Middle East

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 21st June 2005.

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Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

When he last met representatives of the Palestinian Authority to discuss progress on the Middle East peace settlement.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

If he will make a statement on progress towards a Middle East peace settlement.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I visited Israel and the occupied territories two weeks ago on 7 and 8 June. There I met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Ministers on each side, along with US security co-ordinator General Ward and the Quartet disengagement representative, James Wolfensohn. I offered our active support for Israeli disengagement from Gaza, which is now due in mid-August. Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas are meeting right now to take the process forward.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I appreciate my right hon. Friend's reply and, indeed, his visit to Israel and Palestine. However, my concern is over the E1 plan, which involves the building of about 3,500 new properties to the east of the old city of Jerusalem. That will effectively divide the west bank into north and south, but worse than that, it will make the final status talks about Jerusalem almost impossible. Did my right hon. Friend have any discussions with the two leaders on that matter?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend is entirely right to be deeply concerned, because if that building goes on it will indeed divide the north and south of the west bank. I raised the matter with President Mahmoud Abbas and, perhaps more importantly in this context, with the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, and made clear our opposition to the continual building of these settlements as well as to the siting of the security barrier other than on Israeli territory.

Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

In his initial response to the question, the Foreign Secretary indicated that this is indeed a unique opportunity to move forwards in the middle east and to move towards a two-state solution that protects the interests of the Israeli Government while securing justice for the Palestinians, but in his response to the supplementary he dealt with one of the issues that threatens that progress. I hope that he can assure us that he will press the Israeli Government to cease the construction of their separation barrier and to cease the mass arrests, because both those things threaten the continuation of the process and also give succour to the militants, who could so easily undermine the success of that process. Will he press the Israeli Government to desist on both fronts?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

As I have explained, we have already made, and will continue to make, strong representations to the Government of Israel about the building of settlements other than on Israeli land and the siting of the route of the separation barrier, again other than on Israeli land.

On arrests, I simply say to my hon. Friend that in recent weeks some hundreds of prisoners have been released by the Israeli Government as part of the steps that they have taken, in co-operation with the Palestinian Authority, to rebuild better confidence between the two sides and, not least, to improve collaboration when Israel starts to withdraw from Gaza on 16 August.

I also say to my hon. Friend that it is important that we should not be rosy-eyed about the terrorists—Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah—who are continuing to commit violence not only against Israeli civilians and Israeli forces but, in doing so, against the Palestinian moderates who wish to see a peaceful solution to the conflict that has continued there for nigh on 60 years.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

Following the Foreign Secretary's last reply, does he agree that it is entirely welcome that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been able to reach agreement on working together to make the withdrawal from Gaza successful? Does he further agree that it is likely that extremists will attempt to disrupt this so as to make the continuation of the peace process difficult and that moderates on both sides need our strong support to help them to carry it through?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

First, there is co-operation. It goes in fits and starts on each side because there is a long history of suspicion by Palestinians of Israelis and by Israelis of Palestinians. However, yesterday's announcement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that both sides had agreed on the importance of demolishing the settlers' homes in Gaza because they are not suitable is an indication of the amount of co-operation.

My hon. Friend is also right that there are terrorists in the occupied territories who perceive the Palestinian Authority and moderate Palestinians as almost as much of an enemy as Israel and Israelis. We all need to be aware of that. For example, in recent incidents terrorists fired rockets and mortars at Israelis to provoke them into action against the Palestinian Authority. It is perfectly possible that such provocation, killing and violence will go on until 16 August—the date of the withdrawal—and beyond.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Conservative, Hornchurch

The Foreign Secretary referred to the threat to the peace process from terrorist organisations. The Government have sanctioned some discussions with Hamas in the recent past. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on that and on the consistency of the Government's view, especially in the context of the EU-wide ban on discussions with Hamas?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

As my hon. Friend with a doctorate, whose constituency I momentarily forget—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I know that it is in Wales. I ought to know better because I have known my hon. Friend for 37 years, if not longer, but that is another story.

As the Minister for the Middle East, my hon. Friend Dr. Howells, spelled out in recent written answers, the meetings took place with two elected mayors who happened to be associated with Hamas. The circumstances have been spelled out in detail in those written answers, which also point out that no further meetings with elected members of Hamas are planned. I should say that in my judgment those limited meetings—which were to do with the fact that, when consular and diplomatic staff from any country go into towns in the occupied territories, it is de rigueur that they meet the mayors—were not inconsistent with our position that we will not have dealings with the leadership of such terrorist organisations.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

In her speech in Cairo yesterday, Condoleezza Rice said that, in her view, American policy in the middle east had too often ascribed too great an importance to the stability of existing regimes in the area and not enough to support for freedom, democracy and the aspirations of the people who live in those countries. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the same criticism could apply to recent British policy in the middle east?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

First, it was a terrific speech. I hope that when I see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tomorrow, I can tell her that it has the approbation of all parties in the House of the Commons.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with it?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

Yes, I agree with it as well.

We should pay tribute to Secretary of State Rice for the reflective and self-critical style that she adopted in that speech. Yes, it is also the case in the United Kingdom—although I could point to this speech and that speech in which we have called, perhaps at an earlier stage, for greater and faster implementation of democracy—that we have assumed that our interests are best served simply by stability and have not looked behind it at the inherent strength of the relevant regimes. On both sides of the Atlantic, we must now bear it in mind that the only genuine guarantor of Governments' stability is whether they are democracies.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

There is no doubt that, in the context of his history and that of his party and his nation, the stance taken by Prime Minister Sharon is immensely brave and deserves the fullest encouragement. Has the Foreign Secretary been made aware of any requests from Prime Minister Sharon for international support in exercising the practical aspects of the process of disengagement? If international community assistance in that exercise were requested, what would be the British Government's response?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

There is a great deal of international support in Israel and, more particularly, in the occupied territories. At the moment, the USA is leading the international effort, in which the Israelis have a great interest, both in respect of security in the occupied territories through their appointment of General Ward, and of the Quartet programme through President Bush's appointment of Jim Wolfensohn, the recently retired president of the World Bank. Typically, there has been resistance in Israel to outside assistance in regard to the territory of Israel, although plainly international assistance has always been wanted within the occupied territories. However, if there are any requests from the Government of Israel, we and our partners stand ready to accede to them.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

My right hon. Friend will be aware that in the judgment of Israel's chief justice on the legality of the evacuation of Gaza, he said that the settlements could not be permanent because the land had been seized in war in Gaza and the west bank. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that important statement should give new impetus to all the signatories of the Geneva convention to oppose the existing settlements and, in particular, the continuing expansion of settlements on the west bank?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

We are opposed to the expansion of settlements on the west bank. We do not regard the building of settlements outside the borders accepted by the United Nations as lawful. That said, however, the decision taken by Prime Minister Sharon and his Government to end the settlements in Gaza and four settlements in the northern part of the west bank was an immensely courageous act. I am desperate for the withdrawal to succeed and for us to see in Gaza the beginning of an independent Palestinian state capable of running its own affairs, so that we can get back to the road map. The road map lays down a detailed programme in three separate phases, not just for protesting against the settlements but for negotiating a permanent solution—in which, yes, there will be a trade in terms of land and territory. Most Israelis I speak to, including those in the Government, accept that. Such a solution will also inevitably take account of how things have changed since 1967.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

May I probe the Foreign Secretary a little further on relations with Hamas? He has said that the Minister for the Middle East, Dr. Howells, confirmed in a written answer to me yesterday that the Foreign Secretary

"authorised working-level contacts with Hamas elected representatives who were not directly implicated in violence on 21 February 2005."—[Hansard, 20 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 741W.]

Does "not directly implicated" mean that they were indirectly implicated? If so, does not that contradict the Foreign Secretary's earlier robust statements about Hamas? For example, on 14 December last year, he told the House that members of Hamas were "desperate, horrible terrorists." The following day, he confirmed that there was an EU-wide ban on anybody talking to Hamas. Has Government policy towards Hamas changed?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

I hope that it is appropriate to say that congratulations are due to Mr. Simpson on his appointment to the Conservative Front Bench[Interruption.] Well, it could be a leadership bid, as everyone else seems to be making one—[Interruption.] Anybody else? Mr. Speaker, perhaps you could invite Conservative Members who are not standing for the leadership to put up their hands. [Hon. Members: Five!"] There are five.

When we used the words "not directly implicated", we also meant that there was no evidence that those people had been involved in violence. I understand why the hon. Gentleman and others have suggested that there might be some contradiction in our approach, but there is not. I am clear that the approach that I enunciated to the House in November is the correct one. As this is the hon. Gentleman's first outing, at least as a shadow Foreign Minister, I shall say to him gently that we have been a great deal more consistent than the shadow Cabinet. I merely draw the House's attention to remarks made by Mr. Duncan, who I believe is now Secretary of State for Transport—[Hon. Members: "Shadow."] I mean shadow Secretary of State. On 14 October 2003, he urged me

"to develop direct contacts with organisations deemed to be terrorist."

He went on to say that it might even

"be useful to talk to Hamas and Islamic Jihad." [Hansard, 14 October 2003, Vol. 411, c.5.]

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Foreign Secretary

For the sake of better accuracy in Hansard, I will repeat what the new Parliamentary Private Secretary to the hon. Member for the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk just said: "But he is an Arabist." [Interruption.] Now John Bercow says that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton is unsound on these matters. Whether he is an Arabist or unsound, the hon. Gentleman is still a member of the shadow Cabinet.