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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 6:31 pm on 27th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 6:31 pm, 27th February 2020

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for tabling this debate and for her ongoing interest in the Middle East peace process. I would also like to thank all noble Lords for their insightful and valuable contributions to what has been a very absorbing debate. We have had moments of birthdays being mentioned. I add my own best wishes to my noble friend Lord Young, who is 88 years young today—he lives up to his name—and who shares a birthday with my daughter. I fear she will be extremely disappointed that Daddy is still at your Lordships’ House. Lady Ahmad will be even more displeased because, at this particular time, I should be at a parent-teacher evening—but such is the challenge of debates that are called in the House.

Leaving my personal challenges aside, we have before us a challenge and an issue that has, again, brought very expert contributions. It would be remiss of me not to look again at the personal insights we got, in particular those of the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell. I am sure I speak for all noble Lords when I say that we were truly delighted to hear of the family reunion, which, again, shows the strength of our global links and how, notwithstanding the challenges and the tragedy of the Holocaust—which was poignantly mentioned by several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Leigh—there is still hope from the tragedy and genocide that took place because, even now, families can still come together.

The UK’s position on the Middle East peace process is clear and, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, has not changed. Our view remains, clearly, that the best way to achieve peace, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, stated, is through substantive peace talks between the 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—which, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, mentioned, need to be fair, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and with a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees. We had some innovative suggestions on that, including from the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I am sure that other noble Lords reflected on the issue of refugees. The noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, also talked about the importance of the humanity that brings communities and faiths together in the Holy Land.

However, we have to acknowledge that progress towards meaningful peace has stalled. I totally align myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that, despite the stalling and despite whatever is on the table, at no time should this be used as an excuse by those who seek to cause further division. Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s actions, particularly those that impact on the security of the State of Israel, have to be condemned, and rightly so.

We should not forget that this is not just an issue of one religion over the other. I never see this in the eyes of religion. Many Arabs, as I have seen myself, live very peacefully and lead very prosperous lives in places such as Haifa in the State of Israel. They are integrated into society and, as my noble friend Lord Leigh reminded us, into political society in Israel.

However, it is true that the issue has stalled. Israelis and Palestinians deserve better. They deserve a durable resolution that brings dignity and security for all. As my noble friend Lady Morris said, Palestinians deserve self-determination and freedom from occupation—a point which was well made and poignantly articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Oates. Israelis equally deserve to live free of terrorist rocket fire and to enjoy fruitful co-operation with their neighbours in the region. As I said, I have seen directly how communities can live together. There should be a vision. If there is a Palestinian state and Jewish communities wish to live there, they should have that right, as Arab citizens do today in the State of Israel.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in his statement on 28 January:

“A peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that leads to peaceful coexistence could unlock the potential of the entire region”.

I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton, who, as a trade envoy, has sought under challenging circumstances to give hope to people on both sides and the opportunity of a brighter future. The noble Lord, Lord Stone, always provides a sense of hope and optimism. I have seen how Israeli and Arab communities in the West Bank are working together for a common good and common prosperity.

However, this will happen only if the parties can find a path back to negotiations, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, and secure a settlement that is acceptable to all. That is why our first priority must be to encourage Israelis, Palestinians and international partners, including the United States, to find a way to reopen the necessary and essential dialogue. There is no other path to peace.

I assure my noble friend Lord Lothian that we work closely with the US on matters involving the Middle East—but this was and is an American plan. We were not involved in its formulation. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others that the US is aware that our position on the Middle East peace process has not changed. As my noble friend Lady Altmann said, the US proposals are now on the table. The UK looks to the Palestinian leadership to offer its own vision for a settlement, and to find a way to re-engage with the negotiation process so that its direct concerns and priorities can also be discussed.

We hope that President Abbas will return to the negotiations. However, as several noble Lords said—my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower made the point well—we must stress upon the Palestinians and President Abbas that negotiations are the way forward. However, if he declined to negotiate, I assure noble Lords that that would not justify unilateral action such as the annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark referred to in his contribution.

Also, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said, the UK is concerned about the reports of possible Israeli moves towards annexation. We believe that any such unilateral moves would be damaging to the renewed efforts to restart peace negotiations and contrary to international law. No changes to the status quo can be made without an agreement negotiated by the parties themselves. Therefore, let me assure the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we made it clear in our statement recently at the UN Security Council on 11 February that we remain committed to our long-standing position on the Middle East peace process and to previous UN Security Council resolutions. We strongly advocate for a two-state solution and for a meaningful return to negotiations, both in public and in private, to all concerned parties.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked a specific question on the UK’s position on Israeli settlements. That is clear; they are illegal under international law and damaging, we believe, to renewed efforts to launch peace negotiations. We also continue to make clear our view that the only way that we can see proper negotiations is if the leaders of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories can determine whether any proposals might be able to meet the needs and aspirations of the people they represent. Let me assure the noble Lord, Lord Warner, that that remains our position. My noble friend Lady Morris also alluded to this.

In parallel, we will continue our efforts to build the components of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, including through our continued support, through DfID funding and CSSF programmes. I hope that my noble friend Lord Suri is reassured by that. I particularly listened to his remarks on the importance of the private sector, and I am sure I speak for all noble Lords on the contribution in particular of my noble friend Lord Young, who brought great insight into some of the experience he had directly with Mr Arafat and others. Indeed, notwithstanding the lack of traction, I think that that still provides hope that there can be so much that can be achieved together.

Specific questions were raised by my noble friend Lord Leigh on the issue of Palestinian textbooks. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, also alluded to this, as well as my noble friends Lady Altmann and Lord Davies of Gower. Let me assure noble Lords that the UK does not fund textbooks in the OPTs, but we are deeply concerned about allegations of incitement to violence in some of the newer textbooks. Indeed, it was following the UK’s call for action—my noble friend Lord Davies asked this specific question—that the EU agreed to lead an independent review of the content in Palestinian textbooks, which is currently under way. We know that the Palestinian Authority is currently revising its textbooks, collecting a range of feedback, and will update them before the start of the new school year in September. In the interim, let me assure my noble friend that we will continue to raise any such concerns about incitement, as we do elsewhere, and the former DfID Secretary of State did so during a meeting with the PA Education Minister earlier in February.

To conclude, Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve peace, stability and opportunity. Meaningful dialogue offers the only path towards those long-overdue goals. That is why we are urging the parties to find a way to reopen the necessary dialogue. We hope that leaders on both sides will give the US peace plan genuine and fair consideration. The reasoning behind that, as articulated by my noble friend Lady Altmann, is that it offers, we believe, a first step on the road back to negotiations. At the same time, we will continue to caution against annexation, which would undermine the basis for a sustainable settlement and, in so doing, strip away hope for future generations of Israelis and Palestinians.

My noble friend Lord Young talked about the potential that exists when countries work together. The noble Lord, Lord Stone, talked about communities working together, as did the noble Lord, Lord Singh, and my noble friend Lady Morris, among others. I end my comments with a quote:

“Peace with the Palestinians will open ports of peace all around the Mediterranean. The duty of leaders is to pursue freedom ceaselessly, even in the face of hostility, in the face of doubt and disappointment. Just imagine what could be.”

Those were the words of a distinguished leader of the State of Israel, a visionary who knew that the pathway to peace, no matter how bleak the outlook, should be a flame that is never extinguished—the words of Shimon Peres.