has been losing friends. The one stroke of comfort we can take is that current opinion polls indicate that the Government may lose office in the coming election and be replaced by something a good deal better.

Why should we now echo what the House of Commons has already done? I use the words of our consul-general in Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean:

“The voices of moderation on both sides need encouragement. Those Palestinians who eschew violence and practise security cooperation with Israel need something to show for their pains—to prove that their peaceful efforts, not indiscriminate Hamas violence, will lead to two states”.

We are sending a signal from this House that we welcome and echo what the elected House has already done.