David Lidington (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Aylesbury, Conservative)
No, I am not going to give way.
The Minister in his comments today and the Foreign Secretary earlier this week talked about the welcome commitment on aid that the Government are giving to the people of Gaza. I would be grateful if the Minister replying to this debate could say something about the Government's estimate of whether the attack on the UN headquarters today is likely to cause serious disruption to the distribution of essential United Nations aid. I would also be grateful if they can say what help the Government are now providing, either bilaterally or through multilateral institutions, to offer immediate relief to suffering civilians and how far the Government's plans have now advanced to contribute to the large-scale relief work and longer-term reconstruction work that will be essential if, once a ceasefire is achieved, we can start to recreate anything resembling a normal life and hopes for a better future for the people of the Gaza strip.
But we need not just to provide practical, material relief. The history of Gaza shows us that a truce is inherently unstable. The weaknesses in the old ceasefire arrangements, which collapsed three weeks ago, were analysed well by the International Crisis Group. The ICG pointed out that the ceasefire was unwritten, that it was negotiated via a third party and that the interpretations of its terms, by Hamas on the one hand and Israel on the other, differed substantially. Hamas believed that it had achieved a six-month period providing phased access to and for Gaza, whereas Israel viewed the agreement on a ceasefire as open-ended, with a modulated opening of the crossings, depending on the degree of calm in the south and progress towards the release of Gilad Shalit. The incompatibility of those differing interpretations of a ceasefire agreement that was never written down is an important part of the explanation of why it collapsed when it did.
It is dangerous to think that if we can get a new ceasefire in place, the international community can then sit back and take its time before making moves to rekindle the broader peace process. As Sir Alan Beith and others have said, what we have seen in recent years and even decades is a failure of political energy and political will by the entire international community.
Efforts to seek a comprehensive peace settlement should be a priority for the new United States Administration and for the European Union. I do not pretend for a moment that that will be an easy and straightforward task. I spent most of last week in Syria and Lebanon, and I saw how the Arab media are using images of death and mutilation in Gaza that are far more vivid than anything published or broadcast here. I got a sense of the rage being felt by Governments and ordinary citizens in those countries, and we have to remember that in virtually every Arab country 60 per cent. of the population is under 30. Moderate Arab leaders are fearful of the impact of Gaza on opinion in their countries, and even states such as Turkey and Malaysia have denounced Israel's action in the most strident language.
Yet the signs are not altogether those of pessimism. The Syrian leaders to whom I spoke told me that they certainly could not talk to Israel now, but that they would be willing to return to talks about Golan in the future, after a ceasefire in Gaza had been re-established. We all know the political objective: an Israel living safely behind internationally recognised borders and alongside a Palestinian state that is sovereign, and economically and politically viable. That has to be coupled with Israel's right to live in peace and security, recognised by all of her neighbours. In essence, we need to ally the Oslo-Annapolis process to the regional settlement proposed in the Arab peace initiative, which involves tackling some difficult issues that are worthy of another day's debate in themselves. The process has to address the issue of Hamas and the rejectionist Palestinians. We have heard frequent statements from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others calling for an end to the state of Israel, saying that there can never be any compromise and using language that, at times, moves from being anti-Israeli to being forthrightly anti-Semitic. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that those organisations enjoy a measure of genuine electoral support in the Palestinian territories. Are those organisations prepared to commit themselves genuinely to a political process whose objective would be a two-state solution and the recognition of Israel?
The role of Iran was pointed out by my hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood. Iran, with her population, natural resources and the entrepreneurial traditions of her people, could be a key economic and political force for good in the region, but at the moment Iranian policy far too often exercises a malign influence on the search for peace and stability. Iran has got to choose what type of influence she wishes to exert. Does she want a durable peace in the region and the recognition of her role as a significant player in regional affairs, or does she seek the path of confrontation? I have believed for a long time that the policy of seeking to isolate Iran—refusing to engage with her—was a mistake. I welcome the fact that the new US Administration are committed to a policy of engagement, and I hope that they will test to the full the readiness of the regime in Iran to work for peace, rather than for instability and confrontation.
To conclude, the interests of the United Kingdom lie not only in a ceasefire, and not only—vital though it is—in bringing an end to the suffering of 1.5 million people, but in an enduring peace that will at last give to all the countries of the middle east the assurance of security and the chance for their people to prosper.