Planting trees in the bastion of democracy

The Jerusalem Hills are one of the most beautiful sights in the world. The peaceful, rolling green hills, thick with trees and vineyards, are world renowned and deeply evocative.

On a clear day you can see for miles at Jerusalem’s Yad Kennedy Memorial in the Aminadav Forest. So I’ve been led to believe. Last Wednesday was not one of those days. In true British style, heavy mist had fallen upon Jerusalem and rain fell relentlessly sideways.

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The inclement weather had arrived just in time for me to plant one of the trees awarded to me by Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) to celebrate my recent knighthood. This moving gift was a particular honor for me and I’d been looking forward to this moment.

I first came to Israel in 1980 and fell in love with the place and its people.

Israel is a bastion of democracy in a region plagued by chaos and autocracy.

It celebrates and protects the same values that we in Britain cherish; the rule of law, free speech, freedom of movement and freedom of assembly.

The Jewish state has achieved a seemingly impossible amount in its young life. If more countries had set out to build modern democratic states and invested in their people and futures, the world would be a more prosperous and peaceful place.

Israel has changed so much since that first visit. With its high-rises and booming high-tech scene, Tel Aviv is a city transformed. The country is moving ever closer to achieving 100% recycled drinking water through desalination; a game changer for a country the very survival of which was only recently still at risk through its lack of water resources. One need only drive into Jerusalem to see the major infrastructure investment in the country’s road and rail network.

In sheer defiance of its tough neighborhood and limited natural resources, Israel has fast become one of the world’s most advanced countries.

Trees are strong symbols for life and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and JNF UK have done important work in making Israel bloom by planting hundreds of thousands of trees. It is a message of rebirth and new life. The sight of trees peacefully swaying in the wind as one leaves behind the horrors displayed at Yad Vashem is a testament to the peaceful future Jews have long sought in their homeland.

It’s a privilege to literally put down roots in this country. It was particularly fitting to plant the tree so close to Tu Bishvat – “New Year of the Trees.”

As the heavens continued to pour I picked up the big green watering can and heartily poured water over the young sapling. A truly Monty Python-esque way to conclude the moving ceremony.

The most important aspect of CFI’s work is our program of parliamentary delegations to Israel. It is only by seeing Israel that you can begin to understand it.

The extensive itinerary took us from meetings with high-tech incubators in Tel Aviv, all the way to Sderot on the Gaza border (which has the unfortunate reputation as the “bomb shelter capital of the world”) and Ramallah in the West Bank.

No CFI fact-finding mission is the same and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much anticipated visit to Washington, DC, provided an interesting backdrop to our visit. After all the hype and political gamesmanship, Netanyahu’s joint press conference with President Donald Trump provided no shortage of drama.

The prospect of a more public regional relationship between Israel and its Gulf neighbors is interesting.

The Palestinians, currently committed to a counterproductive unilateral agenda, are only really likely to return to the negotiating table with the support and encouragement from fellow Arabs. Shared concerns over Iran could offer a previously unforeseen way to securing a peace agreement.

President Trump’s opening of the door to a one-state solution was a major error. Whether this was the latest careless remark from The Donald or evidence of a major shift in US policy away from a two-state solution, it will only embolden the wrong people.

Israel’s right wing and Palestinian rejectionists find themselves in agreement.

Let me be clear: any option other than a two-state solution risks threatening the Jewish, democratic nature of the State of Israel.

The importance of Israel’s need for defensible borders was brought home to us when we visited the Gaza border, and were reminded of the threats that Israel faces on a daily basis. An elderly resident of the Netiv Ha’asara moshav recalled how a Hamas tunnel came out of the ground just yards from a kindergarten, with the potential of carrying out mass Israeli casualties.

The trip highlighted that both Israelis and Palestinians do not currently believe that any progress on resolving the conflict is likely in the near future.

Young Palestinians we met with spoke of distrust of their political leadership, while Israelis were split on what a Trump administration would mean for Israel. The only thing the Israelis agreed on was their shared hope for a peaceful future, and that the country would be going into elections in the near future.

CFI and many of my parliamentary colleagues have been running a campaign over the past few years calling for the UK to allocate a greater share of funds we give to the Palestinian Authority for peaceful coexistence projects. We firmly believe that bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to break down misconceptions about the other is important to ensuring the long-term success of any peace deal.

One of these deserving charities is Save a Child’s Heart, where we met a group of children from Gaza who had traveled with their mothers to receive life-saving heart surgery at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon.

We also met a Palestinian trainee pediatric cardiologist; one of 120 physicians and nurses trained by Save a Child’s Heart from the Palestinian territories and developing countries that then take their skills home. Projects like these transform lives and deserve our fullest possible support.

We also visited Beit Issie Shapiro, a charity providing cutting-edge services to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. Its Sindian Center in the Arab Israeli town of Kalansuwa is the first early intervention center in the Arab sector in Israel.

It is radically changing how disabilities are viewed in the Arab sector.

As we were told by the parents of disabled children, their shared concerns for their children transcends politics and the conflict and regularly brings Arab and Jewish Israeli families together.

Interest in strengthening bilateral trade between the UK and Israel was also welcome. It is clear that there is much interest in Israel in the Jewish state and the UK negotiating a free trade agreement. With trade already at record levels, this offers hope of yet more shared prosperity in the future.

It’s been a real pleasure playing a small part bringing our two great countries together. Thank you very much to CFI for this honor and the JNF/JNF UK for arranging such a memorable occasion. I look forward to visiting my own little piece of Israel for many years to come.

The author is parliamentary chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel and the prime minister’s UK envoy on post-Holocaust issues.

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