In September of last year, Layla Moran MP, and some of her parliamentary colleagues went on a two-part delegation, the first with the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, to the Middle East to find out if the two-state solution was still viable. Here are her reflections on the delegations.
I am a daughter of Palestine and a friend of Israel. But like a bad daughter or a distant friend, I have actually spent very little time there. I went twice as day trips to Jerusalem in my teens when my family lived in Jordan, and while I feel Palestine in my heart, rarely had I felt it under my feet. So when it was mentioned by Gavin Stollar that LDFI has run such trips, and upon taking on the Foreign Affairs brief, I saw this as the opportunity of a lifetime. And I am so grateful to Lib Dem Friends of Israel for making it possible.
The trip had a clear purpose – to start to answer the question ‘how viable is a two state solution and what do we need to do to achieve it’? We didn’t expect to get an answer, but insight is often just as important. We also knew to get a good balance we needed to see the Occupied Palestinian Territories so we went again with Caabu a month later. What follows are my reflections on both those trips.
I want to start by stating again how lucky we are as a Party. Our current party policy, given the scenes in Huwara and Nablus recently, is right on the money. Recognition of the State of Palestine and also banning settlement goods sends a clear signal to the Israeli Government that actively backing the illegal settlements is not acceptable. The situation is descending into chaos, yet again, but unlike the other parties we come to this prepared and united. They are neither.
So let us start with the political situation. When we went to Jerusalem with LDFI before the election, a few things were very clear. Firstly, Israel is doing exceptionally well economically. It is innovative, resourceful and full of opportunity. I was struck when we sat down to Shabbat dinner to meet British young people who had made Aliyah. They waxed lyrical about how much better life was for them in Jerusalem compared to back in the UK. For this they credited Netanyahu, and like Gavin highlighted in his Jewish News article prior to the election, this was one canary in the coal mine that seems to have come home to roost. I imagine that not everyone who voted for Likud did it because they want to gerrymander the judiciary, or share Ben Gvir’s views – even though it was clear he and others like Smotrich could well end up as Ministers. They did it because they felt that was the safest route to a prosperous economy. Hence why when I criticise policies and the Israeli Government I am very very careful with my words. Lumping those voters in with the racist, frankly unhinged, views of those extremists isn’t nuanced enough.
That said, and now we are through the other side of the election and beyond, I cannot help but wonder if those voters regret their vote, or if they continue to choose to ignore what it has led to. The latest assault on the judiciary was very much expected. Indeed polling suggests many in Israel believe it is justified. However, not so among those we met. We of course support Yesh Atid - at the time in power, and who remain the second largest party and leaders of the so-called centrist block, although I think we do need to be careful to not draw too close a comparison between left and right in the UK as they are relative terms.
I was heartened by most of the conversations we had. With people of the old governments who had served under Yitzak Rabin, or Shimon Perez. And those, younger, advising the then PM Yair Lapid. All backing a two state solution. All wanting to be pragmatic. But one narrative stood out which I hadn’t considered and I will carry with me. That a two state solution is not just important for Palestine, but it is equally important for the preservation of Israel as a Jewish State.
The role of religion in Israeli life was an important theme in the election. Many of the campaigners we met are secularists who campaign for less, not more, religious influence. A good example of this was one of the most prominent campaigns of Yesh Atid activists we met which was to secure public transport on Shabbat. Much as my colleagues and I enjoyed learning about ‘rabbi loopholes’ there is a real societal aspect to this. Many, less orthodox, Israeli Jews feel uncomfortable with the current level of religious intrusion on their lives. The theme of the ever more religious political context and its effect on Israeli citizens was a real insight into some of the big themes of the election.
There was also, a less frequently expressed view but arguable more relevant to our thesis question, which was that, having only one state under laws that actively favour a group because of their religion does inevitably lead to different rights for different peoples. Therefore you have two choices. One is two states. Where Palestinians can thrive in their own land next to their Israeli cousins. Or one state, where you apply active discrimination on a scale that would become untenable on moral, let alone political grounds. I understand the squeamishness about the word ‘apartheid’. While it is defined in international law it is very poorly understood by lay people and inevitably draws false comparisons with South Africa. While no one we spoke to said it overtly, it was clear that the potential direction of travel for what happens if the former-terrorist wings of Israeli politics get into power was very deeply concerning. The conclusion I came to from the first trip was that two states is not just helpful to advocate for Palestinians, but it is increasingly important for the Israeli Jews we met too.
I don’t want to gloss over the security concerns. Not at all. And this is where it was clear the international community needed to step in. The concerns are real and justified, and those fears exist for different reasons across the Green Line too. A particularly memorable encounter was with a father who lives minutes away from the Gaza border who described the cost of the bombs on his family. He wished no harm to the Palestinians he said, as human, but he wanted safety for his family too. Clearly for him, he thinks about the conflict every time there is an air raid alarm. But the starkest new revelation, for me at least, was that, this question, one state or two, and the relationship with the Palestinians was extremely low down the priority list for the average Israeli citizen. I remember admiring a cycle lane as we drove back to our hotel one day. Oxfordshire where I live would be so lucky to have such a smart cycle lane. Life in Israel’s Jerusalem is comfortable. Life in Tel Aviv is incredible. In some cases only a few hundred meters away from an entirely different reality. Yet I completely understand why you wouldn’t seek to burst your bubble. After all, wasn’t the inception of the state a quest for a better life in the first place? I felt like I was beginning to get a glimpse of the Israeli perspective. Just a glimpse.
A month later we returned with Caabu. The election had happened. Bibi was back. And with him a motley crew of thugs masquerading as politicians. As an Oxford MP I am rather fond of Lewis Carroll metaphors. It really did feel that we had stepped through Alice’s Looking Glass. Palestinian Jerusalem felt like another country. I grew up in the developing world. This felt closer to my experiences in Ethiopia and Egypt.
We were shown by UNOCHA the cancerous effect that the settlements were having on the viability of two states. We met activists who warned of the hollowing out effect of civil society that had only intensified in recent years. There was no love lost for the Palestinian Authority either, especially Abbas and his entourage, who people saw as useless and corrupt. The overwhelming feeling I was left with by those I met was despondency and helplessness. One young woman who worked for one of the NGOs proscibed by Yair Lapid, told us that she had spent her whole life trying to resist the occupation legally and peacefully. With her brain and not with brawn. She got an education, went to law school. Graduated in international law. Engaged in advocacy and spoke out against violence. For doing this she was now labelled a terrorist. She said, “if I do all this and am already a terrorist, I ask myself, could I achieve more if I actually were one.” She meant it illustratively, but this is the warped logic that flows from the Israeli Government’s actions and the occupation. And it is deeply deeply dangerous. A view echoed by Breaking the Silence who we also met. Former IDF soldiers who now speak out about the moral injury they have suffered and exposing the orders they were asked to carry out. We also met some incredible Israeli activists in Massafer Yatta. They have given up their jobs to escort young children to and from school because the IDF, who are meant to do it, are often inconsistent, late or in some cases, cruel. Those activists inspired me. It is one thing to stand up to an enemy. Quite another to stand up to your friends.
And finally we went to Hebron. A dystopian city. What used to be a bustling market is now an effective ghost town. The grate above you as you wander around the market row acts as scant protection from the garbage that the Israeli settlers would throw on the heads of the Palestinians below. When they got wise to it they started to throw urine and, in some cases, even acid instead. Metal gates separate where Palestinians are and are not allowed to walk. I asked myself how much of this did those lovely people I shared Shabbat supper with know about and agree with?. ‘Existence is Resistance’ said graffiti on a wall that blocked off one side of town to the market. That summed it up for me. When people criticise the Palestinians for not being as economically developed, they forget the energy it takes just to survive under the oppressive occupation. How much energy it takes to stand still, let alone advance. But they are equally entrepreneurial. Full of life. Resilient. My heart was broken by that second trip. All that potential, wasted. All that energy turned to hate. I am afraid, much as I support them, no amount of ad hoc peace initiatives will fix this. Only one thing would, which is the end of the occupation, and above all, the reignition of hope.
The picture I am left with following these trips is this: I am deeply impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the Israelis. Their intelligence, work ethic, risk-taking attitude. It is admirable. They have built a beautiful country. And I see a Palestinian people who are equally impressive. Equally entrepreneurial, equally hard working. I imagine what life could be like if that potential was set free. How instead of trading insults and projectiles, instead it was tomatoes and textiles. Or even ideas.
I choose to hope for a better future for the region. It is for that reason that I brought my Palestine Recognition Bill to the floor of the House of Commons last Friday, I will do so with the richness of these experiences behind me. One where I can champion all peoples in the area, where I call out all hate, whoever the perpetrator; where I defend democracy, whoever it is; and where I advocate for peace, hope and a brighter future. I always endeavour in whatever I do to make our Party proud. While I know not everyone agrees with me on everything, what I strive for above all is respect. I want to thank LDFI again for being so supportive of the work I do, and for the opportunity these trips were. I’ve not covered half of the experiences we had together as if I had this article would be double the length. Instead I’ve aimed to try to distill a small part of what we learned. So did I answer our thesis question of is a two state solution viable? Absolutely not. But did I come away with a deeper, more nuanced insight into the Israeli perspective that helps me fight for both Israel and Palestine. Certainly. And for that I am forever grateful.
Layla Moran is the Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon and is the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs and International Development Spokesperson.