Foreign Affairs

Lord Desai Excerpts
Tuesday 5th March 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (CB)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, to his position as Foreign Secretary. He is a rare example of someone who has been Prime Minister and come back as Foreign Secretary—are we not all lucky? However, I have to warn him that he has landed almost immediately on arrival into a problem created by another Prime Minister who became Foreign Secretary: Lord Balfour. The Israel- Palestine problem, or the Israel-Hamas problem, did not start in October 2023; it started in November 1917, and we still have it. Some here may remember Arthur Koestler, who was a communist and then became an ex-communist and was one of the few people who worked on a kibbutz in the 1920s. He said that:

“One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third”.


That was very much the message. Before Palestine had fallen from the Ottoman Empire, it was signed over to welcome Jews from all over Europe and America to come and make a nation.

It is a fact—I have been reading lots of books about this—that at no stage did we say that the Palestinians had any claim on the territory where they had been living for several centuries. That is the dilemma: two communities of very ancient origin can claim, truthfully and simultaneously, that it is their country and no one else’s. It has taken 100 years to prove who is right, and neither group is. We have to solve this problem because for a long time, not just since October 2023, there has been a lot of killing and damage done to both communities, carried out with a passion that is quite surprising. Obviously, being an atheist, I blame religion for this. The children of Abraham have quarrelled with each other now for about 2,000 years. After all, anti-Semitism was not invented recently; it was invented by the Christians, and the rest we know.

The events of 7 October, which were on a scale that we had not experienced for a long time, partly showed that Hamas was better prepared than it had been until recently. Given the retaliation by Israel in Gaza and elsewhere, is a two-state solution at all feasible to anticipate when passions are so heightened and so much killing has gone on? Twelve hundred people were captured or killed by Hamas in October while 30,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been killed. That is 25 Palestinians for each Israeli. Things are getting completely out of control. The question for the Foreign Secretary is whether a two-state solution is feasible any longer. Given the very peculiar shape of the partition that was decided by the UN, is it at all likely that a peaceful solution can be implemented and that these two communities will be able to live with each other for even a day longer if a ceasefire happens?

I do not know the answer, but there two outcomes are possible. One is that the territory can belong to only one country, and we have to find another solution for the refugees and people living on the Palestinian side. I am presuming that the Palestinians will lose; I do not desire that, but it is currently the situation. Where would the Palestinians go? There are millions of them to resettle. If they cannot resettle in Palestine, where will they go? That is the sort of problem that we are facing due to climate change, for other communities being made homeless because the sea level is rising or whatever.

We need to think about how to stop the Israel-Palestine war right now, as soon as possible, and then about how to rehouse the refugees scattered throughout Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and all those places, as well as people who are being thrown out of Gaza, the West Bank and everywhere else. We face the prospect of two different settlements because it is not possible to think that the two groups could live in a single area. That is going to be a major challenge, and we will have to create some room. I have one slightly quixotic suggestion and then I can sit down. Across the Caspian Sea, there are many Islamic states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and so on. A tremendous amount of money ought to be raised to resettle the Palestinian refugees in that region. If everyone agreed to that, we might have peace for a while.