We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for introducing this important debate—a debate which has provoked some very strong and powerful presentations on both sides and in which I think both sides of the argument have been equally represented.
We have now had decades of turmoil in the Middle East and see continual brutal and bloody conflict. The events in the summer of 2014, with attacks on both Israel and Palestine, served to underline the need for a return to meaningful negotiations. It was a painful and stark reminder of how distant and difficult the prospect of a peaceful resolution to this conflict remains.
The two-state solution has been the UK’s stated policy for decades, as my noble friend Lady Blackstone indicated. Labour fully supports two states living side by side in peace, with the need for this to be recognised by all their neighbours. However, this conflict will be resolved ultimately only by both sides engaging in a negotiated peace process moving towards that two-state solution.
The tragedy is that today there is not only no peace but no process, and in this environment despair dominates as hope struggles to survive. Labour believes that statehood for the Palestinians is not a gift to be given but a right to be recognised. That is why since 2011 Labour has supported Palestinian recognition at the United Nations and has called on the Government to support this important principle.
A key principle of establishing the State of Israel was that it should be a place where Jewish people could feel safe. I am sure that many Israelis—in particular, after the indiscriminate bombings on buses, murders in a synagogue and targeting of missiles on residential areas—would argue that they still do not feel safe. Of course the rise of anti-Semitism in western Europe should also concern us all. Israel has an absolute right to defend itself but many would argue that last summer’s indiscriminate bombing and massive destruction of Gaza was wholly disproportionate.
This week, as a good Welsh socialist, I have been reading a new biography of Aneurin Bevan, who, in relation to the Suez crisis, stated that military success would,
“only prove that we are stronger than the Egyptians. It won’t prove that we are right”.
I believe that the same could be said of some Israeli attitudes towards the Palestinians. What we really need to ask is how we can practically move the debate on in the region. Recognition will ultimately succeed only if it is a part of a significant peace negotiation covering mutual recognition, secure borders and general security.
If we really want traction in the area, we need to be aligned with our allies. We need to act where possible with our EU partners and work with the quartet. There are balances we must advocate. The Israelis must act in accordance with international law. They cannot colonise other people’s land, deny them a contiguous economic territory, and build barriers on that land. The Palestinians on their part must take active steps, if necessary with regional neighbours, to stop terrorist attacks, and should unify in a political authority in a form which renounces terrorism. Palestinians must recognise the right of Israel to exist as a permanent entity within secure borders. We must be aware that either side can create or seize on any excuse for fighting or stopping talking.
We also need to engage in a more practical approach to building bridges between the two sides, providing aid and capacity building. We should promote economic co-operation in a very practical way, and we should do more with the near and more distant neighbours as a stimulus to security and economic development. The world has waited for the Oslo accords to deliver and has watched the dispute over territory for 66 years.
Particularly in the West Bank and Gaza, where 56% of the population is under 24 and where unemployment among the youth stands at 38%, how do we encourage those moderate voices in Palestine who are suffering from extreme poverty? How do we ensure that people who have had their homes and communities destroyed and can see no prospect of a lasting peaceful solution through diplomacy continue to follow a path of non-violence? How can we make them believe that there truly is a solution which can be worked out if there has been no prospect of a negotiated settlement for more than 20 years? Building a more vibrant economy must surely be part of the answer.
After decades of diplomatic failure, there are those on all sides who question whether a two-state solution is any longer possible. That is why Labour believes that, amid the undoubted despair and disappointment, the international community must take concrete steps to strengthen moderate Palestinian opinion. Of course we take note of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who suggested that that would be extremely difficult to achieve, but it is the only hope. We must encourage all Palestinians to take the path of politics, reject the path of violence, and rekindle hopes that there is a credible route to a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel which can be achieved through negotiations.
We are clear that Palestinian recognition at the UN would be such a step. Our support for the principle of UN recognition is not a means of bypassing the need for talks, nor an excuse for inaction in seeking to get negotiations restarted. The Motion before the House in October did not commit Labour to immediate recognition of Palestine or mandate the UK Government to immediately bilaterally recognise the state of Palestine, but the vote supported by Labour underlines the party’s belief in the principle of recognising Palestinian statehood. The timing and mechanism by which Palestinian recognition takes place will continue to be a matter to be decided by an incoming Labour Government.