The British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee held a special session on Tuesday to listen to the Palestinian and Israeli ambassadors to the UK, as well as Middle East experts, including Professor Rosemary Hollis, Professor Yezid Sayigh and Dr Ahron Bregman. The session, chaired by Richard Ottoway MP, quizzed the witnesses on the developments in the peace process, the potential outcomes of the process and Britain’s role. With the British foreign secretary, William Hague, voicing his concerns that the time for the two-state solution is running out, the select committee called in the witnesses to discuss what progress the negotiations have actually made and what the prospects are for 2014.
The select committee heard from the Palestinian ambassador to the UK first, Professor Manuel Hassassian, who began by acknowledging that the current negotiations are being stalled by Israeli settlements. He warned that the continuation of settlement building shows “signs of non-commitment from the Israeli side”. He too described the current moment as the last chance for the two-state solution, saying that what is needed now is not “crisis management”, but an actual end to the conflict.
As the current round of negotiations began last year, debates in parliament have consistently warned that this may be the very last chance for any progress for peace in the Middle East, and this concern echoed around the committee. Professor Hassassian was asked what the implications would be if the negotiations failed, and he replied that there could, in fact, be a third intifada and said that whilst the PLO remained committed to a non-violent struggle, if the negotiations do not succeed they would be unable to stop Palestinians taking to the streets in frustration.
Giving the Palestinian ambassador a platform such as the select committee allowed Professor Hassassian the opportunity to clearly articulate what the Palestinian concerns and hopes for peace actually are. With MPs often not having the chance to hear directly from Palestinians and their representatives, this was a unique opportunity, which the ambassador took full advantage of. He conveyed that the Palestinians would continue to demand an end to the settlement expansion, affirmed that reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority/Fatah in the West Bank is inevitable, that the Right of Return is a “legal, moral and individual right” and that a Palestinian state would not be possible without East Jerusalem as its capital.
The Israeli ambassador, Daniel Taub, followed. Whilst Professor Hassasian used the opportunity to bring attention to Palestinian hopes for peace, the Israeli ambassador inevitably drew much focus to the Iranian question. He claimed that while there is a need to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, it would not result in an end to all conflicts in the Middle East. Taub described Iran as a strategic threat not just to Israel, but also to the whole region and said that it would be a step back if Iran was to go nuclear. He was insistent that although Israelis may want peace in a region, they are dealing with neighbours who do not have the same aspirations.
Sir John Stanley MP asked all witnesses what they thought of Britain’s role in the Middle East Peace Process – and the answer could not have been clearer. The consensus was that Britain is certainly an interested partner; however, the fact is that America has taken the leading role in the peace process and Britain has acted merely as a bystander. When asked what more Britain could be doing, the witnesses provided contradictory answers, suggesting that Britain has actually been acting in two opposing ways at the same time. The Palestinian ambassador noted that Britain could have gone further when Palestine went to the United Nations and UNESCO, whilst the Israeli ambassador said that Britain should be encouraging the Palestinians to continue negotiating and should not look to alternatives like the UN. In actual fact, Britain abstained from supporting Palestine at the UN but did not go as far as the Israelis wanted and actually vote against it.
On Hamas, Professor Hassassian explained that Hamas is indeed part of the Palestinian question and Professor Yezid Sayigh argued that Hamas would have to be brought into the political process if progress was to be made. With Hamas in control of Gaza, Hamas has been a key part of politics in Palestine, yet the international community has made little attempt to engage with them. Professor Hassassian informed the committee that reconciliation between the two parties is underway and that elections would take place shortly thereafter, saying that there is a divide between the Palestinians of the West Bank and those of Gaza. The situation in Gaza caused tremendous concern among members of the committee, and MPs questioned Egypt’s role in closing the tunnels to Gaza. Professor Rosemary Hollis summed up the situation, saying that she is “deeply depressed that anyone thinks it’s ok to close the tunnels” and that it is “terrifying that Gaza can be treated in this manner.”
It was Mark Hendrick MP who offered perhaps the most interesting set of questions during the evidence session – his questions began by asking the Israeli ambassador about the need to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and what the consequence of that would be on the Christians and Muslims in Israel. Professor Hassasian had earlier cautioned that any such recognition would prevent the Palestinians from eventually exercising the right of return and would force the removal of the Palestinians already living in Israel. In response, Taub began to argue that Israel accepts Palestinians and would not want to discriminate against them, but Mr Hendrick pushed him further and called on the Israeli ambassador to recognise a Palestinian state if recognition of Israel was so desired.
The exchange became heated as Mr Hendrick turned to the issue of settlements and asked why Israel is pursuing a settlement expansion policy. As Taub began to answer, Mr Hendrick was called to order when he asked, “Do you not recognise international law?” Unfortunately, the question hung in the air as Taub was unable to answer. Despite that, the committee almost certainly understood Mr Hendricks underlying thoughts.
The special evidence session was a unique chance for British MPs to hear directly what the real prospects for peace are in the Middle East. Whilst the outlook may indeed be gloomy, it is noteworthy that the evidence before them will make its way around parliament as MPs continue to debate and discuss what is next for Palestine and Israel. Whether or not the British government will take on board the calls from Professor Hassasian only time will tell. But one thing is certain: the committee heard compelling evidence that the time for negotiations is nearing its end.