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20 May 2008 : Column 14WH—continued

10.22 am

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing this important debate.

Despite Israel’s unprecedented situation—it has always faced hostility from states that do not recognise its existence—it has over the past 60 years created a vibrant, progressive and multi-racial society. It has recreated the Jewish national home and revived the Hebrew language, and it has provided a haven for victims of persecution. They include victims of the holocaust, and victims of persecution in Arab and Muslim countries. Indeed, half Israel’s population are Jews descended from people who lived in Arab countries. Today, Israel welcomes refugees from Darfur who had been rejected and often attacked in Egypt.

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The threat against Israel’s existence has sadly not been removed. I draw the House’s attention to the continuing threat from Iran. Its president attempts to build a nuclear bomb, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, calls Jews “filthy bacteria” who should be eliminated, and trains and funds groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that are dedicated to preventing a two-state solution.

Israel’s achievements are many. They include the socialist kibbutz movement, which has inspired millions over the years; the co-operative values of the moshavim; and the strength of the Histadrut trade union movement, which sets a model for such movements internationally and which now works with the Palestinian trade unions. Israel’s economy is highly successful. Its innovations are world renowned, and they include software and voicemail technology. It may be a mark of Israeli society that book sales per capita are the highest in the world.

Mention has been made of Israel’s democracy. It is important to point out that 25 per cent. of Israeli citizens are not Jewish, that 12 of the 120 Members of the Knesset are Israeli Arabs, and that Israeli Arabs in Israeli society include Ministers, diplomats and a justice of its Supreme Court, the independent court that often overrules Government decisions.

Israel is a progressive society. While Iran hangs gay people from cranes in the street, Israel welcomes civil partnerships. Israel’s hospitals and universities are models of co-existence. The remarkable world-class Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, Poriya hospital in Tiberias and Soroka hospital in Beersheba have doctors and nurses from all backgrounds, religions and ethnicities helping patients from all backgrounds. Only last year, I visited Hadassah hospital as a member of a delegation from Labour Friends of Israel, and I saw a tiny baby from Gaza, the victim of a domestic fire, being given dedicated care by a team of Israeli medics. Organisations such as Givat Haviva bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

The tragedy of the situation is the failure to find peaceful co-existence between Israel and the Palestinians. Although Israel can be criticised in some respects, the overwhelming responsibility for that failure lies on the Palestinian side, and the battles fought by those rejectionist elements that prefer the cult of death and the suicide bomber to negotiated peace. The best success that Israel can achieve is co-existence with its neighbours. That would bring peace throughout the region and, I hope, achieve the dream of Shimon Peres of a federation of countries of the middle east working together for peace in that area and beyond.

10.26 am

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing the debate.

I intended to speak about the role that Israel has played in the field of international development. It is an altruistic, innovative, outward looking actor on the world stage, but it gets little international recognition because the state is generally viewed through ideological eyes. I do not have the time to speak in depth about the work that Israel does globally, albeit on a small scale, in water resource management and irrigation, desert agriculture, early childhood education, community
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development, emergency and disaster medicine, refugee absorption, employment programmes and so on. All that is built on Israel’s experience as a struggling nation in an inimical climate, and the nation offers advice, expertise and support globally.

More important than developing those points in the short time available is, I feel, responding to my hon. Friend—he is a friend—the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who represents a seat on the other side of Birmingham from mine. I do not think that it is on to come here and conclude, as he did, with what effectively amounts to a denial of the state of Israel as a Jewish state, having begun those remarks with a reference to Auschwitz. My message to him today is that he cannot have it both ways. He cannot end his speech by referring to a state that is wonderfully and purely democratic but not Jewish after choosing to start, 10 minutes, earlier with Auschwitz.

It is not that easy and it is not that simple. If the holocaust means what it does to a lot of people here and if the history of persecution over centuries and millenniums is relevant, a state that is definitively, absolutely and unconditionally Jewish is part of the deal. My hon. Friend cannot have it both ways.

10.28 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing the debate. He spoke authoritatively and gave us a good base of Israel’s history.

The debate has been incredibly positive. The number of people attending and speaking today is testament to the importance of the state of Israel and its place in the region and on the world stage. It is good to have had a debate that has touched on many aspects of Israel that often are not covered because, understandably, we usually focus on the peace process. We heard about a wide range of topics—economics, our grave remembrance of the holocaust, the political situation, education, anti-Semitism, culture, health care, international development and the challenges with neighbouring countries such as Iran.

The timing of the debate is obviously appropriate, coming as it does just after the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, and it is important that we celebrate that milestone and the country’s many successes, which have been covered in the debate. We should recognise what it has achieved in its fairly short history. The anniversary is also an opportunity to look forward to the next 60 years and beyond, and it is important to take a sober look at the prospects.

The future of Israel must lie in finding peace with its neighbours. Sadly, the prospects for that look increasingly fragile. I visited Israel in 2000, which is some years ago. Such a visit is essential if one is to understand properly the climate of fear surrounding the security situation in the country—the tension is palpable. I was also struck on my visit by the beauty of the country and how varied it is, despite its small size, from the mountainous north and the Golan Heights to the wonder of the Dead sea, the beautiful golden beaches next to the bustling city of Tel Aviv, which were mentioned, and Jerusalem, which is, frankly, stunning, with history around every corner.

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Jeremy Corbyn: When the hon. Lady went to the Dead sea, did she notice that its water level was falling by between 1 m and 2 m a year and, because of excessive water abstraction, that it will disappear within the next 20 years?

Jo Swinson: Having visited only once, I did not notice the change in the Dead sea, but I have read of the problems arising from lack of water. Indeed, I had not necessarily clocked the politics of water in the area generally—it is vital and underlies many of the political tensions. With climate change, those are likely only to increase.

Obviously, my visit was a few years ago, so I thought it would be good to hear from people who have visited more recently. I spoke yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), who last month was on a cross-party delegation to Israel to see the situation. She was struck by the problems and difficulties, from the Israeli town of Sderot, which is under daily mortar fire—indeed, the delegation of MPs narrowly missed being hit by a Qassam rocket at the Gaza checkpoint—to Gaza, which she described as an appalling horror. Lakes of raw sewage surround it and there is a lack of basic medical supplies, such that there is a life-or-death lottery based on whether a person can get a pass to visit better medical facilities—some Palestinians receive treatment in those facilities, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) mentioned.

That is the backdrop, but, equally, there is agreement in the House on the need for two separate states—Israel and Palestine—with secure borders, and on the need to rid the area of the scourge of violence that has blighted so many lives on both sides and that has created an atmosphere in which people live day to day in a state of fear.

The re-launch of efforts for the peace process at Annapolis was viewed by many as slightly optimistic, given its timetable for conclusion by the end of 2008, but it must be remembered that there is no better way than dialogue. The current situation and the violence will not bring a solution, so despite the many barriers and obstacles to success, dialogue must be the path that we pursue. The Quartet has some flaws. It is widely seen as US driven, but the US is not necessarily seen as an honest broker in the process, and given our former Prime Minister’s history in Iraq and the region, he was not necessarily the most obvious choice as a representative to bring peace, although we wish him well in that difficult job. The Quartet has much dialogue with Arab countries, but its lack of an Arab representative is a problem. It would be better if it was driven by the UN instead of the US and if it was chaired by the Secretary-General.

Obviously, the daily violence will be a huge barrier. Until that violence is renounced, progress is not likely, and the history of suspicion and mistrust on both sides, which we have heard about today, will be difficult to overcome. The injustice of Gaza and the humanitarian problems are pressing—until there are basic humanitarian standards, it will be incredibly hard to see a way forward.

On the other hand, only a couple of weeks ago the Quartet expressed deep concerns about the settlements issue. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said, the number of settlements could reduce the viability of a Palestinian state. If we want a two-state solution, that thorny issue needs to be
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tackled, as does the political situation, including the election of Hamas and the historically weak leadership on both sides in relation to acting and taking the risk for peace—I do not recall who said that, but it was a good way of putting it. It is a risk, but it needs to be taken. The prize is worth it.

Although the situation can seem hopeless, we can see chinks of light if we choose to look for them. The citizens of Palestine and Israel want to live in peace, like most people—it is a basic aspiration. That is a good starting position, and we need to focus on getting the parties talking. We need to recognise that if we wait until we meet the three conditions that were outlined—the renunciation of violence, accepting previous peace agreements and recognising Israel—before talking to Hamas, we might leave it too late. There needs to be no doubt that renunciation of violence is essential, but if Hamas makes positive moves, they should be rewarded, working towards the other two conditions being met. The dialogue process is essential if we are to find peace in the region.

I recently met Waza Fahoum, an Israeli-Arab, who was on a trip to the UK. An incredibly inspiring person, she is the chair of an Arab-Jewish centre in Haifa called Beit Hagefen. At grass-roots level, the centre organises meetings, cultural activities that celebrate both Arab and Israeli culture, educational classes and festivals, and provides lots of opportunities for Arabs and Jews to work together. To me, it seemed that at least at the grass roots some people are getting it right and finding a way to live together in harmony, learn, and share time and culture. We should focus on those things as points of light and optimism for a future settlement.

The politicians in the region would do well to learn from some people at the grass roots who are making those things happen and working together in peace and harmony. Only when politicians learn to engage in dialogue and follow such examples will we see peace in that troubled region.

10.38 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing this timely debate, even if he was not able to introduce it under the precise title that he wanted. He and many other Members have rightly paid tribute to the achievements of the state of Israel in the past 60 years.

More than anything else, an episode from my first visit to Israel some years ago sticks in my memory. I visited an immersion centre to see the work to induct Falashas from Ethiopia, and Russians who spoke no other language and who had lived only in the Soviet Union, into Israeli life, language and culture. One of the defining characteristics of Israel is the conscious and successful efforts to forge a nation from people who come from disparate cultural and linguistic backgrounds. That is a remarkable achievement in its own right.

Hon. Members have spoken of Israel’s achievements in different spheres of life over the past six decades. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) spoke about Israel’s achievements in medicine. Several hon. Members spoke about the quality of Israeli universities and the country’s commitment to high educational standards. We could talk about Israel’s scientific and technological achievements; and, as the hon. Member
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for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) did, about the way in which Hebrew has once again been developed as a living language. We could talk about the flowering of Jewish art in Israel, or about the work of Israeli historians and archaeologists. We could talk about the way in which Jewish musical traditions have been fostered, or the fact that Israeli musicians are among the foremost players and conductors of classical works in the western tradition. There is a great deal to celebrate in Israel’s culture and its economic achievements.

There is also a great deal to celebrate in Israel’s political and constitutional achievements. Israel is a state that abides by the rule of law. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, the courts do find against the Government and, crucially, the Government then obey what the courts have said. Israel is also a vigorous democracy.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s point about Israel abiding by laws. Israel has flouted a large number of UN resolutions, and as I said in my speech—perhaps he will comment on this—70 Palestinian parliamentarians who were democratically elected in internationally recognised elections are still in Israeli jails.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman will know from other debates that I am not uncritical of the decisions that have been taken by Israeli Governments and authorities over the years. There are also fierce critics of Israeli Government decisions in Israel itself. However, it is fair that we describe and celebrate the fact that we have a vigorous democracy in the middle east. One will find as many opinions in Israel as there are Israelis—indeed, the fiercest critics of Israeli Governments are often sitting in the Knesset or writing for Israeli newspapers. That is a sign of strength. In which other country in the middle east has there been the same level of public scrutiny as there has been, for example, of the conduct of the 2007 war in Lebanon?

When I went to Israel at the end of last year, I wanted to see the effects of the barrier around east Jerusalem. It was an Israeli non-governmental organisation or pressure group—B’Tselem—that took me around and explained the harm that it believed Israeli policy was doing to Palestinian political aspirations and economic prospects. If one is looking for people who are demonstrating and lobbying for Palestinian rights—I have heard the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) make this point himself on the Floor of the House—one will find them in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. Again, that pluralism is a source of great strength.

It is right, however, that we also recognise that there is a great missing ingredient in the Israeli achievement. The situation was summed up quite well by a columnist in the Financial Times, who said:

Last year, the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Olmert, openly said that without a settlement based on a two-state solution—an Israel that is recognised by her neighbours and that lives within secure boundaries alongside a viable, independent Palestinian state—the existence of the Israeli state will be at risk.

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I therefore passionately hope that the Annapolis process, for all its imperfections, will succeed. We have debated many times in the House what needs to happen if we are to see that success. We need the rockets to cease being fired from Gaza at Sderot and other cities. We need improvements to security on the west bank, so that not only politicians but ordinary Israeli citizens can feel confident that their security against suicide bombers will be maintained. I am happy to repeat that we need action to stop the growth of settlements and remove the outposts because that, more than anything else, will send a message to those Palestinians who are committed to negotiation and the path of peace that there are real gains to be had from engagement in the process of negotiation and peacemaking.

I hope that we hear from more and more Arab leaders throughout the middle east a public and repeated commitment that if and when Israel and the Palestinians reach a settlement, that settlement will embrace the entire region. King Abdullah of Jordan has spoken out along those lines. The invitation to Foreign Minister Livni to speak to a conference in Qatar a few weeks ago was a further encouraging sign. Prince Turki al-Faisal said that if there was peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he—one assumes that he was speaking for many in the leadership of Saudi Arabia—would regard the Israelis as their brothers in the region. Those moves are all welcome.

When I went to Sderot last December, I noted that a square in the city was named after the late King Hassan II of Morocco. It was King Hassan who said that if the Israelis and the Arabs could live in peace and work together, they could turn their region into the garden of Eden. That is the vision that should inspire us, despite all the difficulties. That goal is profoundly in the interests of our country and of Israelis and Arabs in the region.

10.47 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on securing the debate, which marks the foundation of the state of Israel. Although we might agree or disagree with parts of his speech, we all recognise that it was a tour de force as a short history of the conflict and the process of state building. I also congratulate all the hon. Members who have taken part: the debate has been not only interesting, but incredibly disciplined, and I know how strongly they feel about the ongoing conflict.

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