New minister needs to act to revitalise peace talks

Ideal opportunity to warn UK business

not to trade with illegal settlements

New Minister’s Middle East interest
Eight of the last ten Middle East Ministers have been former chairmen of Conservative Friends of Israel or Labour Friends of Israel, so the appointment of Hugh Robertson as the successor to Alistair Burt in the most sensitive post in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office breaks new ground.He is knowledgeable about the whole Middle East and has visited Syrian, Lebanon and Jordan in 2009, Israel and the West Bank in 2008, Israel, Jordan and Syria in 2007, Oman in 2006 – but always as a guest of the Conservative Middle East Council, not the CFI.

CMEC is not a campaigning organisation, but when it does express a view it is significantly more sympathetic to the Palestinians than CFI or the Conservative Party – as in November 2012 when it issued a statement urging the UK to vote in favour of Palestinian statehood and not to “stand on the sidelines as a passive spectator”.

Membership of CFI or CMEC does not predetermine how a Middle East minister will act in office, as Alistair Burt demonstrated by showing personal sympathy for Palestinian protestors against the wall in Nabi Saleh and against the demolition of Bedouin villages in Khan Al Akhmar.

By the same token the appointment of Hugh Robertson does not necessarily prefigure a more robust UK policy towards the present Israeli government – which is badly needed – but it does mean that we have a Middle East minister who understands both sides of the conflict equally well and – we hope – will not be held prisoner by a reluctance to offend.

His first job should be to issue country-specific guidance to UK business not to trade with or invest in illegal settlements in the West Bank. Guidance has long been promised by Alistair Burt and, if it is deals specifically with the dangers of doing business with Israel’s illegal settlements it could help revitalise the Israel-Palestinian peace talks at the very moment when they look doomed to failure.

In a little-reported speech to Bar-Ilan University the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu played his old trick of placing an impossible new condition in front of the Palestinian negotiators which will inevitably lead to the collapse of the talks.

In this speech he said: “Unless the Palestinians recognise the Jewish state and give up on the right of return there will not be peace.”

It’s not enough that the Palestinians have recognised Israel, which is an 80% Jewish state, since 1992. Now Netanyahu’s new threat is that there will be no peace until the Palestinians recognise Israel “as a Jewish state”.

To understand why this is impossible it is important to remember that there are three types of Palestinians, those who live in Palestine (4 million), those who live in Israel (1 million) and those who live as refugees in neighbouring countries (6 million).

Palestinians who live in Israel already suffer legal discrimination from a secular Israel and fear that recognising Israel “as a Jewish state” would lead to their expulsion or forced transfer.

Palestinians who live in refugee camps hold on to the hope of realising their individual right to return to their property in Israel (or receive compensation) as guaranteed in several United Nations resolutions.

The PLO negotiators, representing all Palestinians, not just those in Palestine, are neither willing nor able to negotiate away these rights.  They are not theirs to negotiate.

Netanyahu knows this and has put forward this impossible demand so that he can blame the Palestinians when the talks end without agreement in May.

In the same speech Netanyahu argued that the occupation of the West Bank and the growth of settlements could not be the cause of the conflict, as the conflict started before the settlements.

This is disingenuous. The Palestinians’ have stated that their only aims in the peace talks are an end to the Israeli military occupation and the establishment of an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The occupation and the settlements are the main obstacle.  President Abbas has made it clear that once there is an agreement, there will be no further claims on Israel.  “Signing the agreement will signal the end of the conflict.”

Clearly the main threat to the peace talks are the 410-horse-power Caterpillar D9R bulldozers, specially designed for the Israeli army, that are demolishing Palestinian villages and building new Israeli settlements while the talks are under way.

The Israeli strategy is to talk slow and bulldoze fast. Then there will be too little Palestinian land left for an independent Palestinian state to be viable.

The US will never stop the Israelis.  The EU will never agree.  It’s up to countries like Britain and France to put pressure on Israel to reach a settlement.

The first step has to be focused on the root cause of the trouble – the settlements – and Hugh Robertson has a golden opportunity in the planned rewriting of the Overseas Business Risk Register to write in guidance that explicitly advises UK business not to trade with or invest in settlements.

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