I’ve just come back from a weekend in Jerusalem at a Conference organised by the European Friends of Israel (EFI). This was a big event. There were around 100 MEPs, and more than 200 national parliamentarians from 30 European countries, plus a fair number of spouses, officials, and assistants. We were talking about the key problem in the Middle East: the Israeli/Palestinian situation. This is one of the greatest challenges to peace in the region, and therefore potentially in the world. Judging by my post-bag, it’s an issue that matters to a great number of my constituents in the East Midlands.
It is also a problem given a new urgency by developments in Tunisia and of course Egypt. There has been a peace agreement and a fair measure of cooperation between Egypt and Israel. As I write, it’s not at all clear what sort of government will emerge in Egypt, and what impact this might have on the Israeli/Arab equation.
I should clarify one point at the outset, and before the Guardian puts the question: my trip to Jerusalem was funded not by the European tax-payer, but by EFI itself, and EFI in turn is funded by sponsors and supporters keen to promote good relations between the EU and Israel. I have no doubt that left-wing journalists will be queuing up to accuse me of taking the Zionist shilling, so I should mention that virtually the first thing I did was to go to the West Bank, to Ramallah, and meet with senior figures from the Palestinian Authority. We met Energy Minister Dr. Omer Kitanah, as well as the Communications Director of the Palestinian Authority.
I have a great admiration for the State of Israel, and am happy to regard myself as a friend (though not an uncritical friend) of the country. It’s difficult not to admire a small but brave nation surrounded by hostile neighbours, and a democracy surrounded by essentially totalitarian states, several of which would deny Israel the right to exist. When that country has also developed an effective modern economy, despite the barriers to trade with its neighbours, has managed to excel in hi-tech industries, and has harnessed cutting edge agricultural technology until (almost literally) it has made the desert blossom like the rose, the admiration becomes wonderment.
We heard an amazing speech from President Shimon Peres, and one point he made was very striking. He pointed out that Russia has a thousand times the land area of Israel, and has innumerable fresh water lakes and rivers, while Israel is mostly desert and is very challenged in terms of water supplies — yet Israel exports agricultural products to Russia.
Given the scale of the threats faced by Israel, one has to have a measure of sympathy with the very determined steps it has taken to ensure its own security. And we should never forget that the Palestinian “problem” can be blamed in great part on neighbouring states, who have not allowed Palestinians to integrate, but seem to have used them cynically as a propaganda weapon against Israel. Where else in the world are “refugees” kept in camps for half a century and not allowed to integrate?
Yet the Palestinians do have legitimate and serious complaints that must be addressed, both in the interests of justice for its own sake, and to deliver a viable long-term peaceful solution. If there is to be a two-state solution, then Palestine must be able to to trade and earn a living. Clearly it is unable to do that at the moment — but Israel would argue that a relaxation of controls would lead to more terrorism and violence. And the other point, of course, is the settlements. Despite raising this with our Israeli hosts, I am still unable to square their professed desire for a peaceful solution with their determination to keep building settlements in occupied territory in defiance of their greatest ally, the USA, and of UN resolutions.
Sadly, after a few days in the Holy Land, I conclude that the problems there are certainly no smaller than I thought beforehand, and perhaps greater.