My Lords, I thank all those who have come at the end of a Thursday afternoon to the final debate of the day on perhaps one of the most important subject that Parliaments throughout the world can consider. I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, the Foreign Office Minister, for coming today to reply to the debate. I embarrass her deliberately by saying that she has an incredibly hard work schedule and, inevitably in that job, travels a lot, so we are very grateful that she has come. I commend the excellent briefing pack from the House of Lords Library on this subject.
I have for many years, ever since my first visit, been a strong friend of Israel, which is a great and impressive country in every way. Like many other fans of this country, which is unique and special indeed, and will continue to be so for good reasons, I have sadly to confess that in recent years I have less enthusiasm. I live in France as well, where there are many more press articles on the Palestine-Israel dispute. Sadly, the UK press gives very little coverage to such an important subject.
The Americans have for a long time rightly been the defenders of Israel, but at the UN recently Barack Obama stated that it cannot continue to occupy permanently territories in Palestine. In his moving address for the Shimon Peres ceremony, he said that Peres from the very first day thought that Israel was against the masters and slaves mentality that occupation as a colony implies. Shimon Peres, a very impressive president of the state, always believed that the Zionist idea would be best protected when the Palestinians too had their own state. As the well-known journalist David Grossman stated in the press on
“never gave up, but he knew a disastrous future was being built for both Israelis and Palestinians”.
The international community has been equally critical, but no deeds have followed the many words uttered for almost 50 years since the Six Day War. Indeed, it could not do much anyway, since every time it was discussed at the UN the USA insisted on misusing the system of endless vetoes to allow its close ally to continue the illegal colonisation policy, even if it did not approve. After the Six Day War, wise voices in Israel urged the Government to withdraw as soon as possible, having made the point effectively that they had enough French and US weaponry and planes to be unbeatable militarily. I remember supporting this very strongly, since Israel needed then and will always need outside support and protection.
In France, at the end of last month, the Franco-German channel ARTE showed the startling documentary made by Shimon Dotan called “The Settlers”, which was originally presented at the International Documentary Film Festival on
Subsequently, Shimon Dotan did many interviews on TV and radio, both in Israel and elsewhere, and was listened to with great respect. Indeed, speaking at a cinema showing in the city centre of Tel Aviv later, he was widely applauded. But the atmosphere there was also tense. Had the public allowed the politicians to create a situation which had become, literally, inextricable? As Mearsheimer and Walt showed vividly in their historic world tour eight years ago—they came to Britain as well—this had been allowed to happen, seemingly unchecked. A bewildered young lady in the audience at the cinema that evening was even more upset when Mr Dotan added that the situation on the ground was ever more difficult, and the bitterness among Palestinians about what was happening to their own country was stronger than ever.
After the recent very sad passing of Shimon Peres, whom I met many times, especially with the courageous Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered for his bravery, we have to face this sad reality that the mistakes were made even back then. Mr Peres later acknowledged this fact publicly. I remember him addressing us here as President in the Robing Room and saying, “There are now so many settlers; how are we going to get them to leave?”.
The 21st century does not allow any sensible Government to occupy another country illegally on the basis of a biblical fable of divine promise, even if one is a great sympathiser with religion. We must all surely admire, too, the young military men and women in Israel who have campaigned in the Breaking the Silence movement, whose protest goes on.
We can recall also Mr Rabin’s sombre reminder, many years ago, that Gush Emunim, then the main religious settlers’ movement, was “gnawing away at the essence of Israeli democracy”. Attach all this to a seriously flawed national list electoral system, with no threshold to deter tiny minority groups, to Mr Netanyahu’s recent appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Defense Minister, and to the reassurance that now comes from the new US defence support deal, and we see the possible danger of an ominous and catastrophic impasse developing even more, even if it sounds ironical at this stage.
It is precisely because I want Israel to flourish and prosper in the future as a normal society with no feeling of isolation or siege—or besieged—mentality that I ask our own Government from now on, and the international community, to ensure that Mr Rabin’s warnings are responded to and dealt with. Even the Russians now are attempting to establish the first-ever discussions between the two leaders for years—they have not taken a prominent role for some time. Compare the USA, with its sorry record of 11 peace envoys over the years all biting the dust since Oslo. Even the legendary Senator Mitchell pulled out very rapidly from that process. Of course, the huge tragedy unfolding next door in the Syrian civil war has helped us all to indulge in a useful amnesia about the total impasse developing in Ramallah and Jerusalem.
But this crisis is not going to go away. I ask the Minister to say more today than she can with the brief given to her by the Foreign Office and the usual platitudes we have heard many times. I do not criticise her in any way, as that is part of the process, but she works hard on these dossiers and I would like to hear her saying some new things about new initiatives by this Government.
Coming back to the ominous replacement of the moderate Moshe Ya’alon as Defense Minister by Mr Lieberman, we can wonder what will unfold now unless checked by the United Nations. Mr Ya’alon was of course a Likud member, but he condemned the killing of an unarmed Palestinian attacker by Elor Azaria, a Tsahal soldier, and the Prime Minister asked him to step down. This theme was covered in the last edition of the excellent English language newspaper published in Berlin, the Jewish Voice from Germany, which is read by a growing readership everywhere, especially the growing community of Israelis in Berlin and elsewhere. It mentioned that the IDF deputy chief of staff, Yair Golan, warned of the rise of extremist tendencies in Israeli society. The same article concluded:
“The Jewish state must remain democratic and pluralistic. This can only succeed if all cosmopolitan and open-minded forces acknowledge the looming danger and … support a humane Zionism”.
Those who know the country will have various thoughts about whether the Israeli Labor Party should join the present coalition. It appears also that Israel and the UK both have huge problems with our internal constitutional arrangements and no proper written restraints. Israel, however, has all the effective security that any state needs to protect its citizens—and more—unlike the hapless and disorganised Palestinians, who have an ineffective president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has already exceeded his own election mandate period by seven years. As British colonial experience has revealed all too starkly in so many cases in the past, when you seek to extricate yourself from the colonial quagmire you have to talk to the so-called enemy, which will have to include people in Gaza too.
Thanks to brave groups in Israel like JJP, Bet’selem and Peace Now, along with the gradual emergence of better public efforts by the Palestinian intelligentsia, there is much more realisation of what can now be achieved. The US must say goodbye for ever to endless vetoes, and the whole world needs to accept the huge recognition that Palestine has now achieved in being a recognised state, with some non-binding resolutions as well, including in France, UK, Spain and Ireland.
When I had the great privilege of going with the courageous Gerald Kaufman to the West Bank, we both agreed that Palestine surely could not end up as being the only country in the world with no civic or political rights. Whoever is the next US President, therefore, has to rise to the occasion and ask their friends in Israel to do the same. The courageous and wise South African President de Klerk did so in freeing and then working with Nelson Mandela, whom Mrs Thatcher had called a terrorist. Is Israel lucky and fortunate enough to be harbouring a de Gaulle, he who saved France from the Algerian nightmare? Someone has to step up to the plate and do the same in Israel. This is, after all, the established state with all the power, in comparison to Palestine.
I wish personally to resume my visits to this great and important country as quickly as possible, and the two-state solution is there still to be achieved.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on securing this debate. I support the two-state solution and I hope that the next time the Palestinians are offered a viable state they will accept it. It is important in this debate to remember that they have been offered a viable state at least twice. The first time was at the Camp David talks under President Clinton in 2000 when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a formal offer of such a state. Then around 2008, under Ehud Olmert, a further offer of a viable state was made. I can say that with confidence because shortly afterwards Olmert released a map to two Israeli newspapers of what would be the Palestinian state. The map clearly indicated, for example, that East Jerusalem would be part of the Palestinian state, and identified scores of settlements that would have to be removed.
The question then is: if an offer was made that appeared to be quite generous, why was it not accepted? Part of the answer was hinted at by Shimon Peres during the Olmert negotiations when he attended a conference in Jordan. He was asked that question, and I happened to be there so I am quite sure about the answer that was given. It was elegant and quite short. He said: “On all practical matters we are very close to agreement, but the emotional issues are getting heavier and more difficult”. I think—although obviously this is just supposition on my part—that the major emotional issue for Palestinians is that they would have to shoulder responsibility within the Arab nations for recognising the legitimate existence of a Jewish state in Arab lands. That is a very big ask. There is also the point, which was made repeatedly by Yasser Arafat in discussions with President Clinton, that if he accepted it, at the same time he should start arranging his funeral. That was not an empty statement; it was the reality of the matter. So, because we are now dealing with big emotional issues rather than technical ones of whether the line goes here or there and all the rest of it, it will not be easy to get round the current impasse.
I have no simple answer, but some points can be made. First, we and the Arab states must be thinking about what we can do to help them take the big emotional decisions. One point we hear with regard to the Arab states is that they could go back to the Arab peace initiative and sort of rebrand it, or fold that into the emerging agreement from the existing talks. Unfortunately, the Arab states that would support the Arab peace initiative are themselves now focusing on other issues and on the threats that they face, including the proxy wars going on between Iran and its allies and the Shia Muslim states as well. With that proxy war going on there is not much chance of movement being made in that direction.
Some people suggest from time to time that if the Palestinian issue were solved, that in itself would resolve all the other problems in the Middle East, but I am beginning to suspect that the truth is really the other way round. Until all the other issues in the Middle East are solved, we will never get the necessary momentum to resolve the Israel-Palestine issue, even though we can see the outline of the solution. So the other thing that we have to encourage the parties and their supporters to do is understand the difficulties of the other side. It is hugely important to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and to try to work out what his problems are and how we can help him deal with them.
However, we have a legacy, which was summed up by Shimon Peres on another occasion when he said that one of the problems was that each side distrusted the other and each side believed that it had good reason for such distrust. Somehow we have to get over that, but we have to remember that at the end of the day the only people who can solve this are the people who live there. That is hugely important; it is the Palestinians and the Israelis who have to solve this. We can offer help but it is not helpful for us, or any outsider, to proceed by berating one party or the other and wagging fingers at them.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for getting time for this debate.
I will start by saying that next year we will have the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, and in many ways what is going on in the Middle East right now—not just in Israel, Palestine and Syria, but what has already happened in Iraq and so on—is basically cleaning up the mess left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. We played a big role in dismantling the Ottoman Empire and in the unsettled business of the borders of Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan. All those problems are still there and we are still trying to solve them. Indeed, we see from Syria how bloody it can get if people do not take a reasonable view of where they belong.
I have always held the view, which was once upon a time held in the Labour Party, that the two-state solution is not viable. There is a single piece of land and two peoples each believe they have an historic right to it, going back to time immemorial. In some points of view they are both right; they are both passionate; and of course the settlement that has been made has not satisfied anybody—neither the winners nor the losers.
I have always believed that we ought to abandon the search for a two-state solution in drawing or not drawing boundaries. There ought to be one multi-ethnic, multireligious state in that territory which can accommodate the Arabs and the Jews together so that they can live in harmony and peace. It will be the land of both those people, not exclusively of one of them. That is why the only sensible solution to this problem—but of course it will not happen, because nobody gives up what they have, especially when it comes to land. The history of the 20th century and now the 21st century is littered with land disputes in which people have killed each other in incredible numbers.
I do not know how we can create a neutral force of well-intentioned people who can promote the idea that it is possible to have a state in the Holy Land in which Muslims, Jews and Christians can live together. Jerusalem, after all, is the centre of all three religions. Somehow, because they are ultimately the same people—they are not different people—I hope that at some stage somebody, somewhere, will start a movement to create a single, peaceful, multifaith state in that territory.
I am reminded of how we solved the problem of Northern Ireland. There was a very passionate dispute there among people of the same religion but different sects. It took a long time—100 years—but we solved it. There was the good will to solve it, and I hope that we can solve this problem.
The Palestinian situation needs to be redefined, if it is to be resolved. The people of historic Palestine have been saddled with the most intense and long-standing stream of emotional and political support, more than any refugee community has received in modern times. Such support, however, has been deluding the Palestinian people and kept them from facing a painful reality—an impossible dream. Their country and homes in Palestine have been permanently lost. Others forced to accept the stark reality of permanent displacement have ultimately been able to move forward with their lives, because they were allowed to settle as full citizens in adopted countries. Not so Palestinians—more than often they are treated as second-class citizens, with little or no civil rights.
The Palestine tragedy has played into the hands of some with the displacement, the Nakba, becoming a cause célèbre for Arabs and Muslims without sufficient support in practical terms. The Israelis have understood all this, and so was created the Palestinian Authority, which has done little more than legitimise de facto Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This illusion of return maintained by the Palestinian leadership has achieved the net result of perpetuating the misery for the Palestinian people, who have never given up the powerful emotion of hope. Some would say that this illusion of return has provided a powerful excuse to avoid integrating the Palestinian refugees as full citizens—the excuse being that the never-to-be-fulfilled dream of eventual return to Palestine, and being given citizenship, technically undermined their right of return to Palestine and so should be denied them.
This humiliation tears at the heart of all Palestinians, who care more vehemently about this than any issue in their lives. I combine my remarks on the impossibility of ownership of ancestral land with the critical need to have a legal identity—citizenship with full rights that would allow a person to operate productively in the modern world. This means having a passport and legal residency enabling them to live, work, and travel, such as those of a citizen of any respected state.
Why might the time be arriving when Palestinians might consider the painful reality? The first generation, which lived through the Nakba, has now passed. Subsequent Palestinians have endured years of suffering, having grown up in refugee camps with minimal education, training or work opportunities. As things stand, there is no viable future for them or their children. What is required is a collective decision of the Palestinians, but only by those Palestinians who have no nationality, since they are the only ones paying the price. A referendum of all stateless Palestinians should take place on the single question of right of return and claims to Jerusalem in return for nationality and a homeland. Israel should proactively adopt and drive this catalyst for change. It holds the cards and is the only player with the hard power to effect change on the ground.
Rejectionists might resort to terrorism, but the support of the Palestinian people who will have voted will have an enormous stake in its success. Their will would prevail in creating a foundation block in rebuilding a secure and prosperous Levant—failing which, a son of ISIS could become the future of the region. The sensitivity of return must be balanced with the prospect of life in dignity for their children and their children’s children.
Step forward King Abdullah. The time has arrived for the people to decide. Give them the hope they cherish. Let this become a defining moment, a time of partnership, allowing Israel to redefine its contribution to the Arab world.
My Lords, as is usual, I draw your attention to my entry in the register of interests, which shows my involvement in a number of Israel-related organisations, and that I made a trip to Israel earlier this year with the APPG on Israel with other members of this House as guests of the Israeli Government, to which I shall refer again in a few minutes.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, on securing this debate. He has long been interested in this subject, as has all of Parliament. Your Lordships will be aware that, in 2015, more Written Questions were asked on foreign affairs than any subject other than health and, other than Iraq and Syria, Israel has attracted more Questions than any other country on the planet. One may wonder why.
The Question is of course important, but is the Israel-Palestinian conflict the real issue of the day? We all want to ensure that our Government are doing everything possible to promote peace in the area. However, I have my reservations as to the purpose of any conference and its likelihood of success.
Before the funeral of the much-missed and highly respected Shimon Peres, the last time President Abbas and Mr Netanyahu met publicly was in 2010. Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly publicly offered to meet President Abbas wherever and whenever, without any preconditions. President Abbas has made clear that he is not in a position to move the peace process forward unless Israel meets his requirements: namely, to stop settlement construction which he and others, but not all, regard as illegal; to release the fourth batch of prisoners; and to establish a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. It is clear from reading the Arab press that it would be impossible for President Abbas to meet Mr Netanyahu without achieving some of those demands. President Abbas made a very brave move to attend the funeral, but he has his own restraints.
When the APPG visited the PLO head office in Ramallah, it was made apparent to us that the PLO has real concerns about its future. We have just learned that the elections for the West Bank and Gaza have been postponed again. Initially scheduled for
President Abbas, who is 81, is now in the 11th year of his four-year mandate. Accordingly, I ask my noble friend what steps are being taken by the British Government to assist in fair elections so that the Palestinian people, most of whom urgently seek peace, have, and fair representation to allow peace talks to happen.
In the meantime, the violence continues. Only on Sunday, two Israelis were killed in East Jerusalem, and photographs have been published showing Hamas supporters handing out sweets and baklava to celebrate this tragedy.
On the positive side, there is much in Jerusalem to celebrate. As chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation in the UK, I am delighted to highlight the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem, where half the children are Arab and half Jewish, as are the teachers and as is the curriculum. It is initiatives such as this that Her Majesty’s Government may wish to consider supporting.
In summary, it may not be fruitful to seek large showpiece photo-opportunity conferences, but on-the-ground support for real peace initiatives must be encouraged.
My Lords, speaking from this Bench as a non-affiliated Peer is a new experience for me. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this debate. Even as we speak, we are witnessing—200 miles from Israel’s northern border—the total destruction of an ancient Arab city. What we see in Aleppo makes what happened in Sarajevo in the 1990s seem like a children’s picnic. The annihilation of Syria is ghastly and what is happening in Yemen could become just as bad. Russia and the Assad regime are guilty of war crimes, and maybe genocide—just for once, I agree with Boris Johnson when he says that we should protest outside the Russian Embassy. Putin has much to answer for. This morning, I was shocked and aghast to hear Seamus Milne, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest acolytes, saying that, instead of Russia, we should be protesting outside the US Embassy. But what should I really expect?
Two weeks ago, as everyone knows, Shimon Peres passed away. At his funeral, 70 countries were represented by their political leaders, including President Obama, President Hollande and the President of Germany. From our own country, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was there with two ex-Prime Ministers, Cameron and Blair. But surely the most significant presence was that of Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority. He was fulsomely welcomed as the leader of his people—he knew just how much Peres had worked for peace.
Israel has a population of 8 million people. On the map, it is just a dot surrounded by a huge Arab land mass. Why then, at such short notice, did so many of the world’s great and good make the long journey to Jerusalem? Surely it was because Peres was such an indefatigable fighter for peace. He never gave up; no matter how often the peace talks with the Palestinians broke down, he picked himself up and kept fighting for what he believed. As President Obama, quoting Peres, said in his eloquent eulogy:
“The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people”.
Sadly, Peres never saw peace happen. He was the architect of modern Israel. After the Second World War, the new state gathered into its parched land the traumatised remnants of the Holocaust. It also welcomed those 700,000 Jews forcibly expelled from Arab lands. Israel was a small country, seemingly unable to defend itself and surrounded by hostile countries baying for its destruction. But, due to Peres’s efforts, they were thwarted. He was instrumental in building Israel into a military powerhouse—a military builder, but also the man who founded the world-renowned Peres Peace Institute.
Israel today is not threatened by any nation. It has signed long-lasting peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Syria—its most hostile enemy—and Iraq are in total chaos, and Iran’s nuclear threat has been neutralised. The only dangers come from Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel is a world leader in agriculture, technology, medicine and science. Using home-grown desalination techniques, it manufactures all its water needs. The days of the threat of drought have gone.
How much could Israel offer to its neighbours were peace to prevail? Recently, it has developed huge reserves of gas and oil in the eastern Mediterranean; no longer are its energy supplies threatened by boycotts. It is also working closely with its neighbours: with Egypt on energy, agriculture and security; with Jordan on science and gas; and with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on intelligence and, of course, technology.
All my life I have prayed and fought for a two-state solution, but today I am more pessimistic than ever. I am not sure that either side is that interested in preparing to do what it takes to change the impasse. It feels like the tide of history is moving in the wrong direction. Making peace seems less and less likely. It is a sad outcome, but it feels inevitable.
My Lords, I would like to add to the words of other noble Lords on what we might learn about the pursuit of peace in the Middle East from the life of a man who did more than most to that end, the late Prime Minister and President of Israel, Shimon Peres. He was one of a remarkable generation of Israel’s founding fathers who began as hawks and ended as doves and who showed no less courage in pursuit of peace than they had done in the course of war. He was the last of that generation, and the older he became, the younger his vision grew. He never despaired of peace with the Palestinians, no matter how many times he failed. In 1996, he set up the Peres Center to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians by bringing people together in their shared humanity, through medicine, healthcare, sport, the arts, business and the environment. In July of this year, he launched the Israel Innovation Centre to harness new communications technology to build virtual bridges where physical ones did not yet exist.
The last time I was with him, he was already in his 93rd year. Somebody asked him how he stayed so young. He replied, “First, you have to count your achievements, then you have to count your dreams. If your achievements outnumber your dreams, you are already old. If your dreams outnumber your achievements, you are still young”. He lived the words of the Prophet Joel:
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people … your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions”.
Where others despaired, Shimon Peres dreamed dreams.
WB Yeats once wrote: “In dreams begin responsibilities”. Now that Shimon Peres is no longer with us, his dreams have become our responsibilities. What if Her Majesty’s Government were to encourage others to see the Middle East in the way Shimon Peres did? What if there are other paths to peace beyond politics, diplomacy or war? What if trade is the most powerful antidote to war and there is an economic road map to peace? What if education has a role? What if the peoples of the Middle East taught their young not to hate those with whom they will one day have to live? The only way Her Majesty’s Government or any other body will advance the cause of peace will be by communicating to both sides that they are heard, that their fears are understood and that they have to recognise the legitimacy of each other’s existence.
In that context, while I salute Her Majesty’s Government’s opposition to today’s UNESCO vote denying the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, the vote itself is an outrage and will achieve nothing but to further damage trust and set back prospects for peace. Shimon Peres knew that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is not a zero-sum game, because from peace both sides gain; from violence, both sides lose. Above all, he was right never to give up hope, because when hope is lost, there comes first fear, then anger, then hate. Not by accident is Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah”, which means “The Hope”.
Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year, when we atone and then we move on. Surely the time has come for both sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict to admit wrongs, real or perceived, and to move on. The most powerful thing that Her Majesty’s Government could do is to encourage both sides to continue along the path that Shimon Peres walked as one of the great visionaries of our time.
My Lords, I have just returned from my first ever visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, organised by the All-Party Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I now feel that I have seen some things that allow me to express myself on this subject.
We visited a wonderful organisation called Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow, known as MEET. Over 12 years, MEET has brought together 400 excelling Israeli and Palestinian youth, aged 15 to 18, in their two hubs in Nazareth and Jerusalem. Each year, MEET engages approximately 170 of the most talented Israeli and Palestinian youth and currently has 300 graduates regionally and internationally. The system that it has set up is an excellent example. It has no commercial interest; rather, it just wants to promote peace and co-existence. Surely this is a wonderful model, which should be replicated. Not only do high school students receive invaluable entrepreneurial skills, which will benefit them and their careers, as well as having the knock-on effect of benefiting their wider community and economy, but they also fraternise with people of their own age whom their parents and their political leaders might even say they should be killing. Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to fund more co-existence projects like MEET?
I was born in the state of Punjab in India in 1935, 12 years before partition in 1947. Millions of innocent lives were lost during partition. They did not do anything wrong. They were killed purely because of the country they belonged to. During our visit, we went to Yad Vashem, where I laid a wreath during a memorial service to commemorate the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis purely because of the religion they belonged to—nothing else. These two horrendous atrocities have taught me a great lesson and should serve as a great lesson to the world, too. The people who suffer the most through wars are the innocent people.
Loss of life can be prevented only if we have a robust peace plan between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel has agreed to give a helping hand to the Palestinian state, which should be accepted. The Prime Minister of Israel has stated publicly on many occasions that he is willing to return to the negotiating table without any preconditions. However, President Abbas seems unwilling to co-operate. I was pleased to see the two shake hands at the funeral of former President Shimon Peres and I hope that this will lead to the resumption of talks. Many world leaders have resolved such issues without bloodshed—to name just a few, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela, when he unified the nation of South Africa after his release from prison. Coincidentally, all these three great leaders and advocates of peace have statues in Parliament Square. We should follow their example.
The economic growth of Israel is remarkable. Increased economic ties will help both sides and consequently world development. Israel has very strong ties with the UK, the US and India. In fact, during our visit the Indian Minister of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Radha Mohan Singh, was there and met Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, and they discussed a variety of existing and future opportunities for co-operation. The UK is Israel’s second-largest trading partner; bilateral trade is worth £5 billion a year and has doubled in the last decade. Can the Minister say what plans there are to further the already prosperous bilateral trade relationship?
On our final morning in Israel, we had the extreme privilege of being hosted by the Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin. I will conclude by sharing with you the conversation I had with him. I said to him: “Mr President, everyone else has asked you a question. However, I actually don’t have any questions for you. You see, after hearing your excellent words this morning and from what I have seen from this week in Israel on my first visit, I have no questions, because everything is so clear to me. What the state of Israel has developed in just over 70 years since its creation is just simply marvellous and this miraculous small country has no parallel in the world”.
We must do everything possible to encourage both sides to return to the negotiating table to agree to a long-lasting peace solution, where the security of the innocent populations, both the Israelis and Palestinians, is guaranteed.
Time is short, my Lords, so I will start with my conclusion. The essence of the issue is the right of Jewish self-determination, and the Arab rejection of Jewish statehood, its refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Solve that, and the other issues can be negotiated. There is no enduring value in sitting at the negotiating table and talking peace, while in the Arab street, media and politics, hate and denial prevail. The whole world needs a change in the Arab Islamic political culture, which does not currently promote peace, democracy and human rights.
If not direct negotiations then we need a new ideology, Israeli/Palestinian co-operation and support from Europe for Israel. We need grass-roots activism from young Palestinians in institutions such as the Interfaith Encounter Association, OneVoice and the Peres Center for Peace. We need to support the British Council in Israel, Ben-Gurion University and the UK Government, who should be congratulated on the Science and Innovation Network, which is enabling Israeli and Palestinian water experts to meet and co-operate in the UK.
To change hearts and minds, the Government should call on the Palestinian Authority to stop promoting the murder of Jews, to stop the financial support of murderers and to stop indoctrinating children with hatred and suicide tactics. Two states would be fine, but the real issue is the recognition of Israel, on which Abbas has reiterated refusal over the decades. Let us be clear about this: the Palestinian National Covenant aims at the elimination of Israel in its entirety and denies nationhood to Jews. How can you negotiate with this stance any more than nation states can negotiate with ISIS?
The Palestinians rejected the offer of statehood in 1947, 1967, 1978 and 2008. There were no settlements then. That was never the barrier; it was the Palestinian rejection of any Jewish presence. Proof is present in the proclaimed Palestinian plan to sue the United Kingdom for the Balfour Declaration. How can they say at one and the same time that the barrier to peace is settlements but then seek to undermine Israel’s moment of conception? The hostile attitude of some parliamentarians undermines the position of the UK as a partner for peace or negotiation.
There have been 334 debates and Questions about Israel in this Chamber in 12 months and 13 about Libya. If Israel, instead of Russia and Syria, were bombing Aleppo or killing and arresting children on the scale that is happening in Turkey and Syria, then protests might be justified. Israel looks at the silence in relation to other countries and cannot take criticism of Israel here or in the United Nations with any seriousness. The anti-Zionists encourage Palestinians to believe that, if they hold out with terror long enough, they will get what they want.
It is not the occupation that causes the conflict; it is the conflict that necessitates the occupation. Israel is perfectly capable of withdrawing its citizens from disputed territory, as happened in Gaza and Sinai, with the result that terrorists moved in and no state-building occurred. In any case, why should there not be 400,000 Jews living in a tiny 1% or 2% of the territory of the future Palestine? Is Palestine to be yet another judenrein Muslim state, where no Jews, or Christians, are to be allowed to exist?
Peace can occur only with a change of heart not only on the part of the Palestinians but on the part of the West, with its obsessive bias against Israel, and on the part of the United Nations. Many more states in the Middle East are recognising that Israel is not an enemy but an ally in the fight against fanaticism. The United Kingdom needs to be on its side.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this debate.
I am ashamed that nearly 100 years after the Balfour Declaration we have honoured only one half of it. The half which has been ignored is:
“it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Has Mr Netanyahu read this recently, I wonder, with his ever-expanding illegal settlements and discriminatory laws and brutality towards Palestinian children in particular, ensuring that they will grow up wanting revenge and fuelling more and more terrorism?
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, mentioned a one-state solution, but the lion lying down with the lamb is a dream. It seems to me that Mr Netanyahu and President Abbas are both perfectly happy with the status quo. It allows Netanyahu to carry on taking Palestinian land and President Abbas, quite happy with his well-paid job, to act as Israel’s servant in the West Bank.
My solution would be, as you might expect, quite radical. I think that we should impose sanctions on trade with Israel—yes, government-led BDS—and stop all aid and payments to the Palestinian Authority, including those paid to Gaza. We should stop those payments until Netanyahu and President Abbas sit down in a closed room with representatives of Hamas, who were the legitimately elected Government of the West Bank the last time that President Abbas allowed elections. They should stay there—all sides under strict sanctions—until an agreement is reached. Pressure has to be exerted on both sides; otherwise, everything will continue as now and Israel will go on fulfilling its ambitions for a greater Israel and more and more Palestinians will die or become refugees—the whole situation will get more and more violent on both sides.
I want to make two other points. The current McCarthyite-style persecution of all critics of the Government of Israel must cease. We cannot have a fair and honest debate about anything so long as any opponents of the Israeli Government are accused of anti-Semitism. We must refute the claim made by the Israeli ambassador, Mr Mark Regev, on “Channel 4 News” a few nights ago. When tackled by an unusually brave interviewer, Jackie Long, on this subject, he said on two occasions that critics of the Israeli Government were denying Israel’s right to exist. I have never done that. I know that some people dispute the legality of UN Resolution 181 and the Balfour Declaration, but they are plenty good enough for me.
Israel has existed for 70 years now and, in many ways, is a very great country. But if she wants to continue with that right to exist and to be such a wonderful place, she must change and accord the same right to the Palestinian people by ensuring that they also have a prosperous and secure state, living side by side with Israel.
My Lords, reviving the peace process is possible but complex, as it exists on many levels: the people-to-people level, on the ground; the regional level, among the neighbouring countries; and the world level, among nations. However, at the leadership level in both countries, self-serving minorities who do not want peace hold the balance of votes. To change this, let us support several positive projects for the first three.
At the people-to-people level, Combatants for Peace are ex-Palestinian fighters and ex-military Israelis who have previously taken an active role in the cycle of violence. They realised that military engagement is not the way to create stability and security and are co-founders of this bi-national movement. They decided to drop their arms and work together to promote a peaceful solution through dialogue and non-violent action. Their mind-changing, high-quality film, “Disturbing the Peace”, is to be shown in London on
Two States One Homeland is a group of Palestinians and Israelis who concluded that the endless repetitive, divisive negotiations for the current two-state solution will not work. They realise that the two nations, each separately, hold deep convictions that all the land is their own sacred homeland. As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, it is emotional. They now recognise the deep-felt narrative of the other side and are dealing with them as neighbours. They offer two states, each with their own separate constitutional settlement, but in one homeland in the form of a confederation, with a separate jointly agreed constitutional arrangement that allows for freedom of movement, distinguishes between “residency” and “citizenship”, and will manage the co-ordination of education, health, welfare, policing, security, economics and ecology.
The complex conversations they are holding on the ground, people to people, require great sensitivity and expertise, which we have here in the UK. The Crowd Foundation here, led by Alan Watkins, has been helping with this facilitation. A UK Government-funded extended visit of their team to the region to manage meetings with all concerned would greatly help to move things forward.
In Jerusalem, Isaac Hassan at his hub, PICO, is creating co-ownership companies with Palestinians and Israelis online. This summer, PICO arranged a simultaneous live streaming of young entrepreneurs from both east and west Jerusalem to pitch successfully to investors in a London hub, the Innovation Warehouse. It is now planning a similar event for next year, simultaneously from Egypt, Palestine and Israel, centring again into London. The Mayor of London could help here, thus enhancing our reputation as a worldwide hub.
This brings me to the wider regional agreement. Koby Huberman’s framework for a two-state solution leverages the Arab peace initiative, and William Morris from the Next Century Foundation is developing with Egypt and others a phased implementation of the Arab peace initiative. The Arab neighbours need to stabilise the region and offer their young people hope. These initiatives need help to bring together leaders from the Arab world to work with Israelis and Palestinians. Will the Minister help encourage Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to engage with these groups under the good auspices of Her Majesty’s Government?
On the world scale, Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum just published an enlightened book called The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which demonstrates how digital technologies are revolutionising every industry globally. We could help Egypt, now fragile, to leap into this new paradigm, in the same way fragile Germany leaped into the third industrial revolution after the war. For example, Egyptian long staple cotton is the best in the world. The Egyptian Junior Business Association is developing a huge project to help Egypt actualise its potential. We in the UK are experts on cotton. So is Israel. China is hungry for these resources and will invest. As a way to regional harmony, will Her Majesty’s Government help us bring from the UK, Israel and the world appropriate technologies and investment to Egypt, where we know they are trying to reform and grow to help the millions of people there? Saving Egypt is perhaps our last hope for stability in that region.
Finally, in the same vein, when our APPG on Egypt visited Sharm el-Sheik, we were told by our representative in the Department for Transport that he could now see no reason why we should not fly there. Can we resume flights soon to help the 4 million people there and their tourism industry?
My Lords, I am happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stone, because he usually has some constructive suggestions. Today there is little or no peace process, but the issue of Israel and Palestine cannot be ignored or avoided, so I thank my noble friend Lord Dykes for this debate. I will avoid the past and concentrate on two current questions, the first about Palestine, the second concerning Israel.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, I ask: what is Her Majesty’s Government’s approach and attitude to comprehensive Palestinian municipal elections? “Comprehensive” means in the West Bank, in Gaza and in east Jerusalem. There has been no real test of public opinion for more than 10 years on the Palestinian side. Municipal elections have been proposed as a small start, since they affect the daily lives of the voters. They could allow reasonable voices to emerge in a deeply divided society. Such elections have been postponed several times by the Palestinian Authority. However, we know that external powers largely control the purse strings of that authority. Perhaps there is a little room for persuasion.
Regarding Israel, your Lordships may have noted my Oral Question of yesterday about Palestinian children in military custody. Will the Government press for action on this? There is little doubt that Israel is in breach of six articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and of two articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Surely this is an issue on which Israel could make small concessions to world opinion. We are talking about only 400 or 500 children in detention at any one time. If Israel goes on dragging its feet on the recommendations of two independent reports, it is hard not to conclude that it prefers low-level violence—for instance, stone throwing and stabbings—to anything like confidence-building measures leading to real negotiations.
If the dwindling chances of two states living in peace, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, are now missed, we shall be left with one state, whether de facto or de jure. That will cancel the Zionist vision and mean the end of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state. Is that what the Israeli people really want?
The Minister has done valiant work for women in war and conflict. Will she work equally hard for children at risk? I have given notice of my questions and look forward to helpful replies.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for enabling your Lordships’ House to consider such an important issue. I also visited Israel a few weeks ago as part of an all-party parliamentary delegation. My time there opened my eyes not only to the proximity and vulnerability of the Middle East’s superpower to the immediate and existential threats it faces, but to the fragility of freedom—the freedom to be Israel, the freedom to exist, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, highlighted so powerfully.
Seeing Israel up close forced me to put myself in Israeli shoes and ask myself: how would I feel to be surrounded by forces that denied my country’s right to exist and pledged to wipe my country, and with it the region’s only democracy, off the map?
As Israel attempts to absorb the horror of last weekend’s drive-by Hamas terrorist shootings, I might also ask the question: with whom should my country negotiate? Should it be with Hamas terrorists, who have used my country’s withdrawal from Gaza to turn it into a launchpad for terrorist rocket attacks on Israeli civilians and who, even now, are openly constructing terrorist tunnels, using hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cement supposedly destined for reconstruction but instead designated by Hamas for destruction—the destruction of Israeli lives?
Perhaps my country should negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas instead. However, it is one thing to step up to the podium of the UN General Assembly; it is quite another to step up to the plate as a credible partner for peace. Relying on extremism, such as glorifying terrorist murderers of sleeping children as martyrs and inciting five year-olds to racial hatred of Jews—mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech—is no basis for providing a credible partnership for peace or engendering trust among Israelis, the very people whom President Abbas must convince of his good faith as a prerequisite to successful negotiations.
The worst thing we could do today would be inadvertently to send the Palestinians a signal that violence pays and that more drive-by shootings, more stabbings and more rocket attacks will somehow force the Israelis to the negotiating table. Terrorism must not, cannot, triumph. Surely, credible negotiations require a credible partnership for peace.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Trimble that we can be ready to encourage, to facilitate and to support when the Israelis and the Palestinians are themselves ready to talk peace, but we can neither ensure the revival of negotiations nor assume the crucial role of credible partners. Only the interested parties in the Middle East can do that.
When I told my Israeli granddaughter that I was speaking in a debate on the peace process, she said, “What peace process?”. She was simply reflecting the widespread cynicism among Israelis—and, I fear, among Palestinians, too. When Khalil Shikaki, the respected Palestinian pollster, conducted his recent public opinion poll, he found that only a minority of Palestinians believed in a two-state solution—and this is similar to Israeli opinion now. The saddest thing is that the reason they feel this way is that they believe the other side do not want it. That is a complete misunderstanding of the other, but it is no wonder when the only Israelis that Palestinians see are those in full army gear and the only Palestinians that Israelis see are knife-wielding and gun-wielding terrorists. Israelis believe that the Palestinians would throw them into the sea if they could, while Palestinians see the takeover of all the land they want for their own state. These entrenched positions are not helped by the size of the problems facing the two sides.
Despite all the attention given to the settlements, these are not the biggest problem. Withdrawal from settlements in the Sinai, Gaza and from four settlements in the West Bank shows that the principle of withdrawal is established, given sufficient security measures for Israel. The biggest problems are not those: they are the position of future borders, the return of refugees—as we have heard—and, perhaps biggest of all, the position of Jerusalem that is so important to Muslims and Jews. Of course, there must also be the renunciation of violence and a willingness to accept the idea that Israel is a Jewish state.
Solutions to all these problems have been on the table many times: withdrawal from most settlements with land swaps for the towns immediately adjacent to Jerusalem; the return of a small number of refugees to Israel, and resettlement and compensation for others; a division of Jerusalem into Muslim and Jewish halves along the lines of one or other of the enormous number of proposals that have been made over the years; a just solution for the Palestinians and security for Israel. But something always gets in the way of a final agreement: an assassination, a terrorist attack, incitement to violence and so on.
Now there is doubt that Mr Abbas is even interested in trying to negotiate. He is deeply unpopular at home for having achieved so little for his people and for the corruption that permeates his regime. Mr Netanyahu is not trusted, even though he keeps saying that he will go anywhere, at any time, to negotiate face to face, without preconditions. But now there seems to be a glimmer of hope with the initiative of President Sisi of Egypt and the Arab peace initiative led by Saudi Arabia. There is a remarkable alignment of interests between the pragmatic Arab states and Israel as they face the common threats of Iran and ISIL.
There is an opportunity for the UK to give its strong support to these initiatives, and to exert pressure on Mr Abbas to take up Sisi’s offer to mediate. Mr Netanyahu has already agreed, and now would be a good time to test whether he is as wedded to a peaceful two-state solution as he professes. There are tantalising glimpses of what the future could mean for Palestinians and Israelis. Will it take a long time? Probably. Will it require new leaders with fresh approaches? Almost certainly. Is it worth all the effort and pain? Absolutely.
My Lords, I will add a few words in what is known as the gap. The UK is an important player in the ongoing quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We retain good relations with both parties. Therefore, the UK’s influence can only be helpful in an increasingly volatile Middle East.
The bilateral relationship between the UK and Israel, in particular, has never been stronger, whether in trade, technology, academia, the military or between Governments. Trade is at a record high, amounting to more than £4 billion in 2015, and is on course to increase this year. More than 300 Israeli companies are currently operating in the UK and Israel has expressed an interest in becoming one of the first countries to secure a free trade agreement with the UK, which will benefit both our nations.
Peace cannot be imposed by one party or another from the outside. The Palestinian Authority’s recent unilateral actions at the UN and in other international fora simply take us further away from that long-sought peace deal. I hope that your Lordships will welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated offer for talks anytime, anywhere. I hope that our Government can use their influence to persuade the Palestinian Authority to respond positively.
One prerequisite for successful talks is an end to violence and the renunciation of it. Sadly, Hamas remains committed to the violent destruction of Israel and examples abound of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority endorsing and encouraging violence against Israel. To this end, I welcome DfID’s recent announcement that it is temporarily suspending a portion of aid to the PA, pending investigation into claims that the PA has been paying salaries to convicted terrorists. The PA’s financial endorsement of terrorism should appal many in this House.
Against all these difficulties, it is a source of hope to see the incredible work that is being done by many in Israel to build trust across the divide between the two communities. One example is the work of Save a Child’s Heart. Each Tuesday morning, children from Gaza with congenital heart conditions travel to this Israeli charity, along with their parents, for a free clinic and to receive life-saving heart surgery. This remarkable Israeli charity has saved the lives of 2,000 Palestinian children in the past few years, along with 2,000 other children from countries as far away as Afghanistan and Zambia. The work of this organisation and countless others is showing the next generation that there is an alternative to violence and, thanks to such work, I am more hopeful—a bit more hopeful—about the future.
Finally, I ask my noble friend the Minister to urge her department to consider supporting some of the coexistence projects. This would be tangible evidence of the Government’s commitment to peace. Therein lie the seeds of the future peace.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for introducing this debate. Next year’s centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in the preparation of which I applaud the Liberal role, gives an opportunity to celebrate the success of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people and its huge achievements, as cited by the noble Lords, Lord Mitchell and Lord Sacks.
Recognition of the right of Israel to exist as such a homeland and in security must be the foundation of any peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, asserted that Israel has all the security it needs. It does not, not at all, as others have noted. Of course, I am aware of the call to give unilateral recognition to a state of Palestine, irrespective of negotiations. But I believe that that would hit a brick wall and only direct negotiations between the parties can achieve a lasting two-state solution. Will the Minister tell us what representations Her Majesty’s Government have made recently to the Palestinian Authority to accept the Israeli Government’s offer of negotiations without preconditions? Does she see a helpful context in the warming relationship and security co-operation between Israel and a number of Arab states, especially Egypt and Jordan, with which economic co-operation is also advancing, as others have noted? Of course, this would have warmed the cockles of the heart of the late, lamented Shimon Peres.
The superiority of two states living peacefully side by side over the present situation is self-evident but it requires hard work with a mix of pressure and incentives on both sides, not instant solutions. It is not platitudinous to say that those direct negotiations are essential. I thought that the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, was particularly valuable. Of course, he knows what he is talking about regarding the emotional hurdles to a peaceful settlement.
Other progress needs to be made on the ground to foster greater trust through an end to violence, murder and incitement to hatred—particularly, though not exclusively, Palestinian; an end to settlement construction and the obstruction of Palestinian development; and an end to the illicit arms build-up and militant activity in Gaza. But there are also all the educational and cultural exchanges that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and others mentioned. There is the medical collaboration just mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Grade, and the economic collaborations described by the noble Lord, Lord Stone. In such a complicated situation, it is necessary to do all this kind of work to support the possibility of dialogue and negotiations. Boycotts are not only ineffective but absurd in a situation where we are trying to get people to work together. I was proud of the role that I was able to play as a Member of the European Parliament in securing an agreement between the EU and Israel on pharmaceutical trade.
I want to say a word about anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. Too many of those who claim to be only anti-Zionist use it as a fig leaf for prejudice and bigotry towards Jews. It is frankly absurd to claim that it is impossible to criticise Israel or its Government’s actions without being accused of anti-Semitism. Tell that to the Members of the Knesset, who make PMQs in the other place look like a vicarage tea-party.
Lastly, I share the outrage of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, at the decision by UNESCO to question any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. That this is unhelpful in the extreme goes without saying. For a UN body not to acknowledge the significance of the Temple Mount to Jews is beyond belief. What we need is all these measures of confidence and trust to support the possibility of negotiations, not the blunt instrument of measures such as boycotts.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating this debate. While I hear my noble friend Lord Desai, I cannot agree with him. I believe absolutely in the right of Israel to exist and the Labour Party remains committed to a two-state solution that recognises the importance of security and stability. Like the Government, we recognise that it is essential that the UK continues to support dialogue and keep the two-state solution alive. I agree with my noble friend that we should be backing fully all initiatives, including the Arab peace initiative. Whatever hope there is, we have to ensure that hope remains strong.
Earlier this year, the Middle East quartet reiterated its concerns over the events that undermine reaching that eventual agreement of a two-state solution. On the one hand, we have continuing violence, terrorist attacks against civilians and incitement to violence, as we have heard in this debate. On the other hand, we have the continuing policy of settlement construction and expansion, the designation of land for exclusive Israeli use and the denial of Palestinian development. Noble Lords have referred to the continuing absence of Palestinian unity, which will clearly affect progress.
I want to focus on three of the quartet’s specific recommendations, which this debate has fundamentally been about. What should the Palestinian Authority do? It should act decisively and take all steps within its capacity to cease incitement to violence and strengthen ongoing efforts to combat terrorism. Israel should cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion and designating land for exclusive Israeli use. The final recommendation I want to focus on is that parties should foster a climate of tolerance, including through increasing interaction and co-operation in a variety of fields—economic, professional, educational and cultural. The new, young generation will benefit from those by working and living together.
What is the Minister’s assessment of how we can progress the objectives set by the quartet? Does she agree that UK financial and political support for those cultural, economic and professional exchanges can assist the two parties to begin to trust each other? We have to focus on how to build trust.
“And yet, he did not stop dreaming, and he did not stop working … Even in the face of terrorist attacks, even after repeated disappointments at the negotiation table, he insisted that as human beings, Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews, and must therefore be equal in self-determination … he believed that the Zionist idea would be best protected when Palestinians, too, had a state of their own”.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for giving the House the opportunity to debate these issues today. I will now reflect on some of the major issues raised in what is one of the most difficult peace processes we have seen for some while.
Our long-standing policy on the peace process is well known, but I hope not to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, entirely by being consistent—there will be something fresh coming forward in a moment. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees. A just and lasting peace agreement is needed to end the occupation and deliver the peace for both Israel and Palestine which is long overdue.
My noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about our approach and attitude to comprehensive Palestinian municipal elections. We note Tuesday’s decision by the Palestinian cabinet to postpone local elections for four months in all governorates of the Occupied Territories. We recognise that it is a matter for the Palestinian people, but that does not stop us expressing our disappointment. The UK and EU partners have called on the Palestinian leadership to work towards genuine and democratic elections for all Palestinians based on respect for the rule of law and human rights.
With regard to other questions in this section, I shall address one raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, who pressed us on boycotts and asked why we do not impose them on Israel. We have made our position consistently clear. While we will not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever we feel it necessary, we are firmly opposed to boycotts. We believe that imposing sanctions on Israel or supporting anti-Israel boycotts would not support our efforts to progress the peace process and achieve a negotiated solution.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to children in custody. My noble friend Lady Goldie, who is beside me in the Chamber, answered a Question yesterday at col. 1886. I simply repeat that the Government will indeed press for action on these matters, but I can add a personal perspective. I have on two occasions while meeting representatives of the Government of Israel personally made representations about the position of children in custody. I do that not because I have a geographic responsibility but because of my responsibility as Minister for Human Rights. I undertake to continue that pressure.
The Question tabled today directs us to the need for renewed and redoubled efforts to find a resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. We strongly support Secretary Kerry’s tireless efforts to deliver a final status deal.
The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, asked about new initiatives. The French have sought to find a new approach, and we are in close contact with them about their initiative, which was launched in January, to develop the foundations for peace. The noble Lord, Lord Sacks, talked about economic initiatives, and this includes enhanced economic incentives and strengthened Palestinian capacity building. I know there have been further meetings through the summer discussing how that may be progressed.
My noble friend Lord Grade and others asked about coexistence building. Our embassy in Tel Aviv and consulate-general in Jerusalem work closely with all sectors of society, including the ultra-Orthodox, national-religious and Israeli-Arab communities, and the Palestinian communities affected by the occupation, to build constituencies for peace. That is important work.
Although we are doing all we can, ultimately peace will only come through fresh negotiations between the parties. It is critical that Israel and the Palestinians take advantage of any momentum gathered through international efforts. It is vital that they commit with sincerity to restarting the process and focus once again on finding common ground. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, on the importance of the UK continuing to put pressure not only on Israel and on the Palestinians but on all those involved in the negotiations and about always looking with a fresh eye at good will from those who come forward to seek to press new initiatives.
To reach the goal of an agreement, both parties must take steps to build an environment conducive to fresh negotiations and must avoid actions which undermine the viability of a two-state solution. Noble Lords have referred to the July report of the quartet, which highlighted the damaging impact of provocative Israeli and Palestinian actions. The report highlighted how certain Israeli policies are eroding the viability of the two-state solution. Far from ceasing its policy of systematic settlement expansion and removing blocks on Palestinian development, as the quartet recommended, we have seen Israel push forward plans for more than 1,500 settlement units and continue to demolish Palestinian structures. The UK Government have repeatedly stressed to Israel our deepest concern. The demolition orders issued against the Palestinian village of Susiya are particularly concerning. It would have a terrible human impact on the 350 inhabitants of Susiya. We have also seen extremely concerning reports of further so-called “legalisation” of Israeli settlement outposts deep into the West Bank. Such moves are not legal.
The foundations of a lasting and just peace—trust and good will—will never be built in an environment of incitement, terrorism and violence. We are appalled by the recent wave of terrorist attacks against innocent Israeli civilians. The UK Government’s immediate focus has been on urging all sides to encourage calm, take steps to de-escalate and avoid any measures which could further inflame the situation. The quartet report sets out the damaging effect of incitement and violence. The British Government strongly condemn, in the strongest terms I can summon up, the use of anti-Semitic, racist and hateful language. We deplore incitement on all sides of the conflict. We also continue to support the revival of the tripartite committee on incitement to address all allegations.
There is an urgent need to address the terrible situation in Gaza, which undoubtedly fuels violence. An agreement must ensure that Hamas and other terrorist groups permanently end their rocket fire against Israel, that the Palestinian Authority resumes control of Gaza and restores effective governance, and that Israel lifts its restrictions to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians. The UK will continue to urge the parties to prioritise progress towards reaching a durable solution for Gaza. All of us are appalled by the conditions under which people there live, but it is only by Israel and the Palestinians working together, and the Palestinian Authority asserting its own authority there, that we can further ease those conditions.
The Middle East peace process is of course also a regional question—a point that many noble Lords rightly made. Middle Eastern countries indeed have a significant role to play. Through the Arab peace initiative, Arab states have offered Israel the normalisation of relations in the event of a comprehensive peace agreement. This opportunity must be seized upon as part of a relaunched negotiation process.
Europe must remain a key partner in the peace process. In December 2013 we led EU efforts to set out an unprecedented package of political, economic and security support that Europe would offer to both parties in the event of a final status agreement. More needs to be done, and we will continue to work closely with EU partners.
On a regional basis, the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath, asked in particular about flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. The Government have not yet concluded that it is right to lift the restrictions on direct UK flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh. The security of British nationals is the Government’s top priority. Our security experts take account of many factors in providing advice on whether it is safe to fly to certain destinations.
Throughout all this, one has to come back to the main point that a lasting solution to the Middle East peace process is in all our interests. It requires fresh negotiations between the two sides, and we will continue to work hard to make progress. As we approach 2017 and the brutal reality of 50 years of occupation, we may indeed, as some noble Lords have said, feel disheartened. Peace seems so distant, yet the late President Peres, the President who helped broker the Oslo accords to whom tribute has been paid today, reminded the world of the need to heed his warning that, “He who has despaired from peace is the one dreaming. Whoever gives in and stops seeking peace—he is naive”. Let us remember that.
House adjourned at 6.06 pm.