Can international law prevail in Israel/Palestine, and if so, how? The role of the UK – Rt Hon Jack Straw

Speaking at the Balfour Project online 2-day conference “Israel/Palestine: in search of the rule of law” on 25/26 May 2021.

Click here to view the other speakers at the conference.

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Andrew Whitley:

I would like to now introduce Lord Alderdice, John Alderdice, veteran peacemaker and someone who played a very important role in the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict. John Alderdice is a retired psychiatrist and he is someone who has devoted much of his life to helping tackle the problems of religious fundamentalism, protracted violent conflict, and peace-building. And I can’t think of anyone better than him to be able to lead our discussion for the next session, which is looking at Britain’s responsibilities and a discussion with our parliamentary group. So, John, if I could please hand over to you, and then I’ll come back again at the end.

Lord Alderdice:

Well, Andrew, thank you very much indeed. And I want to commend you, Sir Vincent Fean and other colleagues in the Balfour Project, for putting together this extremely impressive and authoritative conference. And I thank the speakers to date for the high quality of their presentations.

So far, the conference has focused on the rule of law from a legal point of view. What does international law say about the occupation and the treatment of Palestinians by Israel, and indeed by the international community?

We now move to a parliamentary session in which we address from a British Parliament perspective, whether and how international law can prevail. And no one is better equipped to help us in this transition than the Right Honorable Jack Straw. First, a barrister, then from 1979 a Member of Parliament for Blackburn right through until 2015. Home Secretary from 1997 to 2001, Foreign Secretary from 2001 to 2006, Leader of the House of Commons 2006 to 2007 and then Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary from 2007 to 2010.

Since then, Jack has continued to be active in academia, on governmental organisations, think tanks, and to speak out on issues of justice, domestically and internationally. As I say, I can’t think of anyone better to help us look at this question. And he’s going to speak to us now on this question of law, can international law prevail in Israel/Palestine, and if so, how? Jack, in normal circumstances, I would say, ‘You have the floor’, but in this case you have the microphone and the video, and it’s a delight to see you. I look forward to hearing you.

Jack Straw:

You very much, John. Delight to see you and everybody else who’s taking part in this webinar and my personal congratulations to Sir Vincent Fean and many others for getting this together. So the exam question I’ve been set is, can international law prevail in the Israel/Palestine conflict, and if so, how? Now I’ve watched part of the seminar and all of us are clear about the obligations of international law, which are palpably on the government of Israel and on the state of Israel. And, in private, there are very, very few Israelis who dispute that, but they will always come up with another argument, not least security and the spoils of war, as to why they should be treated as an exception.

And as you, John, really implied, the issue is no longer a legal one in the sense of us all having an argument about what Article 4 or 32 means. That’s, in a sense, clear. The issue is essentially a political one, which is how do we get from where we are to a situation where the international community starts to insist on Israel meeting its obligations? Because unless and until it does, it won’t have any interest, in a sense why should it, from fulfilling those obligations.

So what are the political obstacles, in the way of there being this international consensus about the need for these obligations to be enforced by and on Israel? 

How do we break this climate of impunity which Israel enjoys to do essentially, within its own domestic law, whatever it wants in the Occupied Territories and indeed in East Jerusalem as well?

And essentially I’d say that the Western world has turned off what’s going on day by day. It’s a point I made in the essay wrote for the pamphlet that was issued by the Balfour Project, that for sure when there’s serious, violent conflict, and particularly, afraid to say, when it’s Israelis who are being killed or injured, then this will get into the Western press. And if Hamas is, as it is I’m afraid to say, willing to put its own civilians in harm’s way and to fire rock rockets pretty indiscriminately at civilian targets, of course that will get into Western, particularly US, press. 

But the day-to-day humiliations which are meted on Palestinians doesn’t feature in even our quality press. I’ve witnessed this, I’ve seen women queuing up just to pass a crossing point from the West Bank into Israel for work and being held up in pouring rain for three or four hours just to go to a job. I went into a military juvenile court and saw youngsters who were 10 and 11 who were being accused of throwing rocks, a serious offense in our calendar as well as in others. But these were kids, and they looked like kids. They had shackles around their ankles. And there’s no possible security reason for that, it’s a way of humiliating them and their parents. And so it goes on.

So let me just deal first with Europe. I took part, when I was Foreign Minister, in interminable discussions inside the EU Foreign Ministers’ Council about the situation in the Occupied Territories. And in those days we had, in a sense, an extremely plausible interlocutor most of the time and not a Netanyahu.

But the truth was, collectively, the EU held back from really putting it on Israel. That was especially true of Germany for entirely understandable reasons to do with its utterly appalling war-time record and the massacre, over 6 million Jews massacred in the Holocaust. It’s also true, to a degree of France, for its complicity in the Holocaust. And so far as the United Kingdom is concerned, I followed the government policy that we had, there was a symptom of that ambiguity of seeking to somehow use slightly different language in respect of Israel’s actions which were unacceptable as opposed to those of the Palestinians.

That, of course, is reflected to a much greater degree in the United States which has always seen itself as a protector of Israel. Its support for Israel, when it was created, was unconditional in contrast to that at the time of the United Kingdom. And they continued, obviously, to be the major suppliers of arms to Israel, and essentially to protect Israel’s back in all international forums including the United Nations and its agencies and courts. 

So the challenge to all of us essentially is, how do you break down both that ambiguity and complacency in Europe and the prevailing view in Israel that Israel is always to be backed, right or wrong?

The answer to that is, this is really hard and painstaking. And it will also involve us in some difficult issues so far as organisations like Hamas are concerned. In so far as the US is concerned, there is some shift taking place. And there many, many American Jewish people who are actually very hostile to Netanyahu and his approach to politics. And of course there is now a small, but vocal, lobby amongst the Democrats who are seeking to speak out very strongly against the Netanyahu view of the Middle East. 

But the power which the Israeli lobby is able to exercise in the United States is astonishing by any European standards, through the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee which has got astonishing financial-backed resources and is able to make use of the effective absence of any control over political spending in the United States, in sharp contrast to the rules, which it happened I introduced in 1999, which strictly control spending here.

And the effect of that is that, first of all, AIPAC and its offshoots will back those who want to give unconditional support to Israel. Secondly, that if there are politicians who speak out, not about Israel’s right to exist, of course they don’t do that, none of us should, but about Israel’s unacceptable actions, particularly in the West Bank, in Gaza and East Jerusalem, then they are subject to an onslaught, a barrage, of campaigning and ads and all sorts of stuff to undermine their position and to cut their vote. And in a situation in which members of the House of Representatives are up for election every two years, that makes for a great insecurity amongst those lawmakers. 

And that is reinforced by the way the media report the conflict only really reporting it when there’s any kind of hot war going on.

It’s also just worth bearing in mind in the narrative, which is portrayed in the mainstream American press and, to a degree, the European press as well, that you have Israel on the one side and a terrorist organisation, Hamas, on the other. And that’s it. And that therefore the Palestinians are a bunch of terrorists. Just worth bearing in mind that there is a pretty well-authenticated Faustian pact between Netanyahu and the faction that he represents in Israel and Hamas.

A very interesting piece in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, written on the 16th of May 2021, in which, I quote from the article, Hamas and Netanyahu have cooperated for years. There’s lots of talk about the understandings between Israel and Hamas regarding the cash-filled suitcases which come from Israel to Hamas and fund its military buildup. And Netanyahu needs it, and he’s shown this recently, because if he can prove himself to be the strong man, protecting Israel security, he may be able, for the nth time, literally to get out of jail. Hamas needs it because it’s their way of implying, insinuating, that they are the only true representatives of the Palestinians and so further marginalising the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah Party which controls that. 

And that’s a really serious aspect of this, the way in which Fatah is quite explicitly being marginalised, not only by its political competitors within the Occupied Territories, but also as part of a concerted campaign by Netanyahu and the faction which supports him.

So the next question is, how on earth do we cut through all this? As I said, first of all by painstakingly making the case about the effect of Israel’s failure to observe international obligations. And you’ve got to make that case, not only at the level of the jurists, to say, “This is what Israel’s doing in aggregate and this is how they’re breaking international law,” but also in very, very specific terms. 

I’ll give you one example. When I last visited Israel, which I’m afraid to say was about six years ago, I visited a community of Palestinians who are living in tents and shacks half way down a hill. And there was the usual argument going on about whether they have title to their land. At the top of the hill, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire, there was an Israeli settlement and, of course, their own road, dedicated, separate road. The Israeli settlement had electricity and it had mains water. The poor Palestinian community further down the hill, not only had to put up with repeated and quite gratuitous incursions by the Israeli police and the IDF, but they had no electricity, they had to have a generator, and they had no running water. And so I found out how much their water was costing, they had a tank, the tank needs to come in. And how much water was costing on this settlement. I wrote a piece about it in The Times. 

And it was really interesting that it produced a greater sense of outrage by people who were pro-Netanyahu than anything I could have said, in Parliament or outside, about the generalities of things. But it’s this kind of granular detail, what goes on in military juvenile courts, the arbitrary arrests that we’ve heard earlier today.

And also alongside that, if we’re trying to take an approach of law we have to call out the unacceptable practices of Hamas. I’m unapologetic about this. I introduced the Year 2000 Terrorism Act into Parliament to deal with international terrorism, which was a rising phenomenon at that stage. And the military wing of Hamas, was one of the first organisations which come under that legislation, which are proscribed within British Law, and in support, followed by the EU as well. Because it’s in our interests to do the opposite of what Netanyahu is doing, which is to ensure that the more moderate forces who’ve had a terrible time, in Fatah, and the others amongst the Palestinians, are able to be given their voice. And, it’s very hard for them because, understandably, the actions of Fatah and the reactions of the Israelis, place Hamas right in the centre of Palestinian politics, but it’s not a solution for the Palestinians. 

And in any case, since Hamas does place civilians in harm’s way, there’s no question about that and they’re willing to use them as battle-fodder, I don’t say to the delight of Israelis, but Israelis are happy in one sense that that should happen because it feeds their narrative as well.

The last point I wanted to make is this, we’re talking here about the United Kingdom because this conference is taking place in the UK, there’s a big issue for any British government about how they handle the United States and whether or not they can depart from the United States’ position on particular issues. 

And traditionally, regardless of which party has been in power, British governments have tried to work closely with the US. In a sensible relationship, there’s a comeback because there’s an important private conversation going on with the Americans, not in the naive belief that they’ll do everything we ask, but you can, and plenty of examples of that, persuade the Americans to change their position on some things.

But there are some examples, and I’ll give you one, where a UK government can branch out on its own and can actually change the international weather, and including that in the United States, over a period, and that’s Iran. This is my last and very important point. 

When the international community received evidence that Iran had failed to disclose a number of nuclear facilities where the evidence suggested, it was never confirmatory, but it suggested that Iran was hiding these facilities, which increasingly they were because they were seeking to put together the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, the three then-foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK, Dominique de Villepin for France, Dr. Joschka Fischer for Germany and myself, got together, very shortly after we’d had the most powerful arguments in the United Nations Security Council and elsewhere about the right or wrongs of a war in Iraq, and we said, ‘Whatever happens, we can’t have another military conflict in the Middle East and we have to try and resolve this issue with the Iranians by peaceful means’. 

To cut a very long story short, that led to the so-called E3 Initiative with France, Germany and the UK, to which the Iranians responded, and to the early negotiations with the Iranians about what they would give in terms of access to their nuclear facilities and inspections and what could be given back to them in return.

Now, we were not naive at all about those negotiations. There were some things the Iranian’s wanted which depended on the United States, all sorts of things, and which we couldn’t give them. But the Iranians were sensibly enough to get involved actively in these negotiations and we came, indeed, very, very close to a deal. 

It started in 2003, and there was quite a lot of hostility amongst significant parts of the US administration under George W. Bush. So for example, Donald Rumsfeld, who was the Defense Secretary, we knew was hostile, actively hostile, and indeed he said as much subsequently in his memoirs about our initiative, and he hated it. So did others of the neo-cons. Others, like Colin Powell, were benign towards it, but the US Government as a whole were not part of it. And weren’t able, far from it, to help us. 

But over a period, Condoleezza Rice, who then took over from Secretary Powell, was able to persuade George Bush that they, the United States, should join these negotiations. And then Russia and China came in and that transformed the negotiations. And a decade later, we had the JCPOA, which Obama picked up from the Bush negotiations. And with a bit of luck, we’ll be back to it.

But it’s a very good example of where we, working with France and Germany, could shift American opinion. And I know we are now out of the European Union, I regret that but it’s a fact, but in my view, and I think it’s a view of sensible conservatives, the fact that we are outside makes it all the more imperative that we work tri-laterally with France and Germany. We’ve got a very good model from Iran, a really tricky dossier, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t use that to further our proposals, with the Americans not least, to try and kickstart a peace process in Israel/Palestine. And above all, make as a basis of those negotiations, Israel’s obligations under international law. Thank you very much.

Lord Alderdice:

Well, thank you very much indeed, Jack, but thank you very much indeed for your presentation. It seems to me that you’ve flagged up a number of challenges. One of them is that international law does not implement itself and you sometimes have to take political decisions to make things happen. You’ve given one important example, the example of Iran and how it was important to work with France and Germany to get a change there. But in a sense, you’ve also pointed out why that’s a problem with Israel because both France and Germany have their own history which makes it difficult for them to address some of the problems from the Israeli side.  

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