Every new provocation, every announcement of illegal Israeli settlements to be built on Palestinian land, every violent attack launched by Palestinians on Israeli civilians, emphasises the need for a new peace process. In a political vacuum people lose hope and the situation deteriorates.
On June 3 the French president François Hollande launched his initiative for peace in the Middle East at a conference in Paris. For the US John Kerry was there. For the UN Ban Ki-moon was there. Over 20 countries were there, represented by their foreign ministers.
But where was the UK? Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was in Nairobi on the last day of a three-day visit to East Africa. He was represented by his junior minister Toby Ellwood.
The question that MPs could ask the Foreign Secretary is this: will the UK put its weight behind the French initiative? Will he attend the international peace conference that the French are planning later this year?
There have been no peace process since the Kerry talks collapsed in April 2014. There has been no international conference since Annapolis in 2007. When there are no talks, things get worse.
The French initiative aims to put Israel-Palestinian peacemaking back on the international agenda and to bring the two sides back to direct talks by the end of 2016.
The French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault understands that letting the status quo continue is like “waiting for a powder keg to explode”. But he is also one of the few Western politicians who understands that direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians “do not work” and only the international community can effect change.
It is now one of the most discredited mantras in the peace process, repeatedly endlessly by Netanyahu but also repeated by Western politicians who should know better, that the conflict can “only” be solved by face-to-face talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Of course a peace process will need to involve face-to-face talks at some stage, but it is only the international community that can persuade the Israeli government to make the fundamental changes in its policies that are needed for peace talks to have any chance of success. By themselves the Palestinians have zero bargaining power.
The Israeli government’s reaction to the latest atrocity in Tel Aviv is a textbook example of what not to do. First they punish the family of the perpetrators. Then they punish the village that the perpetrators came from. Then they punish every Palestinian by suspending permits for them to visit the Al Aqsa mosque during Ramadan. This policy will inevitably – at some point in the future – push some other young Palestinian to a senseless act of revenge.
Netanyahu should listen to the mayor of Tel Aviv Ron Huldai who told Israel Army radio that the cause of Palestinianian anger is the 50-year occupation of the West Bank and the only solution is to pull back to the borders of Israel where Jewish Israelis have a majority: “We might be the only country in the world where another nation is under occupation without civil rights. We have to show our neighbours that we have true intention to return to a reality of a smaller Jewish State with a clear Jewish majority.”
The central importance of the settlements has been emphasised by recent revelations in the Israeli and American press about the cause of the collapse of the last round of peace talks in April 2014.
It was confirmed on June 6 that the identity of an anonymous American official who blamed Israel for the collapse of the talks was none other than John Kerry’s special envoy who brokered the talks, Martin Indyk. “There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements,” he said.
“The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We’re talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less.”
On the following day Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, seemed reluctant to dispel the rumour that the US president might use his final months in office lift the US veto on security council resolutions critical of Israel. Asked if he would allow a resolution calling for an end to settlement building and setting a deadline for an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, she said: “I would be foolish and no one would ever rule out action [on a] hypothetical.”
Foreign Office questions 24 May 2016
Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the extent of radicalisation in the Palestinian Territories.
Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood: I condemn all violence and all efforts to incite or radicalise people to commit violence in the Middle East. During my most recent visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in February, I raised this issue with the Palestinian Authority and urged them to do more to tackle this issue and make clear their opposition to violence.
Craig Tracey: Last week, the Fatah party in Palestine described the terrorist who killed 26 people and wounded more than 80 in a shooting attack at a Israel’s main airport in 1972 as a “hero” and said it was “proud of every fighter who has joined our mighty revolution” against Israel. Does the Minister agree that the success of the two-state solution that we all want rests upon the Palestinian Authority starting to teach its young people about peaceful coexistence?
Mr Ellwood: He makes an important point about peaceful coexistence. It is important that President Abbas condemn statements such as that when they are made. I have noticed a disjunct between the elderly leadership and the youth, who feel disfranchised and so are taking matters into their own hands. I looked into the particular claim that my friend has raised; I understand that it was placed on Facebook and so was not attributed to a particular Minister, as has been the case in the past. Nevertheless, it should be condemned and removed, as he indicated.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that people’s expectation that they will be able to carry on living in their own homes would not normally be regarded as a sign of radicalisation? He will know that in the past week he has received a number of parliamentary questions from me and others about the fact that more than 90 Palestinian Bedouins, mostly children, have lost their homes in the village of Jabal al-Baba. He has said in his written answers that the Foreign Office condemns that but also that it has not raised that specific case with the Israeli authorities. Is it not time to do so, not least because the demolished structures are EU funded?
Mr Ellwood: I fully concur with the spirit of what he has said. I have visited one of the Bedouin camps. I should make it clear that that situation is different from the situation for those based in the occupied Palestinian territories; some are being removed in green line Israel, as well. These people are reliant on farming and so need space, so there is the internal issue of making sure that they are given the same amount of space if there is a requirement for them to be moved.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment he has made of the effect of the recent activities of Hamas in Gaza on the Middle East peace process.
Mr Ellwood: The recent activities of Hamas in Gaza, including attempts to rearm and rebuild tunnel infrastructure, undermine efforts to improve the situation in Gaza and harm prospects for the Middle East peace process. Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza must permanently end rocket fire and other attacks against Israel.
Mrs Ellman In April, two new terror tunnels built by Hamas to launch attacks on Israeli civilians were discovered. Does the Minister believe that Hamas is planning new attacks on Israel?
Mr Ellwood: As I said earlier, I believe that is a worrying development, and we seek to place pressure on Hamas, and all those close to it, to recognise that it will take us back to where we were two years ago, unless there is a direction of travel.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Does the Minister place any significance on the founding charter of Hamas, which is clearly, or to a large extent, a stream of the most visceral antisemitism, and even includes approving references to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”?
Mr Ellwood: I have many conversations about that situation and the challenges we face in the Middle East, not least in Gaza and the West Bank. A number of commentators have said, “You need to speak to Hamas; you need to get them to the table”, but until Hamas changes its constitution, in which it clearly does not recognise the state of Israel, it will be impossible for us to move forward.
David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Earlier questions have referred to the Middle East, and to deploring extremism wherever it may be found. Is it not a matter of grave concern that the new Israeli Defence Minister is extremely right-wing and ultra-nationalist? He said last year that what he described as “disloyal” Israeli Arabs should be beheaded. Does that not illustrate how far the Israeli Government have gone in their extremism and their rejection of any idea of a two-state solution, and should that not be condemned?
Mr Hammond: It is a matter of grave concern. The polarisation of views in Israel/Palestine makes it less likely that we shall be able to achieve the two-state solution that the House and most of the world so ardently crave, and harder for us to do so.