Middle East: Quartet — Question
2:36 pm

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

My Lords, the Government remain determined to do everything possible to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. We believe the quartet still has an important role in achieving this.

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Baroness Falkner of Margravine (Liberal Democrat)

Given the breakdown of talks on 26 January, in the last iteration, and given that one side to the talks has no confidence whatever in the representative of the quartet-to the extent that they will not even shake his hand at the meetings-and that the other side in the talks flagrantly disregards the representative's deadlines for submissions and proposals, can the Government really stick to the view that they have complete confidence in the future of the quartet? Is my noble friend aware of President Sarkozy's comment that the quartet is dead-

"Let's stop kidding ourselves"?

Will my noble friend tell the House what proposals the Government have to put the quartet on a new footing under new leadership?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

We all share my noble friend's disappointment at the slowness of progress in the Middle East peace process and the difficulties that are being encountered-as well as at the suspension of the talks in Amman, although they have only been suspended and not abandoned altogether. However, I think that she is a shade harsh in her general judgment. We pay tribute to the efforts of Mr Blair and others in improving the situation on the ground in occupied Palestine, but one must be realistic: the quartet alone cannot achieve the progress that we all want to see. Such progress can happen only if the will is there, but the will is not present on all the necessary sides in the peace process to make progress along the road map. If the will is not there, the quartet cannot achieve the impossible.

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Lord Anderson of Swansea (Labour)

Does the noble Lord agree that the quartet is divided-for example over Syria, given Russia's view on it-and that it has been ineffective, save marginally at the lower infrastructure level; but that we cannot kill it because there is no alternative, and one day there may be a role for it?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

I think that the noble Lord is realistic. The quartet is not in a position to achieve the magic progress that we want to see, but the moment may come when its usefulness can be developed. In the mean time, we retain confidence in it as a part of the mechanism for taking things forward. Clearly, however, many other aspects need to be improved and strengthened.

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Lord Lea of Crondall (Labour)

My Lords, how does the effect of the Iranian nuclear weapons crisis on Israel bear on the ostensible agenda of the quartet? Is there not a lack of reality in the timescale as regards the urgency of various matters? Will that have a bearing on the present agenda of the quartet?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

The noble Lord is asking about the broader issue of Israel and Iran and the very tense situation that clearly exists. I think it was President Obama who, on becoming President, was advised that everything in the Middle East is connected with everything else. Israel's concerns about Iran, and all our concerns about Iran's attempt to move to nuclear weapons, are part of the Middle East imbroglio. However, we must not let that take our eye too much off the need for the Middle East peace process to go ahead and for the road blocks along that process-including the building of settlements, which is clearly a major obstacle-to be overcome.

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Lord Low of Dalston (Crossbench)

My Lords, with the rate of Israeli settlement in Palestine continuing apace and apparently unchecked, in precisely what respect has the situation improved on the ground?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

As far as settlements are concerned, it has not improved at all. On the contrary, although the Jerusalem municipality has told the British representatives who make constant representations that for the moment it does not plan any further settlements, or any further demolition in east Jerusalem either, the settlements seem to continue. So there has been no improvement there. I was referring to Palestine industry and enterprise and some beginnings-even in the miserable conditions of Gaza-of advance in enterprise, thanks to some noble and dynamic contributions by British businesses.

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Lord Hannay of Chiswick (Crossbench)

My Lords, if the Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, reach agreement in the coming weeks on constituting a technocratic Government with Mahmoud Abbas as both President and Prime Minister, will the British Government use their influence to deal directly with the Government who emerge from that process and not be impeded from doing so by any objections from elsewhere?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

The answer is yes, provided that Hamas shows some readiness to conform to the quartet principles, renounces violence and plays a constructive role. Provided that that happens, we could then move forward, and certainly the British Government would use all their influence and support to ensure that that process did move forward.

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Lord Alderdice (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, from my visit there last week, I have come away with the sense that some important changes are taking place. Indeed, on the Palestinian side, there is a sense of confidence which is perhaps partly to do with the application to the United Nations and other developments. However, is it not clear that the efforts of the quartet itself are resulting in little more than nugatory negotiations and arbitrary deadlines? Given that elections are now in the air so widely among the participants both inside and outside, would it not be better for the quartet to pull back and analyse how it could produce a strategy that over the next three to four years will produce serious negotiations, rather than to continue kicking at a door that will not lead it anywhere in the very short term?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

I think that my answer has to be the same as the one that I gave to my noble friend earlier. The quartet is part of the mechanism, but many other things need to change and improve. There is the question of the recognition of Palestine as a state. The British Government believe that Palestine has fulfilled most of the conditions for that although we think that the ultimate statehood will be acquired when the occupation ends and when peace is achieved. These things must all be pressed together. I do not think that it would be wise at this stage to say that the quartet must be put on the back burner and not play any role at all-it could play a role. At the moment, there are obviously major difficulties in the way.

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Baroness Tonge (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I have just returned from a conference called by the Arab League in Qatar on the subject of Jerusalem. At the end of that conference a resolution supported by the Arab League was passed to ask the United Nations to try to stop Israel's annexation and Judaisation of east Jerusalem. Will the British Government and the quartet support this move?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

That is part of a jigsaw, the aims of which would certainly have our full support. The position is that after the suspension of the Amman talks, Mahmoud Abbas and others have made it quite clear that the aims are: border security, on which Israel is supposed to report back by the end of March on what it does; a freeze on the settlements, which certainly has not occurred; and that if neither of those things happens, then indeed the whole process will go back to the United Nations-and we shall continue to use our best efforts to make progress there.