To those of you who will say: "Given the suffering of the people of Gaza, what else can they do but fire rockets?", I would point out that, after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, the people there (or at any rate their leaders) had a choice - they could have chosen to work with the West Bank Palestinians, develop Gaza's economy (aided by the World Bank and many other donors) and talk peace with Israel. Instead of making that choice, Gaza instead became the launch pad for thousands of rockets fired at Israel. And now the UN reports that some of the facilities that the people of Gaza do have are being suppressed by the Hamas regime. Which, let's remember, came to power not in an election, but in a coup d'etat.
I'm not going to pretend to have all the answers; I'm merely asking you to reflect for a moment at the firing of rockets at civilians and kindergartens, and how you would feel if this was happening in the place where you lived. When it comes to the wider questions raised by this conflict, I cannot put it any better than my party's leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, when he said recently:
Liberal Democrats have always supported a two-state solution that would bring peace, justice and security to Israelis and Palestinians alike. The quest for international justice is close to the heart of all Liberal Democrats. This sense of justice has led many Liberal Democrats, myself included, to campaign hard for the rights of the Palestinian victims of the Israeli/Arab conflict.
That campaigning for justice for the Palestinian people has been heard loud and clear from the Liberal Democrats. It should always have been accompanied, equally loudly and equally clearly, by an awareness of the security challenges faced by Israel and of the right of Israel to defend itself against the threats that it continually faces.
However, I’m not certain that we Liberal Democrats have always made ourselves clearly heard on this, so let me say it again now: Israel’s right to thrive in peace and security is non-negotiable for Liberal Democrats. No other country so continually has its right to exist called into question as does Israel, and that is intolerable. There can be no solution to the problems of the Middle East that does not include a full and proper recognition of Israel by all the parties to the conflict.
On behalf of the UK Government, I wish the latest Israeli/Palestinian talks well, but I go further – whatever the UK can do, working with its international partners in the EU and the UN, to support the Americans in furthering the peace process – whatever we can do, not only must be done, but will be done.
I particularly believe the EU, as an economic superpower neighbouring Israel and Palestine, has a huge role to play to persuade both sides to take steps towards peace. The EU both can and should use its economic clout to put pressure on both sides; to encourage Israel to restrict its settlement building program and to push all Palestinians into recognising Israel’s right to exist.
Everybody knows what a peaceful settlement to the conflict would look like. We have come so close to achieving it before. Should it come within our grasp again, it must not be allowed to slip. Generations of Israeli, Palestinian and Arab children demand and deserve nothing less.