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1997 Onwards - Sir John Major’s Speech at the Conservative Middle East Council Dinner

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Conservative Middle East Council Dinner, held at Claridge’s Ballroom on Wednesday 16th June 2010.


SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Your Excellencies, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Delighted to be here this evening. As I look around this gathering, I see new Ministers who face a herculean task, and old colleagues like Dennis Walters, Founder of this Council. I also see my old friend, Ken Clarke, who I am delighted to see back in Government. And, above all, distinguished Ambassadors representing our friends and allies in the Middle East. It is good to see you all.

These days, I travel for almost six months a year. I marvel at the growth in the Middle East. I see the huge opportunities that are still to come. But, too often, I am told on my travels: “We see the French, the Germans, the Chinese - where are the British?”. I am delighted David Cameron and William Hague have re-stated our commitment to the wider region. We must never allow old friends to become distant friends.

First, a warning: all over the world Governments have their own cautious language when engaged in diplomacy. Often what is not said is as important - if not more so – than what is said.

Tonight you will need no interpretive skills: I speak solely for myself, and having the freedom to say exactly what I think, in the way that I wish, is one of the delights of not being in Government.

Iraq

When Iraq attacked Kuwait in 1990 – without cause or justification – the case for war was clear-cut. An innocent country was invaded and needed liberation. And when it was over we had a further responsibility: to protect the Kurds from genocide.

The second Iraq War was very different.

Before it began, I made my reservations public but supported the war – because I believed what the then Prime Minister told us about weapons of mass destruction. When I was Prime Minister, everything I said in public was factually rock solid. I assumed that principle still applied. But I was wrong. It now seems there was little justification for the bellicose case for war that was presented. I was not alone in being misled. So was the Conservative Party. So was the United Kingdom.

Today that war looks like folly. The defence of it has shrunk to the claim that Saddam Hussein was a bad man, who mistreated his nation, and the world is better off without him.

That is true. But others are bad, too – and mistreat their nations – yet we don’t invade their countries or bomb them from 30,000 feet. It may be that the Labour Government acted in good faith. Judgement on that can be left to history.

But, I observe now – there are lessons: war should be the last resort, entered into only when circumstances compel it. And secondly: we now have on-going responsibilities to help rebuild Iraq that we cannot ignore.

Afghanistan

We have now been at war in Afghanistan for eight years – with no sign of an ending. Inevitably there is war weariness – made worse by the depressing rise in casualties. Poor political direction has dogged this mission from the outset. The Labour Government hoped “not a shot would be fired” but 298 British dead mock that naivety. For too long, troops in the field were ill-equipped: that, thankfully, is at last corrected and I hope they now will have all the support they need – in action and on their return home.

Afghanistan is not a war that can easily be “won”, but nor can it be ignored: we are bound to it by necessity.

And it is easy to see why.

The war has spread into Pakistan – a Western ally and a nuclear power where Taleban and Jihadist influence has been growing.

The Afghanistan campaign is now, arguably, not one, but several intertwined conflicts including a power struggle between Jihadists and the Pakistan Government.

As the conflict becomes more messy and intractable, it is understandable that some feel we should bring the troops home – as Canada and the Netherlands plan to do in 2011.

But not yet. Too much is at stake. We need patience and commitment for what could yet be a long military and civil campaign: the alternative is to lose the struggle, boost terror, undermine American and British prestige, and place Pakistan at risk. We did not seek this war, but we cannot – either morally or safely – walk away from it.

The best exit strategy is victory. If that is unobtainable – diplomacy. We may yet have to talk to the Taliban.

Arab-Israel

The Arab/Israeli dispute colours the view of the Middle East. It spills beyond its own borders and has scarred politics for decades. And is it not absurd that we know the two-State solution we seek, but cannot turn it into reality? Morality, as well as practicality, says we need a solution.

After several decades, a bilateral negotiated settlement is still far away: many wonder if it will ever be possible. Attempts at incremental agreements – “confidence building” in the jargon – have failed again and again. Peace negotiations resemble nothing so much as the mating of the Black Widow Spider. Once the dance is over, death and destruction inevitably follow. How often we have seen that, and how damaging it is.

The present situation is close to stalemate. Palestinians are split. Secular Fatah control the West Bank. Islamic Hamas rule in Gaza. Hamas deny the right of Israel to even exist. They will not renounce violence nor accept previous agreements made by Palestinian negotiators.

In Jerusalem, the situation on the ground is constantly worsening. Three old religions and one historic City stand at the heart of the dilemma. Both Israelis and Palestinians see different parts of Jerusalem as their legitimate capital, yet illegal settlement growth in East Jerusalem is absorbing it into West Jerusalem and making it difficult to see how a peaceful division of the City could ever be possible. Other policies are forcing Palestinians to move. Plainly, this inhibits successful negotiations.

In recent months, Israel has upset even her strongest allies. The murder of a Hamas commander in Dubai and the raid on aid ships heading for Gaza were diplomatic disasters. So, frankly, is the Gaza blockade because it is creating growing support for Hamas at the expense of Fatah – which is not remotely in Israel’s self-interest. Israeli opinion is puzzled. It resents criticism because it cannot understand why much of the world seems more tolerant of Hamas misbehaviour than Israeli action. I can explain this conundrum: it is that the world expects far more of Israel, a democratic State, than Hamas, a terrorist organisation. If Israel reaches out to her friends, she will receive support: if she does not, she will limit their tolerance of her actions.

Is there a solution? Yes, of course – the obvious one, a negotiated settlement. But, if that cannot be achieved, if negotiators from Israel and the Palestinians cannot – or will not – make the concessions necessary to compromise, what then?

Can the international community allow this dispute to run on and on forever – or will the time come when they have no choice other than to press their own ideas for a settlement?

Understandably, the protagonists would hate this: but, if both sides take positions that impede progress, what alternative exists?

Over recent years, the concept of an international peace-keeping force in Gaza and the West Bank has gained support. In Gaza, by monitoring the Egypt/Gaza border, it could inhibit the ability of Hamas to attack Israeli towns with rockets and, by enabling the blockade to be lifted, prevent the complete collapse of the economy. In the West Bank, it could focus on civil improvement, economic advance and more effective law and order.

If progress is not made soon in bilateral negotiations, this idea may become an early step towards an imposed agreement.

Will this be difficult? Of course it will. It is a gamble, a high risk toss of the coin, and one that requires great political courage, especially in Washington.

Will it work? No-one can know – but nothing else has. Will America do it? Most people accept that the strength of the Israeli lobby limits America’s freedom of action. But time – and patience – is running out. The political risk of pressuring Israel – for any American Administration – is very great, but a contrary truth is that an agreement is in Israel’s long-term interest every bit as much as the Palestinians.

Impossible, some say. Really? That’s what I was told before we started the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Distrust there was as toxic as between Israel and her adversaries, and yet Ireland is now a changed country, with neighbours once at war with one another, living together in harmony.

And what is the alternative? A perpetual ongoing dispute that leaves generations of Israelis and Palestinians facing the same conundrum, the same hatreds, the same insecurities – until another war breaks out with enhanced weapons and an incalculable outcome.

Iran

Churchill once referred to Russia as “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. He went on to say: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Much the same could be said of Iran today. In the year since the flawed re election of Ahmadinejad, there has been widespread internal dissent by hundreds of thousands of individual Iranians. There have been marches, coded speeches, intellectual dissent, as liberty has raised its voice. The regime has responded with repression but, like others before them, they will find that the demand for change, for something better, for a free and open society, is impossible to smother forever. You cannot arrest freedom and keep it in jail.

Because of the regime, we view Iran through a very narrow prism. Is she developing nuclear weapons? When will she have them? Will she use them? On whom? Some ask whether America – or Israel as a proxy – should attack and destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities?

The fear of a nuclear Iran is real. If she obtains a weapon, the risk of proliferation is high.

Why is Iran doing this? The economy is in a mess. The currency is weak. Inflation, interest rates and unemployment are high. In the MENA, she is rated 137th out of 163 in terms of ease of doing business – only just ahead of the West Bank and Gaza. A sad comedown for a nation that, as Persia, was a great Empire, when the British and Americans lived in mud huts.

Nothing is explicable without understanding that Iran is a nationalist and hard-line regime. The real source of power is the Supreme Leader, backed by the Revolutionary Guards, the Army, the Intelligence Services and the Police. The President, Ahmadinejad – so often the face of Iran – is a secondary figure. He is not the decisive decision-maker. He is the Apprentice, not the Sorcerer.

What should we do? First, remember the regime is not the nation – as the internal dissent vividly makes clear. Even so, while the clerical regime survives, we must deal with it. It is possible negotiations may improve relations; and we should continue to try. But, because of the threat she poses, we must supplement dialogue with incentives and sanctions. In any event, adding a third military conflict after Iraq and Afghanistan is very unattractive – even if we cannot rule it out. But, for the time being, the sanctions applied last week seem the right way forward. We can only hope they prove sufficient.

So often time is a tyrant. There is much I would like to have said of Lebanon – so often an innocent victim of wider issues. Of Syria – and how to engage her. Of Jordan – and our close friends in the Gulf. Of the rosy prospects of North Africa. Of Egypt and Turkey – and the importance of their role, and my support for Turkey’s application to join the EU.

These – and other – issues must wait for another day. But not, I hope, for too long. The Middle East is stirring and we need to embrace it, consult it and benefit from its wisdom.

If we do not, it will be our loss.