Britain and the Middle East




Labour needs a practical, balanced and positive agenda to support peacemakers in Israel and Palestine

Thirty years ago last month, Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords, marking a rare – and all-too- brief – moment of hope in the tragic conflict between the Jewish state and the Palestinians.


Three decades on, the search for peace remains elusive. Despite this, however, the ultimate solution remains the same as it did in September 1993: two states for two peoples, the legitimate rights to self- determination of both the Israeli and Palestinian people realised, and Israel’s most precious characteristic – that it is both a Jewish and a democratic state – preserved.


The principal obstacles to a two-state solution are well-known: disputes about the eventual borders of a Palestinian state and the related legitimate Israeli security concerns; the Palestinian demand for a “right to return” (uniquely, for the descendants of those Palestinians forced to leave their homes in 1948 and not simply to a future Palestinian state, but to pre-1967 Israel); the presence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the disgraceful growth of violence perpetrated by extreme settlers; the status of Jerusalem; and, perhaps most importantly, a violent rejectionist wing of the Palestinian movement, represented by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which opposes any agreement with Israel and wishes to establish an Islamist state on the entire territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.


While there has been some progress since 1993 – not least the establishment of the Palestinian Authority which governs some 96 percent of the West Bank Palestinian population and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 – in other respects the challenges appear greater.


The number of Israelis living in West Bank settlements has grown significantly over the past 30 years. The Palestinian Authority has proven to be increasingly corrupt, authoritarian, and distrusted by the Palestinian people, and – as the situation in Jenin and Nablus underlines – incapable of maintaining security in key West Bank cities. Perhaps most importantly, the Palestinian territories are now divided – and have been for the past 16 years – between the PA-led West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza. Hamas’ rule has been disastrous both for the people of Gaza and for the legitimate Palestinian aspirations to statehood. The terror group has provoked a series of bloody conflicts with Israel, leaving a trail of destruction and impoverishment in Gaza and deep-seated insecurity and fear in Israel.


At the same time, it is important to recognise that these problems are not insurmountable. Take, for instance, the vexed question of settlements. Most major Israeli settlements are built close to the 1967 lines within the security barrier that was constructed to stop suicide bombers and terrorists entering Israel during the Second Intifada. Including Israeli Jews residing in East Jerusalem, some 85 percent of Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside within the security barrier. Moreover, 90 percent of Palestinians live outside the security barrier. With “land swaps” – estimated at around six percent of territory – these “settlement blocs” are likely to remain part of Israel after any agreement. The concept of “land swaps” has been accepted by Palestinian leaders in past rounds of negotiations. Indeed, detailed proposals have been drawn up by the Geneva Initiative, a joint Israeli-Palestinian project, to address the issue of settlements as part of ending the conflict.


These obstacles have, however, been exacerbated by a combination of weak leadership and mounting public distrust on both sides.


Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for over half of the 30 years since Oslo, has, for instance, opted to “manage” the conflict, preserving an ultimately unsustainable status quo because it serves his political interests and those of parties representing the most hardline element of the settler movement with whom he has chosen to ally.


At the same time, Mahmoud Abbas, who like Netanyahu has ruled for much of the post-Oslo period, has failed to seize opportunities presented to him by more moderate Israeli governments. In 2008, at Annapolis, for instance, the president failed to respond to an offer by the-then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, which would have seen a Palestinian state established in 93.7 percent of the West Bank (with compensating land swaps worth 5.8 percent of the West Bank) and the whole of Gaza. Six years later, he similarly failed to respond to the Obama administration’s framework agreement, despite Israel indicating its assent. Similarly, in 2000, Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, turned down Bill Clinton’s proposals – which were broadly accepted by Israel’s then prime minister, Ehud Barak – which would have seen a Palestinian state on 94 percent of the West Bank, compensating land swaps and a sovereign capital in East Jerusalem.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cycle of violence, resentment and distrust on both sides has seen falling public support for a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine and growing pessimism. As Dr Dahlia Scheindlin, who has conducted joint polling with Palestinian researchers on attitudes towards two states, has suggested, only new leadership can reverse these trends. In Israel, elected leaders need to be “firmly making the case”, she argues, while, on the Palestinian side, a leader who “enjoys public legitimacy” needs to advocate for two states.


Despite the challenges, a new Labour government should work with our European and US allies to help prepare the ground for, and bolster the prospects of, a two-state solution. Its approach should be even- handed, comprehensive and constructive, and patiently focused on the goal of two states for two peoples.


As part of a series of steps designed to narrow the parameters and foster confidence, a new Labour government should support a settlements freeze. This step must be accompanied by, and be part of a process involving, reciprocal confidence-building measures on the part of the PA and Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia.


Second, a new Labour government should support steps towards the establishment of a viable, democratic and independent Palestinian state through renewed investment in the PA.


If it is to fulfil its purpose of advancing a two-state solution, this state-building investment should be linked to measures to end incitement and improve Palestinian governance and human rights. The PA’s policy of paying “salaries” to those convicted of terrorist offences and to the families of deceased terrorist “martyrs” incentives terror, breaches the terms of the Oslo Accords and weakens support in Israel for a two-state solution. It also deprives Palestinian public services of vital investment, and compromises international donors who, while not directly funding the payments, effectively subsidise them by freeing up cash for the PA to spend on them.


Such payments – which are estimated to cost $300m annually and take up roughly eight percent of the PA’s budget – are significant in scale. The policy also acts to incentivise the worst acts of violence by making greater payments for longer sentences.


In some regards, the problem of officially sanctioned incitement has worsened in recent years. In 2017, for instance, the PA introduced a new school curriculum which teaches the virtues of martyrdom, describes terrorists as “heroes” and repeats antisemitic tropes. Extensive research by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) argues that the curriculum “exerts pressure over young Palestinians to acts of violence in a more extensive and sophisticated manner” and is “more radical than ever, purposefully and strategically encouraging Palestinian children to sacrifice themselves to martyrdom”. IMPACT-se’s latest analysis also indicates that assurances by the PA to international partners that improvements would be made to the curriculum have not been realised.


Thus, as part of a new memorandum of understanding governing British aid, state-building support should include measures to replace the PA’s policy of paying salaries to those convicted of terrorism offences with a needs-based system, and end antisemitic incitement to violence and the glorification of terrorism, especially in the PA school curriculum and on state TV.


British aid investment should also seek to bolster the confidence of the Palestinian people in the PA through anti-corruption measures and institutional reform to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and protect a free press and human rights.


As John Spellar rightly notes, the absence of presidential and legislative elections over the past 16 years has undermined the democratic legitimacy of the PA. It also appears to have gone hand in hand with a more authoritarian attitude, less tolerance of dissent and a worsening human rights record.


The lack of proper democratic accountability has also weakened the PA’s commitment to good governance.


Tackling corruption, for instance, is consistently rated as a top priority by the Palestinian people. Palestinian anti-corruption experts cite the absence of effective legislative oversight as a key factor in the problem of corruption. This problem is compounded by the fact that public confidence in the judicial system remains weak; this is a critical factor both for tackling crime but also for improving security and the prospects of economic investment and reform.


With international commitment and support, the PA is capable of developing measures to address these concerns. After taking office in 2007, former prime minister and finance minister Salam Fayyad oversaw the introduction of extensive plans for state-building through institutional reform and the modernisation of the public and security services. While progress in tackling corruption and economic reform stalled after Fayyad left office in 2013, a series of reform plans published by his government aimed at building public confidence in transparent, competent and corruption-free governance institutions offer a solid foundation for future progress. In particular, steps to introduce and safeguard the political neutrality of the judiciary and anti-corruption bodies are a key foundation upon which further future reforms can be built. Measures which strengthen and reform the PA are essential to two-state solution. “As the PA becomes increasingly tarnished in the eyes of the Palestinian public,” the Palestinian human rights activist Bassam Eid has warned, “so too will the peace process with which the PA has been engaging come to be seen in an ever worse light.” The PA’s oppressive policies, he adds, not only alienate the Palestinian people, they have also pushed some towards groups like Hamas, despite its own woeful human rights record.


A new aid package should also be accompanied by measures to ensure greater accountability and transparency for British taxpayers. Thus, the government should publish its annual review of the PA’s compliance with the aid agreement – something the Conservatives have consistently refused to do. It should also introduce obligations such as those laid out in former LFI chair Dame Louise Ellman’s 2019 private members’ bill which required aid to PA schools to comply with values for peace and tolerance in education endorsed by UNESCO.


Third, a new Labour government should encourage Israel and Egypt in efforts to secure a permanent ceasefire with Hamas as a first step towards the reunification of Gaza with the West Bank under the authority of the PA. As noted previously, presidential and legislative elections have been repeatedly promised and postponed over the past decade. The reunification of the Palestinian territories should be accompanied by new elections; together, these two measures constitute an essential prerequisite towards the realisation of a democratic, viable Palestinian state.


Fourth, a new Labour government should work with international partners to convene a donors’ conference focused upon an emergency infrastructure plan for Gaza. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is an urgent humanitarian and political priority. Unemployment stands at 44 percent, a figure that rises to nearly 70 percent among young people; more than 65 percent of the Gazan people live below the poverty line – a figure five times higher than in the West Bank; there are water and power shortages, overloaded sewage plants, and creaking health services.


A Labour government should recognise that the Abraham Accords provides an opportunity for Britain, the US and our European allies to work with Israel and the Palestinians to assemble a consortium of Arab states willing to provide funding for infrastructure and development projects in Gaza. As part of its Green Blue Deal for the Middle East, for instance, Ecopeace, which brings together Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists, proposed an ambitious plan under which Israel and Palestine would produce desalinated water and sell it to Jordan, while Jordan sells Palestine and Israel renewable energy. The agreement between Israel, Jordan and the UAE signed in November 2021 lacked the Palestinian component, underlining both the potential for progress and the current limitations.


A further element of Ecopeace’s Green Blue Deal would see solar fields in Area C of the West Bank provide renewable energy to power a new desalinisation plant, water transmission and sanitation facilities in Gaza.


At the heart of initial reconstruction efforts should be an emergency infrastructure plan that would see major investment by international donors in desalination and energy initiatives, such as “Gas to Gaza”, an EU and Qatari-funded project to deliver gas from Israel’s network direct to the Gaza power plant instead of diesel, and the “Gaza Central Desalination Plant (GCDP) Associated Works (AW)” project, backed by the European Investment Bank.


Israeli governments of various political complexions have previously indicated a willingness to facilitate major infrastructure projects and have offered to provide technical support and know-how. Most recently, in September 2021, then-foreign minister Yair Lapid proposed a two-stage process: in the first, in return for an end to rocket attacks from Gaza, and with international oversight to prevent Hamas’ military build- up, Israel would support the reconstruction of water and electricity systems and housing and infrastructure. A second stage, linked to Hamas’ acceptance of Quartet conditions and the restoration of PA authority, would see more long-term projects, including an artificial island project to give Gaza a port, a transport link to the West Bank, and more ambitious economic projects with Israel and Egypt.


In the interim, if the security situation allows, increasing work permits for Gazans who wish to seek employment in Israel would provide an immediate step to reduce unemployment in Gaza and stimulate the economy. Prior to the Hamas coup in 2007, 120,000 Gazans worked in Israel. By 2019, that figure was 7,000 (albeit the highest level since Hamas seized power). In 2021, it grew to 15,000, and exceeded 22,000 in June 2023.


A new Labour government must recognise that, given the level of indiscriminate attacks launched from Gaza by terror groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad since 2005, Israel retains important and legitimate security concerns. Assistance to Gaza must thus be accompanied by the establishment of a robust, round-the-clock and credible monitoring system to ensure that reconstruction materials are not diverted by Hamas into illicit military purposes. Moreover, the trust and confidence of the Israeli public is negatively impacted by Hamas’ decision to hold a number of Israeli hostages, including the bodies of two Israeli soldiers – Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul – killed during the 2014 war, as well as Avraham Abera Mengistu, and Arab-Israeli Hisham al-Sayed. Both men, who crossed into Gaza for unknown reasons and are said to suffer from serious mental health issues, are still being detained more than seven years later, despite pleas from their families and groups such as Amnesty International to release them.


Finally, a new Labour government should re-establish UK investment in peacebuilding projects and host a meeting with international partners to agree the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli- Palestinian Peace


Established during the darkest days of the Troubles, the International Fund for Ireland invested in cross- community work, laid the civic society foundations for peace and helped sustain public support for the Good Friday Agreement. It was, suggested the UK’s chief negotiator, Jonathan Powell, “the great unsung hero” of the agreement.


An International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which has been designed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace and endorsed by Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves, would leverage and invest up to £200m in similar peacebuilding work. Academic evaluations have found that such projects – which range from sports clubs for children and young people to environmental, cultural, economic and interfaith groups – foster the values of peace, reconciliation and coexistence. Traditionally, these projects have been woefully underfunded. Thus while the International Fund for Ireland invested sums which translated into

$44 per person per year, the equivalent amount in Israel and Palestine was a mere $2.


Thanks to the US Congress allocating $250m in funds for peacebuilding work in 2021, this picture has begun to shift. It is now crucial that Britain and our European allies joins the effort to establish an international fund. Regrettably, however, while offering occasional warm words, the UK has remained steadfastly detached from international discussions and engagement. It has also shown no inclination to offer any form of financial support. This reflects the government’s lack of interest in peacebuilding work more broadly, with a small-scale programme which ran from 2017-20 axed and all UK funding for cross- border people-to-people projects eliminated. Given the experience it gained – and benefits it accrued – from the International Fund for Ireland, the UK should be at the forefront of supporting peacebuilding efforts in Israel and Palestine. A Labour government should thus re-establish investment in people-to-people work and work with the US and EU to convene a meeting to agree the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.


An International Fund encapsulates the practical, balanced and positive agenda that should mark a Labour government’s pursuit of two states. As Keir Starmer said in his speech to LFI’s annual lunch in 2021: “Our approach to this complex conflict will be guided by a simple principle: It is not about whether you are pro one side or another; this is about whether you are on the side of peace. We are pro- Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-peace. Our allies will be all those – Israeli or Palestinian – who seek to further the cause of reconciliation, peace, and progress. And our goal will be to support the efforts of peacebuilders to overcome the challenges which face them and seize the opportunities they see before them.”

Please be aware that this article was written and published before the terror attacks on Saturday 7th October 2023


Dame Diana Johnson MP is a vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel