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Palestine: Recognition — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:58 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:58 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, it has been a passionate debate and I am conscious that the time is late, so I shall do my best to sum up the many contributions. We have heard here, as in the earlier Commons debate, some passionate concerns from all sides and the rising concern that the situation is getting worse and not better. I wish I could agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, that we have to be optimists. We struggle very hard to be optimistic in the circumstances we are facing.

Sir Richard Ottaway, in his very powerful speech in the Commons debate, said that,

“to be a friend of Israel is not to be an enemy of Palestine”.—[ Hansard, Commons, 13/10/14; col. 69.]

The reverse is also true: to be a friend of Palestine you do not have to be an enemy of Israel.

The problem we face is partly, as some of us who have been in discussion with our friends in the Israeli embassy know, that the current Government are losing friends. They are losing the battle of public opinion in Britain and across Europe. If the use of disproportionate force on Gaza, or perhaps on Lebanon, is the only way in which Israel maintains its security, its long-term security is bleak.

That is not to say that the Government of Palestine, let alone Hamas, are gaining unconditional friends or supporters. We thus face a range of difficult and often unpalatable choices. We have heard a lot about the long, sad and contested history leading to bitter grievances on both sides, but the future is equally worrying. The status quo is not sustainable, either within the Occupied Palestinian Territories—let alone within Gaza—or in the region around Israel and Palestine. The Middle East is increasingly unstable. We see conflict within Syria overlapping into Lebanon and Iraq, a different but linked conflict in the Sinai and the collapse of Libya. That makes the need for change and movement towards a solution all the more necessary.

We have seen, in recent days, the threat of firing between Israel and Hezbollah potentially leading to a higher level of conflict. We hope that that has now been contained. We see the Egyptian Government dealing with terrorism in the Sinai, which affects their whole attitude towards Gaza. We see Palestinian refugees who were in Syria becoming refugees for a second time in Jordan or Lebanon and we see the increasing strain on Jordan and Lebanon—as well, incidentally, as on Turkey, where there are now 1.5 million Syrian refugees from the conflict spilling over the boundaries that we, the British and the French, left behind in drawing the map after the First World War.

We also see partisan exploitation of this issue within the United States, raising the existential threat to Israel that America’s unquestioning support might begin to come into question, as some in the Israeli press have remarked in recent days. Behind all this, we also see population growth across the Middle East as one of the drivers of the conflict. We all know that a surplus of frustrated and underemployed young men drives radicalism. We have to accept that that is part of the problem all across the Middle East. In these circumstances, Britain remains firmly committed to the two-state solution: a sovereign, independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian state living in peace and security, side by side with Israel.

We see negotiations towards a two-state solution as the best way to end the occupation and to meet the national aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. That is why the British Government were such strong supporters of Secretary Kerry’s efforts in the Middle East peace process, in which progress was made but not sufficient progress. We urge the parties to resume serious negotiations and to show the bold political leadership necessary to reach a final deal.

The Palestinian Authority, in contradistinction to what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, has made important progress on state building, which has been recognised by the World Bank and the IMF. As my

right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development said in September, the British Government also believe that the Palestinian Authority has the capability to run an effective, inclusive, accountable state. That is why it is so important that the PA now returns to Gaza to ensure that good governance is extended throughout the territory that is intended to become the Palestinian state.

The UK is committed to recognising a Palestinian state and we are moving towards the recognition of a Palestinian state. That is part of how we see the process towards the only viable long-term solution, which is a two-state solution. We understand that it is only through negotiations that a Palestinian state can become a reality, including on the ground, but we see the process of recognition by the United Kingdom and other friendly states as part of that process. We do not judge that now is the right moment to give that recognition, but we are waiting for the point at which we consider, with others—our colleagues and allies—that it has become appropriate. I hope that is entirely clear. Of course, bilateral recognition in itself would not end the occupation—only negotiations will lead to a final settlement between the parties—but it may be an important part of the process.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, suggested that the United Nations should do more. The United Nations is, as he well knows, fully engaged. We were discussing a UN Security Council resolution that we thought could command an overwhelming majority of the UNSC members but, for various reasons, the Palestinians decided that they wished to have an earlier resolution, which did not meet the criteria, and that is why we abstained. We are of course concerned to get as much consensus as possible. We recognise that the Palestinian Authority will move towards accession to other UN agencies.

Of course, we should not forget the quartet. The quartet is often made fun of now within the United Kingdom but, importantly, it is the United States together with Russia, which unavoidably is an important player as it has very close links to Israel as well as closer links to Assad’s regime in Syria than many of us would wish it to have. Britain works within the quartet together with our EU partners, in particular France and Germany.

We cannot exclude the Arab League. Little mention has been made in the debate so far of the Arab peace initiative, which is still on the table and which we still need to pick up to bring the moderate Arab states into any agreement that we can achieve.

Alongside all this work among Governments, the bilateral relationship between Britain and Israel remains strong and friendly, and we wish to maintain that. Of course, we wish to maintain a democratic Israel within secure and recognised boundaries. Indeed, this week a new multimillion-pound investment fund has been set up for Israeli scientists at the University of Cambridge, enabling Israelis to pursue post-doctorate research. I look around and I see others here who have been actively engaged, as I have been, in promoting exchanges between British academics, British young people and young Israelis, and that is something that we absolutely want to promote.

We all recognise that there are implications for communities within the United Kingdom. The spillover of the Israel-Palestine conflict into the domestic politics of other countries is one of the real dangers that we all face. The Government are absolutely clear that we wish to maintain the security of the Jewish community in this country. We value immensely the contribution that the Jewish community in this country has provided over many years and we wish to ensure that it remains secure and fully integrated into the United Kingdom community. We have recently provided £2 million to support Jewish state schools to ensure the security and safety of British children.

We also have a substantial Muslim community in this country. Some of them have been here for well over 150 years; others have come a great deal more recently. We also wish to maintain the security and stability and to promote the integration of the Muslim community in this country. I look round the Chamber and I know many of us are also working actively towards that. On Sunday my wife and I will be attending a service in Westminster Abbey—a Christian church—to commemorate the Holocaust, and there will be active Jewish participation in that Christian service.

It is also popular in the tabloid press to make fun of the Prince of Wales for talking about Britain’s other faiths. I am proud, as someone who has a close association with Westminster Abbey, that I have been to a number of services there where several of Britain’s faiths, in particular the three Abrahamic faiths, have played a part in the service. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury referred to Britain’s three Abrahamic faiths in the speech he made the other week. I think it is very important that we dig out that phrase—less used than it was when I was a child—and ensure that we help to understand what is shared between Islam, Judaism and Christianity and not what is incompatible.

I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Warsi for the work that she did as a Minister in promoting interfaith dialogue, and the work that my noble friends Lord Ahmad and Lady Anelay are still doing on it. My noble friend Lady Anelay told me yesterday about a recent visit that she made to Morocco, talking to the Moroccans about what they are doing to train imams from not only Morocco but other countries in their particular Sufi, moderate version of Islam.

There is a great deal to be done here, and we are concerned to keep separate how we resolve the Israel-Palestine problem from the importance of maintaining an integrated community on a multifaith basis within Britain.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark talked about the future of the ancient Christian community in Palestine and within Jerusalem. We are also much concerned about that. We note, in particular, the problem of the Cremisan and Catholic community at present, and the threat posed to that well established community by the extension of the border wall. We have the right to say to all sides that the maintenance of that ancient Christian community in Palestine and Israel must be assisted.

Jerusalem itself is a very important part of that. Jerusalem is a holy city for all three Abrahamic faiths. I say that with particular passion because, when I went on behalf of Nick Clegg to talk to the Board of Deputies during the previous election campaign, when I said that, one of those present shouted: “No, it isn’t. It is the eternal capital of the Jews”. We have to learn to share. We have to share Jerusalem. The provocations which we see going on on both sides in Jerusalem are extremely worrying and could easily get out of control. There is the demolition of Palestinian houses and disturbances on the Temple Mount. We are much concerned about that. We are grateful that the Israeli Government have taken positive steps to calm the situation in recent weeks.

Several noble Lords have asked: “How can Israel negotiate with a Palestinian Government that includes Hamas? Palestinians have to accept Israel’s right to exist. Schoolbooks promote hate”—and so on. There are problems on both sides. There are those within the Israeli Government who deny the right of a state of Palestine to come into being, who want to have a single state. There is hate language in some elements of Israel, as well as in Palestine. There are problems on both sides. We must recognise that and deal with it. We must deal with it very carefully in the middle of a rumbustious Israeli election campaign. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, said, both sides must negotiate in good faith, and that needs people on both sides—including some of the more right-wing Israeli parties—to change their rhetoric and approach.

We all know that settlements, which some noble Lords did not mention, are a major part of the issue. The question of international law and Israel’s behaviour in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is something against which we constantly stub our toes. We cannot ignore Israel’s abuse of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

I have figures which suggest that in the nine months when John Kerry was engaged in negotiation, Israel increased by a factor of three the number of new tenders for settlement in the West Bank. We know that they are beginning to enclose Jerusalem. As my good friend William Hague said three years ago, when he was Foreign Secretary, we know that the expansion of settlements will in time make a two-state solution impossible. That is part of the ticking clock against which we have to move.

The previous British Government have introduced voluntary guidelines to enable produce from Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories to be specifically labelled as such. The EU has agreed that all agreements between the State of Israel and the EU must unequivocally and explicitly indicate that they do not apply to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. In December 2013, we placed advice online to UK businesses, underlining the key security and political risks which they may face when operating in Israeli settlements. Further discussions are now under way with retailers in Britain and within the context of the EU.

The noble Lord, Lord Leigh, argued that we were assisting Hamas and that funds were going to finance

Hamas. I assure him that no British funds are going to any of the organisations associated with Hamas, as we do our utmost to assist a stronger Palestinian state and the process of state building.

What can we do within Britain, where we have all protested against the deteriorating situation? First, as I have suggested, we have to build tolerance and understanding here. That is extremely important in a dangerous situation. Secondly, we have to work with other friendly states to bring influence to bear on all sides in the conflict. Thirdly, we have to continue to provide financial support to assist the construction of a viable Palestinian state; equally, we have to continue to impress on the Government of Israel that their long-term security depends on security within boundaries that provide a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. At the appropriate time, we have to join with others in recognising a Palestinian state as part of the painful process of working towards the only viable resolution of this long-standing conflict: two states, sharing the historic land of Palestine in peace.