The situation in Gaza

Here is a copy of an email I have sent to local residents this afternoon, about the situation in Gaza. please do get in touch if you are a local resident and want to discuss this further. 

The conflict and subsequent humanitarian crisis in Gaza has left over 400,000 civilians struggling to find food, water, or shelter.

That’s why the UK government has been one of the largest humanitarian aid donors to date. The Department for International Development – where I am a minister – has provided:

  • £6m for basics (shelter and cooking equipment)
  • £3m for healthcare
  • £3m for the Rapid Response Facility
  • £2m to the Disasters Emergency Committee

We have also released a further £3m for emergency food, helping around 300,000 people in serious need. This brings the total supplied by the UK to £17 million. We will remain at the forefront of the relief effort for civilians.

In terms of the conflict itself –the urgent priority of the Lib Dems in government is to help stop the bloodshed with an unconditional and immediate ceasefire and work towards a long-term sustainable peace.

Many local residents have already contacted me to express their views on the conflict. There is an understandable strength of feeling about the situation, which is causing so many people so much misery and hurt.

I take all views seriously – so if you wish to contact me about this, or any other matter, please do. I will respond and pass on any opinions to the Foreign and Defence secretaries.

P.S. You can find out further information about the work of the Department for International Development – in Gaza and other areas – here.

Lib Dems are only on one side: the side of peace

Here’s a column I wrote for the Jewish Chronicle:

Lib Dems are only on one side: the side of peace
The blame game is the real obstacle to Middle East peace

In Hornsey & Wood Green in North London, there is a strong pro-Israel lobby and a strong pro-Palestinian lobby. When Jenny Tonge made her disgraceful and ignorant comments in the JC, calling for an inquiry into Israel taking organs in Haiti, I got emails from the pro-Israel lobby saying that the Liberal Democrats were pro-Palestinian.

When Nick Clegg then rightly sacked Baroness Tonge from the front bench, I received emails claiming that he had only done so because the “Zionist conspiracy” had got to him. Both were symptomatic of the polarization by the two sides in the Middle East conflict.

The only side the Liberal Democrats are on is the side of peace. We condemn all acts of violence and urge all parties to negotiate a lasting settlement to this crisis. A sustainable solution will only be achieved with two separate Israeli and Palestinian states, mutually recognized and internationally accepted, within secure borders based on the situation before the 1967 conflict.

Liberal Democrats condemn Hamas violence unequivocally. We believe that Hamas must move to respect the “three principles” set by the Quartet: renounce violence, recognise Israel’s right to exist and accept previous agreements.

However, we are concerned that while Hamas recognition of Israel is a necessary outcome of negotiations, it should not be interpreted so rigidly that it becomes a pre-condition that stops progress towards peace.

Searching for a solution also means swallowing some bitter pills. I hate to see the lesson that history teaches us, but the bitter truth is that dealing with unpleasant, murderous brutes is often needed to bring peace. Remember the IRA? In the end, the promise of peace and prosperity, together with negotiation, is what eventually heralded a break in the deadlock of decades and the hatred of centuries.

Entrenched positions get us nowhere. Being partisan or playing the blame is a hiding to nothing. No change, no solution.

Blame has been hurled back and forth, ricocheting between opposing sides ever since Israel’s painful birth. It is the Palestinians in the refugee camps and the ordinary citizens of Israel who suffer in this terrible game.

If there is one thing that is clear to me it is that none of the players really have the best interests of these peoples at heart. It is all about agendas and interests. That applies to the US and Iran, the UK and those countries in the region, all of whom are going to have to be willing to change the game.

We need the world to roll up its sleeves and commit itself for as long as it takes to focus all its efforts on pursuing peace and a lasting settlement. Blaming those who aren’t willing to do that is the only part of the blame game worth playing.

Israel and Palestine

Guest speaker yesterday at Daphna Wizo – a branch of the hugely important Wizo – the modern Jewish women’s organisation that supports Israel. Hosted by Stephanie and Simon Kester in Highpoint (a block of flats in Highgate) – where I grew up! It was hugely well attended – I suspect more for the lovely buffet luncheon than coming to hear me – but it was a real pleasure and honour to be invited.

After greetings and luncheon I was there to speak about the Liberal Democrat policy on Israel and Palestine. For those who know me of old – they will know I stick firm to the belief that the only way is forward, taking sides is pointless and counter-productive, and blaming each side for sins and wrongs gets us nowhere. My experience is that both pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis can get cross with me!

That having been said – I am very pleased to go into even the most pro-Israel or pro-Palesinian gathering and make the case for moving forward – not looking backwards. As part of the solution – my belief (and Liberal Democrat policy) is that we need to add the Arab League to the Quartet table (i.e. make it a Quintet)- as we believe that any solution has to be strategically safeguarded and facilitated by a regional and super-power body – leaving Israel and Palestine to negotiate between them as to who moves on what on the key issues of settlements, Jerusalem, right of return and all the very, very difficult issues involved in the Middle East.

Too long to go into here – but it is a reasoned way forward that puts the players together to take it forward.

Not sure that everyone totally agreed with me. There were clearly a few who thought that inviting the Arab League to the table was not the way to move forward and clearly some concern about whether the politics in America were going to change. Given Obama and McCain have both pledged allegiance to Israel – I doubt whether America is likely to change. Of course, the Liberal Democrat proposals take the lead away from America – as we see it as part of the problem rather than the solution. It needs neutral leadership and representatives of the two nations at the table along with funders like the EU.

If no one ever changes their position on the Israeli or the Palestinian side – particularly no negotiation before recognition – then nothing will change. That is why the Liberal Democrat proposals give a framework which allows both sides to move without losing face on that stand-off which has long stood in the way of peace in the Middle East.

As I was leaving, one of the women came up to me and said – thank you for such a well-balanced approach and ‘I’m totally with you’. So – clearly audience weren’t all sceptical!

Just how powerful is George W Bush?

After Dome of the Rock, Jerusalemtheir escapades in Iraq, George W Bush and Tony Blair don’t make the most likely duo to bring peace to the Middle East. But as they say – truth is stranger than fiction, so who knows what they will achieve!

It’ll be interesting to see just how much power Bush and American can really wield in the Middle East – because it is Bush’s desire for a peace deal by the end of the year, and consequential political legacy for him as he leaves office, that is driving this latest attempt.

There’s been no big change in office in the key countries in the Middle East, nor a major change in policy by any of the players there, nor even some cunning new plan to save age old problems.

Rather this new peace attempt is really all being driven by Bush deciding he wants to give it a go – which means, hopefully, we will see just how much influence the US can exert when it really wants to.

And whilst I certainly don’t always wish President Bush and his attempts to wield power around the globe luck – let’s hope this time US power is truly mighty and opens up the door to peace where so many other attempts have failed.

International Development Questions in Parliament

International Development Questions – so I thought I asked an interesting question of our new Secretary of State. Sadly, it got a competent answer but not an interesting one. This is the exchange:

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State to his role and wish him well. The stringent restrictions of movement that are imposed on the Palestinians continue to exacerbate the humanitarian position. They undermine all the aid and humanitarian work that is going on. What will the Secretary of State do to persuade Israel to remove those restrictions?

Mr. Alexander: When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last addressed the House, he made clear the three principles whereby we will move our work forward on the matter in the months ahead. He said that first, we would be unyielding in our support for finding a two-state solution; secondly, we should express a genuine willingness to work with all those who would renounce violence as a way forward; and thirdly, we need to continue to address the immediate humanitarian challenge while recognising the social and economic development needs of the Palestinians. It is right to place on record the fact that restraints on movement and access are a severe constraint on the capacity of the Palestinian economy to grow.

Although, of course, it is necessary to provide humanitarian assistance with immediate effect, there is no substitute in the longer term for a sustainable, developed Palestinian economy. For that to happen, we need the restrictions on movement and access to be removed.

I had been hoping for more. Because the simple mantra of a two-state solution etc (albeit I agree with it) doesn’t really answer the question I asked.

You see, right now when the Palestinians are having a hideous time in terms of movement, poverty, etc – I don’t think that the most constructive approach is to simply condemn Israel (albeit the wall position and the ongoing settlements are wrong) – but I want to find out what Israel wants, needs or could be persuaded by to remove those restrictions. Let’s try and see what Israel needs and what process would be acceptable. If there is nothing that will ever persuade Israel to lift restrictions through negotiation and agreement – then we would know where we are and can work out perhaps what next steps say the EU might need to take. (They are the biggest aid donor to Palestine and biggest trading partner of Israel). I have always felt that there is a way through this – and the people of both countries desperately need the international community to find this way through and hold both safe on that journey.

Can a two-state solution work in the Middle East?

Finishing off my thoughts from my visit – cut short by the Trident vote – to the Middle East – it was pretty clear that the Road Map was now becoming a virtually impossible route to follow.

The good news, I guess, was that all the parties we met in Israel were now in favour of the two-state solution – as apparently are around 70% of the population. Ten years ago that wasn’t the case – so that’s progress.

How to get there without the Road Map? Well, there were a couple of theses around. There was one idea which was for a trusteeship for the area to be held by the EU – much like in Bosnia, the EU could provide a political incubator to Palestine preparing it for full independence. That theory being based on the need for a central authority in Palestine that would make it possible for Israel to withdraw without prejudice to its security and that Europe would be far better a trustee than America.

Then there was the Geneva Accord. Without going into long explanations – a group of Israeli and Palestinian politicians agreed a set of aims, principles and methodology for moving forward to a two-state solution. Not given huge credit at the time – now perhaps back in play as another possibility. The Accord: reaffirms the determination of both sides to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, and to live in peaceful coexistence, mutual dignity and security based on a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace and achieving historic reconciliation; recognizes that peace requires the transition from the logic of war and confrontation to the logic of peace and cooperation, and that acts and words characteristic of the state of war are neither appropriate nor acceptable in the era of peace; affirms their deep belief that the logic of peace requires compromise, and that the only viable solution is a two-state solution based on United National Security Council Resolution 242 and 338.

The problem with moving forward on the two-state solution (amongst others) is the seemingly relentless increase in settlements in and around Jerusalem and the West Bank on the ‘Israeli’ side of the wall. The Palestinian areas are now to an extent isolated and to be connected by a different road system. Palestinians now worry that they would end up with no viable state. So, whilst Israelis seem to be shifting to a two-state position (at least verbally) the Palestinians seemed less convinced. Whilst they verbally often referred to a two-state solution, there were also voices raised to say that this would never be viable and therefore they should be going for a one-state solution. I don’t believe that would or could ever happen – but the continual building on the Israeli side of the wall removes their ability to believe that they will ever get a viable state.

And then there are the residual views – polarised on each side. If we talked about the wall (or fence for most its length) – the Israelis say since its erection suicide bombings have virtually stopped. The Palestinians say that the suicide bombings have stopped because Hamas declared a ceasefire – and that it would be simple to tunnel under the wall or fence – i.e. the fence is no defence.

The Israeli who took us out to the fence near Qalkila (right wing by his own admission and a settler moved from Gaza when Israel unilaterally left) explained the positioning of the barrier. For most of us (including me) it is hard to argue against Israel defending itself from suicide bombers by erecting a barrier. The argument is why they did so on what was Palestinian side of the Green Line. Palestinians regard this as a land grab. Israel says it is for security.

Whilst I can see that it might not be the best line to follow and there should and could be variance to the Green Line – it isn’t right at the moment. I don’t see why you can’t have an independent United Nations special judge and court and experts to adjudicate on the line that would be respected by both sides as a judgement. Security for Israel and as near to the ’67 borders as the Court judged viable.

As for the retention of taxes (and to my surprise I found out that the Palestinian Authority wanted the Israelis to collect the tax – although not obviously hold on to it) but that they did not want it put through the Temporary International Mechanism. Their argument was that when it was released it was needed to pay the debts on wages etc and therefore if it was put through the TIM it would not be there to pay those debts. Many different tales of money coming into the PA in suitcases and used for nefarious purposes. Meanwhile, as I said before, it is the ordinary people who are suffering most.

And lastly – the Quartet Principles. These say basically that the world won’t deal with the elected government as long as it is Hamas – unless they recognise Israel, renounce violence and agree to previous peace deals. This is a high bar – but perhaps with the coming of a unity government they will under the radar work out a triple-lock process where by the end of x period, a number of significant steps will have been taken that will allow the Quartet Principles to be agreed to – so that then publicly the process can move forward.

So – whilst I have only skimmed the surface of what I heard and saw – I hope that gives a flavour of my three days in the Middle East.