Conference on Jerusalem – Session V: Britain’s Role in the Coming Years

Session V: Britain’s Role in the Coming Years
Chair: Sir Vincent Fean
Keynote Speaker: Rt Hon Alistair Burt
Panellists: Julie Elliott MP (Labour), Tommy Sheppard MP (SNP), Rt Hon Baroness Lindsay Northover (LibDem)

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Sir Vincent Fean:

We are going to talk about the British role in this conflict and in the question of Jerusalem and the future of Jerusalem. To help us discuss it we have Alistair Burt, a recent ex-Parliamentarian, and three serving Parliamentarians.

Our first speaker will be Rt Hon Alistair Burt, who was my boss when I was Consul General in Jerusalem. Alistair was Minister for the Middle East and North Africa twice: between 2010 and ‘13, which was when I was in Jerusalem, and then again between 2017 and ‘19, so five years in all. Today he is still deeply interested in the region, and in particular in the issue of conflict resolution. Alistair works closely with an NGO – with which I’m also familiar – Forward Thinking, which does great work, usually under the radar, and also in the Helsinki process. I’ll turn to Alistair first and then introduce each of our  panellists as we go through.

Rt Hon Alistair Burt

Thanks Vincent, that’s very kind. Yes, I may have been your boss, but you were my mentor in terms of all things connected with Jerusalem and thereabouts and your time there and your presence there were  deeply appreciated I know by everybody in the Foreign Office and taught ministers a great deal, and it’s a great pleasure to still be engaged with you.

This is something that I’ve been engaged with for many years, since I came into the House of Commons first in 1983, and I’ve watched things develop in the region over that time. My first visit to Israel and to the West Bank was in 1979 as a young student. The place is very different today and I recognize that. However, I’m not going to spend time dwelling on the history. I was able to catch some of  the last session,  listening to passionate speakers and colleagues like Daniel, whom I know well.

 I’ve certainly got some of the tone and the temperature from the chat room and what people were saying. Of necessity, if I am asked about the UK’s position, it has to reflect a more balanced view of life between states and between different parties. That’s not always comfortable. I entirely accept that that’s the British role, although I’m completely independent of the British Government now and all that, I still maintain a sense of what it is we have been trying to do in the circumstances, and I’ll try and reflect that. But obviously to spend a bit of time looking forward, hopefully with some of the optimism that I think speakers are demanding, and future generations deserve. At the end of all this, whatever our debate may be, young people in the region deserve something they haven’t got. And I think it’s the responsibility of all of us to seek, to find that, because we cannot go on as we are and what is it that will make the difference.

So let me split this up into three parts, if I may.

Firstly, I do stand by the decisions that the British Government has taken in recent years in relation to this. I think our bottom line support for United Nations Resolution 242, for the agreements that have been made in the past, is right. And it’s not right simply to tear them up unilaterally. Accordingly, I think we were equally correct to object to, and oppose, decisions made unilaterally by the United States in relation to Jerusalem, in relation to UNRWA and ultimately the plan that was put forward in a one-sided manner in Washington earlier this year. Gosh! It’s only the same year since that happened.

In my conversations with Jason Greenblatt during the period of time when the Americans were considering what it was that they were going to put forward, I made three pleas to him on behalf of the United Kingdom.

Firstly, don’t humiliate the Palestinian people.

Secondly, even if – as everyone expects – your proposed solution will lean towards Israel, leave everybody else something to cling on to, to negotiate about, so that your answer is not the final answer, but leave something for negotiation.

And thirdly, I said, don’t believe a big cheque will cover everything because the situation is much too deep and too complex for that.

Well, in the end, the Trump plan came forward and I think the Foreign Secretary was right to be cautious about it and ultimately that led, of course, to the Prime Minister declaring that the proposed annexation was, of course, wrong and was the wrong course for people to go down.

As we know, that has not yet happened, but of course I understand what’s happening on the ground; and that the proposed annexation is only further annexation. I do understand that, but I think the United Kingdom’s position in relation to all this has been correct for now.

But where do we go from here? And this is, maybe, where I part company with some: I don’t think it’s possible to look at recent events and simply assume them to be insignificant. They’re not marginal, the Abraham Accords. As most of us, I suspect, on this call are aware, the Abraham Accords don’t necessarily do anything new in terms of relationships, but they are significant in terms of bringing out into the open relationships that were already there and making public a new reality. I suspect we have all assumed – certainly I always worked on an assumption – that there would be no normalization of relationships with Israel without a resolution to the issues involving the Palestinian people. That was taken as axiomatic, I think, in my time in the Foreign Office.

Now that’s plainly changed and that’s different. I don’t think it can be forgotten or waved away. I think that relates to a new reality and that reality was summed up, I think, quite markedly by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times when he said :

“The way in which the Middle East works now, there are two coalitions of people. One is a coalition that says the future must continue to be buried by the past. And the other says the past can no longer bury the future.”

And on that, the United Kingdom, I think, has got to be decidedly on the grounds of the latter. We have to look at the Middle East as it is, and as it’s changing. What the new reality has suggested is that it’s no longer possible for everything in the Middle East to stop until this issue is determined.

And maybe that is the right way to look at it now, if we’re going to do something bold in order to challenge a status quo that’s inherently unstable. And I do want to say a little bit about that. Because, you know, my sense of that reality is based on experience of talking to people there, being there; but nothing like the experience of those who are there.

Occupation has damaged the soul of Israel in a manner that I don’t think all Israelis fully understand. It’s immensely corrosive. Rula spoke passionately about the impact on the ground and I have nothing that could possibly compare in terms of experience with that. But, you know, I’ve cried with people in Nabi Saleh. I’ve seen what’s happened there, as I’ve cried with others who’ve been victims of violence elsewhere. To accept a situation in which the status quo is seen to continue ad infinitum can’t be the position of the United Kingdom going forward.

The corrosive impact of this has got to come to a stop, and those who believe that there’s some way in which the situation can simply be managed, I think, are profoundly wrong. So whether it’s Gaza, whether it’s the West Bank, or whether it’s what’s happening at the checkpoints and the movement of people, there is not a solution to issues between the Palestinian people and Israel if that is accepted and managed going forward.

So what to do about all this? Which is where the United Kingdom comes in. I think the United Kingdom does have a role to play. It’s a mixed history, as we know, in the region; but I think the United States – and I’ve said this publicly, so I’m not saying anything new – I think the United States, currently, has forgone its position as an honest broker in the situation, if ever it had one. The present administration simply cannot claim that.

But the Americans will remain important and everyone accepts that on all sides of the line. A new administration will have a new opportunity in relation to things going forward. And I think that opportunity should be taken. And I think the British government should be agitating in relation to getting something going.

One of the correspondents in the chat room spoke about how there needs to be a resumption of the peace talks with strong incentives to get people there, and also meaningful penalties for those who don’t take part or who walk away. Daniel, of course, has spoken of impunity in relation to Israel’s position; spoke very movingly in relation to that. And I think governments are all well aware of this.

We have to find something that will recognize the new reality of the situation, which is quite harsh for the Palestinian leadership. Let’s be quite honest about what has happened from other Arab states: that is not going to change. The comments made by Prince Bandar in Saudi Arabia were made by him in a personal capacity, but they do reflect opinion elsewhere. And again, just like the Accords, they can’t be swept away.

So no matter what our adherence has been to historical positions in relation to the Palestinian leadership, something new is obviously needed. Whether it would be a democratic process – an election process – which provides the reconciliation of Palestinian leadership points of view, which is clearly of benefit. In the view of Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Envoy, whom I spoke to a couple of months ago, he does regard a unification of Palestinian leadership as the most effective game changer in the situation to make sure everyone realizes there is someone to talk to or what their stance will be and how they will move forward.

It’s difficult to say, but at least that would be a movement forward that I think everybody would welcome.

Then, I think what the international community and the United Kingdom have to do, is just not let things be. If we’re going to find something that’s different for people, outsiders cannot do it on their own. This is not a matter that will be decided by the international community, that has been made very clear, and I don’t think that that will change. But the international community certainly cannot simply stand by and allow things to continue to drift on. Otherwise the pain and anguish expressed by Rula, and the films that she makes and those she represents, will simply continue for another generation, and another generation, and a generation beyond that.

That’s  no benefit to anyone who lives in the region who wants a completely different future for their families, a future to which they’re entitled.

So I think the United Kingdom has a role to play in relation to that. It’s got to be clear on the rights and responsibilities that were enunciated in the past, to be prepared to stand up for those, but also to recognize the realities of what we have now, and to find a new way to move forward, to get some sort of answer.

We can neither forget what’s happened recently, nor pretend it hasn’t happened, nor can we simply rely on everything that’s been decided in the past as the only way forward in the future. Things have changed. And the recognition of that is essential if there’s to be any further political breakthrough. That may be very, very uncomfortable for people to hear, but it’s the truth.

If we’re going to see some different future, then some bold moves have to be made from both sides, and that will imply some strong movement from the Palestinian leadership as well. The United Kingdom should give that leadership every encouragement and every support as they try and navigate a new way forward and not say, to those who would unilaterally decide the situation, to forego completely the final status issues that must be decided.

Jerusalem clearly comes into that. I do not accept the United States view of the future of Jerusalem, but that has got to be worked for as part of the negotiations and the United Kingdom has a strong role to play in encouraging that.

I’ll leave it there. I suspect there’ll be questions.

Sir Vincent Fean:

Thank you very much indeed, Alistair.

I recall that I went to Nabi Saleh with you, and separately on your behalf to present condolences after a member of the Tamimi family was shot dead by a sniper. And I was standing next to Helena Kennedy in 2017 at the centenary of the Balfour Declaration gathering by the Balfour Project, when I mentioned that in the current situation, there is not recourse. There is not recourse for the victims. There is a process, but not recourse, because the odds are stacked against any complaint.

Tommy Sheppard, our next speaker,  is the SNP Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, shadowing the Cabinet Office, that workhorse of Whitehall. In March 2019, Tommy welcomed the Balfour Project to his Edinburgh East Constituency and stood in a minute’s silence for the dead, both of Israel and Palestine, in a conference that we ran on Gaza where Tommy spoke very eloquently.

Tommy Sheppard:

Thank you very much Vincent. It’s a pleasure to be here.

I appreciate that some people on the call probably won’t be familiar with the SNP. So just to start by saying that the Scottish National Party has been, for some time, the principal party of Scotland, returning 48 out of the 59 MPs in Scotland to the Westminster Parliament. That makes us the third party in the United Kingdom Parliament.

We have tried on this question to work on a cross-party basis to build a better consensus on how the United Kingdom might support the developments in Israel, Palestine; from a perspective of a long-standing support for Palestinian political and human rights.

A lot of people have talked about their experiences in East Jerusalem. I would be way down the list if you were to rank people in terms of their expertise and knowledge of the situation. But I have been there three times and I do understand it: that the tragedy that is represented in that city seems to me that what is so stark is not just the disparity between East and West, but within the Eastern part of the city, the way in which the conflict is being prosecuted daily now on a slow and a never-ending basis.

And I have to say, being prosecuted in one direction, and that is against, and to the detriment of, the indigenous Palestinian population in that part of the city. I was struck by what I might call “total occupation”.  I’m familiar in the West Bank with the military dimension to the occupation, but to see every aspect of civil and public administration also deployed in order to fulfill a political objective was quite surprising to me. I remember driving along a residential street and turning a corner when suddenly the street turned from being well kept to just being piles of rubbish. And this was because the municipality was not collecting rubbish in the Palestinian section, the Arab section of the street that we have driven into.

Nowhere is this more so than in the field of the house demolitions and the settlements, which are springing up throughout East Jerusalem. I remember seeing these little enclaves, deep in the heart of established Palestinian communities where settlers would – thinking themselves, I presume, to be martyrs and pioneers of some kind – would adorn their houses in the blue and white flags and other regalia in a manner which reminded me very much of some of the worst excesses of the Troubles in my native Northern Ireland, where one community went out of its way to goad and intimidate and provoke another community. It struck me as very sad and did bring home the gulf that there is in that community and how big a bridge that we need to build between them.

So to turn to what the UK government should do. I suppose the first thing to say is that we are going to be in a new situation, come next year, in that the divorce with the European Union will have been completed. Certainly, those who advocated that was a good thing have pointed to the fact that it would give the United Kingdom more agility on the international stage to act and evolve in prosecuting foreign policy. So I think it could be argued that this gives United Kingdom the opportunity, should it choose to do so, to begin to take some action on this front.

It has a very much a historic responsibility to do so. So I would be pressing the UK government in the New Year to either unilaterally, or in conjunction with several other European nation states, to try and take action, to break the current log-jam, to move beyond the status quo.

I think there are a number of aspects to that, but the most obvious thing to say is that: if I was Benjamin Netanyahu, I wouldn’t be at all concerned by all of the condemnations that are made by European government ministers and the wringing of hands and all the statements that are made. I wouldn’t be concerned about that at all unless it has some material effect. I think the absence of taking strong practical action really equates to allowing the status quo and allowing the current policy to unfold unchecked. So we do need to change tack and we do need to do some things differently.

The biggest challenge that we have is to try and change the narrative. There are a number of ways that we could do that. Part of our foreign policy and part of the work of our diplomats should be to try and strengthen and support a distinctive voice emerging in East Jerusalem and to work through civil society to try and make sure that those voices are heard and that the world is made aware of what is happening to the FAMILY NAME? 20.55 family and many others facing daily threats to their lives and livelihoods.

We should be seeking to expose what is happening there on a world stage. We should, in particular, be calling out the brutal manner in which the demolition project is pursuing and breaking up individual Palestinian homes and communities. As well, we need to, in a post-Brexit age, be talking about whether or not we use our economic powers in terms of the trading agreements that we have with the state of Israel in order to try and put some weight behind our calls for diplomatic action. If we were to do that, combined with what I accept is a symbolic and defiant gesture, but if it were combined with recognising the state of Palestine, so that it becomes an equal party to the debate, then I think that would be noticed very much. Not just on the world stage, but noticed in particular within Israeli civil society and  Israeli public opinion.

That is a key target that we need to focus on because there are an increasing number of voices inside Israel itself who question the current strategy of the government. There is a new generation of Israelis coming , and a new generation of Palestinians coming as well, where I hope we may be able to find more fertile ground for developing an alternative. But that will only happen if it is advertised loud and clear beyond Israel’s borders that what is happening currently is completely unacceptable to the international community and to individual governments, and that they are prepared to act to back up their concerns about the actions of the Israeli government. So if we were to get some specific concrete action, it would have a big effect in terms of Israeli public opinion and Israeli civil society, which in turn might lead to more hopeful consensus emerging.

And finally, just to say – and I pay tribute to Alistair for his role in this –  there is within, certainly, the House of Commons an evolving mood which is looking beyond the debate about whether or not you’re against Israel, which is how it used to be characterised in the past. An evolving mood that says that we do not question the right of Israel to exist, but we do have to question the actions of that state and the actions of that government when it comes to how they treat the rest of the population of the Holy Land and some of their neighbouring countries. And I think that growing consensus is building across all parties including, I’m pleased to say, amongst some of the back-benches of the Conservative Party.

So even though these are very depressing times – and I agree with what Daniel Levy said in the last session, that if you had a plan then this is probably not the time that you’d put it on the table – but I think we need to be vigilant and prepared for what can happen in 2021. There are some reasons for optimism in terms of attitudes changing and people beginning to come together.

Sir Vincent Fean:

We will come back in our discussion to how to influence civil society in Israel, how to influence the Israeli government and the role of our own civil society, Parliament and government  in that effort.

Baroness Lindsay Northover has deep experience in the areas of health and international development and is the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson in the House of Lords on Foreign Affairs, with a keen interest in this issue.

Baroness Lindsay Northover:

Thanks for inviting me to contribute to the conference today. Like others, I’ve only been able to hear a little of what’s transpired because of Parliamentary commitments – including in my case needing to deal with a question about Zimbabwe where things aren’t going straightforwardly either – but the parts that I’ve heard have demonstrated as ever how important Jerusalem is, both historically, but vitally to those of faith, and to so many others. And I’m mostly here, in what I’m saying here, going to be focusing on Jerusalem. It’s some years since I visited. And that has nothing to do with the fact that when I visited and while in Gaza this was with two other Parliamentarians – Crispin Blunt from the Conservative Party and Huw Irranca-Davis from the Labour Party – and the UN, we were shot at on the Gaza-Egypt border by the Israeli Defence Force. But I would welcome revisiting.

I welcome this conference as an attempt to take a constructive approach to Jerusalem’s future and not just a focus on its amazing and brilliant, but also very troubled, past and present. And we’ve heard the hope expressed in the last session – that was very striking. As Tommy also said, it’s a delight to be on a panel with Rt Hon Alistair Burt. He really was a wonderful Minister for the Middle East, twice, and I’m very glad that he’s still engaged. I hope that that continues, and I think that there will be quite a lot of agreement on this panel.

Though on my first point, I think that Alistair may not share my view, and that is: the first thing that the United Kingdom Government should do is recognise Palestine as a state with its capital in East Jerusalem. Now there has, of course, been a vote in the House of Commons, but that doesn’t mean to say that it becomes Government policy and it’s time that it became that. This would help to bring greater equality to the two sides and it’s long overdue. The UK Government position – I was a Minister in the coalition, and I remember the formulation – was that it will recognise Palestine in due time, when it appears to be contributing to the peace process. I think that formulation has long expired as a reasonable approach.

But there are many areas where I would agree with the UK Government. The key aim must be to ensure that there is no slippage, at the very least, from their current avowed position. The Government identifies East Jerusalem as occupied and West Jerusalem as under Israeli de facto control. It does not recognise sovereignty over any part of the city. Its position, rightly, is that the final status of the city should be decided through negotiations with both sides. And that Jerusalem should ultimately be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinian States.

The Government should also maintain its position that the annexation of East Jerusalem is illegal. And also that the Jared Kushner plan on annexation is utterly unacceptable. The United States has the power and influence, of course, to assist or impede in the process of seeking a resolution to the status of Jerusalem and much else besides. We are a week away from the US election and we have to hope that policy towards this region will become more balanced. Alistair is right, that we have to engage with the United States over this, like it or not. The decision by Donald Trump to move their embassy to Jerusalem certainly did not manifest anything like a balanced approach, and it was rightly resisted by the United Kingdom and others. It was good that the UK worked on this with EU colleagues, and that must be reinforced in the future.

President Trump took the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and declared the transfer of the US embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In May, 2018, the embassy was opened at a ceremony in Jerusalem, attended by his daughter, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has had serious implications for the peace process. Trump’s move drew widespread condemnation in the Arab world and wider, and King Abdullah of Jordan warned of the implications this move could have for the stability and security of the Middle East, stressing that agreeing the status of Jerusalem is the key to achieving peace and stability in the region and the world. He said that there is no alternative to a two state solution, and Jerusalem is the key to any peace agreement. Many have already argued that we may already be beyond the stage where we can even have a two-state solution with the massive implications of that.

It was good that the United Kingdom and others resisted pressure to move their own embassies and, for similar reasons, the UK should not move our Consul General to Ramallah. Ministers and diplomats should meet Palestinian figures in Jerusalem and promote the Palestinian presence, including by opposing Israeli actions against Palestinian cultural institutions in Jerusalem. It’s vital, of course, that we ensure that the status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem is maintained.

The UK should condemn all settlement activity in East Jerusalem and back that up with concrete action, which thus far has been lacking, as has been said. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem must not be forcibly removed from the city or lose their residency rights. The UK must oppose all Palestinian home demolitions in East Jerusalem, as well as the rest of the West Bank. The UK should continue its support for UNRWA, which is active in Jerusalem as elsewhere. UNRWA, of course, have been hugely undermined by Trump. The UK also needs to raise issues such as the treatment of Palestinian child detainees in East Jerusalem as elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Parliament – so we need to do this – and civil society need to hold the Government to account on all of these issues. I think that, indeed, this is the case, with many people working across parties to do so. Tommy has just mentioned the support in the Commons and I have to say that there’s been a real sea-change and shift in the Lords as well, so there is overwhelming support for change in the House of Lords. I was struck how even when we came to debate the annexation plan those who normally felt that they had an obligation to defend the government of Israel were saying that this was not either in the Palestinians’ best interest or in Israel’s best interest.

My experience of Ministers has been that, by and large, they’re listening. But listening does not necessarily mean action, as Tommy has just said, and I’ve long thought we need to work much more closely and effectively in Europe to ensure that the world isn’t just wringing its hands, but that change occurs. The UK alone has now reduced its influence and power and right now it has no bandwidth for anything as we face Brexit – not yet with a deal – and with the Coronavirus crisis. My concern is the UK going backwards from January because of a loss of our influence and the need for trade deals.

This region of the world has often been described as a tinder-box and that is clearly the case. It’s therefore vital that, globally, we fully engage. That requires, above all, an even-handed approach, which the US has signally failed to do under the Trump administration. Palestinians and Israelis need hope that the conflict will be resolved. This requires security for all, and a recognition of rights on all sides. That starts with Jerusalem and with all who are gathered in this conference today, and the first thing we must do is recognise the state of Palestine.

Sir Vincent Fean:

Thank you, Lindsay. Both Tommy and you have referred to the need to recognise the State of Palestine along ‘67 lines, which is what the Balfour Project also advocates.  Thank you for what you said.

 I turn now to Julie Elliott, Labour MP for Sunderland Central, with several Palestinian hats.

One is as Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Palestine, as well as Chair of the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East.

Julie’s life has been devoted to fighting inequality, specifically on pensions for women and I noticed in her CV that she has a deep interest in rugby union, but we won’t talk about that today.

Julie Elliott:

It’s a pleasure to be here this afternoon and it’s lovely listening to Alistair. We do miss you in the House of Commons Alistair, particularly on this issue, because you always spoke with such passion and authority on the subject and we do miss that.

There’s a huge amount that’s been said in this session that I agree with.  Britain has a unique role because of our history in this area, and I think the role that we need to play is the “honest broker” and have a balanced view on the situation. As Alistair said, historically, the USA has been the honest broker in this situation and at the moment it simply isn’t. It can’t have that title; doesn’t play that role at all.

This all comes down to equality of rights that people have, and both Palestinian people living in the Holy Land and Israeli people living in the Holy Land should have equality of rights. That’s what it boils down to, to me: that people should be treated equally and fairly. At the moment that is not the situation, as we all know.

I visited the area three years ago for the first time and was shocked to see the way in which Palestinian people live and are treated in the Occupied Territories. Although I’d read about it at length, actually seeing it was a moving experience. I think anybody who visits that area will say that.

I totally recognise the tale that was taught about the cleanliness of the streets. As you walk along the street, one part in one part of Jerusalem, one part in another, and you go from beautifully manicured streets to really shabby and dirty streets. That is very moving when you see it.  I do think that Britain should be playing the honest broker role, trying to assist the Palestinian people in getting recognition of their statehood, which I totally agree with. The Labour Party has had that in their manifesto for the last two general elections. That is something that we would do immediately: recognise the state of Palestine. We’ve argued that in the last two general elections and that is very firmly what I believe. You cannot possibly move forward into meaningful negotiations without levelling the playing-field on statehood. I think that it’s a pre requisite and I do feel very strongly about that.

This year has been a challenging year in the area. Not just because of the plan that came out of the Trump administration. But then the normalisation or formalisation of relationships that we know have been the way those relationships work, but formalisation has changed the dynamic. There have been a number of things happening which have not made the situation any easier. What we’ve got to acknowledge at the moment is just because that annexation plan by the Trump administration has been suspended, it hasn’t been got rid of, it hasn’t been abandoned, it’s been suspended, which means it can be put back into action at any point.

But it doesn’t mean that, on the ground, things aren’t changing. Annexation continues by the back door all the time, with more permissions being given for building more settlements, for more land being taken, and the situation is constantly getting worse for the Palestinian people.

We’ve got to really take stock and I do think, as we move to a post-Brexit world, Britain needs to establish itself for what we stand for, and what we’ve always stood for, historically, is fairness and standing up for people to have equal rights. International law in this area is non-negotiable. There is resolution after resolution of the UN that talks about this and we need to take the lead. As we move into a different world in the next years, post-Brexit, and hopefully, in my view, a change of government in the United States, there should be opportunities where we can play our role and support. Because of our historical involvement in the region, I think we have an obligation to do that.

 I absolutely think the first step should be, and I am a back-bench MP, so I’m not speaking on behalf of the Labour Party, but it’s my firm view that the first step should be – it’s gone through the House of Commons – that the Government will recognise Palestine at the time that is right. I firmly believe that would be a good thing to do in the near future. The time is right, the time is now I think, and  recognition needs to come sooner rather than later.

We need to take a very proactive approach to trying to help lead the people of that region to start to negotiate a sensible way forward and a peaceful solution to the way people live, where equal rights is at the core of everything that happens.

Sir Vincent Fean:

I ask colleagues to comment on what each other has said, but if I may just lead with one specific question: outside the EU, arguably, our voice is weaker. I would assert that on this issue, the European Union, apart from financial support for the Palestinians, has not been particularly effective in its role.

So my question is two-fold:

  1. Outside of the European Union, who should our partners be in working for a peaceful outcome; a just and peaceful outcome?
  2. And secondly, how can we influence public opinion in Israel?

I’m struck very much by what Daniel Levy said about the solution – the ultimate outcome – not coming from outside, but needing to be a matter of consent between two peoples with two national movements. How do we influence the mood and the mindsets of the people who are actually currently exercising power over another people? Alistair, I don’t know if you want to kick off on one or other of those things?

Rt Hon Alistair Burt:

I will do Vincent. It’s been great to listen to colleagues again; how I miss those debates and discussions with knowledgeable and open colleagues as well.

In terms of influence, I think people know that I would not have left the European Union. I’m sorry that we are doing that. But I think the relationship with the E3 will be very important. London, Paris, and Berlin acting together. I think we’ll continue to see that it’s very much in the UK’s interest that it builds up a relationship and continues the relationship with European partners. In many cases, our outlook is so similar, I think we will do so and I think that will remain. I think also the relationship with the United States will continue. We’ll have to wait and see what the next administration there is; clearly a new administration would have different possibilities than in the past.

There’s been some chat about honest brokers and the like. The US has lost any position of independence in relation to Israel that it might have had because of this present administration. If you look back to John Kerry and the efforts that he made, I don’t think anyone would doubt that Kerry was determined and open and fair, and at the end of Obama’s time. Obama’s policy in the Middle East was not universally a success.  UN resolution 2334 that the United States supported was an indication of concern about the failure to move and what might happen next.

Can I just try one thing on people? I’ve watched the balance of chat, which indicates the differences of opinion. I was on a strategic dialogue the other day involving Israeli Members of Parliament from the Left, who said a two-state solution is still very much in their mind. The issue has not gone away. There are lots of issues that concern the Israeli people at the moment, from COVID to issues in the government and everything else.

I’ll  tell one small story: I was on a checkpoint overlooking Lebanon shortly after the incursion there many years ago with one of the young Israeli women who was in charge of the checkpoint. I just asked her: “Do you think your children will be doing this?”

And she said, “Yes.”

I said, “Do you want your children to do this?”

And she thought for a long time and said, “No.”

I think that’s the key to changing the minds of people, Vincent.

Now, it’s not for people from outside to do this, and I think that runs right the way through. And that’s on the West Bank, that’s in Gaza, and in Israel as well. In terms of their leadership: that leadership has not delivered what people want.

It’s not for us to start to peel away at who’s been responsible for what, because if we do that, all the old arguments don’t work. That’s why something new has got to be tried. States will not suddenly turn against Israel in the manner that people would like them to do, from some of those on the chat. If they haven’t done before, they’re not going to do now.

But equally, Palestinian leadership has got to move as well and show some semblance of movement towards what their people are wanting. We don’t know who is the voice of the Palestinian people at the moment: there’s no elections. We don’t hear that voice. All sorts of things could now be possible.

I think there should be a price paid for regularising the situation with the state of Israel. That’s the Arab States’ demand. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hasn’t moved yet. That is a very, very big prize to be gained in the region and, almost certainly, that ought to come with some possibility of movement in relation to the issue between the Palestinian people and Israel. Otherwise the chance will be lost.

So: why not turn away from trying to relive all the old arguments, but look at what the new opportunity might be? Try and make some chance, some success out of that? That will require all of us from outside putting pressure on different parts of this process to move, because, if truth be told, there’s many reasons why the Middle East peace process hasn’t moved, blame should not be heaped on one side or the other, but if we want to do something for future generations, maybe we have to try something different and take this opportunity now.

Sir Vincent Fean:

May I turn to Tommy and just say that I know that you’re not necessarily a fan of the agility we have gained by leaving the European Union, but over to you.

Tommy Sheppard:

Well, if we had the agility of an independent Scotland, I think we might be able to do something on the new world stage and, interestingly enough, it hasn’t been as if small Northern European countries haven’t taken some very important international initiatives in recent decades: Norway in particular.

But yes, theoretically it gives the UK some agility and freedom of independent action when it comes to foreign policy, not being constrained by the EU. And I think the EU, though laudable and something I support in many ways, does have difficulties when it comes to foreign policy, particularly in this area, in that they will have to try and find a compromise of the voices in the room. And they have a difficulty in speaking with one voice, and when they do manage to speak, in saying anything that’s meaningful, to be honest, such is the balancing act they have to achieve.

Brexit means that balancing act no longer has to be considered by the United Kingdom, so it could consider unilateral action or, more usefully I think, multilateral action with linking up with other single governments, to bring perhaps two or three governments together. I’m not sure if Berlin would necessarily be the most profitable place to spend time. But I would have thought that Paris and London together ought to be able to try to consider some new initiatives in the New Year. And they uniquely have – those two countries have – the historic responsibility for much of the situation that we now see, so it would be fitting if they did that.

But in doing that, both countries would need to use the full capacity of the Diplomatic Service to make sure they’re doing it in concert with voices in the region, because the worst possible thing would be to have a fresh debate which is divorced from the reality on the ground.

When it comes to Israeli public opinion, I don’t think you could underestimate the political and psychological effect that the United Kingdom and others recognising the State of Palestine would have in Israel. The fact that we haven’t done it and seem resistant to doing it, and are holding back from doing it, really… the fact that we’ve admitted that it ought to be done, but it shouldn’t be done now, and we’re not doing it at the moment… Holding back, and withholding that recognition is, I think, giving succour to Netanyahu and others who are pursuing the policies that they’re pursuing. It would be a big upset to the international applecart if we were to do that and, you know, I do think we need to.

We should probably be doing much more, as well, to try and identify – and I know that this is a difficult time to be a liberal in Israel and to speak against the Occupation if you’re an Israeli, but there are still some important voices who are speaking out, particularly in the arena of human rights. We should be doing much more internationally to connect with those voices and to give them a platform in this country and beyond to make sure they’re heard within the international community. Perhaps some of our Foreign Office capacity might be good to back them as well. And, if necessary again, we would have to confront the Israeli government when it comes to their determination to try and stop what they regard as foreign intervention into their domestic affairs, but we would have to say that these are concerns that mean a lot to this country.

Finally, I see some stuff in the chat about BDS. Without getting into that debate, I think any country needs to be prepared to say that, at the end of the day, how it feels about a partner country will determine the type of economic relationship and trading arrangements it has with it. And if necessary, those economic levers have to be used to apply pressure in the political and diplomatic sphere. The two are not, cannot be, divorced from one another. They never have been with regards to any other country. When it comes to trying to secure a foreign policy objective with Israel and Palestine, they ought to be deployed as well.

Sir Vincent Fean:

Lindsay, you’ve already said very clearly what LibDem party policy is on recognition. Could you address the question of our partners in an effort to try to influence the Israeli mindset?

Baroness Lindsay Northover:

In terms of partners: one of the things that I noticed in the coalition was the huge reluctance – and I’d exclude Alistair from this – of my Conservative counterpart Ministers to engage in Europe at all. They didn’t want to go to meetings. They didn’t want to engage. They had a mindset which was that we were separate and outside and so on. One of the things I’ve noticed since then, in the last few years, since the Brexit referendum, is that a number of the Ministers are now seeing they need to get support from other countries. This manifests itself, for example, in relation to our position on Hong Kong and China. Suddenly, they’re starting to recognise what we’ve lost.

Now, France came forward with proposals to take forward the peace process and we kind of stood aside. That’s the kind of thing which, in the future, we should not do. There’s enough common interest across the EU to be able to seek to move that forward. I think that’s vital.

In terms of influencing the Israeli population: one of the things that I find very striking, I’m hearing analyses dating back perhaps 10 years or so about how the umbrella protection of the United States was not going to be there forever for Israel. If you look at the feeling within the United States now of not wanting to be engaged in foreign parts – here they are pulling out of Afghanistan prematurely, with the Taliban doing what it’s doing etc –  it is not a given that it will continue to be involved.

You see the rise of China and, in some ways, you can see the United States’ control or influence over various countries in terms of foreign policy as being almost benign compared with what China is doing to make sure it’s got its economic influence with countries and lining them up to support them. For example: over Hong Kong, but other things too, via the resources that  they’ve locked up and such like. So you can see how these influences are changing.

Now, here’s the United States, recognising that it’s now got this huge challenge – and, what’s more, it’s a challenge for our country – which is going to use all that economic power in ways which we may not want to see happen at all. It’s worth Israel thinking about: what is its situation in a very unstable region if the United States is not providing that kind of protection?

The way forward has to be to seek to be setting aside the kind of historic concerns that there have been – I’ve seen them running up through the chat, from either side – and it needs some imagination and some daring, just like the Northern Irish situation did.

Moving forward: the Palestinians know that their hope and their future depends on it. Israelis ought to be grasping that theirs does too. That’s what I think is worth discussing.

But you’re absolutely right: the movement has to be from within the populations.

Sir Vincent Fean:

If I may turn to Julie, and just recall a remark by an earlier speaker that the Occupation is corrosive, not only for the occupied, but for those who implement the occupation. That reminds me of what Alistair has just said about the North Lebanon, the Lebanon border and the conversation there.

Julie Elliott:

Just a couple of points.

Firstly, I would like to say that I did not want to leave the European Union. But it is the world we are in, unfortunately.

Just because we’re leaving the EU, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have good, strong relationships with our former colleagues in the EU, and that is an advantage in this situation. I think France is the important country in terms of this in the EU, but it also means that we can build our relationship with America as well.

In terms of the Occupied Territories and Israel, I think the key to this is actually doing work with young people, emerging leaders, whether they’re in politics or civil society. It’s very clear the Palestinians need to hold elections: they are long overdue.

It’s the new, younger people coming through that we need to work with and support on both sides of this. And if possible, bring people together.

That’s what happened in Northern Ireland, actually. A lot of work was done with young people coming through into civil society. I think that is where, as a country, we can give our best support; to try and develop people coming through. Because, actually, when you look at it, nobody wants to carry on and be living the way they’re living. Most people want to get on with their lives in peace and safety. And that isn’t what either group in this area does now.

So working with young people, where attitudes are not too entrenched, where they are open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, that is where we can bring the most value.

Sir Vincent Fean:

Given the state of the nation and given COVID, given the bandwidth in Parliament, in the Lords and in the Commons for this issue, realistically, how can the people who are listening today influence Government? How can they ensure that the views that they hold strongly are conveyed?  Alistair, if you want to begin and then we’ll go round.

Rt Hon Alistair Burt:

It’s clear following the chat that people hold very fast to very deeply held views on each side of this argument. I think believing that that’s going to change is unlikely. So that’s the first thing: to try and recognise the realities.

But  we seem to be agreed that the present situation is inherently unstable. That it can’t be right, with this question mark over the heads of millions of people in the centre of the world and the issue unresolved with such deep divisions on both sides. So the second thing to say to people is they mustn’t stop raising their voices. But I think, personally, it’s recognising that doing the same thing again always produces the same answers. And if we’ve run into the sand by trying to pursue the same solutions, it’s not going to happen and we must constantly be looking for something new and something bold.

As a number of my colleagues have said: Northern Ireland is not a bad example. When I was first an MP, there were bombs in the streets of London and most of us accepted that this was just going to go on forever. It always had done. It always will do. But it didn’t. It did come to an end and a lot of people on the streets were engaged in making that happen. There is an opportunity with the young and I think we have to pursue that.

So I think it’s bold initiatives. One of your correspondents on the chat, William Patey, who I believe I know, put forward what seemed to me a plausible suggestion to take advantage of the current situation: a revised Arab Peace Initiative. Efforts that put pressure both on the Palestinian leadership and on Israel to find an answer that will satisfy the majority of people on all sides who want a normal life and take the opportunity that people want to see.

It will mean a lot of people having to let go of some of the things they’ve held for a long time because of a different sort of future.

The voices should be raised to say: we want something different for our children and our grandchildren than what we have at the moment. We’re prepared to back those who have novel ideas to try  to find a way forward, and we’re all prepared to put something into this, to give up something in order to achieve something else, and to work with those from all sides, internationally, but most importantly, the people in the area themselves to find the answer.

Tommy Sheppard:

I’m sure most of the people on the call, by their nature, will be engaging with their Parliamentary representatives and probably are the sort of people that do that  all the time. We  can’t stress enough how important that is because, just speaking of that, obviously I’m an MP who’s been engaged in this particular issue, but I quite often get constituents approaching me about an issue that I have no knowledge of in particular. And one of the things that forces you to do is to get knowledge about it. So you have to find out what you can about the subject before you can come to a view about what you think about it, and then provide a response.

Simply making sure that as many people in the community as possible are writing to their Member of Parliament, going to their surgeries. Trying to engage them in a conversation about this is going to have an effect. The most important effect it can have is to begin to get a range of Members of Parliament who haven’t really given this a second thought, to do so, and to find out more about it. Because once we can get that process started, once we can get that dialogue going, then we can change minds and we can build political support behind something which is not the status quo in the way that we’ve been doing things up to now. So I think community engagement and individual engagement are pretty vital.

Baroness Lindsay Northover:

I think that you had some good suggestions from both Alistair and from Tommy.

Right now in Parliament, in the Lords, there are no debates because there’s no time for them. They’re not scheduled. We’re dealing with Corona virus regulations and Brexit legislation. There are questions and so on and so forth, but I cannot emphasise too much how everything has been displaced by those things. And so when you’re asking: how can you get this more centrally on to the agenda? Clearly we’ve got to engage with the United States. We have to hope that there is a change in administration – and to hope that there can be more imaginative engagement from their side to try to take things forward. We will need to do that.

So certainly continue to engage with us. There are the All-Party Groups and so on and so forth, but right now I have to be quite pessimistic about what’s happening in Parliament.

Julie Elliott:

The Covid situation, actually, in the way we’re working, presents some opportunities. Although  there are more debates happening in the House of Commons, there are fewer opportunities for MPs to actually go into the chamber and take part. You’ve got to be on a list; you can’t just wander in.

I can’t emphasise enough what Tommy said about building a relationship with your Member of Parliament, and writing to them and engaging with them is very important. Actually, in the current Parliament since the general election in December, we’ve only had a matter of a few weeks where we’ve sat normally before the Covid crisis struck. And there is such a huge number of new MPs and probably quite a large number of them who never thought that they were going to end up in Parliament because it was such an unusual election. So I would say engage with your own Member of Parliament, write individually, or attend a virtual surgery and build up a relationship.

I think that is the means that individuals have to get their voices heard in this debate in Parliament.

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