Session VI: Questions and Answers
Moderated by Ian Black
Panellists: Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Daniel Seidemann, Daniel Levy, Rula Salameh, Sir Vincent Fean
A question from Andrew Wilkinson, Oxford University: “Does the continued focus on the Balfour Declaration – which is, after all, ambiguously phrased – serve any real purpose in the contemporary political debate?”
Sir Vincent Fean:
The reason for the Balfour Project was curiosity about how the UK would mark the 2017 centenary. The Balfour Declaration is ambiguous. Unlike texts like the Sykes-Picot agreement and others, it is still alive because that ambiguity is still alive. The ambiguity between a Jewish homeland and the civil and religious rights of the indigenous people in those 67 words.
I play a part in the Balfour Project charity because I believe in its two main strands of activity: one is education and awareness raising; trying to ensure that the truth reaches people in our own country, because I do believe that Britain has a particular responsibility. Not only in the past, but in the present.
And secondly: to explore ways forward to ensure equal rights.
The Balfour Declaration has topical interest because of its ambiguity, because of the many, many different interpretations that can be put upon it, and the many, many motivations that led to it. The reason why we carry the name today is that the fruits – the outcome of the Balfour Declaration – are with us, including the divisions that the charity is seeking to heal. It’s addressing those divisions that keeps us going.
Several questioners have asked about the recent agreement – the Abraham Accords – between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. And the agreement reportedly reached with Sudan. Do you consider the recent rapprochement between Israel and some of the Arab Gulf States and Sudan to be a step in the right direction, or does it simply weaken the chances of progress towards a genuine solution to the problems of Jerusalem, the Occupied Territories and the restoration of Palestinian rights?
In my view, it is a major event in Middle Eastern history and also in the Arab world. The Arab world is totally broken. It marks the end of the Arab League Peace Initiative, which went along the following lines – first: Palestine, Israel, the peace agreement; then normalisation. Today, there is normalisation, but there is no peace agreement or final status agreement between Israel and Palestine. Moreover, the de facto annexation already exists in the West Bank. Between Jordan and the Mediterranean, there is only one regime, the Israeli regime, turning the Palestinian Authority into being its subcontractor.
The Arab world sends a message to Israel, saying: “Guys, Israelis, it’s your problem. The Palestinian problem turned, moved, from a foreign policy problem to an Israeli domestic problem. It’s your problem: deal with it.”
This is a very strong message. It’s not only from the Arab world, this message – it’s also the European message. The Europeans do nothing alone to impose on Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories and solve the problem in line with international law provisions. So it is first and foremost an Israeli problem, a domestic problem, and it is a real headache, much greater than a foreign policy problem.
Sir Vincent Fean:
The Palestinian view is that these normalisations are a stab in the back. It has to be said that the normalisation process downgrades the Palestinian Question, which is the wrong thing to happen. The Palestinian Question urgently needs to be addressed; the question of Palestinian rights. The normalisation process puts bilateral relations first.
The fact that parts of the Arab world have gone forward unilaterally with normalisation of relations with Israel is something that any western country which has already recognised Israel cannot object to. There can be no objection to another country recognising a country that we have, long ago in 1950, recognised. That’s the UK government position.
I offer one very humble word of advice to the Palestinian political leaders, which is to find a way – ideally through elections in the next six months – to unite. To unite on a platform of objecting to, opposing, the Occupation and working together to end it by peaceful means. The Palestinian voice is weakened by its division.
There’s been quite a strong response to Alistair Burt’s call for bold moves by both sides, including the Palestinians. Haneen Abou Salem asks Alistair Burt: “What bold moves are expected of the Palestinian leadership?”
Vincent, you’ve called for Palestinian elections, I think also for Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the PA in Ramallah. William Patey has suggested that one of the outcomes of the normalisation agreements reached recently should be a revised version of the Arab Peace Initiative. Any thoughts on that?
Sir Vincent Fean:
I know that there is thinking about some revival of the Arab Peace Initiative – and I heard what Menachem said about its demise – some way of reviving the Arab Peace Initiative, with Palestinian support, to achieve more Arab unity than we now see.
The objection by Israel when they did not pick up the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 was partly that it was a “take it or leave it” offer: recognise the Palestinian state, end the Occupation and we will normalise.
There may be a way, through Arab diplomacy and Arab pressure, to revive something of the Arab Peace Initiative.
When we talk about boldness, I would say two things:
One: the British Government should talk to Hamas. We talk to people we don’t like; we’ve done it for a long time. I think we should talk to Hamas.
And secondly: we should undertake, as a Givernment, that we will respect the outcome of any Palestinian election, regardless of who wins.
The head of the Italian Communist Party under Mussolini, Antonio Gramsci, said: “The old world order is dead. The new world order is struggling to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”
This is the time of monsters. We don’t know how the world works anymore. The two state paradigm is in smithereens, the international consensus around it has snapped, normalisation… you want to know about normalisation? I’m an Israeli patriot and normalisation sucks.
Do you know how difficult it is for an Israeli to be able to say that publicly? Normalisation is geared to allow Arab states to circumvent the Palestinians and allow Israel to go even deeper into our clinical occupation denial.
Having said that, God willing, as of 3 Novembe, we will begin to rebuild this world from scratch. The post-World War II order is over and what can be done in Israel – Palestine will be a function of how that new order is rebuilt. It won’t be the highest priority, but it won’t be the lowest one. And we need to look at the possibilities. Normalisation is here to stay. I wish it were otherwise. I wish it were something that could incentivise my compatriots to do what we have to do and end the Occupation. Sorry: life sucks, then you die.
Is there a way that we can harness normalisation? Stand it on its head and engage the normalising countries so that we may rebuild a credible political process, the goal of which is ending occupation?
I don’t know how to do that. Nobody knows how to do that, but we have to start thinking about that now, and it’s not impossible. It’s absolutely essential.
Don’t blame those who don’t have easy answers, but if you’re asking about normalisation, I really wish it didn’t exist. I see no alternative but to see how we can make this less than the disaster that it is.
There are many questions about the two-state solution and whether it’s even realistic at this stage. Nina Beaven asks: “Is Israel likely to accept a one state solution, which will change the demographics in the way it will?”
Another question is to Daniel Levy – “If the political reality, as it is, is irreversible, as you stated, what is the alternative?”
There are many questions about the death, or the perceived death, of a two-state solution. Is there any way – particularly Menachem and Daniel – to achieve a one state solution, which of course, as you know, is increasingly fashionable? Is there any way to achieve it?
I need also to participate as a Palestinian. I wish that we had more Palestinians here. Professors, academics, who could answer some of the questions that I, as a journalist and activist, find really hard
to answer, especially some of the questions that are really about politics.
Sometimes, I prefer not put myself in a situation where I can talk about politics. But as a Palestinian, who was born and raised in East Jerusalem, and as an activist in my community, here’s an answer about one-state or two-state solutions. I was thinking, personally, without other people around me, that a two-state solution can be a solution.
Maybe for the last 10 to 15 years, for me personally, I felt that in a one-state solution, I don’t think that we can have equal rights with Israel.
From what I see, the difference in dealing with Palestinians and Israelis in East Jerusalem, the way the Palestinian neighbourhoods are different to the Israeli and Jewish communities, the way the municipality is treating Palestinians in Israel… everything.
We have two different separate neighbourhoods or communities in East and West Jerusalem. I don’t think that a one-state solution can work or can exist, especially when we are not involved. We have never felt as Palestinians that we can live an equal life here. I’ve never seen that the Israeli government, the municipality and everything here treats Palestinians and Israelis the same.
I used to think that a two-state solution could work, until I was working with different groups and touring with them in the West Bank. I wanted to document the situation; the real situation on the ground: there was no way for a Palestinian State to exist once we had settlements all over the West Bank.
Settlements are on each hill, on each mountain; sometimes a new settlement, sometimes expanding existing settlements, sometimes building a link between two separate settlements to be one large settlement.
So if you see, if you just have the chance to go from Jerusalem to Ramallah or to Nablus, on the way, on both sides, you will find settlements all over the West Bank. How can the Palestinian State exist once there’s no link between those cities, between those places in the West Bank? It’s really hard. I can’t see this.
On the other hand, I was watching and trying to understand the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis for the last 30 years. For normal Palestinians, what has happened? Has anything changed in our lives? Did we get to see the privilege of peace, the privilege of Oslo, anything that could at least give us hope?
I think the problem that we are facing, especially the new generation, they live without hope. How can we work on the new generation and give them hope? One of the comments that I saw in the chat box was that the young generation should meet and talk. At least share something; have the chance to meet. We don’t have that. Rarely would you see Palestinians and Israelis who know each other. If they practise sitting together and talking… we don’t have this.
Normalisation is something really big. It’s something that really affects our life. But also, on the other hand, for me, as somebody who has lived in Jerusalem for 45 years, I have never been able to see a normal life between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem; where we share supermarkets, where we go to the same hospital, where we go to the same medical clinics or where we meet on the bus or on the trains. We have never lived in a situation or in a place where I can see normal Israelis and get to connect with them.
As for the new generation, for my son, who’s now 20: he has never met in his life with Israelis or talked to Israelis.
Most of the money that came in over the last 30 years from the donors, from the European Union, from the United States or from different countries, they always take the Israelis and Palestinians, the young leaders to go to, say Turkey or Europe to meet there. Once they return back to their countries, they can’t even tell their family members or friends that they met Israelis. They have friends, and if they share this with the community, they will be in a big, huge trouble.
I’d like to ask Helena Kennedy a legal question which touches on wider issues. In terms of the international community and legal institutions, the Palestinian Authority referred the Israeli war crimes to the International Criminal Court. Do you expect that anything will come of that?
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC:
I’m going to combine that with another question that I saw: “Why can’t lawyers around the world come together and reassess international law and give it the force that it should have?”
That feeds into your question, drawn also from the audience, of: “Can the International Criminal Court give us the sort of justice that is being sought?” The problem is that international law is the product of multilateralism and at the moment multilateralism is in retreat. We know that, and we see it, and I applauded Danny when he said that he was praying for something miraculous to happen on 3 November.
I join him in praying that something miraculous happens, and that we can start a process of actually trying to recover that sense of something that unifies us, where we recognise the need for there being something shared.
Danny’s quote from Gramsci, that’s one that I too use; the idea that, that when the old is clearly rotting and in decline, it is to signify that something new is going to be born. We’re in that middle period where there are monsters and, at the moment, our world is full of monsters. There’s a contagion of a particular kind of authoritarian leader pretending to be a democrat; wrapping himself in the language of democracy, but, in fact, removing the word liberal, which includes all those things that we know matter, that are vital: a civil society; media freedom; lawyers and judges who are respected and not being undermined; when you have a genuine opposition; when you conduct discourse in a different way.
So all of that is, at the moment, being laid by monsters. I do believe that something new will be born, and I think something new will be born because I spent so much time with the young.
We’ve gone through a stage in which the great things that people aspired to were all about money. It’s all been about transactional relationships and all about everything that moves having to be marketised. Everything has to be about money.
The young people that I spend time with – and it’s not self-selecting, I go into universities and I speak to everybody – people want things to be much more values driven. They do want decency, they do want to respect people’s humanity, irrespective of who they are. There’s something growing, just now. That belief that we are stewards of the Earth and that we have to protect it for future generations; there’s something noble still there.
I believe that something new will be born. I’m not going to accept the idea of normalisation.
I see the suffering on the side, and I know the pain that Palestinian people have experienced. I also know that there are many decent Israeli folk too.
I don’t believe that you can have a one-state solution just now, I really don’t. I think people are still too fearful. There’s still too much anxiety. People still need to feel the sense of themselves as able to run things for themselves before they can ever think of it all coming together. So I don’t believe that you can have a one-state solution and you’re being sold that idea sometimes to distract you from the practicalities of getting things sorted now.
I happen to agree with Vincent. I think that you have to come together. If you’re divided, if you have Hamas and Fatah at each other’s throats, you will never, ever be able to speak with one voice about the self-determination of Palestinian people and the right that they should have to a state of their own and so on. Something has to be done around that. But until you solve that, you’re going to get nowhere. Something has to be done about it and you’ll be supported in doing that.
But you mustn’t see all Israelis as being the evil monster and you mustn’t imagine that there isn’t a possibility of having a conversation with people that could be different. You’ve got on this panel two wonderful Israeli men. I know many people who are human rights lawyers and human rights activists who live in Israel. So please believe that there are people just like you and me and all of us who want something different and to believe in the possibility of that. It has to start small and it has to start with the unification of the Palestinian movement to create change.
There are questions about the issue – a very toxic issue and divisive – about anti-Semitism. “How can there be a full international debate when organisations and individuals are afraid to criticise the Israeli state and its actions because they’re afraid to be called anti-Semitic?”
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC:
I want us to stop being so literal. It may be, for some people, we’re talking in a language that is not someone’s first language. No one’s suggesting that Israelis are monsters any more than Palestinians are monsters. It’s a metaphor that Gramsci used, which is that people end up in leadership who are not going to produce what the people need. It’s not literal, and nobody’s suggesting either Palestinians or Israelis are monsters. We’re talking about methods of governing, which are not bringing out the best in people, and which rely upon otherness so that you have enemies, and people are seen as being written off in blanket fashion.
That is never going to cure problems, but you mustn’t be so literal when people are talking. This is a measure for talking about the state of our world just now; it’s not in a good place, generally. I’m not talking even about the Middle East: try to think bigger and say that our world is not in a good place.
Each of these people who are leading countries are giving encouragement to the other. And that’s why Danny is saying let’s hope for change on 3 November, because the dominoes start to fall when people are not supported by people who really don’t believe in multilateralism, who don’t believe that our world is one which we have to build together. We have to find better language for talking together about these problems.
If I may… first of all: rely on your Jewish colleagues. There is a lot of abuse of the term “anti-Semitism” to delegitimise what is legitimate criticism of Israel, but I want to give you a nasty example.
A few years back, in a conversation I had with a Minister in the UK, I was told: “There’s never going to be peace because the Jews own Congress and the press.” That sort of thing is anti-Semitism, because it invokes imagery that goes back centuries about diabolical Jews. Had he only said: “We are confronting enormous challenges because of the disproportionate influence of the Israel lobby on Congress and its influence in the media in the United States,” I couldn’t fault that.
Now, it’s difficult to make the distinction. I am appalled by the way that the term “anti-Semitism” is being abused to absolve Israel from accountability: it’s bad for Israel, it’s bad for the Jewish people, it’s bad in general.
It does not tar us with anti-Semitic charges, it whitewashes anti-Semitism. On the other hand, it is important to recognize those occasions, clinically, when imagery is invoked which derives from centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes. It’s there: it’s there on the left, it’s there on the right. I will be the first to help anyone to deflect unjustified accusations of anti-Semitism. I have no doubt that most of the people here would join me in combating what is genuine anti-Semitism, which regrettably still exists.
This last question is from Richard Burden responding to Alistair Burt. “You were right to say that we cannot simply accept the continuation of the status quo. However, maintenance of the status quo suits the Netanyahu government. Don’t their continued breaches of international law – demolitions, accelerated settlement building, etc. – need to be shown to have consequences if they are to be persuaded to change course? The UK Government has been unwilling to endorse actions that have been put forward to demonstrate such consequences by outlawing business deals with settlements or at least assisting the UN’s publication of a database of companies complicit in breaches of international law. How can the British Government be persuaded to be more assertive in defence of international law and the survival of a two state solution?”
Sir Vincent Fean:
A large number of MPs wrote to the Prime Minister in May talking about sanctions against Israel in the event of annexation. That was deliberate. It wasn’t followed by the Government; the Government used its machine to say to Israel: annexation is wrong. Annexation is suspended.
I come back to Daniel Levy’s point about accountability, which was also made by Helena: : the Israeli government – and I’m talking specifically about the Netanyahu government – needs to be accountable for its actions and if accountability leads to consequences, that’s a logical process.
Persistent breaches of international law – and there have been such persistent breaches – need consequences, and the consequences are for government to determine. Sanctions is one of them; look at the comparison between Russian annexation of the Crimea and Israeli annexation.
We need to care about validation of the other people, and of their rights. There are two national movements in this conflict. I truly believe that the act of recognising, by the United Kingdom with partners, now, of a Palestinian State on ‘67 borders, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, would have the psychological impact that Tommy Sheppard mentioned, would have a beneficial impact and would do no harm. I advocate that, almost regardless of what comes in terms of any negotiated outcome. Parity of esteem for the two peoples requires the UK to recognise the Palestinian State on 1967 lines.