Middle East

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 15th January 2002.

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Photo of Mr Roger Casale Mr Roger Casale Labour, Wimbledon 11:00 am, 15th January 2002

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the political situation in the middle east. Difficult though it may be at the best of times, I shall take a balanced and bipartisan approach to the debate. I hope that many colleagues from the Labour Friends of Israel and the Labour Middle East Council will participate in the debate. I am a member of both organisations, and I look forward to hearing contributions by Members of equivalent organisations in the Opposition parties. In taking a bipartisan approach, I run the risk of pleasing no one and offending all. I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity to correct any imbalance that may inadvertently colour my introduction, as well as stating more boldly the case from either side of the Palestine-Israel divide.

One advantage in taking a middle way in discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict is that it is easier to resist the temptation to suggest that we can resolve the conflict by putting pressure on either side. I see no prospect of a return to the peace process unless the consent of both sides is freely given. One purpose of this debate is to explore what possibilities exist for moving Israel and Palestine away from conflict and back on to the path of peace. That will not be achieved by applying external pressure or by pulling levers of influence. The internal dynamic of the relationship must change.

We must recognise however, that the middle east peace process is in crisis. That is not just a matter for the Israelis and the Palestinians but a threat to international security. We must constantly dedicate ourselves to doing what we can to get the middle east peace process back on track. The situation in the middle east is explosive. One need only think of what might happen if there were another terrorist outrage along the lines of 11 September, and the risk of regional spill-over is very real.

We must recognise that relations between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority have deteriorated markedly. Without dialogue, no negotiation is possible. Not just the prospect of a lasting settlement in the middle east is at stake, but the possibility of any kind of peace process at all.

I have called the debate, because I refuse to accept, and I do not believe our Government should accept, a counsel of despair. Despite the temptation to back away from the issue in the face of escalating violence and extremism, I believe that it is imperative for Britain, Europe and the international community to engage constructively with the middle east. I do not wish to focus on how we got to the present impasse or spend time looking at who is to blame. We must try to dissect the true nature and depth of the present crisis and examine the role that Britain, the EU and the international community can play in moving forward the agenda about the future of the middle east.

The elements of the present crisis in the middle east are clear. There is a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale, even for a region where bloodshed has been the constant companion of century-long conflict. Since the start of the second intifada, in September 2000, more than 1,000 people have been killed, many of them women and children, and 80 per cent. of them Palestinian. The number of Israelis killed in the conflict has increased three times since Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister of Israel. The death rate is higher than at any time in the contemporary period of the conflict.

As the number of deaths increases, so does the record of physical, economic and social damage on both sides. The number of Palestinians who live in absolute poverty on less than $2 a day has more than doubled and, according to the latest World Bank figures, is more than 50 per cent. of the population. Some 100,000 Palestinian jobs have been lost in Israel, and 60,000 jobs have been lost in the West Bank and Gaza strip because of the closures policy. One in five Israelis now live below the poverty line, a figure that has increased by 10 per cent. from last year. Unemployment in Israel has risen to nearly 10 per cent. as the Israeli economy slows down in the face of global recession and as a direct result of the political and security crisis.

The political and security crisis is the most important element of the current crisis. The Israeli deputy head of military intelligence, Brigadier-General Yossi Kuperwasser, visited the House of Commons yesterday with Rear-Admiral Meshita, head of naval intelligence. I asked him whether he had abandoned all hope of peace. He said that he had not, but that no peace could be made with Yasser Arafat. However, Arafat more than anyone symbolises, and even personifies, to the international community Palestinian hopes and dreams for a Palestinian state. He told me that Arafat ordered the Karine A boat directly from Iran in collaboration with Hezbollah. That serious allegation threatens to escalate further the violence and the security crisis in the middle east.

Sadly, I could not attend the meeting, but I received the report, of Shimon Peres's visit to the House of Commons last July. He asked us what Israelis could do in the face of such terrorist atrocities and to stop the suicide bombers. Even before the atrocities of 11 September in America, none of us had a reply. One more Palestinian, Raed Mahmoud Karmi, was killed in a car bomb explosion yesterday. He was accused of having killed six Israelis. Another Israeli was killed yesterday, and so the cycle repeats itself. However, the outcome of the Israeli reprisals is to push Hamas increasingly into the mainstream to the point at which they seem to enjoy support of almost 40 per cent. If the strategy continues, Hamas may become the leading element in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians fear that that is the Israeli Government's political objective. They believe that Israel knows that the international community will line up against Hamas but will not do so against Arafat. If that is the Israeli agenda, the prospect of a further deterioration in the security situation is great.

The nub of the political crisis is the crisis of leadership and the corresponding crisis of confidence on both sides in each other's leaderships. In the face of this crisis, the European Union External Relations Commissioner, Chris Patten, said in a statement to the European Parliament on 12 December 2001:

"We need to focus our efforts on how to prevent the death of the peace process itself".

A pessimistic Palestinian view is that there seems to be no Israeli Government agenda for negotiation and peace. Instead, the agenda seems to be to undermine Arafat and the Palestinian Authority as a precursor to undermining the idea of a Palestinian state. However, it is Arafat himself who embodies the aspiration for a Palestinian state. The existence of a Palestinian authority keeps alive the prospect of achieving that state through negotiation. To lose sight altogether of the dream of a future Palestinian state or to destroy the organisation—the Palestinian Authority—that could negotiate a lasting peace with the Israelis would plunge the Palestinian territories into a permanent state of anarchy, the middle east into a permanent state of war and would massively compromise Israeli security for years to come. If that is where the process is leading, it is leading towards the edge of an abyss.

From the Israeli side, a pessimistic view would say that Arafat has no game plan. Moderate Israelis feel let down; they hold Arafat responsible for encouraging support for extremist groups not just in the Palestinian territories, but in Israel as well. Moderate Israelis have lost faith in Arafat as a leader and potential partner in peace. They insist that he must go and that the international community should apply pressure on him to do so. They accept that Arafat may be under effective house arrest in Ramallah for years. If that pessimistic view prevails, it will be damaging from the point of view of trust. There will be more bombs, and the only people to gain will be the extremists.

I have tried to present the bleakest scenarios from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. I want now to turn to the question of whether it is possible to take a more optimistic view. That is not to take an unrealistic view, but to tell the story with a more optimistic sense of the potentialities that may yet be developed. Can we dare to believe that there is a way of going from a lose-lose situation back to a win-win situation? To put it another way: is there a way back to the peace process?

We can take some heart from the recent example of Pakistan. General Musharraf has impressed the Indians and increased his own credibility not just with what he has said as leader, but with what he has done and how he has behaved. Can we learn from that recent experience in trying to de-escalate a conflict and reduce violence, and apply that lesson to the middle east? A second reason to be optimistic is based on the idea that there is widespread consensus, even in Israel, about what the end point of the peace process should look like. Israel must have complete security guaranteed within its borders, and Palestinians must be able to live in peace and dignity within their own state, which will incorporate most of the West Bank and have shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Most people agree that security for Israel and justice for all the historic peoples of the middle east are the essential building blocks for stability and peace.

One reason why many people, even on the Israeli left, do not trust Arafat is because they believe that he has talked too often about deals and temporary measures rather than fundamental reform. The Israelis do not believe that Arafat can deliver reform, and now is the time for him to show that he can. That will be difficult to do as he is under effective house arrest in Ramallah and does not have the authority and resources needed to carry out effective action. The little authority and resources that he has are under continuous attack. The Israelis and Sharon must understand that the policy of prevention is not working. Since Sharon has been Prime Minister, three times as many Israelis have been killed in terrorist attacks. Sharon talks again and again about making pacts with leading Palestinian families and producing a village league system, but that will never come about because of the strong and indestructible sense of Palestinian national identity.

Sharon must show flexibility. He must release Arafat from house arrest. Arafat must show that he can restrain the suicide bombers and bring about a cessation of violence and a complete disbanding of all terrorist organisations. He will need to go further. We should examine textbooks and the approach to the curriculum in Palestinian schools, and look to revise history books to accept the existence of the state of Israel. We must monitor Palestinian television and media to ensure that suicide bombers are no longer glorified.

It is not easy to put pressure on either Arafat or Sharon and, in current circumstances, we are right to be cautious of doing so because it might have perverse effects. However, we must encourage Arafat and Sharon to realise that the way forward lies in their hands. Pakistan and India further illustrate the point. It is in the interest of both sides to de-escalate the conflict. Only then can we start to find a way back to the Mitchell process and the road to peace.

One of the most positive aspects of the Mitchell plan was that it linked Israeli security with the idea that Arafat needs a political lever to get out of this mess. The lever in Mitchell was to be the lifting of closures and a freeze on settlement building—in other words, an end to taking any more land. The political levers to de-escalate the conflict are not yet in hand, but we must look for them or try to create them.

In the final part of my speech, I wish to comment on the role that Britain, the EU and the international community can and should play in creating the levers to help resolve the present crisis. Difficult though it is to act, the fundamental case for the international community taking action is clear. As I said, we should be cautious about the pressure that we seek to apply, but we should also resist the temptation to stand back completely.

Since the November suicide bombings, the international community has tended to pull back from engagement. We must resist, for that way lies a counsel of despair. It is not easy to know what we should do in such a crisis, but it is far better to act. The key issue is how, not whether, we should get involved. The crisis in the middle east is a threat to international security, not just an issue between Palestinians and Israelis. Other states—such as Jordan, which has 40 per cent. of the refugee population, and Lebanon—may get sucked into the conflict. If there were another terrorist atrocity in the west, the situation could get much worse.

We should recognise that Britain has not just a humanitarian duty, but a strategic interest. If things go wrong, it may damage, perhaps irreparably, the international coalition against terrorism. We also have historic ties through the former exercise of the British mandate and through our role in the treaties that reshaped the middle east at the end of the first world war.

The Prime Minister has been active in the middle east in the autumn through his shuttle diplomacy. Since the latest waves of suicide bombings in November and early December, it has become more difficult to play that role, but it is important not to give the impression that our middle east policy is being blown off course by contradictory winds that seem to blow from Europe, America or indeed the middle east itself. We must show consistency and coherence. How can we expect Palestinians and Israelis to do so if we are not prepared to do the same?

The Israeli Government would like to see Britain play a bigger role in putting pressure on Arafat. As Foreign Minister Peres has said, speaking on Israeli radio on 6 January:

"We would like a united front, worldwide, that stands against terror. If instead of choosing terror (as the target), we shall choose Arafat, we shall never have a united front."

A common Israeli complaint about the EU is that Europeans fail to understand Israel's need for a cast-iron security response and a security guarantee before it can act. It is not difficult to see why the Americans are left to play the leading role at the present time, and we should support General Zinni in his mission. However, the engagement of Britain and the European Union is essential to producing a balanced response from the international community and the influence of Britain and Europe could be the key to making the optimistic view that I have outlined prevail.

Part of the difficulty is that the EU is simply not seen as having the clout to influence the peace process or a return to it. It can be the financial backer of the Palestinian Authority, but only the US is seen as able to push things through politically. Despite the EU's economic might, it has not generally been thought to have enough political muscle to pull any levers in the region. Nevertheless, the EU has been trying, through the work of External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten and the EU's High Representative Solana, to play a constructive role in retrieving the achievements of the Oslo process and bringing the parties back to the road to peace as outlined in the Mitchell report. It has sought all the time to take a balanced approach.

The Council of Ministers has called on the Palestinian Authority to dismantle Hamas and Jihad and to bring those who commit terrorist acts to justice. It has also called on Israel to withdraw its military forces, end the extra-judicial killings, lift the closures and restrictions on Palestinian people and end the bombing of property and infrastructure. However, its calls, especially to the pro-Palestinian side of the declaration, fall on deaf Israeli ears. There is nevertheless a lot the EU can do and has done in economic terms. In recent months, more than 108 million euros has been given to the Palestinian Authority, in addition to more than 3 billion euros that was invested in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1994. The EU has also recognised the importance of backing the Palestinian Authority as the only structure capable of providing basic services and a minimum of security guarantees, and the only alternative to anarchy and increasing support for Hamas and Jihad.

The EU has done more than anyone else to promote elections, the fight against corruption and the rule of law in the Palestinian territories. It is right, especially at this time of acute crisis, that it should continue to seek to promote moderation and pluralism, trying not to let the Palestinian Authority collapse and to fall into the hands of terrorists and extremists. The EU is a strong and benign influence in the area, but it lacks political clout. EU political influence would be greatly strengthened if Britain took more of a lead in shaping EU policy and initiatives in relation to the middle east. It would help to make the EU a player in middle east affairs and not just the organisation that helps to pay.

I want to leave plenty of time for other speakers to take part in the debate. There may be many points that hon. Members wish to make, both about the EU and Britain's role. I hope that they will also wish to make points about the role of international organisations and the international community. We have seen in the past that international observers and the fact-finding missions that were undertaken by the European Union under the Sharm el-Sheikh fact-finding initiative can play a particularly useful role. They can give a clearer, more objective analysis of what is going on in the middle east. Indeed, while they may not put direct pressure on the parties to the negotiation, they can shape the parameters of that negotiation.

The international agreements that have been made are just that: they are not simply agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Not only do we have a stake in the outcome, but we are deeply involved in the process. The international community cannot walk away from that process. There may be calls for greater respect for international conventions by the Israelis as well as the Palestinians. Indeed, there may be calls for international observers to try to de-escalate the violence and to find the road to peace.

I have concentrated on the enhanced role which I believe the EU can play under British leadership, especially given the key role that Britain can play by linking European and American initiatives. I hope that colleagues will comment on the wider international dimension.

Perhaps I might conclude with the words of Henry Siegman, a respected middle east expert and senior research fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. In December, he wrote in the International Herald Tribune:

"An Israeli strategy of countering terrorism that relies solely on counter-terrorism and greater repression will not produce greater security for Israel's citizens. To the contrary, such a limited strategy will predictably produce only greater loss of Israeli lives. Policies which reinforce the despair of Palestinians by killing their hope for an end to the occupation will inevitably fuel escalating violence."

The Government must push to keep the present crisis in the middle east at the top of the international agenda; the international community must remain engaged. We must think creatively and for the long term about what we in Britain, in Europe and across the world can do to shape the conditions and parameters that will help the Palestinians and Israelis find the road back to peace. Nothing short of that will secure stability, human rights and justice in the region. Thank you, Mr. O'Hara, for allowing me to initiate the debate. 11.26 am