In October I visited Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for the very first time as part of a four man parliamentary delegation. It made for a valuably balanced learning experience, following my parliamentary visit to Syria in the summer.
Throughout Israel, Syria and the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority few of the people we met held out anything but pessimism for the immediate future. Yet looking at the countryside and the wealth of human talent in this part of the world one can only be enthusiastic of efforts to resolve the current waste during this unyielding conflict. Without this continuing terrorist battle I sensed a tremendous capability for all three nations to prosper.
As part of the Israel trip our delegation sat in a governmental meeting with Prime Minister Sharon and other Israeli leaders but also vitally we spent a full day with Palestinian political and business leaders in the West Bank. In all three countries of my recent visits the sense of wasted potential being held back by religious and nationalistic divides is just shameful within this region, one of the cradles of world civilisation.
We saw the new wall/fence that the Israeli Government had recently erected with the desire of keeping the warring parties at bay and improve internal security. Like the other historic wall created in Berlin this latest uncompromising symbol of separation allows no sense of future compromise. Men and women of great stature and vision are needed to come forward and help everybody to see the benefits of a prosperous and peaceful future but clearly that time is not today.
In Jerusalem we visited many sites of biblical importance such as the Garden of Gethsemane as well as the resting place of Jesus Christ after his execution. No one can be untouched by the sense of spirituality here.
However, this ancient city not only contains beautiful Christian churches but also breathtaking mosques and synagogues reflecting the sheer diversity of religions and cultures in this melting-pot. As we weaved our way through the narrow streets of the Muslim quarter packed with small shops and stalls, my colleagues and I reflected on the way in which people of different religions and background were happily living side by side in central Jerusalem whilst only a few miles away on the notorious West Bank there is desperate ethnic strife.
Many Palestinians in both the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank in east Jerusalem expressed their anger about the past and there was universal pessimism from them for the prospects of peace any time soon.
Unlike my recent visit to Syria where I was constrained in where I could go our party was allowed to walk anywhere and meet many ordinary folk in the Mediterranean coastal cities of Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Haifa. That simple freedom I felt marked the essential difference between the two neighbouring countries.
We also travelled up to the Lebanese and Syrian border at the Golan Heights and saw heavily armed, military outposts. It was a strange sensation, having viewed these self-same towns and villages from the Syrian side less than five months ago. The two border armies continue to stare across at each other year after year with no sense of a solution anywhere on the horizon.
But my abiding impression of Israel was of something quite different. The vibrant country is a place where a vast majority of folk of whatever religion and background just wanted to get on with day to day life. Those who live there have a beautiful country with enthusiastic spirit and blessed by plentiful natural resources. The only tragedy is that political intransigence on all sides has led to Israel being in a constant state of war over the past two generations. Now there is a great sadness that many of the young of both Israel and the Palestinian areas look as if they wish to continue the conflict.
Whatever help may be given by the international community, the future of these two nations, and I believe all the countries within the Middle East region, is in the hands of democracy, liberty and reconciliation.
On the aircraft home I was reminded at how in the emergency of war and dire conflict the power of goodness within most ordinary people is often unbelievable. It must be our task to redirect this energy in the Middle East for good rather than simply looking on as many men and women rise above their normal powers only for destructive purposes.