This afternoon Members of Parliament will be offered the chance to hear from the Speaker of the Israeli Parliament, Yuli Edelstein. The meeting has been organised by the British Inter-Parliamentary Union, which arranges many similar exchanges with legislators around the world.
But Yuli Edelstein is no ordinary legislator. He is a resident of Neve Daniel, an illegal Israeli settlement with around 2,500 residents, south west of Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank. He and his neighbours contribute to the total 500,000 Israelis living in 237 illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Mr Edelstein is one of 11 members of the Knesset who are illegal settlers. We must be clear that their decision to live in settlements raises questions about whether they can be considered partners for peace. Every one of the settlements they occupy is an impediment to the peace process because they are built on land that does not belong to Israel and so restrict the prospects for, and viability of, a future Palestinian state. Indeed, almost a fifth of Mr Edelstein’s own settlement has been taken from Palestinians who own it.
It has been the position of every UK government that settlements are illegal. They are in breach of international law, which prohibits states from transferring their civilian population onto land it has acquired by force. Settlements such as Neve Daniel do just that. They are fully fledged housing developments protected by the Israeli army.
Many settlements will become part of Israel under any peace treaty signed with the Palestinians, as both sides agree that land swaps would be necessary, but just because they would be part of Israel in the future does not mean they are legally part of Israel now. Nor does it justify taking possession of that land in anticipation of the terms of a deal.
Settlers are permitted to vote in elections to the Knesset despite not living in Israel proper, and in Mr Edelstein they have a fierce champion. He has boasted that when he speaks abroad he leaves no-one in any doubt about his hard line views. He is an unapologetic enthusiast for the expansion of settlement construction, a supporter of the “Lobby for Greater Israel” and an opponent of the two state solution. This is not a man committed to dialogue and peace.
The fact that Mr Edelstein has been invited to address MPs is concerning, because his position as Speaker of the Knesset cannot be separated from his deeply troubling views and actions on settlements. We do not argue that he should be banned or ‘no platformed’ – that is the politics of the Students Union not the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Parliament has hosted many overseas politicians with whom many MPs would vehemently disagree – or even accuse of crimes – but we, like Israel, are a democracy, and freedom of thought and expression must be protected.
Mr Edelstein’s presence among us today, however, cannot be allowed to pass without his status as an illegal settler being raised, and raised firmly. His view that the West Bank is disputed, not occupied, must be challenged. We must not normalise illegality or tip-toe around someone simply because they are a guest. Indeed we are entitled to label him as an extremist.
Mr Edelstein may have something useful to say to parliamentarians. He may not. But if we are to allow him to say it we must at the same time say forcefully back that we consider his presence in an illegal settlement on land that belongs to the Palestinians to be unacceptable, contrary to Britain’s long-held foreign policy and an impediment to peace. Anything else would be a dereliction of our commitment to justice.
Stephen Kinnock MP (Labour) Alan Duncan MP (Conservative)