Mike Freer is Chairman of London Conservative MPs, LGBT Advisor to Deputy Chairman of Conservative Party and MP for Finchley and Golders Green.
Whilst the focus of the Prime Minister’s coming visit will be promoting the UK-Israel bilateral relations, there is no getting round the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and his visit presents an opportunity to put Britain’s weight behind John Kerry’s efforts to secure a framework for extending the current peace talks. The goal must be to promote an environment conducive to on both sides to facing the difficult compromises involved.
Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority will listen most to those it believes understands them and their concerns. The Prime Minister’s challenge when speaking to the Knesset is to show Israel that the core issues that matter deeply to Israelis – security and legitimacy – matter deeply to him, too.
So first, David Cameron needs to be balanced about concessions. Most Israelis have internalised that maintaining a democratic, Jewish majority state means compromising on territory. Benjamin Netanyahu himself has said that the emergence of a binational state threatens Israel’s future as a Jewish state. But they want to see the Palestinians meet Israel’s concerns on the security arrangements, and recognise that a two state solution means two states for two peoples. This means, as John Kerry recently put it, “mutual recognition of the nation-state of the Palestinian people and the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
The notion of a ‘Jewish state’ is widely misinterpreted. The Prime Minister would do well to show Israelis that he understands what they mean by a Jewish state; not a religious state or a state which discriminates against non-Jews, but a democratic state with a Jewish majority, which fulfils the universal legal right of Jews to self-determination, whilst protecting the rights of non-Jewish minorities.
Since Netanyahu made the issue of mutual recognition central in the peace talks, Mahmoud Abbas, backed by the Arab League has fervently rejected it. This has made some European leaders reluctant to take a position. But this kind of evasion is unhelpful. Whatever the merits of Netanyahu, the prominence of this issue is not his invention. Every serious model for a two state deal, since the Peel Commission in 1937, has addressed this explicitly.
Israelis did not like hearing that the 1967 lines plus swaps will be the basis of future agreement on territory. But the international consensus has forced their leaders to get used to it. Ehud Olmert accepted it during talks in 2008 and, assuming this principle is included in Kerry’s framework document, Netanyahu will reluctantly have to stomach it.
At the same time, recognising that a two state solution must preserve mutual Jewish and Palestinian national rights will bring UK policy in line with the US and help to shape expectations that concessions must be made by both sides.
Second, David Cameron should be fulsome about the benefits of success for both sides. It is a mistake to focus on what each side has to give up. Not enough time is spent telling both Israelis and Palestinians what they stand to gain. It is clear enough what the Palestinians get – a sovereign state and an end to occupation. Unfortunately, what Israeli experience tells them is in return for territorial compromise they get the sound of the air raid of siren and the fall of rockets. Telling the average Israeli that they should take risk that for the sake of ‘improved international legitimacy’ is a tough sell.
Netanyahu showed the way in his recent AIPAC speech – staking out relatively new ground for him by making the case for peace based on the promise of open strategic and economic ties between Israel and Gulf Arab states. Given Britain’s particularly close ties to the Gulf and David Cameron’s own repeated trips there, the Prime Minister is in a strong position to reinforce that promise of future prosperity.
Third, the Prime Minister needs to be balanced about the costs of failure. Israelis have been told in recent months that if the current process fails, they risk diplomatic isolation. These warnings do not fall on deaf ears. Israelis are concerned about their international standing, and this issue has become part of the internal Israeli debate. But David Cameron needs to remember that the Palestinians are listening, too. Giving the impression that a collapsed process will damage Israel first and foremost is an incentive to the Palestinians not to make an agreement. To give both sides maximum incentive to show flexibility and stay at the table, neither side should feel that the collapse of the process will harm the other side more than them.