Middle East

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:57 pm on 7th June 2006.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea 2:57 pm, 7th June 2006

I begin by congratulating Mr. Wright on securing the debate. The sheer attendance illustrates the importance of this issue.

It is easy for people here and in the middle east to get depressed about the situation given that the state of Israel has existed for 60 years and it has been 90 years since the Balfour decoration. It is almost like a new 100 years' war that never comes to an end. However, when one looks beyond those bald statistics, one sees that there has been enormous change in that period: the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which has held; an exchange of ambassadors and a peaceful relationship; the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, which is an equally important treaty with Israel's second neighbour; and, most significantly, both Israel and the Palestinians have accepted that there should be a two-state solution. That would have been inconceivable for the Palestinians and many Israelis until relatively recently.

What made those things possible? One should not underestimate the significance of national leaders. It is rather like the situation in South Africa with the end of apartheid: it needed not only Mandela, but de Clerk—two leaders from each community who were able to look to the future, not just the past. In relation to the middle east, considerations such as Anwar Sadat's flight to Israel to address the Knesset, King Hussein's courage with the Jordan treaty, and Yitzhak Rabin becoming a peacemaker having been a warrior all show what can be achieved. The challenge is whether Olmert and Abbas can both come up to those important standards.

Clearly, a negotiated solution is the best way forward. I almost hope that Hamas will reject what has been put to it so that a referendum can go ahead. I can think of nothing more important and significant than a referendum of the Palestinian people endorsing Abbas's call for a two-state solution, so that thereafter discussions and negotiations could take place with that clearly being the will of the Palestinian people, and Hamas being clearly sidelined on that issue at least. If that turns out not to be possible, for whatever reason, we should not reject out of hand the Israeli commitment to a unilateral approach, because it reflects two fundamental changes that have taken place in Israeli thinking among those who are traditionally on the hard-line right of Israeli politics.

The first change is the recognition that, given the demographic changes taking place, Israel as a democratic society simply cannot hold on permanently to the whole of the west bank and Gaza. In a sense, the Israelis have concluded that in future the state of Israel will not be the same as the land of Israel. The land of Israel may be a biblical concept, but the state of Israel will have to have more modest aspirations.

The second change in Israeli thinking is strategically very important. For many years Israel said, and reminded anyone who went there, "Security requires us to occupy the west bank. Look how small Israel is; look how quickly we could be overcome if a conflict broke out", but the reality is that it no longer has any fear from conventional Arab armies. Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel and there is no Arab state that could conventionally defeat it, and the Israelis are comfortable with that.

Israel faces two kinds of threat: the demographic threat if it holds on to the whole of the west bank and ceases to lose its Jewish identity, and, perhaps more important, a missile threat. Whether nuclear or otherwise, missiles can attack Israel, which is not protected from that simply by holding on to the west bank. For that reason, even those on the right of Israeli politics are now prepared to contemplate a unilateral withdrawal from the west bank, should it prove necessary. That offers a major new opportunity for a peaceful solution to the crisis, which we have not had in the past.

Given the time limit, I shall just make some brief points. I hope that the Israelis will take them on board should the negotiations go forward, or should they not and a unilateral solution is required. The first is that they should not feel too guilty about the wall or fence. It is not aimed at keeping people in, like the Berlin wall was; it is to keep terrorists out. That is a pretty fundamental distinction. However, as part of any ultimate agreement, unilateral or otherwise, the fence will have to go, because the economic future of the region requires close economic co-operation between Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Such co-operation is not possible with the long-term existence of the wall.

Secondly, the 1967 boundaries cannot be an absolute determinant of where the new frontier will lie. If the Israelis want, for understandable reasons, to hold on to some settlement areas, they must be willing to contemplate exchanges of territory, so that the overall Palestinian territory is not seriously diminished as a consequence.

Thirdly, nobody in their right mind wants a new barrier through the middle of Jerusalem. There are solutions to this. The Vatican-type status in Rome does not detract from the sovereignty or security of Italy any more than recognition of the holy places in east Jerusalem as non-Israeli territory would in any way damage any fundamental interest.

Fourthly, the right of return is very important from the point of view of Hamas and some Palestinians. The Israelis cannot be expected to concede that, but they can be expected, perhaps with American help, to offer generous financial compensation as part of an overall package. The current plans of the Israeli Government appear to envisage holding on not just to settlement areas, but to a whole section of the Jordan valley. I do not see any military need from them to do so. I believe, and hope, that that is simply a negotiating ploy so that they will have something extra to concede as part of an overall peaceful solution. They cannot expect to hold on to the Jordan valley; it has to be part of a Palestinian state, although a demilitarised valley should clearly meet Israeli requirements.

Given the time pressures, I should just like to make one final point. Although Israel and Palestine can be a source of deep worry and depression, we should never lose sight of the fact that there is a fundamental difference between the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, despite the length of time that it has existed, and other disputes, such as those over Kashmir and Cyprus or the Tamil problem. The difference is that we already know what the final structure will be: the Israelis and Palestinians will each end up having their own state. Therefore, the problem is not what kind of ultimate structure there will be; it is exactly how we get there and what the details should be. That is different from any of the other problems that bedevil the world as a whole, and it is a source of hope and confidence rather than one of worry and depression.