Prime Ministers’ Questions Wednesday February 24th 12.00 noon
Last week I visited Palestine, where we went to the home of Nora and her family, who have lived in the old city of East Jerusalem since 1953. Israeli settlers, however, are now trying to force Nora from her home of over 60 years. There are many other cases like that. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that illegal settlements and constructions are a major roadblock that hinder peaceful negotiations? What are this Government doing to help prevent these infringements into Palestinian lives and land?
The Prime Minister: The question is incredibly important. I am well known as a strong friend of Israel, but I have to say that the first time I visited Jerusalem, had a proper tour around that wonderful city and saw what has happened with the effective encirclement of East Jerusalem—occupied East Jerusalem— I found it genuinely shocking. What this Government have consistently done and go on doing is to say that we are supporters of Israel, but we do not support illegal settlements and we do not support what is happening in East Jerusalem. It is very important for this capital city to be maintained in the way it was in the past.
Was it a change of heart or a slip of the tongue?
It is rare for a Prime Minister to give a completely unscripted answer to a question. Even at Prime Minister’s Questions he usually knows what questions are coming from his own side and his PMQs team anticipate questions coming from the Opposition. Just occasionally he will be caught out by a unexpected question.
This seems to be what happened at PMQs on February 24th. Maybe the question could have been anticipated, as there had been three delegations of MPs in Jerusalem the previous week, but the Prime Minister gave an answer that sounded – for once – spontaneous.
Visits to East Jerusalem often start at the top of a hill – Jabel Mukaber – from which one can see clearly how Palestinian areas are being encircled by a ring of Israeli settlements to make it impossible for them to expand.
Visitors are then taken through the Palestinian areas – potholed roads, no pavements, no bus service, no playgrounds – where 38% of the city’s population live, paying 40% of the taxes yet getting only 10 to 15% of the budget.
The visit then ends at the 12-metre concrete wall which snakes inside Palestinian areas to gerrymander them out of the city, yet loops round distant Israeli settlements to put them inside the city.
The Prime Minister recalled his own first visit to East Jerusalem – pausing to emphasise that he was talking about “occupied” East Jerusalem – and said he found what was happening with the encirclement of Palestinian areas “genuinely shocking”.
He made a mistake, referring to Jerusalem as a “this capital city” (only the Israelis regard Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; the rest of the world regards Tel Aviv as the capital), but this will not have cheered up the Israelis as he immediately went on to say it was important for Jerusalem to be maintained “in the way it was in the past”. In the past East Jerusalem was the capital of the Palestinian Authority and the UK still does not recognise it as part of Israel.
So in the space of 111 words the Prime Minister managed to cause double offence to the Israelis – by finding their treatment of the Palestinians “genuinely shocking” and by reminding them that East Jerusalem does not belong to them anyway.
Is this a change of heart or a slip of the tongue? Only last year Cameron was hailed in the Israeli press as the most pro-Israeli prime minister in the UK’s history (which is saying something!), but last week Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat were quick to his criticise his comments.
The answer is probably the latter. A little bit of candour that slipped out in an unscripted answer. But if he is not prepared to take any effective action even when he does find things “genuinely shocking”, what difference does it make?