Scottish Tories lobby for closer links between Scotland and Israel
The Scottish Tories have begun lobbying for closer ties between Scotland and Israel, after taking a Conservative Friends of Israel-funded trip to the Middle East.
Tory MSP Jackson Carlaw followed the trip with plans to establish a cross-party group, called ‘Building Bridges with Israel’. The party also lodged a motion in Parliament calling for more direct flights between Scotland and Israel.
Nine Scottish Conservative MSPs took part in the party’s first ever Scottish Parliamentary delegation to Israel and the occupied territories, where they met Israeli politicians, received security briefings from the Israeli Defence Force, and visited the West Bank security barrier.
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The group of MSPs also visited a winery based in the Golan Heights, an area which Israel has illegally occupied since 1967.
Israel has faced criticism from human rights groups over its actions in the Golan, with campaigners accusing it of introducing discriminatory policies against the native Syrian population, illegal expansion of settlements, and the illegal exploration and extraction of natural resources from the area.
Dr Nizard Ayoub, director of the Al-Marsad Arab Human Rights Centre in Golan Heights, told Holyrood: “Al-Marsad hopes that the MSPs were made aware that the Golan Heights Winery is established in an illegal Israeli settlement, on land that was appropriated from the native Syrian population.”
He added: “In order to ensure the delegation obtained a balanced view of the situation in the Occupied Golan Heights, Al-Marsad would have welcomed the opportunity to meet the MSPs to discuss the daily challenges faced by the remaining native Syrian population in the Golan Heights, due to Israel's occupation.”
Asked if they raised concern over human rights abuses carried out by Israel against the Palestinian or Syrian population, Tory MSP John Lamont said, “The human rights of everyone in the region was discussed.”
Lamont said the party was keen to use the Brexit vote as an opportunity to build closer ties with Israel.
After returning to Scotland the MSP lodged a motion in Parliament calling “for Scottish airlines and airports to seriously consider establishing a direct service between Scotland and Israel to strengthen cultural, trade and tourism links between Scotland and the Middle East”.
But despite visiting the occupied Golan, the party declined to answer questions from Holyrood over whether it had discussed the illegal expansion of Israeli settlements.
Lamont said part of the trip was aimed at tackling anti-Israeli sentiment in Scotland, telling The Times of Israel there was a “small minority” in Scotland that is hostile towards the state.
He said: “These people are telling the [Scottish public] that Israelis are bad and Palestinians are good and then sign up to some boycott. That’s not based on any properly informed position, because nobody’s given them the alternative views.”
“So part of this exercise [taking lawmakers to Israel] is making sure that more and more people are getting at least a balanced position and a positive view of Israel.”
Responding to questions from Holyrood over whether the delegation raised human rights concerns during the trip, he said: "This trip was extremely useful in gaining an understanding and feel for the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"We had a busy schedule, meeting with a range of individuals and organisations including the British Ambassador to Israel, the Israel-UK Chamber of Commerce, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and extraordinary peaceful-coexistence project, Save A Child’s Heart.
“On Israel’s northern border with Syria we witnessed first-hand the devastating civil war raging metres away from Israel, with exchanges of fire between President Assad’s forces and al-Qaeda linked terror groups.
“In the West Bank we met representatives of the Palestinian community - including businessman Bashar Masri and polling expert Dr Khalil Shikaki - where we discussed hopes for a future Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, alongside a safe and secure State of Israel.
"We are keen to ensure that people know Scotland remains open for business and believe we can use the Brexit vote as an opportunity to build closer ties with Israel. The clear message from everyone we met was that there is a real opportunity to strengthen cultural, trade and tourism links between Scotland and the Middle East.
"Since our return, we have been in discussions with Scottish airports and airlines to press for a direct Scottish-Israeli route. At the moment, visitors and businesses in Scotland have to travel to Manchester or London to fly to Israel despite thousands travelling there each year and Scotland exporting £1.7bn to the Middle East each year.”
But Ayoub told Holyrood: “Al-Marsad is deeply concerned about the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements and natural resource exploitation in the Occupied Golan Heights, that continue despite their illegality under international law and the condemnation of the international community.”
Pointing to plans, announced last year, to increase the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied Golan Heights by 100,000 over the next five years, Ayoub said: “Al-Marsad is particularly concerned that the Israeli government has been cynically taking advantage of the ongoing conflict in Syria to launch a bid to obtain international acceptance of its occupation and annexation of the Golan Heights.”
Conservative Friends of Israel’s Executive Director, James Gurd, said the visit was CFI’s ninth since last year’s General Election and that by the end of the year CFI will have taken 100 Conservatives to Israel since May 2015.
He said: “The high demand for fact-finding visits to Israel highlights the strength of support for the Jewish state across the Conservative Party”.
Scottish Labour MSP Pauline McNeill said: “Perception of Israel is only going to change when Israel recognises it is illegally occupying land that the rest of the world believes should be the basis of the Palestinian state.”