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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for organising this timely debate on the US Administration’s recently announced proposals for a final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, based on a two-state solution. I will offer some comments based on my own experience, having visited Israel in recent years, and from the perspective of a lifelong businessperson.
I believe fundamentally that economic growth and prosperity for all sectors of society, in particular the youth, are essential for establishing a lasting peace for Israel and Palestine. I respectfully remind your Lordships’ House that this proposal is one of two parts. Last summer in Bahrain the US Administration, along with regional partners, released their Peace to Prosperity economic plan for Palestine. The plan consisted of three initiatives aimed at supporting distinct pillars of Palestinian society: the economy, the people, and the Government. The principal aims of the plan are: to more than double Palestinian gross domestic product; to create over 1 million Palestinian jobs; to reduce the Palestinian unemployment rate to nearly single digits; and to reduce the Palestinian poverty rate by 50%. This plan is only the most recent effort to stimulate Palestine’s economy and governance in advance of statehood. This approach was core to the endeavours by the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, during his tenure as the head of the international quartet for peace.
Whatever we may make of the US President himself, of this proposal, or of any of the many proposals offered down the years, it remains true that Palestinians will not and should not be satisfied with a stalemate that has stymied economic growth and prosperity for decades. According to the World Bank’s 2019 economic update for the West Bank and Gaza, the unemployment rate in the Palestinian territories continues to be unacceptably high. It reached 26% in the second quarter of 2019, almost the same level as it was in 2018. The most recent data agrees that around 24% of Palestinians live below the poverty line. Without a permanent status arrangement, forecasts predict that the Palestinian economy will witness contraction in the coming years— a prospect its already vulnerable population can ill afford.
I have been delighted to see trade increase between Israel and the United Kingdom by nearly 300% over the last decade. However, the political stalemate is limiting the expansion of our economic ties with Palestine, which has a similarly entrepreneurial and dynamic population. Yet, as of 2017, UK trade with the West Bank and Gaza was a mere £17 million. Put simply, we cannot have growth without peace. Despite the stalemate, others are, admirably, trying. I note the initiative announced last year by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development alongside the Palestine Investment Fund and a Dutch development company to finance impact bonds to address youth unemployment. The scheme trains up 1,000 young Palestinians and has raised $1.8 million in investment and $5 million in outcome funds to date.
The private sector seems to be stepping into a vacuum left by the Governments mired in political inertia. I know that British organisations, such as the Portland Trust, have worked tirelessly to stimulate the Palestinian economy. In this respect, can the Minister say what recent efforts the British Government have made to stimulate the Palestinian economy, create jobs for the youth in Palestine and enhance UK trade with the West Bank and Gaza?
Others have pointed to the flaws in this proposal, not least the person and the process behind him, but surely the time has come for Palestinians and Israelis to come together and agree a solution that will revive the Palestinian economy and secure a prosperous future for both people—and for British businesses, which I have no doubt would welcome the opportunity to expand ties with a new, dynamic state of Palestine.