Meeting pupils at a Druze school in Northern Israel
During week commencing November 2nd I went to Israel to speak at the International Leaders’ Summit, a joint project supported by the Heritage Foundation. While there, we took the opportunity to visit a Druze school in Northern Israel, a high-tech business incubator in Nazareth designed for Arab Israelis, and Ariel University.
I also visited the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I am reasonably well-informed about the history of the Holocaust (and a bit of an old cynic), but nonetheless I was deeply moved by what I saw there. It was desperate, agonising, pitiful, humbling.
There is no avoiding the fact that there are deeply-rooted disputes in the region. I have constituents writing to me from time to time criticising Israel, and sometimes calling for the suspension of trade arrangements between the EU and Israel.
I usually reply that the problems are by no means solely down to Israel. For a start, it was the UK (and the international community) going right back to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which promised the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine. Britain cannot escape responsibility for its part in creating the State of Israel — and inevitably displacing some Palestinians.
Then there are the surrounding Arab States (who have done so little to respond to the current Syrian migrant crisis). They have allowed large numbers of displaced Palestinian refugees to remain as refugees in their countries not just for years, but for generations. No other refugees in the world have hereditary status, where the children and grandchildren of the original refugees remain refugees, seemingly forever.
Imagine if we in Britain took the 30,000 Syrian refugees that Cameron has promised to accept, but kept them separate for sixty years, unable to integrate and become part of society. Human rights groups would be up in arms — yet they have little to say about that situation in the Middle East. I am told that the UN has spent more money on Palestinian refugees over the years than on all other refugee situations put together.
Of course many commentators also blame Israel, not least for its heavy-handed response to terrorist actions and rockets from Gaza. They have a point, and I would not condone the Israeli action. But we must set it in context. Israel is a small country surrounded both by states and by terrorist groups that are dedicated to its destruction. It cannot afford to take risks with its security. Its first defeat may be its last.
Then of course there are the Palestinians themselves. Ten years ago, the Israeli forces unilaterally, as a gesture of goodwill, pulled out of the Gaza strip, after 38 years. The international community poured aid into Gaza: there was talk of it becoming “the Singapore of the Middle East”. But what happened? The people of Gaza elected what amounts to a terrorist government. Instead of promoting the prosperity of the people, Hamas focused with ideological intensity on a single task — attacking Israel. The outcome was predictable, and hugely damaging to the people of Gaza. Hamas is resisting calls for a new election.
Then we come to the question of the West Bank. Taken with the Golan Heights and part of Jerusalem, this is called by some “the Occupied Territories”. This is clearly a pejorative term, seeking to imply that right lies only with the Palestinians, and that the Israelis have ridden roughshod over Palestinian lands. The truth is somewhat more complicated.
The original Balfour Declaration proposed a relatively large state of Israel including the current borders, the West Bank and a big chunk of land on the East of the Jordan as well. The state as established included the West Bank. This left Israel as a narrow strip of land, no more than forty miles from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. (To get some perspective, Israel’s land area is less than twice that of Yorkshire). But in 1949, the UN, seeking to meet the reasonable demands of the Palestinians, proposed that the West Bank be assigned to the Palestinians. Israel accepted this proposal. But the six Arab countries around Israel, negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians, resolutely refused to accept the offer.
If Israel would agree to Palestinian demands, and hand over control of the West Bank, the remaining “Waist” of Israel, containing both the capital City Tel-Aviv, and Ben Gurion International Airport, would be a flat strip of land between the mountains and the Med, scarcely ten miles wide. I have stood on the hills overlooking that strip, and the airport, the city and the sea are clearly visible.
If the West Bank were under PA control, and hostile states or militias allowed access to those hills, with rockets and heavy weapons, then the heart of Israel would be simply indefensible. It would be strategically unsustainable. This is an existential issue for Israel: it simply cannot allow the enemy access to those hills.
So today the position of the West Bank is ambiguous. The Arabs and Palestinians argue that the land was offered to them by the UN, and that they are therefore entitled to it. Israel points out that it offered to accept the deal, but the deal was never concluded.
Of course no one can claim an intrinsic right to a territory simply because their long-ago forefathers happened to live in it. Otherwise the USA would have to be handed back to the aboriginal Americans. Nonetheless the Jewish claim on the West Bank is remarkably compelling. The old name of the territory is Judea and Samaria. Judea. The clue is in the name. These are the lands where the Jewish patriarchs and prophets lived and built their nation. This is the land where Jesus Christ (remember he was a Jew) lived and walked and preached.
For Christians at least, these are the names from Sunday School. Jericho. Bethlehem. Hebron. Carmel. Indeed the main North-South road through the West Bank is known by the Jews as “The Road of our Fathers” since so much of their history took place along it.
Today, the West Bank is a complicated patchwork of areas broadly controlled by Israel but extensively under the administration of the Palestinian Authority (PA). I understand that over 95% of West Bank Palestinians live in areas under PA administration.
We then come to the issue of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which defy a number of UN resolutions. The word “settlements” in this context is clearly pejorative. It suggests homesteaders and squatters intent on a land-grab.
The reality which I have seen is rather different. Forget the negative connotations of “settlements”: these are simply towns and suburbs, where new housing is needed because of population pressure — just as is the case in the UK. And why does Israel have this population pressure? A key cause is the growing level of anti-Semitic attacks across Europe, which is motivating European Jews to emigrate to Israel.
It is important to recognise how small the area is, and how short the distances. The West Bank border is only five or six miles from Tel-Aviv — well within the normal suburban commuting distance for a major capital city. Telling Israel not to build there is like telling the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, that he can build in Canary Wharf but not at Chiswick.
So why does Israel deserve our support (as I believe it does)? Because it is an enlightened, democratic country committed to ideals of freedom and pluralism — and also committed to enterprise and free markets. This is in contrast to the surrounding nations which are tribal, theocratic, Mediæval. And the results, in economic terms, are self-evident. Per capita GDP is around $36,000, much the same as the EU. At Number 33 on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom it’s in the top 20% of countries. This compares to Egypt, say, at 124th.
I’ve seen comments on social media arguing that while Palestinians in Israeli-invested businesses in the West Bank earn much higher wages than in comparable jobs elsewhere, maybe if they were independent, they would do better. The last ten years in Gaza argue against that position. More generally, there is no other country in the region with so few natural resources which has done half as well.
There is a high-tech revolution going on in Israel. As well as large numbers of successful tech start-ups, major US semiconductor firms are there. They joke that the Intel slogan should be changed from “Intel inside” to “Israel inside”. Or put it another way — anyone who seriously wants to boycott Israel had better abandon technology and the internet.
Which brings me to a current issue. The EU, in its wisdom, is proposing to require products made in those West Bank factories to be labelled as such. There can be only one reason for doing this: to enable the politically correct (and the politically misguided) to boycott these West Bank products.
I have accordingly written to Commissioner Frederica Mogherini, “High Representative for Foreign Affairs for the EU”, calling her to go to the West Bank, as I have, and to see for herself. We brought back from the West Bank an invitation from the Principal of Ariel University for Commissioner Mogherini to visit the University and to address a mixed audience of Arab and Jewish students.
I put it to her that if we want to put pressure on both sides to negotiate, it seems strange that we provide massive funding to one side while punishing the other. I expressed my concern about the 30,000 Palestinians whose jobs were at risk, and I said that I believed the best way to make progress was to support investment and employment and inter-communal relations in the West Bank.
We shall see how she replies.