It is a pleasure to speak following so many interesting speeches on Afghanistan, such as those of Mr. Ellwood and my hon. Friend Paul Flynn. Like many other Members, yesterday I attended a Remembrance service where we remembered a member of my local Territorial regiment—the London regiment—who died in Afghanistan. I shall write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on a number of issues that the regiment raised with me.
Like the previous speaker, Mr. Hands, I shall concentrate my comments on one subject, although in my case it will be what was referred to in the last part of the Gracious Speech: the commitment to a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution, and I welcome the Foreign Secretary's restatement of his total commitment to that. He and his predecessors should be commended for getting the Americans to support that solution and for getting it back on the international agenda. However, I must say that I am extremely pessimistic not only about the outcome of the conference in Annapolis but about the prospects of a two-state solution in the foreseeable future.
I deplore the tendency to split people into two camps—pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian—as though they were mutually exclusive. I regard myself as as much a friend of the Israelis as of the Palestinians, and it is as a friend of the Israelis that I say that the essential first step towards a settlement—the pre-condition of the success of any talks—is the relatively simple and straightforward measure that can be taken now of stopping expanding settlements on the west bank. Many people in our country believe that the Israelis have already done that—or at least have agreed to do that—as part of the road map, but having visited the west bank in September I can assure the House that the bulldozers and cranes are still busy building new houses in Ma'ale Adumim to the east of Jerusalem and many other settlements in the west bank. We are not talking here about just outposts that the Israelis accept are illegal; we are talking about a huge new town of 30,000 inhabitants being built, and since the road map 3,500 houses have been built midway between Jerusalem and Jericho along the narrow waist of the west bank, effectively cutting it in two.
I put that to a senior official of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry. He made no attempt to deny that settlements are still being built. He justified it by saying that the commitment to a settlement freeze in the road map is at the end of phase one and he said:
"we have not got there yet."
I put it to him that nothing was more certain to ratchet up the tension and deepen the hatred felt by many Palestinians towards the occupying power than seeing the continuous expansion of settlements and watching them encroach on more Palestinian land every day. I found his answer deeply depressing. He said that calling a halt to the expansion of settlements could be seen as a victory for terrorism, and the Israeli Government would not do anything that could be seen as a victory for terrorism. I think that the truth is the reverse, and I should be interested to know whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agrees with me and will make the point to the Israeli Government that the policy that does most to strengthen the extremists and weaken the moderates among Palestinian politicians is the continued expansion of the settlements. How can moderate Palestinians claim that the ceasefire and the peace process are working if every day more and more Palestinian land is built on?
I liken the Israeli position to that of somebody who stands on somebody else's toes and says that they will get off only when that person stops screaming. The official Israeli line is that the settlements are what they call a "resolvable issue", and that they are not what the Palestinians care most about.