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Howard: The opportunity for peace in the Middle East

Speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel, at the Savoy Hotel, London

"We're here today because we all support Israel.

Now I know it's not always fashionable to talk about political principles.

But I happen to believe they matter.

Principles tell you a lot about a politician - about the values they hold dear and the ambitions they have for their country.

I believe in trusting people. If people are given a choice, they will generally make the right decision for themselves and their families.

I believe that people are better at spending their hard earned cash than government.

I believe that the people to be big, and the State to be small. Government should be accountable to people, not people to government.

And I believe in freedom - free trade, free enterprise, free speech. Of course, there is no freedom without responsibility. We all have a responsibility to our families, to our communities, to society, to those less fortunate than ourselves.

My father taught me never to take democracy for granted. He understood that freedom is a precious thing and everyone has a duty to defend it. As Edmund Burke once said:

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing".

That is why all of us are here today supporting Israel - the only full democracy in the Middle East.

When I look at all Israel that has achieved in just 56 years in the face of a struggle for her own existence, I can only wonder at the achievement. Sixty years ago, Israel did not even exist. Today, it exists on a small strip of land roughly the size of Wales, surrounded by neighbours who do not always have its best interests at heart. Yet it is a global economic power, with world beating companies in the fields of medicine, technology, defence, pharmaceuticals and telecoms. That is an astonishing and incredible achievement.

One of the most important services that the CFI - and its sister organisations in the other two parties - carries out is actually taking British politicians and journalists out to Israel. There they find a democracy, supported by those essential pillars of free speech, a free press and free enterprise. Anyone who thinks that Europe and Israel have little in common should go to Israel and sit in any bar and listen to the conversation or pick up any newspaper. You'll find the same huge range of dialogue, disagreement and vibrant debate that you will find anywhere in the free world.

I have just received a copy of an excellent book Israel in the world: changing lives through innovation. I can't think of any better description of Israel's economic and scientific achievements. In the foreword to this book, Rupert Murdoch writes:

"The key driver of Israel's success in technology is, I believe, education. The nation's largely immigrant population has education foremost amongst its aspirations and assets".

I could not agree more. Education is central to the Jewish tradition. I wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't had a first class education. It's critical if children are to succeed in later life, and if countries are to have the skilled workforces they need to compete in today's global economy.

Israel understands the importance of education. We have much to learn here in Britain from their experience. School discipline, greater parental involvement, a commitment to ensure all children learn to read, write and add up. That is the way to drive up standards in education.

Middle East Peace Process

Seventeen years ago today on 6th December 1987, on the eve of a summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan, more than 200,000 demonstrators protested in Washington DC against Soviet treatment of Russian Jews. The demonstrations called for an end to Soviet oppression of Jewish dissidents and urged that Jewish emigration from Russia finally be allowed.

Few could have imagined that just four years later the whole Soviet system would collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions and that repression of Jewish dissidents would at last end.

And few would have believed that one of the most remarkable of those dissidents, Natan Sharansky, - who spent nine years in the Gulag - would return to Russia in 1997 as the Israeli Trade Minister. One can only imagine his feelings as he visited the KGB-run prison, where he was tortured and held in solitary confinement for over a year before being sent to Siberia.

I believe that Sharansky's story has resonance for all of us. Back in 1987, 200,000 people demonstrated against communist oppression determined to change things for the better. They were optimistic and confident about the difference they could make. And their optimism and confidence paid off.

When considering Israel and the Middle East today we must not forget that sense of optimism. Because I passionately believe that despite all the difficulties, the setbacks, the false starts, peace between Israel and her neighbours is now at last a distinct possibility.

What was it that Golda Meir once said?

"Pessimism is a luxury that no Jew can allow himself".

She was right.

It's been a difficult road to peace. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The Camp David talks collapsed. The ceasefire was blown apart last year. Thousands of Israelis have been killed or maimed by suicide bombers. Only recently a number of Conservative MPs visiting Israel on a CFI trip saw the effects of this at first hand. They witnessed the almost immediate aftermath of a suicide bomb in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market which killed 3 innocent civilians and injuring 35 others. The violence and the pain in Israel are real and sadly still continuing.

Nor must we forget the thousands of Palestinians who have been killed since the start of the Intifada. We must remember that community's terrible pain and suffering too.

The hurdles to peace have seemed insurmountable for so long. Israel has not been guaranteed the security that is essential for peace. The Palestinians have suffered as a result of weak leadership and the rise of terrorist organisations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. At times it has seemed that there is no way out from the death and destruction terrorism has wrought.

But now for the first time in many years, there is a great opportunity - both for Israel and for the Palestinians. There is very broad agreement on the objectives. Two states based on the principle of Israel secure within its borders and a viable Palestinian state. The Israeli Government's withdrawal from Gaza - which should be part of the roadmap leading to an independent and democratic Palestinian State - can give real impetus to the peace process. Israel's recent decision to release Sheikh Hasan Yousof, head of the Hamas political bureau - as a measure of goodwill for the planned Palestinian elections in January - is another signal that Israel is taking serious steps to make peace negotiations possible

It should be remembered that these steps have not been easy for the Prime Minister of Israel. I have not agreed with all Mr Sharon's actions, but he has held his nerve despite criticism from his own party. The course he is following has the potential to lead to peace. But his actions must be part of an on-going process, consistent with the Road Map, designed to create confidence and the right backdrop for resumed peace talks.

From the Palestinians too, there are now great expectations. Following the death of Arafat, there is a real possibility that a new Palestinian leader will commit himself to democracy and human rights. That he will spurn the fanatics and terrorists whose actions are designed to block the path to peace.

Alongside the steps taken by Prime Minister Sharon and the potential of a new Palestinian leadership, there is a third essential element that could make a great difference. President Bush was re-elected last month with a decisive majority. He has rightly made peace in the Middle East a priority - saying that he will use his political capital to drive forward the peace process. The President's greatest strengths are his decisiveness and readiness to see things through to their conclusion. I very much hope that he will use these qualities to drive the Middle East peace process forward. We will all benefit if he succeeds.

I would like to make two constructive and practical suggestions which I believe could help the process move forward in the next few months. First, I would encourage President Bush to appoint a senior American figure with the authority to create the momentum needed to bring the two sides together - and keep them together. I see such a figure performing, albeit on a much larger stage, the same sort of facilitating role which Senator George Mitchell successfully provided in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, I would like to see discussions to provide security support from the international community in Gaza and eventually the West Bank too. This will help the Palestinian Authority maintain public order and carry out effective counter-terrorism as the Israelis withdraw.

The peace process will of course ultimately be a matter for the two sides themselves. But America and Europe do now have a tremendous opportunity to help create and maintain the best environment in which that process can be taken forward. President Bush has rightly committed himself to the task. And Britain can play a crucial role too. We are a strong ally of Israel, a friend in good times and bad. We share Israel's commitment to the rule of law, democracy and freedom, and its determination not to give in to terrorism.

Menachem Begin, who along with Anwar Sadat did so much for the cause of peace, said in 1979 as he signed the peace treaty with Egypt:

"No more wars, no more bloodshed. Peace unto you. Shalom, salaam, forever".

As Israel and the Palestinians tentatively grasp this renewed opportunity for Peace in the Middle East, I hope these words will ring loud and clear.

The mainspring of my political mission is my determination that everyone should have the opportunity to make the most of their talents and abilities, to make the most of their lives.

Imagine how a peace settlement in the Middle East would transform the opportunity for millions of people in the region - on both sides of the divide - to make the most of their talents and abilities.

I hope very much that dream becomes a reality in the very near future. We must all hope and pray that it does."

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