It is difficult to think of a people who have been more poorly led than the Palestinians. Over the years they have seen their leaders – notably Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000 – squander historic opportunities for reconcilation with their neighbour. Today they are led by the terrorist group, Hamas. Hamas exploited the corruption and incompetence of the previously ruling Fatah party to win 44% of Palestinian votes in January’s elections. Too many Palestinians, of course, support Hamas’ terrorism but many voted for Hamas as a desperate protest against Fatah’s failures. Hamas came to power on the back of many years of providing welfare and education services to the impoverished Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. This was not, of course, education that we would recognise. The teaching sanctioned by Hamas has been laced with hatred of Israel in the same way that Wahhabi teachings – exported all over the world with Saudia Arabian money – have poisoned so many minds against tolerance and coexistence.
Over a lunch on Tuesday, our delegation of UK Tories met two more moderate representatives of Palestinian opinion. As Stephen Crabb MP commented at that lunch, it was depressing how their interpretation of the events of recent years differed so comprehensively from what we had heard from the Israelis. It is the insecurity and hardship of many years – punctuated by failed negotiations and phases of terrorist activity – that has led Israel’s current and previous Prime Ministers to decide to act unilaterally.
Under Sharon, Israel mounted a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and they now plan to ‘realign’ the West Bank. The security fence will become a permanent border between the two nations with, to Palestinian anger, many ‘Jewish settlements’ on the West Bank remaining on the Israeli side of the fence. Israel has chosen to act unilaterally because it rightly refuses to negotiate with Hamas but also because it believes that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is too weak to deliver anything. President Abbas certainly failed to control Fatah’s more violent factions when his party controlled the Palestinian Authority.
Current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won recent elections after promising to settle Israel’s permanent borders by 2010 by negotiations or unilateral action. His scope for unilateral action is limited by his Kadima party’s minority status in the Knesset and by the very independent supreme court of Israel which is requiring more sensitive positioning of the security fence (called a wall by Palestinians and a barrier by UK diplomats). By pursuing negotiations with Abbas the Israelis will begin to satisfy the concerns of America and Britain. If Abbas is able to deliver some concessions from Israel on the barrier and guarantees the Palestinian West Bank territory will be a contiguous state – and therefore more economically sustainable – Palestinian opinion may be more likely to be reconciled to ‘realignment’.
The international community must continue to press Israel to conduct these negotiations in a serious way. It must also ensure that more humanitarian aid reaches the Palestinian people – particularly in the Gaza Strip where life, already hard, is getting more difficult by the day. The Israelis have legitimate concerns that Hamas will misuse even humanitarian aid – selling on medicines and diverting money that doesn’t have to be spent on basic welfare into the purchase of arms. These concerns must not, however, override the need to avoid the creation of a desperate Palestinian population with nothing to lose.
Enormous challenges lie ahead. At some point Prime Minister Olmert is going to have to be more flexible about the final status of Jerusalem and the Palestinians will have to abandon the fanciful right of return.
The view of the outskirts of Jerusalem greets visitors at the end of the tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum (a tour I reviewed on Wednesday). The museum, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, is a dark, cool place, constructed from concrete. Exiting the darkness of the museum and into the light – to the spectacular view of Jerusalem – is a powerful reminder of what Israel means to the Jewish people after centuries of horrific persecution. None of us – particularly in Europe with its history of anti-Semitism – should lose sight of the duty we have to protect the Jewish people from the many nations pledged to destroy them.
Pictured below are the members of the trip. From left to right – Victoria Kluk (of Conservative Friends of Israel), David Davies MP, Robert Halfon (CFI), Nadine Dorries MP, Mark Harper MP, Yad Vashem tour guide, Tim Montgomerie, Stephen Crabb MP and David Amess MP.