James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to a debate on the significance of the Abraham accords signed just over a year ago and what role the UK can play.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) for securing this debate and highlighting an incredibly important event. The Abraham accords were indeed an historic moment, beginning a new chapter in Israeli foreign policy and regional collaboration, hopefully bringing us all a step closer to resolving one of the major issues driving instability and conflict in the middle east.
As my right hon. Friend said, the UK enjoys excellent relationships with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel. Those strong relationships are built on a mutually held desire to further the cause of peace and stability in the region and the wider world. A recent example was when the Prime Minister welcomed the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to London last month, demonstrating the strength of our historic relationship with the UAE and our commitment to working together to advance regional prosperity, peace and security.
The United Kingdom and Bahrain also have a close and long-standing relationship—one reinforced during my recent visit to Bahrain. We benefit from a genuine and open dialogue, working together on mutually beneficial issues while also being able to speak frankly when we have concerns. Meanwhile, the UK is Israel’s largest European trading partner, with total trade worth around £5 billion last year—a significant increase on the 2019 figures. We are working together on a new, ambitious UK-Israel free trade agreement that will modernise our trading relationship, covering new areas such as technology and data.
Israel remains an incredibly important strategic partner, and we collaborate closely on issues such as counter-terrorism and cyber to address our shared national security threats. The recent Carrier Strike Group engagements, including at the port of Haifa, demonstrated the strength of UK-Israel defence ties. I am happy to make it clear that our commitment to Israel’s security is unwavering.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the fact that good friends of the UK came together through the Abraham accords to be good friends to each other. Those three great friends of the UK chose a path of peace, collaboration and prosperity between societies, cultures and, as he was right to point out, peoples. We were one of the first countries to welcome the accords and to celebrate the other normalisation agreements that followed with Morocco and, as my right hon. Friend said, Sudan.
During the last 12 months, we have been celebrating and reinforcing the agreements, although that period has of course proved a challenge. We are pleased to see that the three nations have grasped the opportunities that normalisation presented. We have seen burgeoning economic partnerships in travel, technology, energy, climate and more. Just last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid made his first official visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain, thus enhancing bilateral ties.
A new Israeli embassy has opened in Manama. Direct commercial flights have commenced and agreements have been reached on sport, health and environmental protection. During my visit to Bahrain, I had the pleasure of being at a bilateral lunch when the new Bahraini ambassador to Israel received a phone call telling him that he was going to be Bahrain’s first ever ambassador to the state of Israel.
For me, perhaps one of the most wonderful and moving moments is when I had the pleasure, during Hanukkah last year, to be present at the virtual lighting of the Menorah. It was an event where I, the Ambassadors to the Court of St James from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel came together in this iconic Jewish festival. It showcased the strength of commitment from all sides to this agreement to reinforce the longevity and prosperity of their relationship.
My right hon. Friend was right to mention the fact that the United Kingdom has helped to celebrate through this year. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) for organising a reception here in the House of Commons where representatives from Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates came together to celebrate the anniversary of the Abraham accords.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newark mentioned the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians and he was absolutely right to do so. It is important that these agreements also lead to tangible benefits for the Palestinian people. Sadly, the escalation in violence that we saw in May of this year and the loss of life that resulted is yet another reminder that we collectively have a responsibility to break the cycle of violence using our strong and strengthening relationships with all the parties.
As the Abraham accords demonstrated with the suspension of plans for annexation, normalisation has had a positive track record for delivering progress toward shared goals. The UK is committed to making progress towards a sustainable two-state solution that ensures a safe and secure Israel living alongside a safe and secure Palestinian state based on 1967 border lines, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states. We believe that negotiations will be the only way to get this outcome that will be supported by Israelis, Palestinians and the wider international community. Echoing the words of Israel’s Minister of Defence, Benny Gantz, the accords have opened a “window of opportunity” to advance steps towards a political middle east peace process.
We want to see greater co-ordination and co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly on economic initiatives, to help improve the day-to-day lives of Palestinians and build increased dialogue. It is incumbent on us all to seize the opportunity afforded to us by the accords and make meaningful progress towards sustainable, long-term peace in the region.
We welcome recent engagements between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian leadership, including the meeting between Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Defence Minister Gantz on 29 August this year.
I am due to visit Israel in December—my first visit as the Minister for the region, although, of course, not my first visit to the country. I will then have completed the trio of the Abraham accords’ initial signatories, having visited the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain earlier this year. I look forward to discussing what further opportunities the accords bring, not just regarding our respective relationships with Israel, the Arab Emirates and Bahrain, but to see what we can do to use the accords to further peace and prosperity in the region more widely. Of course, we have encouraged other nations to seize this opportunity and to normalise their relations with the state of Israel. We urge further direct engagement and call on all parties to work together to tackle the immediate and long-term threats to peace and security.
The Abraham accords demonstrate how normalisation can bring people together to forge new friendships and, as my right hon. Friend said, perhaps most importantly to nurture hope. We will continue to intensify our diplomatic efforts in the region, focused on creating the conditions for long-term, sustainable peace. I look forward to working closely with my opposite numbers in the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, and, indeed, any other country that wishes to join and support the normalisation of relations, and bring peace, strength and stability to the region.