By Simon HUGHES MP, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats.
As someone who has been to Israel and Palestine three times before this year and taken a regular interest in the Holy Land since I was a teenager, I believe I have a reasonably good working knowledge of the region, its politics and issues.
My first visit was years ago with my Jewish British/Israeli and great Liberal friends David and Maurine Rebak, and my second as a Christian pilgrim to Bethlehem for Christmas. However, when I accepted the invitation from my party colleague Gavin Stollar to join this year’s Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI) delegation to Israel and Palestine, I did so to see Israel from another perspective, keen to complement my last visit, which had been arranged by Medical Aid for Palestine.
Our programme was balanced and planned to show us all sides of Israeli society and the wider conflict, and this was further reinforced by who and what we saw and the issues we discussed. All this does LDFI great credit. It is a testament to the respect for it within our party that such a high profile group of Lib Dems agreed to be part of its delegation. As advocates of any cause know, the strength of any arguments and proposals is greatly influenced by the credibility of its advocates, and LDFI chairman Stollar and his colleagues do this job inside and outside the party with great commitment, determination and energy.
Israel faces many challenges and threats, both internal and external. Historically, a lower birth rate among the indigenous Jewish majority than the Israeli-Arab minority has meant the country has relied on inward migration or ‘aliyah’ of the diaspora to retain its future in-built majority as a proud Zionist state, something I have always understood.
The growing pains of a young nation, the existential threat posed by many surroundings nations and the country’s foundation following the horrors of the Holocaust all explain much behind Israel’s suspicion and unease at the harsh international rhetoric she has encountered in more recent years. Everyone needs to understand the mantra “never again” to begin to understand the psyche of Israel and many ordinary Israelis.
Israel in the 21st Century has, in some ways, almost become a victim of her own success. In many ways, she is a textbook example of how to turn barren land and centuries of religious persecution for a people without a nation into a vibrant, tolerant, successful democratic state in an amazingly short time. However, in the midst of the success story that is Eretz Y’Israel, there are of course some grave pitfalls which, if not successfully resolved, could eat away at the heart of this model ‘start-up nation’.
I talk here of the future for Palestinians and creation of a Palestinian state. Without wishing here to enter into the details of the range of thorny issues such as Israeli settlements on the West Bank (which I oppose in principle), the future of Jerusalem or the ‘right of return’, it is clear that if the Israeli government cannot find a way to resolve these issues and bring forward an acceptable agreement, which all reasonable people can recognise as such, then much of the good- will and support that exists risks being eroded.
My party, LDFI and I all believe in a two-state solution – and at this time of negotiation, above all, this has to be at the centre of every action, sentiment and word that comes from the government in Israel. As the beacon democracy in the region, as the model start-up nation and as the embodiment of a fair society in an unstable region, it is incumbent on Israel now more than ever to lead the way in negotiations and demonstrate it is serious about peace.
At times in the past and more recently this has not always been abundantly obvious to the international community. It must be the overriding national and international priority now. Historically, governments led from the right wing are those that have brokered some of the most significant peace treaties, which Israel can rightly be proud to have signed.
Here lies Prime Minister Netanyahu’s opportunity. He is already the king of Israel’s political right. The big question now is whether he can be the king of modern day peace-makers for all Israel. I am not the only one who profoundly hopes so.