Gentle Action in the Middle East

Speech given by Lord Stone of Blackheath to the British House of Lords on Friday 6 February, 2009

Lord Stone was the former joint managing director of the Marks and Spenser chain of retail stores in the United Kingdom. He has also been a regular visitor to the Pari Center and he has had a number of discussions with David Peat on the subject of trust and gentle action. As you will see from his speech he has also been active in seeking an an acceptable peace accord in the Middle East.

Lord Stone of Blackheath: "My Lords, I am pleased to hear all these views. Last Saturday, I watched a play at the Barbican created by a team made up of Jewish, Arab and Palestinian actors, and directed by Yael Ronen from the Cameri theatre of Tel Aviv. The play was called "Plonter", a Hebrew word that means tangle; but it involves no ordinary tangle. A "plonter" is more like a Gordian knot that gets tighter and tighter as you try to unwind it. The vibrant cast in this excellent piece showed that the conflict is so complex and the individuals caught up in it so emotionally and psychologically intertwined, that any attempt to depict it in a speech here lasting eight minutes is to do it a disservice. The play also demonstrated that biased headlines, sensationalist soundbites, the instant apportionment of blame and suggested quick fixes are not only unhelpful and insulting but may even be harmful. So I am not going to offer another narrative of the conflict, argue about the apportionment of blame, or suggest any quick fixes.

I decided some time ago to spend my energy in the region, trying to move forward with projects and processes that bring the parties together in the same mindset. One way is to create a similar political mindset.

Some noble Lords will know that four years ago the Arab peace initiative was revisited and revised in your Lordships' House. In 2001, the original Abdullah plan was a good initiative but later the signatories wanted to develop a new plan that was easier for all Arab states to sign and wanted to amend some of the language in the original plan to make it more acceptable to Israel. They wanted to meet on neutral territory and they needed time to talk in safety, comfort and confidence. I was honoured to be asked, through a circuitous route, to host the Arab ambassadors here in the House of Lords for two days when the House was not sitting. The result was that 22 Arab countries agreed to sign the new plan and that the wording is more acceptable to Israel because it avoids certain sensitive issues.

The plan is not a diktat but a statement of principles, and now is the time for Israel to offer its own positive and pragmatic statement to match that of the Arab peace initiative; it is not a critique of the Arab plan but an equally constructive plan. The mindset could then receive a strategy to be put forward to actualise the two-state solution. We spent 30 years arguing about this destination and we now have it; a two-state solution, or situation, and a comprehensive regional peace as envisaged by the Arab peace initiative. The road map is not enough. A map can show where a destination is and where we are now, but it is not a strategy of how to get there.

Tony Klug, an academic with 40 years' experience in this field, has worked out the bones of just such a strategy; it includes effective enforcement mechanisms. The international community must now pledge itself to agree a strategy and I ask the Minister for help in getting this done now, within the first term of the US presidency, while hopes and expectations are high and the president's influence is still potent. If we fail within this time frame, we could be looking at a future of perpetual conflict that is not confined only to the Middle East.

Another way to connect mindsets is through trade. While I was at Marks & Spencer we encouraged our suppliers to try to work across borders to encourage people to come together and combine to create work for people and bring affluence to those who had been excluded. We were able to link Israel with Egypt and produce the finest knickers on the planet. In 2009 we celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the peace deal between Egypt and Israel. A few years later, we were able to develop a business in Irbid in Jordan and now we are 15 years away from the peace deal with Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

This can be done now in Gaza and the West Bank. They possess sweet water, good soil, agricultural expertise and an able workforce. They can grow succulent tomatoes and peppers for salads, cucumbers and onions for pickling, and 27 different varieties of the most aromatic and delicious herbs for flavouring, including basil, thyme, sage, coriander, and, of course, olives, olive oil and olive oil soaps.

In the past few weeks, since returning from the region and in the face of this crisis, I have received the most generous and courageous agreements from the chairmen of four of the biggest and best retailers in the UK to help the Palestinian farmers to raise standards, add innovative product development, provide technical assistance and arrange logistics to produce, package and transport their desirable goods to be sold in the UK. We are receiving a great deal of support from Paul Taylor of UK Trade & Investment, the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, the new Palestine British Business Council and, after already having received advice and wisdom from Adam Leach and the team from the International Business Leaders Forum, I am hoping that they can bring their strength to bear on the project. We will work with a company called TechnoServe to ensure that it is the farmers of small and medium-sized businesses who profit from this. I know that the Minister will back this project.

There is also the final mindset that we are all one.

Last month, while I was in the greenhouses of these Palestinian farmers and listening to the issues with which they were contending-politics and war, credit crunch and recession, climate change and water shortages-I realised that just doing things better in a fragmented, compartmentalised way is also not going to work on its own. Plonter showed that this is not just about politics, strategy and business; this is a tangle of individual souls.

The late Lord Sieff of Brimpton, my mentor at M&S, would have said that if people were helped to gain trust in an organisation or indeed a community of people from many different religions, regions and cultures who were working together to give everyone a profit and improve the quality of life, they would lift their thoughts to a higher level of consciousness. Then, rather than their anxieties creating a reaction of "us or them" or "fight or flight", people, particularly in that region, would see that we are all one and their behaviour would change.

I will conclude by giving an example of a series of events that I hope connect people in this way. It is a story of optimism and imagination. Six years ago, Ann McPherson and Andrew Herxheimer set up in Oxford a research-based website and a charity called Healthtalkonline. I now chair it. It allows people with life-threatening illnesses who are scared and do not know what choices to make to hear and see the stories of other patients, and know what choices they made and what then happened, and they share their experiences.

Completely separately, five years ago, the Olive Tree Trust was formed in City University in London by Sheik Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber and Derek Tullett. It has for four years granted scholarships to Israeli and Palestinian students to study here in London any course they choose, but the students must live together and involve themselves in learning about and discussing together the issues of the Middle East. They are able, tortuously, to change their internal narrative and their views of the other. They then spend a year creating some positive project in the region.

Yael Litmanovitz, one of the group's alumni from the first year of the Olive Tree at City, is now working back in Israel to set up a branch of Healthtalkonline that will allow Israelis, Jews and Arabs to share personal experiences of illnesses with each other: the cancers, the heart diseases and the mental illnesses. There are 60 different conditions. She is working with Ben Gurion University in Israel but, because of the experience of Olive Tree, she insisted that as this is now in English, Hebrew and Arabic, we should also make it available to the Bedouin, the Druze and the Palestinians.

While I was in Bethlehem last month, I found another great connection with Stephanie Safdi, a Fulbright scholar from America, who is doing similar work with USAID and Al-Quds University in the West Bank. She is helping to set up a parallel programme for the population there and in Gaza. We are all now working together with the same mindset.

Plonter will unwind only if we all realise that this is all part of the same piece of twine and stop pulling in different directions. "