Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab) [V]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 585313 and 585314, relating to Israel and Palestine.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and to lead this incredibly important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. As hon. Members will be aware, the Committee decided to schedule a single debate on both petitions related to this topic.
Before I begin, I draw hon. Members’ attention to something that will be depressingly familiar from previous conflicts in the middle east. According to the Community Security Trust, there has been a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents in the UK in the past month, since the violence began. That is totally unacceptable and should serve as a reminder to everyone in public life that words have consequences and that we must always avoid the kind of inflammatory language that fans the flames of hate and racism, and puts the security and safety of Jewish communities at risk.
We were all shocked and horrified to see the tragic and heartbreaking violence in Gaza and Israel last month. I know this issue provokes strong emotions, both in the country and in the House, and the roots of that conflict are deep, complex and highly contested. I hope, however, that we can begin this debate with a point of agreement among all Members: the latest round of violence has improved conditions for no-one, be they Palestinian or Israeli. The loss of life, including so many children, is heartbreaking and my thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones. I am sure hon. Members will have shared the horror at the indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets by Hamas from Gaza into Israel, and the Israeli actions that have killed Palestinian civilians.
More than half a million people have signed the two petitions. One petition calls on the Government to recognise Palestine as a state, while the other advocates the blocking of all trade between the UK and Israel. As vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel and a parliamentary supporter of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, I share the deeply held concerns for the plight of the Palestinian people. Colleagues who have visited the region will know that the desire of the Palestinians to live in dignity and peace in a state of their own is unmistakable. Their aspiration for self-determination is one that we should wholeheartedly support; it is right for the Palestinian people, and it is right for the Israeli people.
I do not believe, however, that sweeping sanctions of the kind proposed by the second petition would bring the prospect of a two-state solution any closer. As the Government’s written response says, we should
“not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever …necessary,”
but sanctions threaten to drive the two sides further apart, increase polarisation and extremism, and weaken the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. Blocking all trade between the UK and Israel would destroy our relations with Israel and reduce our influence in the middle east. The only long-term sustainable solution to the conflict, and the only way that we can end the sporadic and sickening outbursts of violence, is for the two peoples of that beautiful land to have states of their own, with Israel safe, secure, and recognised within its borders, living alongside an independent Palestinian state.
Former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres famously remarked that the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that
“there is light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there is no tunnel”.
He meant that most fair-minded observers know what a peaceful resolution to this long-running conflict would look like: a gradual sequence of confidence-building measures, eventually culminating in a two-state solution. The lack of a process and a foundation to get to that point is the key problem.
It is an immense reliefthat the ceasefire in Gaza is holding up, but if we want to look back on this as the point at which a peace process became possible, there must be meaningful dialogue between Israel and Palestinians. For too long it felt as though Palestinian groups did not really want a peace process, while the Netanyahu Government felt that they did not need a peace process. The latest eruption of violence shows how unsustainable such notions are.
The approval of a new coalition Government in Israel offers an opportunity to kickstart the process towards a peaceful two-state solution, but peace is not within the gift of one side alone. It will require painful compromises and concessions by both sides and the kind of leadership, imagination and generosity that has rarely been evident on the part of the Netanyahu Government or Palestinian representatives in past negotiations. A two-state solution can be brought about only by bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer together, but as we all know too well, the response of the international community has too often been marked by a combination of frenzied activity followed by long periods of inaction that are interrupted only by the occasional futile gesture. It is time for a new approach—one that does not ignore the necessity and centrality of the political process, but that is not held hostage by its ups and downs. It involves a massive programme of international investment in peacebuilding in Israel and Palestine—one that can begin to construct the civic society foundations upon which any lasting peace deal will have to rest.
Earlier this month, I was pleased to join 64 parliamentary colleagues in support of the establishment of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Such strong cross-party backing was also evident in the Westminster Hall debate that I led on this topic last November, and in the widespread support for the Bill that was introduced by the former Member for Enfield North in January 2017. Designed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, such an international fund would invest $200 million annually in grassroots people-to-people projects. Some might question whether sports and summer clubs, tech training and environmental projects can really help to bring 70 years of pain and suffering to an end, but I believe they can, because we have seen such an approach work in the recent past.
The example of the International Fund for Ireland shows the transformative impact that civic society peacebuilding work can play in helping to end seemingly intractable conflicts. Established in 1985, a dark time when the Troubles seemed as intractable as the conflict in the middle east does today, the IFI eventually grew to encompass more than 6,000 people-to-people projects. The fund opened new space for politicians and helped to bring about a reservoir of public support in both the Unionist and nationalist communities, which has sustained peace in Northern Ireland, through multiple ups and downs, over the past two decades. Not for nothing did Britain’s chief negotiator, Jonathan Powell, later hail the International Fund for Ireland as “the great unsung hero” of the peace process.
The middle east need be no different. Indeed, there is now a robust body of academic research and evidence to suggest that the peacebuilding projects already operating on the ground significantly improve Israeli and Palestinian participants’ attitudes to one other and lead to higher levels of trust and co-operation, more conflict resolution values, and less aggression and loneliness. The problem is that such projects have not received the attention, focus and money that they need and deserve to really have an impact. Although the International Fund for Ireland has invested $44 per person per year in peacebuilding work, only around $2 per person is invested every year in Israel and Palestine. That could all be about to change, however. In December, the US Congress passed the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act with strong bipartisan support. It will invest $250 million over the next five years in peacebuilding work—the largest such investment ever—and the legislation is designed to evolve in a multinational direction if other countries wish to participate. Indeed, it specifically creates seats on its board that are reserved for foreign Governments or other international actors.
In the Westminster Hall debate that I secured last November, Ministers promised to examine the feasibility of British participation in the new US initiative, as a step towards its development of a truly international institution. Sadly, despite endorsing the concept of an international fund in 2018, thus far the Government have dragged their feet. Last year, they even eliminated funding for the People for Peaceful Change programme, the UK’s own small-scale investment in peace-building work.
Despite the Prime Minister’s talk of a global Britain, last week he failed to seize the opportunity of the G7 summit to work with President Biden to galvanise international support for the fund. With or without Britain, this is a project whose time has come. It reflects the reality that no successful peace process happens without the will and the engagement of the people, as they come together and demand a better future for their children.
I will close today with the words of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet:
“‘Me’ or ‘Him’—
Thus begins the war. But it
Ends with an awkward encounter:
‘Me and him.’”