Read my blog at Huffington Post

I also blog at Huffington Post's new UK site; please click here to read my posts there.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Peace talks - so near and yet so far

http://bicom.org.uk/news-article/4900/ Surely the international community can find a way to help the Israelis and the Palestinians to keep talking in Amman?

Monday, 23 January 2012

Some cliches are true...

Including "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war", as Churchill might or might not have said. Reports (http://bicom.org.uk/news-article/4825/) of yesterday's Israeli/Palestinian talks in Amman are not exactly brimming with optimism, but these talks are surely a lot better than nothing?

Friday, 20 January 2012

Lenin's brain and the Laws of Time

Working from home with BBC Parliament on in the background as the Commons enjoys the Christopher Chope Hour. Mr Chope is one of my party's partners in government and often speaks on Friday mornings at heroic length on whatever piece of backbench business is being debated today. Today it's the Daylight Saving Bill, daylight apparently being an endangered species on a par with the panda or the rhinocerous. Jacob Rees-Mogg said that if Mr Chope spoke for a mere five minutes on each of the amendments tabled in his name, he'd be speaking for a commendable two hours and twenty minutes.

When the minister rose to speak, there was a point of order to the effect that he was speaking too fast to be understood...Mr Rees-Mogg then returned to point out, among other things, that Lenin's brain had been considered so impressive as to be displayed as an object of veneration after his death, and that he believed that such a thing should also happen to the great brain of "the President of the Board of Trade", Vince Cable, on the hopefully far-distant day when Dr Cable is no longer with us.

This sums up what some people hate about Parliament. For me, it does the complete opposite. Clever people using humour to openly debate a complex issue - that is why we have a Parliament in the first place. I am far more inspired by that than I am by the notion of MPs prancing around their constituencies pretending to control local services over which they really have no influence. It is, after all, a debating chamber, created for the purpose of making and scrutinising laws, and holding government to account.

I should say that I am writing here in a personal capacity, and not in my role as Secretary of the Lib Dem Friends of the Conservative Party.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

UK reiterates "peaceful pressure" on Iran

I blogged previously about this having been a week in which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon were both due for talks with UK Government ministers in London. President Abbas' visit has since been widely reported, and I have already posted Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel's press release on that here. Among that coverage, incidentally, was the Telegraph's saying that: 
Mr Ayalon said: "We have the greatest appreciation for the position of the Deputy Prime Minister as a politician and for Mr Clegg himself. So this is why we see (some words of Mr Clegg's) as a problem." But he added: "We look at it as an isolated case, not reflective of the very strong relations that we have."
In general, said Mr Ayalon, Britain and Israel saw "eye to eye" on the Middle East, notably over the dangers posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions. "We believe in the same things. We have the same interests of basically a calm Middle East," he said.
In light of that, it's interesting to read the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office's press release about Mr Ayalon's talks with British Middle East Minister Alistair Burt, with Mr Burt saying:
We also discussed again the importance of building peaceful pressure on Iran to address the international community's clear and united concerns about its nuclear programme. I set out the state of negotiations in Brussels and the UK's expectation that the EU will agree wide ranging sanctions, including on the oil sector, on 23 January. This will send yet another clear message to Iran, that it must change course and engage on the nuclear issue without preconditions. The E3+3's invitation to Iran to engage constructively still stands, as does the offer we made at Istanbul in 2011. I hope that Iran will take this opportunity to do so, but until it does the pressure from the international community will only intensify.
It also says that Mr Burt "raised concerns relating to Palestinian children in Israeli detention, and the need for further relaxation of Israeli restrictions on Gaza" and it is definitely worth a read in full. A range of senior figures in the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government are on the record as supporting the need for "peaceful pressure on Iran to address the international community's clear and united concerns about its nuclear programme". The point of sanctions is to avert the possibility that, as a desperate last resort, military action might become necessary - it is strongly to be hoped that such military action never has to happen. Anyone who thinks that any government would relish taking such action is deeply mistaken. According to one newspaper: "One senior Israeli military strategist described (recent British sanctions) as 'equivalent to military action'".

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Lib Dem Friends welcome Clegg/Abbas talks

As you know, I blog here in a personal capacity and not on behalf of any organisation, but you might be interested to know that Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel have issued the following press release:
LDFI WELCOMES CLEGG TALKS WITH ABBAS 
Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI) have welcomed UK Deputy Prime Minister (and Liberal Democrat Leader) Nick Clegg’s talks in London today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a week when Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is also due for talks in London.  
At a press conference alongside President Abbas, Mr Clegg said: "I’d like to be clear: there is no stronger supporter of Israel than myself as a beacon of democracy in the region and as a country with so much to contribute to the region and the world.  But the continued existence of illegal settlements risks making facts on the ground such that a two‑state solution becomes unviable and that, in turn, will do absolutely nothing - nothing - to safeguard the security of Israel itself and of Israeli citizens.  And that is why I condemn the continued illegal settlement activity in the strongest possible terms…it’s an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise upon which negotiations have taken place for years and years and years and that is why we’ve expressed our concerns as a government in increasingly forceful terms." 
LDFI chairman Gavin Stollar said: “Many observers will agree with Nick Clegg that settlement expansion does not help peace. We agree with Mr Clegg that, as he said recently: ‘No Israeli should have to live in fear of terrorism. I want to see a prosperous and confident Israel, able to live in peace.’ Such a peace will only be achieved through negotiations towards a two-state solution that will include painful compromises by both sides, including on the issue of settlements.”

Monday, 16 January 2012

Nick Clegg and President Abbas: video and transcript

There has been much media coverage of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's joint press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, today, with Prime Minister David Cameron having also commented following a meeting with the President. Much of the coverage has focused on what Mr Clegg said about settlements, and there is a a short video of those remarks, which I really recommend to anyone who is interested in what Mr Clegg said. As part of his remarks at the start of the press conference, before taking questions, Mr Clegg said:
I’d like to be clear: there is no stronger supporter of Israel than myself as a beacon of democracy in the region and as a country with so much to contribute to the region and the world.  But the continued existence of illegal settlements risks making facts on the ground such that a two‑state solution becomes unviable and that, in turn, will do absolutely nothing - nothing - to safeguard the security of Israel itself and of Israeli citizens.  And that is why I condemn the continued illegal settlement activity in the strongest possible terms.
Later, in answer to a question ("we’ve seen a hardening of language of the UK Government on settlements over the past week or so with your comments this morning and with Alistair Burt’s comments in Israel last week. Just wondering whether there’s a likelihood of those words becoming actions diplomatically or economically in the near future"), Mr Clegg said: 
...we have, as you know, already taken very significant diplomatic steps, not least the resolution - the vote - in February of last year which was in many ways diplomatically unprecedented by ourselves and other European countries and it’s not always that Europe is united on this issue.
We’re completely united in setting out in very stark diplomatic terms - if that’s not a contradiction in terms - our concerns about illegal settlement activity.  Why are we increasingly concerned about this? Why are we increasingly outspoken?  Because the risk is that you just get material, physical, facts on the ground which make it impossible to deliver at some point in the future the two-state solution which everybody agrees is the only viable way forward for the region. 
That is why this is of a different category, if you like, of concern, because once you place physical facts on the ground which make it impossible to deliver something that everyone has for years agreed is the ultimate destination, then you do immense damage.  It’s almost kind of…it’s an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise upon which negotiations have taken place for years and years and years and that is why we’ve expressed our concerns as a government in increasingly forceful terms.
I'll place the full transcript below; I would argue that Mr Clegg's main message was:
We all share the same aim, which is peace and security for Israel and dignity and freedom from occupation for the Palestinian people.  And we also know what a final deal looks like.
We’ve known that for a very long period of time: the 1967 borders with agreed equivalent land swaps, a fair agreed solution on the refugee question and, of course, Jerusalem as a shared capital.  And that is why it is, of course, for everybody so frustrating to see that notwithstanding the clarity of the final outcome it has proved so elusive and so difficult to move towards it.  
But I think something that we all know is that no solution will be forthcoming without direct negotiations and that’s why the British Government very much welcomes the initiative taken in Jordan for these Jordanian‑sponsored talks, and I think we pay tribute to King Abdullah for his role in that.  And we very much hope that real commitments and real steps will be taken by both sides to transform that direct negotiation into a process with meaningful momentum.  If there was any time for real progress then it is now, at a time when so much change and transformation is taking place throughout the region in the Arab spring already.
It's also worth noting that, when Mr Clegg was asked whether he would urge Israel to recognise a Palestinian state, he said:

As far as the British government is concerned, we of course recognise that the Palestinian Authority has done a great deal of painstaking work to establish the institutions of a state and if you look at other reports from the World Bank and others, particularly in the field of economic and institutional reform, huge effort has been made to establish the working institutions and mechanisms of a state.  But you don’t create a state by just, you know, passing a declaration.  The Palestinian state will only come into being through a process of negotiation and that’s why whatever way you look at it, it comes back to the same thing over and over again which is the necessity of direct negotiations with commitments from both sides, along the lines of the outline agreement that everybody knows has to be the basis for the two-state solution.
When asked about Tony Blair's work as the Middle East Envoy of the Quartet (the UN, US EU and Russia), Mr Clegg said:
I spoke to Tony Blair yesterday morning and I think whatever else one says about Tony Blair I think his commitment over a long period of time now to the Quartet process speaks for itself and he speaks with real, authentic commitment to the process; realistic about the frustrations and difficulties, but nonetheless very resilient and steadfast himself in sticking to it. 
A full transcript reads:
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER 
Morning, ladies and gentlemen.  It’s been a real honour for me to welcome President Abbas here on his visit to London.  He will be meeting with the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister later, but certainly for me it’s been an honour because I’ve always admired the resilience and courage with which President Abbas has been steadfast in his pursuit of peace.  We all share the same aim.  We all share the same aim, which is peace and security for Israel and dignity and freedom from occupation for the Palestinian people.  And we also know what a final deal looks like.
We’ve known that for a very long period of time: the 1967 borders with agreed equivalent land swaps, a fair agreed solution on the refugee question and, of course, Jerusalem as a shared capital.  And that is why it is, of course, for everybody so frustrating to see that notwithstanding the clarity of the final outcome it has proved so elusive and so difficult to move towards it.  But I think something that we all know is that no solution will be forthcoming without direct negotiations and that’s why the British Government very much welcomes the initiative taken in Jordan for these Jordanian‑sponsored talks, and I think we pay tribute to King Abdullah for his role in that.  And we very much hope that real commitments and real steps will be taken by both sides to transform that direct negotiation into a process with meaningful momentum.  If there was any time for real progress then it is now, at a time when so much change and transformation is taking place throughout the region in the Arab spring already.  We discussed a number of things, but one thing that I would just like to finish on, which is the issue of settlements.  I’d like to be clear: there is no stronger supporter of Israel than myself as a beacon of democracy in the region and as a country with so much to contribute to the region and the world.  But the continued existence of illegal settlements risks making facts on the ground such that a two‑state solution becomes unviable and that, in turn, will do absolutely nothing - nothing - to safeguard the security of Israel itself and of Israeli citizens.  And that is why I condemn the continued illegal settlement activity in the strongest possible terms.  I know that, Mr President, you will be going on to Berlin tomorrow and then on with your travels and I very much hope that the rest of your day in London is successful.  I would like to repeat my welcome to you and maybe you would like to make a few remarks yourself.  
PRESIDENT ABBAS (via interpreter) 
Thank you.  First of all, I would like to thank you very much, Mr Clegg, for the warm welcome that we have witnessed.  I agree totally with everything that you have said, especially the solution, which we all want to achieve, i.e. a two‑state solution with Jerusalem as the capital of both states.  And we hope that through the negotiations that we are having we will be able to achieve that.  We, of course, discussed many issues among which are the negotiations which are going on according to the initiative taken by His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan.  We salute King Abdullah for this initiative and we hope that through those negotiations we will indeed be able to make some progress.  We still are scheduled to meet the Israelis twice or maybe even three times and we hope that through those meetings the Israelis will be able to submit some proposals to us so that we can at least achieve the continuity of the negotiations.  We also discussed the matter of reconciliation.  Of course, reconciliation is something of the utmost importance.  It is of importance for the Palestinian people and this is indeed what we want to achieve; i.e. the completion of the reconciliation process.  Of course, we also talked about the Arab Peace Initiative.  The Arab Peace Initiative will celebrate its 10th anniversary in a few days time.  This peace initiative indeed was one of the most costly, the most expensive in Palestinian history.  I say that because it is the biggest offer that has been made to Israel since 1948.  The Arab Peace Initiative, its context, what is that context?  It specifies absolutely clearly that should Israel recognise Palestine then 57 countries which are Arab and Muslim will immediately recognise Israel in return.  Of course, I thank Mr Clegg for all the support that we have been receiving from the United Kingdom, all the help and the position of the United Kingdom vis‑à‑vis the Palestinian Authority.  I ask Mr Clegg if he would visit us in Palestine and this is indeed an invitation to him.  Thank you.  
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER 
Thank you.  We will take a few questions.  
QUESTION 
A question to the Deputy Prime Minister: there have been reports in the last 24 hours that President Abbas’ VIP status has been taken away by Israel, meaning that he’s only entitled to a watered down travel permit valid for just two months at a time.  Do you condemn Israel’s action in doing this and would you suggest it’s a step backwards in the peace process?  And a question to President Abbas: Tony Blair remains head of the Quartet and has been for the last few years.  Is his effort making sufficient progress?  Are you happy with what he’s doing and do you worry that the large sources of income that he receives from various other activities is making his job more difficult?  

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER
I will go first.  As it happens just on the latter point, I spoke to Tony Blair yesterday morning and I think whatever else one says about Tony Blair I think his commitment over a long period of time now to the Quartet process speaks for itself and he speaks with real, authentic commitment to the process; realistic about the frustrations and difficulties, but nonetheless very resilient and steadfast himself in sticking to it.  I'm not going to comment on visa arrangements within Israel.  All I would say is that I regard President Abbas as the champion of moderate Palestinian opinion.  And I have always believed that a final negotiated settlement is not possible without strong, moderate Palestinian opinion and everything should be done to try to strengthen moderate Palestinian opinion even if, of course, there will be issues upon which we disagree, in order to marginalise extremism.  The worst outcome of all is to weaken the centre and allow the extremes to become increasingly dominant on both sides of the debate and the United Kingdom Government, this Coalition Government will always play its role to strengthen and promote the hand of moderation on both sides of this ancient conflict.  
PRESIDENT ABBAS (via interpreter) 
As far as Mr Blair is concerned, ever since he joined the Quartet he has indeed exerted many efforts and in order to make sure that there is a connection between us and the Israelis he has exerted efforts to make our demands understood by the Israelis, i.e. to act as a sort of conduit between us and the Israelis.  He concentrated most of his efforts on the economic picture of what is going on, i.e. on the economic sphere.  Unfortunately the problem of course is not pertaining to Blair himself.  It lies with IsraelIsrael has not responded; it has not reciprocated.  
QUESTION 
President Abbas, how hopeful are you that Israel will recognise a Palestinian state?  And Mr Clegg, would you urge Israeli government to do so?  Thank you.  
PRESIDENT ABBAS (via interpreter) 
We have 130 countries all over the world which have recognised the state of Palestine.  And this could rise to more than 150 countries. Which means that Palestine is in fact almost a state that has been recognised in the world.  Israel, perhaps they will say, ‘Yes, there should be a Palestinian state’.  Now, because of the settlements of course the biggest problem that we have - and this is the question that we keep and repeat asking - where is this Palestinian state going to be with the continuity of settlement-building?  This is why we’re asking them to put a moratorium, to stop the settlement activity so that we can do something about the demarcation of the borders, to look at security issues and then after that perhaps you can go ahead with the plans.  
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER 
As far as the British government is concerned, we of course recognise that the Palestinian Authority has done a great deal of painstaking work to establish the institutions of a state and if you look at other reports from the World Bank and others, particularly in the field of economic and institutional reform, huge effort has been made to establish the working institutions and mechanisms of a state.  But you don’t create a state by just, you know, passing a declaration.  The Palestinian state will only come into being through a process of negotiation and that’s why whatever way you look at it, it comes back to the same thing over and over again which is the necessity of direct negotiations with commitments from both sides, along the lines of the outline agreement that everybody knows has to be the basis for the two state solution.  
QUESTION 
President Abbas.  Prime Minister Netanyahu just said in the Knesset that Israel has put an offer to the Palestinians based on a very wide consensus.  My question is first of all, was there such an offer and what is your response to it?  And the second thing is, are you planning any more steps - diplomatic or otherwise - in order to establish your statehood and to Deputy Prime Minister Clegg, how do you feel - how do you estimate the effort that both sides are making in order to really get to a solution to this conflict?  
PRESIDENT ABBAS (via interpreter) 
As far as the Palestinian state is concerned, we are indeed taking all the steps necessary so that we can complete the process and then it’s going to be the right moment to declare the Palestinian state. Now we do indeed hope that President Netanyahu is going to submit some proposal to us.  We do not care what type of proposal.  Maybe we’ll agree to it, maybe we’ll not agree to it but the main thing is that he should submit some kind of proposal to us.  Unfortunately until now - and this goes until yesterday - no such proposal has been submitted to the Palestinians.  
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER 
I don’t think I’m going to provide a running commentary in a process in which we’re not - the British Government - is not a participant but clearly any direct negotiation can only be… needs fuel in the tank and the only way you get fuel in the tank is by both sides putting forward proposals to each other.  Martin.  
QUESTION 
Martin Bright from the Jewish Chronicle.  Yes, we’ve seen a hardening of language of the UK government on settlements over the past week or so with your comments this morning and with Alistair Burt’s comments in Israel last week.  Just wondering whether there’s a likelihood of those words becoming actions diplomatically or economically in the near future.  And, to President Abbas, what would you like to see those actions to be?  What would you like to see the British government do to turn words about Israeli settlements into actions?  
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER 
Martin, we have, as you know, already taken very significant diplomatic steps, not least the resolution - the vote - in February of last year which was in many ways diplomatically unprecedented by ourselves and other European countries and it’s not always that Europe is united on this issue.
We’re completely united in setting out in very stark diplomatic terms - if that’s not a contradiction in terms - our concerns about illegal settlement activity.  Why are we increasingly concerned about this? Why are we increasingly outspoken?  Because the risk is that you just get material, physical, facts on the ground which make it impossible to deliver at some point in the future the two-state solution which everybody agrees is the only viable way forward for the region.  That is why this is of a different category, if you like, of concern, because once you place physical facts on the ground which make it impossible to deliver something that everyone has for years agreed is the ultimate destination, then you do immense damage.  It’s almost kind of… it’s an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise upon which negotiations have taken place for years and years and years and that is why we’ve expressed our concerns as a government in increasingly forceful terms.  
PRESIDENT ABBAS (via interpreter)
Yes, as Mr Clegg has just said, this is exactly what we had wanted to hear officially from the government of the United Kingdom.  Yes sir, I remember when we submitted our proposal to the Security Council, some one year and a half ago.  On the issue of settlements, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and later on Spain, all said that they will support this initiative that we have submitted to them very clearly and there was - afterwards - the tri-partite declaration.  The tri-partite declaration is something which is of great importance to us and we hold very dear to our hearts.  
QUESTION 
Thanks.  Jerry Lewis of Israel radio.  Could I ask you, Mr Abbas, the country in Israel has heard you repeatedly say that you want the freeze to be imposed, why not call, on the basis that Israel has said there are going to be land swaps in any case, why not call Netanyahu’s bluff and relax that request, and see how the Israelis respond?  Can I ask you what assurances have you had from Hamas that, if there is reconciliation with them, they will end their threats of violence and of creating a situation by which Israel cannot exist?  Deputy Prime Minister, I hope you don’t mind me asking a slightly party‑political question.  You described yourself at the beginning as there’s no stronger supporter of Israel for its democracy and everything else.  Could you try to explain why some of your key party members, especially in the House of Lords but also in the Commons, take a very hostile stance towards Israel and its policies constantly?  
PRESIDENT ABBAS (via interpreter) 
As far as Hamas is concerned, I’m going to be very frank with you.
When we talk about reconciliation, it does not mean that Hamas is going to be a carbon copy of the Palestinian Authority, no.  It could have differences, but in that case it’s going to be an opposition member and not a carbon copy of what we are. 

Now of course there are many types of opposition.  I mean, opposition parties exist all over the world but, when we go and form a Palestinian Government, obviously all members of that Government do accept international conditions and international agreements.  Of course, we cannot deny, we cannot ignore, the presence of Hamas. Hamas is part and parcel of the Palestinian people and, therefore, we have to deal with Hamas, exactly in the same way that we have to deal with Israel, because it is our partner in peace.  I don’t think that Netanyahu is bluffing, no.  What I have said is that, until now, Netanyahu has not submitted one proposal to us.  What we have asked for - to put just a moratorium on the settlement-building - has not been responded to, and this is the biggest obstacle, as we have said.  


DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER 

A quick answer to you, Jerry: I think all political parties have different voices and a diversity of opinion on this.  This is not an issue where you tend to get robotic uniformity in any political party.
You know as well as I do there are figures in both the Labour and Conservative Parties who hold positions that are clearly different from their leadership.  I expect that will always continue on an issue that is as emotive and important as this.  Having said that, I’ve always believed that, as outsiders to a conflict that touches us and touches the world as a whole - but nonetheless we are outsiders - we must always seek to use language that is thoughtful, that is free of any prejudice and that is balanced.  Everybody in my party knows that I find it intolerable if any Liberal Democrat were to use language that I consider to be prejudiced or unbalanced.  Having said all of that, I think it is nonetheless very important that there should be space in the British political debate for British politicians to make criticisms of our colleagues in the Israeli Government without being accused of prejudice.  Our condemnation, which is one, I think by the way, you’ll find on almost a cross‑party basis in this country, of illegal settlement activity and the dangers that poses to the long‑term viability of a two‑state solution is a very good example of that.  With that, I’d like to thank you all very much for coming.

Friday, 13 January 2012

HuffPo: UK action on Israel/Palestine

Over at Huffington Post, I have blogged about the UK's latest efforts to support the Israeli/Palestinian peace process - things are getting interesting. Do have a read and post your comments over there. I see also, by the way, that Prime Minister David Cameron is in Saudi Arabia. I have blogged previously about the realpolitik of Anglo-Saudi relations and I cannot oppose Mr Cameron's going there - just so long as we are all clear about the reality of where he is going.