Middle East Peace Process

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:59 am on 4th February 1998.

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Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex 10:59 am, 4th February 1998

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The settlements represent not only a moral and political crime, but a high aesthetic crime, and are therefore trebly to be condemned.

It seems that the middle east peace process is in grave danger of losing its way. Certainly, those who are working for a genuine and just peace in the region are not being given the support they deserve by the international community. What better time for us to re-evaluate the European role in the middle east peace process than now, when Britain holds the presidency?

In 1980, the Venice declaration settled the basis for a European approach to a settlement in the middle east by recognising the Palestinian right to self-determination, and the right to existence and security of the state of Israel. The Venice declaration based itself on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and EU policy on the middle east has remained consistent—but wholly ineffective—on those positions of high principle.

During the years of the middle east peace process, it has been argued that the situation where the United States is seen to represent Israeli interests and the EU is seen to be overly sympathetic to Arab concerns will provide yet another obstacle to the achievement of a peace settlement. I believe that the problem lies elsewhere. In the year since the signing of the Oslo peace accord, the prevailing notion has been that peace must be negotiated between the parties.

Israel, supported by the US, has sought to move any peace formula away from the restrictions of international law. The argument goes that the restraints placed on the negotiating parties by the standards of international law on issues such as the status of the city of Jerusalem would put unacceptable limits on negotiations in the final status talks. It seems, rather, that the factor currently preventing negotiations at all is the relentless Israeli colonisation of east Jerusalem, and the systematic depopulation of the eastern part of the city of its Arab inhabitants. This role of international law in conflict resolution is to apply legitimate restraints on the power of the occupying nation and to protect the rights of the occupied civilian population, pending a full settlement.

In a recent excellent interview with the Arab newspaper Al Hayat, the Prime Minister reaffirmed the British and European position on settlement building. He said: The continued building of new settlements is illegal, and in direct conflict with the principle of land for peace on which the whole peace process is built. It damages the confidence of ordinary Palestinians in the process and undermines Israel's credibility as a negotiating partner. He went on to confirm the British belief in the principle of land for peace. He said: We support a negotiating process based on the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions and the principles laid down at Madrid and Oslo. We believe this process offers the best chance of delivering a just exchange of land for peace and the secure and prosperous future for which the peoples of the region have waited for so long. I unreservedly welcome those remarks, and I regard them as extremely helpful at a time when the central concept of land for peace and the respect for the rule of law seem to have become lost in a climate of mutual recrimination and political instability.

I also welcome the Prime Minister's remarks later in the interview, when he drew a distinction between the views of the United States and those of Europe on the middle east. One of the central criticisms levelled against European Governments by Arab commentators, rightly, is that European policies in the middle east seem to be so strongly identified with what are—thoroughly correctly—seen as flawed US objectives. I believe that a much more distinct role for the EU in the peace process is what should concern us today.

In recent years—in line with its new and ambitious policy in the Mediterranean region—Europe has looked again at how it might become more actively involved in the politics of the peace settlement. Since the signing of the Oslo agreement, the EU has been the single largest investor in the peace process, pledging a total of 1.68 billion ecu. Europe has also played a leading role in the regional economic development working group in the multilateral negotiations. Disappointingly and worryingly, however, Europe has, yet again, been unable—through a lack of will and leadership—to find a political role commensurate with the financial investment it is making in the peace process. It is therefore in a losing position.

In a report entitled "The role of the European Union in the peace process and its future assistance to the Middle East"—compiled in mid-January by Commissioner Marin, who is responsible for the Mediterranean region—the Commission set out to review EU policy towards the peace process. It states, for instance, that Israeli policies in the occupied territories are responsible for the serious decline in Palestinian living standards.

Between 1993 and 1996, the west bank and Gaza were under military closures for one fifth of all working days. Clearly, this is an issue of grave concern to European Governments, whose aim of boosting the economy to give the Palestinians some stake in the peace process is being thwarted again by these illegal military closures. During the periods of protracted crisis that hit the peace process, the PNA turned to the EU to give emergency assistance to alleviate the budgetary deficit caused by the economic stagnation in the west bank and Gaza. That effectively means that Europe has been subsidising Israeli policies that it regards as illegal and which are clearly preventing any economic progress. That is clearly nonsense.

The report concludes: if this situation continues, the European Union should still not evade its responsibilities to keep the peace process alive through its political and economic efforts.The EU has reaffirmed its readiness to put all its political weight to the service of safeguarding the security of Israel. The security of the State of Israel and of its citizens is a central piece in the solution of the Middle East conflict. This is one of the reasons for the European support to Palestinian economic development. Contrary to claims that Israel's security demands stiff restrictions on the Palestinian economy, Palestinian economic development will be Israel's best security guarantee, both in the short and the long term.The Palestinians must be allowed to exercise their right to economic development. Obstacles to trade and economic activity must be removed. The EU's current aid programme to the peace process is due to end in 1998. That seems to be an appropriate time to consider a more politically active role for Europe in the peace process, and I welcome the comments in the report confirming the EU's responsibility toward the peace process. However, I believe that the report does not go far enough, because there is no reference to the role of international law, or to the protection of human rights that is an essential element of EU policy toward the middle east.

It was reported last week that, just before Prime Minister Netanyahu's departure for Washington, the Israel Cabinet endorsed maps that identified vital Israeli interests in the west bank, ahead of final status negotiations. It was said that those interests amounted to claims to more than 60 per cent. of the land on the west bank. If that is what is being envisaged by Israel as a formula for a permanent settlement, it is clear that there will be nothing left for us to negotiate. Despair, danger and political and military instability will, once again, overwhelm and drown all the vital efforts for peace.

The right of Israel and its citizens to live within secure borders is a principle that is accepted by all who are genuinely working to promote the peace process. However, all the issues that are proving so damaging to the peace process—settlements, military closures, discriminatory policies against Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem, the repeated closures of the west bank and Gaza and the siege of the Palestinian economy—are fundamental issues of human rights, which are protected under international humanitarian law. The highly regrettable instances of political violence, aimed at derailing the peace negotiations, are, in large part, the result of the despair and loss of hope generated by the lack of political progress. The European Union cannot afford to formulate policy toward the peace process that does not include the essential element—the profound and fundamental element—of respect for human rights.

When he replies, the Minister will have an elegant and beautifully written Foreign Office brief, which will tell us that the Government continue to make robust approaches to Israel in respect of settlements and all other matters. They are not robust enough and, in the period when we hold the EU presidency, we look to the Government to try to reinvigorate the middle east peace process by galvanising support in Europe for a more proactive, energetic, realistic and honourable policy. Quite apart from the terrible events that may be about to unfold in Iraq, there will be no peace in the middle east without a proper, decent and honourable resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The current Government must do what the previous Government should have done but failed to do: they must stop hiding behind the Americans' coat tails and produce a more vigorous and robust European policy. I urge the Government to stop wringing their hands, and to do something about this appalling and wholly unacceptable situation.