Mr Major’s Speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews – 12 February 1997

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, held at the Hilton Hotel in London on Wednesday 12th February 1997.


It is just under four years since Norma and I last had the pleasure of dining with the Board of Deputies – and we’re delighted to be here again. It is also a great pleasure to see His Majesty King Hussein and Queen Noor as fellow guests this evening. In the quest for peace in the Middle East, over very many years, the King’s record is unmatched.

A lot has happened in the world since I was last with you, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East. We’ve seen:

– the Oslo peace agreements – hope that a final settlement is within reach;

– the first-ever Palestinian elections;

– the murder of Yitzak Rabin;

– elections and a new government in Israel;

– murderous, terrorist attacks on both Israeli and Arab;

– and, most recently, the Hebron Agreement.

Some big set-backs. But also some major advances on the road to peace. And some tragedies – none perhaps more painful for the people of Israel than the terrible helicopter crash last week. I know how dreadfully the loss of so many young lives will weigh on the whole community there, and here. We all share in your sorrow at this terrible accident.

I know you will share my relief that the negotiations on Hebron were successfully concluded last month. This is a major step forward. I hope it will also prove to be a turning point in the peace process.

Enormous efforts went into the negotiations. The international community has given unstinting support to the process. The American role has been crucial and I pay tribute to their efforts.

Of course, the UK and the European Union are not directly involved in the peace negotiations. But we remain determined supporters. We provide substantial aid, both bilaterally and through the European Union, to support peace – and we will continue to do so.

We are giving substantial aid to the Palestinians this year. It is in everyone’s interests that we do so. A prosperous Palestinian economy would make a major contribution to peace.

Lynda Chalker was in the region a couple of weeks ago. She had a good look at how our existing assistance is helping and also announced a water and sewerage project for Hebron – the first project since the agreement. This is important because I doubt the Palestinian track would have made such progress without the efforts of international donors and I believe continuing help will be necessary.

Perhaps the most significant outside involvement has come from within the Middle East. I know that both King Hussein and President Mubarak played decisive roles in bringing the two sides to agreement. The King’s last-minute intervention helped to resolve the final differences between the two sides. Let me say to His Majesty:- you left us with a lasting image of bold peace-brokering. Your commitment to the peace process provides a model of statesmanship and I warmly congratulate you upon it.

But of course, none of this outside effort would have come to anything, if Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Arafat had not been willing to go the extra mile to find agreement. I am delighted that Mr. Netanyahu was able to take forward this part of the Oslo accords. I am sorry he was unable to join us tonight, but I know that his Government has only a slim majority in Parliament. He is attacked either for giving away too much in international negotiations or not enough. I sympathise. I know how he feels! But I am convinced he was right to reach an agreement on Hebron.

A majority in Israel clearly thinks so too. The Knesset passed the Hebron deal by 87 votes to 17. Opinion polls show two-thirds of the Israeli public in favour. People claimed last year’s election result showed that Israel was divided. But a clear majority in Israel supports the Oslo accords; and supports progress to peace.

Peace in the Middle East must become lasting. If hopes were to fall away now, bitterness would be redoubled. So there is much still to be done.

– the Hebron deal must be implemented. Some tricky issues remain, including the extent of redeployment from the West Bank and also settlements. I hope both sides will approach these with imagination and flexibility.

– other agreed steps must be carried out. Free passage between Gaza and the West Bank, and the opening of Gaza port and airport would rapidly help the economic regeneration of the area. This is vital. If you make people better off, you give them a stake in peace. You strengthen the peace constituency. Leave them poor and many will feel they have little or nothing to lose if peace goes – our interest must be to remove the breeding grounds for terrorism.

– the rest of the Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians needs to be implemented faithfully by both sides, in spirit as well as in letter. I understand Israel released a number of female Palestinian prisoners yesterday, as promised. I warmly welcome this example of good faith.

– the Palestinians must live up to their commitments on security. There has been some progress since last year’s bombing campaign. For example, over recent months the Palestinian and Israeli security forces have co-operated well. The threat from extremists in Palestinian territories seems to have receded. This is welcome news. But continued vigilance is needed against those who seek to derail the peace process through violence and terrorism.

The Hebron deal also clears the way for final status talks to re-start. Frankly, we know these will not be easy. But I am encouraged that there have been cross-party discussions in Israel of final status issues. I welcome these first steps. A final agreement will require flexibility and a recognition of the aspirations of both sides. No options should be ruled out at this stage. In the meantime, the two sides must continue to build trust and confidence.

There can be no final peace in the Middle East without a peace between Syria and Israel. The Israeli Government has expressed its wish to resume negotiations with Syria. The Syrians have also said they want to get back to the negotiating table. I very much hope a way can be found to bridge their current differences.

I have already mentioned Your Majesty’s role in the Hebron Agreement. I hope Jordan reaps the dividends of peace she deserves. We are trying to secure a fair economic agreement between Jordan and the European Union. I hope we will be successful. I hope also that investment and trade between Jordan and Israel will increase, following their recent agreements.

Britain and Israel have been friends for a long time. Our historical ties go back to the time of the British Mandate for Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel. Our friendship is based on mutual understanding and trust. It encompasses all the areas one would expect:

– a political relationship, which allows us to exchange views with honesty and frankness; and we do;

– a wide variety of cultural links, where you, the Jewish community in Britain, are rightly at the fore – deepening and broadening our ties with Israel;

– and a commercial relationship that has put Israel in the top echelon of Britain’s trading partners; with bilateral trade now over two billion pounds a year.

Later this month, President Weizman will pay a State Visit at the invitation of Her Majesty The Queen. It will be an historic occasion. The first ever State Visit to Britain by an Israeli President. And President and Mrs Weizman’s British connections – especially his service with the RAF during the war and her work in Britain with Holocaust survivors immediately afterwards – make their visit all the more welcome. I look forward to receiving them. I am sure the visit will highlight the close and warm relationship Britain and Israel now share.

I have already mentioned the role the Jewish community in Britain plays in expanding our ties with Israel. But your contribution to British life is invaluable.

Last month I gave a speech to members of the Conservative Party from the ethnic minorities. I told them that my aim was to make Britain the best place in the world to live. By that I meant a Britain that is tolerant. A Britain that is at ease with itself. And a Britain where everyone has the opportunity to make a success of life, regardless of colour, race, creed, or background. Black and white. African and Asian. Jew and Christian, Moslem and Hindu.

Opportunity for all can only be assured through national prosperity. You all know how healthy our economy now is: we have strong growth, low inflation and rapidly falling unemployment. I appreciate hugely the Jewish Community’s contribution to Britain’s economic life. I am sure you will also benefit from the uniquely favourable position in which we now find ourselves.

Choice in education is one of the cornerstones of my vision of Britain. Many Jewish parents would like their children to receive a Jewish education. I understand this. Britain has a long tradition of schools catering for particular religions within the state sector. We have worked hard on this issue. There has been an increase in the number of Jewish schools. And more are planned and I welcome this.

We must protect the diversity of our country. We have a good record of racial tolerance in Britain. It is one of the better places in the world to live. The Race Relations Act and the Public Order Act give a high level of protection. But I’m not complacent.

I know many of you are concerned about the activities of people who deny that the Holocaust took place. As I said in the House of Commons yesterday, I understand the hurt, offence and distress of those who suffered, or whose families suffered at that time. I want to take account of the views of the Jewish Community.

I believe such bigotry is best confronted with calm reason and education.

That’s why the National Curriculum requires all 11-14 year olds to be taught about the Holocaust.

That’s why the Imperial War Museum is preparing a permanent exhibition on it.

We are keeping a close eye on this issue. I am determined that, with the help of such measures, the significance of the Holocaust will never be forgotten.

This is also why I am personally committed to the European Year Against Racism and will launch it in this country later this month. At the moment, the proposed European Centre to Monitor Racism and Xenophobia would not be able to gather information on racial harassment and violence. That is clearly unsatisfactory. We are therefore discussing this issue with our European partners. I want an effective Centre established as soon as possible.

The Government cannot legislate away the actions of every wayward individual. But we can, and will, do our utmost to prevent organised activities against the Jewish – or any other – community in Britain. I know that many of you are concerned about groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Our universities provide young people the opportunity to express their views. But there is no excuse for the intimidation and harassment of innocent students.

So I welcome the steps university authorities have taken to curb the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir and their supporters. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals are considering what advice they can give to universities faced with groups which incite racial, religious or political hatred.

The police and courts have a number of powers to restrict such activities. Intentional harassment is already a criminal offence. And the proposed Protection from Harassment Bill will give the authorities even greater powers to deal with these problems. The Bill should become law next month.

Terrorism is an evil that threatens civilised society across the world. The people of Northern Ireland, the police and the security forces have to live day in day out with the threat of IRA violence. Hamas and others have attempted to derail the peace process in the Middle East with their murderous attacks. Such violence can never be rewarded. No-one can be allowed to bomb, kill, or maim their way to the negotiating table. And those who are involved in making peace cannot allow themselves to be deflected from this path by violence.

We all remember the horrific assassination attempt against Shlomo Argov in 1982. The memory of the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and Balfour House in 1994 is still fresh.

Fortunately, at least some of the perpetrators were caught. They have now been given long sentences by the courts. Quite right too.

The Government is committed to combating any terrorist activity in the UK. We will not allow Britain to be used as a base by those who support terrorism overseas. That is why the police and Security Service give such a high priority to countering the activities of those trying to organise, or fund terrorism from the UK. Let no-one doubt our resolve in this. Where we have proof of wrong-doing, we will not hesitate to act.

Like so many other issues, terrorism has become a problem spanning national boundaries. Terrorist groups may be active in one country, have their headquarters in another, recruit their members in a third and raise their funds in a fourth. An individual country cannot tackle them on its own. Effective international action against terrorism is therefore essential.

Britain is at the fore of international efforts. The Group of Seven industrialised nations and Russia held a Counter-Terrorism Summit last July. We put forward three ideas:

– we suggested all countries look at their legislation against terrorism to see if it needed strengthening. Lord Lloyd has already looked at ours and we are considering his recommendations. We will do so speedily.

– we proposed a new UN Declaration on Terrorism. As a result, a Declaration was agreed by the UN General Assembly in December. It will help to prevent terrorists, including people planning, funding, or inciting terrorism, from finding refuge abroad.

– finally, we suggested a Directory of counter-terrorist “centres of excellence”. We have already ensured there is an EU directory. One covering G7 countries and Russia should be established later this year. They will enhance practical international co-operation. Those involved in combating terrorism will be able to share expertise and experience more easily and effectively.

Let me conclude by leaving you with three final thoughts. The right to live in peace – without fear of violence from any quarter – is one of the most fundamental rights of all. The Peace Process seeks to give the people of the Middle East that right. It is a lesson to us all. It shows that sworn enemies can work together. We must pray that it continues until a final settlement is reached.

Here in Britain, we have many different peoples. My vision of Britain is one where this country is home for them all. Where they can live without fear of violence. Where Britain is the best place in the world to live.

While we strive to improve our own country, we do not forget the trials and tribulations of our friends around the world. That is why we will continue to join the Government of Israel, the Palestinian authorities and fellow Governments in the Arab world in their efforts to find a solution to the Middle East conflict. Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians may sometimes feel alone as they search for that settlement, but they aren’t.

They will have all the support we can offer them, as a Government, as a nation and as friends. That is why I am delighted to be here tonight.