My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has asked me to apologise for his not being able to participate in this debate. This debate is timely and I strongly endorse the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, in that regard. It is timely because there is now no peace process and this debate will be helpful in perhaps moving towards a peace process again in the future.
Here I declare an interest, as I worked for both the former Government and the United Nations as a special envoy on the Middle East for several years and got to know both parties—the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority—very well. I saw the former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice working against the clock in 2008 to secure a peace agreement between the then Government of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Alas, her efforts did not succeed.
This year, President Mahmoud Abbas will be 80 years old. Israel will not find a more moderate leader and should be using this time to secure an agreement with President Abbas, working with zeal towards that end, instead of continuing with a profoundly destabilising programme of settlement building throughout the West Bank. All friends of peace in the region must ask what the purpose of that programme is. What is the purpose of building roads in the West Bank on which Palestinians cannot travel? Self-evidently, those measures, those roads and those settlements clash with the goal of peace.
The resolution recognising the state of Palestine will be a step in the right direction, reinforcing the status of the Palestinian Authority. We speak of two parties—some noble Lords spoke of two nations—but they are, of course, not equal. One is a state now approaching its 70th year, with enormous economic and military resources unequalled in the Middle East, and the other is an authority unable to challenge encroaching settlements that are being built apace. Recognising a state of Palestine would go some way to rectifying this imbalance. Our actions will strengthen the hands of those genuinely seeking a peace agreement on both sides.
The United Nations itself could do much more. The UN is the convenor of the peace process and of the contact group bringing together the US, the Russian Federation, the EU and the UN itself. The Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, is now in his penultimate year of office and not seeking a further term. He should use the ample political space that is now before him to take a real initiative, be bolder in the search for peace and work towards a conference such as the one held by
President Bush in Annapolis in 2007. Sadly—and this in itself tells us so much—President Obama is not able to do this, because of his own very fraught relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Perhaps the Secretary-General might do so alongside that great Israeli statesman, Shimon Peres, for whom President Abbas has deep respect. Recognising a Palestinian state, in line with other great democracies, would be a great step forward.
I will end by referring to a recent film, “The Gatekeepers”, which some noble Lords will be familiar with. It is an extraordinary testimony to the strength of Israeli democracy. I do not think we could see a film like it in this country, at least not yet. The film’s producer was able to interview six former heads of either Shin Bet, the internal intelligence service, or Mossad, the external service. I will quote the words of one of the former directors, Ami Ayalon, who subsequently went into politics and whom I know well. In the last moments of the film, he says:
“My son, who served three or three and a half years in the paratroopers, took part in invading Nablus at least two or three times”— the word invading is his. Nablus is a city on the West Bank of course. He goes on:
“Did this bring us victory? I don’t think so”.
In the final frames of the film, he says that the “tragedy” is that,
“we win every battle, but we lose the war”.
We have to help both sides—Israel perhaps in some respects more than the Palestinian Authority—to advance towards peace.