Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

It is unlikely that the Bush Administration, in their last two discredited years in office, will reverse their mistaken decision six years ago to abandon the Middle East peace process, and to identify American interests instead with those of the Israeli Government of the day. Republican calculations of how support for Israel plays in domestic American politics, particularly in the Christian fundamentalist south, are unlikely to change. American support for the project of a greater Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, rests on questionable theology and on disastrous political reasoning. I note that many within Israel question whether their national interests have been hijacked by American ideologues who do not have Israel’s long-term security at heart—promoting an expansion of West Bank settlements and an implicit approval of Palestinian expulsion that can only deepen Arab hostility. So we have to look elsewhere to reverse the slide towards another intifada and to revive the peace process: to the United Nations, to the European Union—for many years the largest provider of aids to sustain the Palestinian Authority—and to the Arab League.

It was characteristic of the loss of British influence that the latest European initiative on the Middle East bypassed Britain. Spain, Italy and France, the three Governments who launched it, provide the three

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1073

largest contingents to the expanded UN force in Lebanon—and they provided them, we should remember, in response to active pressure from Washington. A previous Spanish Government sponsored the Madrid conference of 1991, out of which grew the Oslo peace process; so these are major and legitimate players within the Middle East. I hope that, in closing, the Minister will assure us that the British are now giving this initiative their full support. He failed to mention it in his opening speech.

The Saudi, Jordanian and Egyptian Governments have also taken the lead in reviving the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which offers Israel the security of peace with its neighbours within a two-state framework. We should welcome the active engagement of these states, and of the Arab League. We need a broad approach, to which as many states as possible are committed. Unilateral actions and bilateral negotiations have run into the sand.

We on these Benches are committed to a secure and prosperous Israel, at peace with its neighbours. Our commitment to Israel rests on our expectation that Israel is a democratic state that respects the highest standards of human rights. Peace for Israel has to rest on a two-state solution that is acceptable to Palestinians. The alternative is endless conflict. I agree with the correspondent in Haaretz who said two weeks ago that the long-term occupation and the settlement strategy risk corrupting Israeli values and society. The seizure of Palestinian land, the demolition of Palestinian houses and the destruction of farmland are not in accord with the values of a Jewish culture that has contributed so much to the development of our civilisation. It is in Israel's vital interests to find a way out of the occupation through a return to multilateral negotiations, which we, and other states, should help.

It is also vital that we preserve democratic values by permitting legitimate criticism by outsiders of the policies of the Israeli Government. The closing down of debate on Middle East policy within the United States through campaigns which attacked centres of Middle Eastern studies in American universities and accused critics of the Israeli Government of anti-Semitism has damaged Israel's enlightened interests. Washington no longer serves as a critical friend offering constructive advice. I was shaken, in a meeting with Shimon Peres in New York four years ago, to hear one speaker refer to,

not to be contradicted by anyone else there, apart from me.

Some neo-conservatives have gone further, suggesting that Europe as a whole is fundamentally anti-Semitic and should therefore be excluded from any voice in the politics of the Middle East peace process. Anti-Semitism is a hateful sentiment which ran under European and American culture until the horror of the Holocaust demonstrated what it might lead to. Criticism of Israeli policy and actions in the Occupied Territories is of a different order. We should all be careful to maintain the distinction between one and the other and we should all be careful in our

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1074

choice of language in a field where emotions run high and loosely used phrases can carry dark historical echoes.

Multilateral diplomacy, backed by financial assistance and the provision, where needed, of peacekeeping forces under UN authority is the only way forward in recreating stability across the Middle East. We on these Benches believe that Britain can best contribute by working as closely as possible now with its European partners to engage the Governments of the region. I welcome the emphasis on that in the Minister’s opening speech.

We regret that the dual military commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan will make it impossible, for the foreseeable future, for British Armed Forces to contribute to such peacekeeping operations. For that, we will have to depend on our European partners and other UN states. For both Iraq and Afghanistan, we should now move away from an Anglo-American approach, demanding that others fall in behind us; we need to recognise that such an approach has left us dangerously overexposed as a country and the region dangerously unstable.

3.58 pm

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, in the third day of debate on the gracious Speech, just over a fortnight ago, many Members of your Lordships’ House spoke clearly and strongly about the priority of finding a resolution to the disastrously destructive situation in Israel-Palestine—destructive, as has already been said today, not only to both Israelis and Palestinians but to the rest of the Middle East and much wider.

On that day, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was not, in my view, exaggerating—he spoke for many that day and for many who have spoken today—when he said that,

He offered the House and the Government advice that was both sound and innovative. It seemed to me that, in winding up the debate that day, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, was agreeing with much of what the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Alderdice, had said, as he has done again this afternoon.

I especially remember from a fortnight ago the characteristically distinguished and passionate speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. It was, she said,

It is also wickedly wrong for any of us, and for any state, to speak or behave as if the whole situation, not only in Gaza but right across the West Bank and the Occupied Territories, can be allowed to drag on much as it is. This is also true for the Israelis, who suffer, too, although not remotely to the extent of the

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1075

Palestinians. The Minister quoted the freshly energetic words of the Prime Minister this afternoon, and it has never been more vital that they should be translated into concerted, persevering diplomatic activity.

The reality is that the Palestinian economy is in ruins, wrecked by the wanton destruction of olive groves, orchards and factories, by the separation of farmers from their land and of producers from their markets because of the separation wall and fence, by the destruction of homes, and by the constant abusive delays at checkpoints. The quartet’s and the Israelis’ freeze on funds to the Palestinian Authority has had a truly terrible and inhumane effect, especially on medical services, on education and on the physical and mental welfare of a generation of children. Tens of thousands of people are now seriously undernourished.

I often wonder whether the Prime Minister, members of his Government and still more the Government of President Bush have taken the time to see the wall and fence from the Palestinian side and through the eyes, accompanied by the commentary, of Palestinians who know and suffer its dire and disproportionate effects. Have they talked to people whose relatives have been held up for hours gratuitously, oppressively and throughout the heat of the day at checkpoints when they were clearly sick or in labour and on the way to hospital, tragically often with the result that their condition has worsened or, indeed, that they have died?

Have the Government questioned the Israeli authorities about the conditions in Bethlehem, the little town about which carols are already being sung and—I hope that noble Lords will be as glad about this as I am—to which the four presidents of Churches Together in England will be going after they have been to Jerusalem in the week before Christmas? Bethlehem today is in effect a prison, entirely surrounded by the separation wall or fence and with a huge and forbidding fortification straddling the road to Jerusalem. The city is imprisoned, too, by the settlements built on its land on the hills around it. The pilgrimage industry is therefore in ruins, and a large number of Christians have no option but to emigrate. Ever fewer are left in the city of Jesus’s birth.

In particular, have the Government an opinion about the state of affairs around Rachel’s Tomb, sacred to all three faiths and a few hundred yards inside Bethlehem from the point where the wall and that monstrous gate close off the ancient road? In April 1998, a party of pilgrims and I had a good dinner and a valuable opportunity to meet and talk to Palestinian Christians in a Lutheran-owned hotel that overlooks it. A few years later, in the second intifada, the Israeli Defence Forces requisitioned the hotel, concerned for the safety of their then small base behind the sacred site. Two years ago, my wife and I were taken around that same hotel by its Lutheran owners, to whom it had been returned systematically trashed and abused from top to bottom, with highly unpleasant anti-Palestinian slogans on the walls, many of them anti-Muslim, in a Christian-owned building. Now, Rachel’s Tomb is off-limits, prohibited to Muslims and to

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1076

Christians. The great wall of Israel snakes down to enclose both the little shrine and the small Israeli settlement that is being built around it. The Open Bethlehem project fears that, once settlers move in, it will become, like the extremist settlement in Hebron, a provocation to violence in a peaceful place.

We need to be as clear here and across Europe and the United States, and in many Arab states as well, as most Palestinians and many Israelis are clear that the situation is intolerable and that a resolution must be found quickly. Historically, as we have been reminded this afternoon, the UK has such a large share of responsibility for the whole situation that we of all people should be exerting every diplomatic vigour—that good word of the noble Lord, Lord Howell—to bring into existence a widely drawn coalition towards a resolution of all the issues through what will be years of careful, persevering work, which we are frankly late in restarting and about which especially the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Hylton, spoke a fortnight ago.

There has to be a two-state solution—one that assures both Israel and the Palestinians security, safety and prosperity. However, I question the realism of the Minister in speaking of returning to the road map, because so many facts on the ground have been brought into being even in the past two years—the continuing development of the illegal occupation, of settlements and of settlers-only roads, tunnels and viaducts, not to speak of the wall or fence.

The weakness of the current Israeli Government cannot be a reason for putting off this fresh diplomatic initiative until what will only be a less promising future still. It will be imperative that all the parties take all the relevant UN resolutions seriously. For my part, I doubt whether peace can be guaranteed for the time that it will take to work through all that must be worked through, including the status of Jerusalem, without a UN force deployed along the internationally recognised borders of Israel. Unless this country and many others work together with those immediately concerned at all those matters as a priority, I am afraid—I use the word advisedly—that there is little point in searching for peace anywhere else in the region to which today’s debate is attending or indeed in searching for peace in the cities and transport systems of the northern hemisphere.

4.07 pm

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity for a debate on developments in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. I thank the opening speakers for a succession of comprehensive and extraordinarily good speeches.

The two areas of conflict that are the subject of our debate today are very much linked in the minds of many people because British soldiers are regularly risking their lives in an attempt to bring peace, stability and prosperity in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They are linked, too, if we are honest, because of a perception held by many people, although perhaps not as many as some commentators would have us believe, that the conflicts lie at the root of Islamic reaction to western interference. I believe that any

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1077

realistic analysis demonstrates how different the issues are, both in their origins and in the current way forward available to us.

Afghanistan has suffered decades of conflict and turmoil. It is one of the poorest countries anywhere in the world, and because of that poverty even the most basic services such as education and healthcare have long been denied to its people. One in four Afghan children dies before their fifth birthday. More than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Between 20 and 40 per cent of Afghans are underfed and undernourished. In these circumstances of abject poverty, where the sustaining of life is a terrible struggle each day, of course people turn to any and every means of feeding their children. Opium remains the most profitable crop for most rural farmers. About 1.7 million people—over 7 per cent of the Afghan population—rely on illegal poppy farming as a way of providing for their families. That fuels insecurity, corruption, indebtedness and fear.

Alternative livelihoods are therefore absolutely vital in order to counter the opium trade, but clearly those alternatives are not created overnight. People who are poor and intimidated by drug dealers do not find it easy to abandon one form of livelihood for another without being certain of success. The Minister has described how the Government have put enormous and growing resources into the endeavour of looking for alternative livelihoods, and his words, of course, are very welcome.

But the real issue here is how much finding those livelihoods will be dependent on improved security. That is the real test for NATO. I well remember the discussions when I was a Minister about the levels of commitment from our NATO allies to our joint efforts in Afghanistan. It was, frankly, a disheartening experience listening to some of the contributions of our allies and partners at that time. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us how that has begun to change in terms of support on the ground militarily and support to the Government of Afghanistan on their reforms to its institutions—support, for example, for the civil service and for the key non-governmental organisations.

One of my fiercest concerns is the status of women in Afghanistan. At the time of the Taliban, women were not being educated. Very often they could not get medical help unless they were accompanied by their husbands, which meant, of course, premature death for many widows. Women’s lives were, in effect, completely shut down at that time. So it is good to see, as the Minister has said, that over one-third of children in school are now girls and that 75 per cent of those receiving loans from the micro-finance investment support facility are women. But there are alarming reports that a resurgence of Taliban activity in some parts of Afghanistan has led to an increasingly hostile backlash against these welcome improvements.

When the Minister winds up, I hope that he will be able to tell us how our aid programme is making a lasting impact on the improvements in women’s lives. I hope that he will tell us whether he believes that these changes are as yet sufficiently well established

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1078

within Afghanistan society for us to be able to believe that women’s lives will continue to improve as Afghans take on more and more responsibility for their own country.

I turn now to Iraq. When we debated the gracious Speech, our concerns over Iraq were acute, and they remain so. The losses of our troops when such tragedies occur are appalling. So, too, are the almost daily news reports of the most barbaric and disgusting incidents of sectarian violence and murder. I understand that it is now routine for the perpetrators of these murders to be readily identified by the methods of torture that they use before they kill their victims. But the growth of Shia-on-Sunni and Sunni-on-Shia violence, which has been a terrible development over the past 18 months or so, is a fact, and I, for one, do not for a moment believe that anyone can think it will abate without fresh international and internal thinking on policy and operational approach.

Let us not forget that it was only in January that Iraqis in their millions voted for democracy and a new way forward. Many did so in spite of threats against their lives because they believed in the future of their country. But to have a real future, all countries have to have the ability to control their economies and, above all, their own security. The fact is that Iraq has a dual nightmare of internal conflict between two or more different groups, and of the supply of arms and reinforcements from its closest neighbours.

In my view, it has been short-sighted of our friends in the United States to have so little contact with Syria and Iran over the past two or three years. Both countries have porous borders with Iraq; both believe that they have good reason of their own to wish to secure an Iraq that is not threatening to them and to widen their sphere of influence within that country. But the two countries are very different. For all the internal disputes in the Arab League, Syria is one of its own. It may be unreliable, and its leaders may be given to outbursts of rhetoric that are inimical to most Arab sensibilities, but most believe that Syria has been wronged and will, given time and patience—and probably a very hard talking to—rejoin the Arab family where it belongs.

The attitude to Iran is more complex. In my experience, Iran is feared and mistrusted by its Arab neighbours. But it commands a degree of respect: it is powerful; it is more populous than any of its Arab neighbours except Egypt; it has a history as long as that of Egypt and a well disciplined army; and it has a very real sense of its own identity. It is a player of real importance in the region, and in respect of Iraq. I hope that the Baker-Hamilton study group will reflect that when it reports tomorrow.

May I ask the Minister what the Prime Minister, having given his evidence to the study group, will do when the report is published? Will the United Kingdom Government respond? How will the Government’s view be formulated? I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss the study group’s findings in this House—even if we have to do so outside this Chamber. I would very much welcome that.

I have left the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until last, but it is still in my view the issue of overarching

5 Dec 2006 : Column 1079

difficulty and importance in the region. The words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester just now were enormously moving. He asked whether members of Her Majesty’s Government had been to look at the wall or spoken to those directly affected by it. Speaking for myself, I can say that the answer is yes. I did so on several occasions when I was the Minister for the Middle East. At that time—and I am sure it is still the case, as the Minister no doubt will confirm—we protested vigorously about the way in which the wall was routed, as we have made clear over and over again in your Lordships’ House.

Since we discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the debate on the gracious Speech, we have seen not only a ceasefire called by the Palestinians but a speech of real importance from the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. Of course, we have seen ceasefires before, and the test is often not so much whether individuals or terrorist groups respect the ceasefire but what happens when they do not. Israel has a history of swift and comprehensive retaliation, as we saw all too clearly this summer.

What is remarkable is that, given that both Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas are under huge pressure at home—as has been made very clear this afternoon—this ceasefire is holding. President Abbas is taking on the Palestinian gunmen in what he is saying publicly and Prime Minister Olmert is making it clear that the Government are in charge of the IDF and not the other way round. He is making it clear that rules of engagement must be enforced. He is not in an enviable position, but his speech last week made it absolutely evident that he is determined to adhere to that position. For his part, Abu Mazen has tried in good faith to form a Government with Hamas who would command international support. Maybe if it had been left to Prime Minister Haniya, such a Government might have been formed—but it was not to be. That is another very good reason for our sustaining a frank and robust dialogue with Damascus.

Now both Prime Minister Olmert and President Abu Mazen need solid international support. They are getting it from Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia—and that is very welcome. But unless that support is strong and sustained not only from those countries but from all the countries in the Arab League—and not only now but when the going gets really tough—and unless we in the United Nations, the EU, Russia and the US together with other world players are able to reinforce that support, this may well be another false dawn.

Maybe there is a real opportunity here—and not just an opportunity in the region—because, to be frank, of the recent changes in the US. The departure of Mr Rumsfeld may prompt many reactions, but most reactions on this side of the Atlantic will not be of sorrow. Similarly, Mr Bolton, a very intelligent, enormously hard-working ambassador at the UN, had the terrible drawback of never believing that he could just be wrong. I do not think, given his recent interventions, that many UN delegations will be sorry to see him go.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page