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Israel and Palestine: United States’ Proposals for Peace - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:13 pm on 27th February 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:13 pm, 27th February 2020

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for securing this extremely important debate. We have heard some very moving accounts, not least from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Lords, Lord Leigh and Lord Mitchell.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, spoke, I retrieved a quote that I saw the other day from Bernie Sanders that is really worth quoting. He draws on his own family background and goes on to say:

“I see Israel as having the capacity to contribute to peace and prosperity for the entire region, yet unable to achieve this in part because of its unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. And I see a Palestinian people yearning to make their contribution … yet crushed beneath a military occupation that is now over a half-century old, creating a daily reality of pain, humiliation and resentment.”

It is quite sad. So we come to his competitor, as it were, President Trump, and the plan of his son-in-law, which has been described as the deal of the century. From what we have heard in this debate, it does not look like it is quite that deal.

President Trump revealed the plan on 28 January 2020, alongside the Prime Minister of Israel. As others have noted, no Palestinian was present—not a good omen. As it turns out, the plan does not affirm that Palestinians have rights. Israelis have rights; Palestinians have obligations. The plan would be for Israel to annex the Jordan Valley and most of Area C, amounting to about 30% to 40% of the occupied West Bank. There would be a Palestinian state but with very limited sovereignty. Israel would have “overriding security control”. All entry and exit points would be controlled by Israel. Jerusalem would not be a shared capital. The state would have no airport, and no independent port. All the 150 settlements and over 100 outposts in the West Bank would be annexed to Israel. Israel would be free to expand in the annexed areas. The World Bank identifies 227 individual Palestinian areas in the West Bank, with “contiguity” given simply through a series of tunnels and corridors that might allow Palestinian transport. All these could be closed down if required by Israel. A similar corridor would connect the West Bank to Gaza—I note what my noble friend Lord Palmer said about defending that territory. Israel would be granted “sovereign” control of Gaza’s territorial waters, including Gaza’s offshore gas. Israel would retain overall control of the water supply.

Once the plan was announced, there were immediate fears that Israel would start annexing lands which the United States, not the UN, had taken it upon itself seemingly to grant it. So how was it that the United Kingdom responded so warmly to this plan? The Foreign Secretary stated:

“We welcome the release of the United States’ proposal for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This is clearly a serious proposal, reflecting extensive time and effort.”

He encouraged the parties to give it “genuine and fair consideration”. That was on the very same day that he stated:

“Today, the UK and our international partners have collectively sent a message to Russia that we do not and will not accept its illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. We will impose serious costs through active maintenance of sanctions on those who seek to incorporate Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia.”

Could the Government not see the irony in the two statements they made on 28 January?

The following day, 29 January, when there was an Urgent Question in both Houses, this was added to the Government’s position:

The United Kingdom’s position has not changed. Our view remains that the best way to achieve peace is through substantive peace talks between parties, leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.”—[Official Report, 30/1/20; col. 1516.]

By 31 January we have:

“The United Kingdom is concerned by reports of possible moves toward annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel. Any such unilateral moves would be damaging to renewed efforts to re-start peace negotiations, and contrary to international law. Any changes to the status quo cannot be taken forward without an agreement negotiated by the parties themselves.”

Any contribution that the noble Lord the Minister played in that shift in the Government’s response to the Trump plan should be welcomed. I noticed that the noble Lord has a bit of a cold, and I hope that coronavirus will not remove him from his current involvement in this and other issues; he has a key position. Like other noble Lords, I seek categoric assurances from him that we will continue to adhere to our support for international law and opposition to the annexation of settlements.

The Arab League has unanimously rejected the Trump proposal. It has stated that there will be no co-operation with any implementation of the plan, which it was expected to fund. However, Israel’s Prime Minister has now said he would reopen a project to build 3,500 homes for settlers in one of the most sensitive areas of the occupied West Bank.

There is talk of realities on the ground, but these must be subject to the rule of law. It is worth thinking about the examples of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which the USSR illegally and unilaterally occupied, then incorporated in 1939. For several decades the reality on the ground was that they were part of the USSR, but international law said otherwise. Britain therefore continued to recognise them as independent, sovereign states, even though they had been forced to become Soviet republics. When the USSR collapsed, these states resumed their independence. Stalin could not unilaterally change international law—nor can Trump.

The international consensus for decades, rooted in international law, is that a proper, workable and sustainable basis for negotiations is a two-state solution, with a shared capital of Jerusalem, based on the 1967 lines. We cannot allow President Trump to rip up a cardinal principle of international law, the inadmissibility of acquiring territory through war. If we turn a blind eye to that, how will Russia interpret this in relation to Crimea, or Turkey in northern Syria, or China in its region?

As my noble friend Lord Oates so brilliantly expressed, it is essential—absolutely vital—that it is recognised that this plan is simply not in Israel’s interests. It would surely mean the end of the two-state solution, as the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, and others have said. A one-state solution has major implications for Israel, which rightly points to its history of democracy. That democracy must be based on equal rights for all its citizens. It is worth thinking through the implications for Israel.

It has become urgent that Palestine should be formally recognised as a state, as others have said. Almost 140 countries have now done that; it is time the United Kingdom did so. In the letter to which noble Lords have referred, 50 former European leaders and Foreign Ministers have expressed serious concerns about the Trump plan. They point out:

“Instead of promoting peace, it risks fuelling the conflict – at the expense of Israeli and Palestinian civilians alike, and with grave implications for … the wider region.”

They urge the international community to

“prevent such a scenario from unfolding” for the future of the Palestinians, the Israelis and the international rules-based order. The EU has already said:

“Steps towards annexation, if implemented, could not pass unchallenged.”

Now that we have left the EU, what position do we take on this? What will we do? What actions will we take with our allies if the Israeli Government take the opportunity, which they may see as time-limited by November’s US election, and annex the lands that Trump’s son-in-law has offered them? How do the Government prove that we are not in a weakened position, out of the EU and needing a trade deal with the United States? What action will we take if the Israeli Government do not adhere to international law?