Middle East

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Attorney-General – in the House of Commons at 12:47 pm on 20th November 2012.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 12:47 pm, 20th November 2012

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Although there is one difference between us, on the UN General Assembly, I welcome his support and the fact that there is so much accord across the House on so many of these subjects and—taking them in the order he raised them—certainly on the new national coalition of the Syrian opposition. As he said, he has called for their recognition. Before the Government gave that recognition, I very much wanted to look into their eyes and ask the questions that I set out earlier, but I have given that recognition, and it is right to do so. All of us across the House have referred for a long time—as the right hon. Gentleman did in his questions—to the need for a unified opposition and the absence of that in the past as one of the obstacles to peace in Syria. Now that the Syrian opposition have done their utmost and made so many compromises to form a national coalition, it is right that we get behind them and that as much as possible of the world gets behind them. It is right for us to join in that, and we now look to the Syrian opposition to fulfil the commitments they have made.

We have taken no decision consequent on that—or no decision at all as things stand—to change our policy on the EU arms embargo. We look at all options, as I have repeated today. We rule out no options. It is the job of the National Security Council to look at all options, particularly as the crisis worsens. At the moment it is going in the wrong direction, but we have taken no decision as things stand to change the policy. We are certainly putting other nations under a lot of pressure—there is a lot of persuasion—to increase the aid they are giving to address the huge humanitarian suffering that I and the right hon. Gentleman have seen on the borders of Syria. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development convened a meeting of many nations on this issue at the UN General Assembly. Since then some of them have increased their aid. Last week I attended the meeting of EU and Arab League Foreign Ministers in Cairo, and that was one of the main points I made to them—that increased contributions, particularly from the Arab world, will be necessary as winter comes and the number of refugees continues to increase—so I think I can readily agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman said on that subject.

Of course we will now—again, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested—use the fact that the opposition have come together in an unprecedented way to renew our diplomatic efforts with Russia. If one of Russia’s objections is—and it always has been—that there is no single interlocutor on the opposition side, that objection at least has now been removed to the possibility of diplomatic progress. I stress that it remains the case that the only real solution in Syria is a diplomatic and political solution. Neither side has anywhere near the military strength to overthrow or remove the other. Even if they did so, they would then be dealing with a deeply fractured society for generations.

There is a lot of agreement on many aspects of the middle east peace process. Whenever a conflict such as this one in Gaza occurs, it is vital to remember the wider picture. At the root of all this is the failure to make progress on the middle east peace process. It is absolutely right to point to the sharp increase in rocket attacks—they have gone up steadily over the years since Operation Cast Lead—as producing the current crisis, but it is also quite right to make clear the need for improved access in and out of Gaza in order to allow humanitarian assistance and trade to proceed. It is a mistake by Israel to have such tight restrictions on Gaza; we have often made that clear.

The one point of difference between the right hon. Gentleman and me has been over the tactics of the UN General Assembly, and I want to explain the reason for the Government’s position. Time is running out for the two-state solution. Owing to unacceptable settlement building on the west bank and in east Jerusalem, we are not far from a two-state solution becoming impossible and unviable. With the Israeli election coming to an end in January, with the US election now over, and with time clearly running out, this coming year will be a critical one. People always say, “This will be a critical year,” but this really is one. If progress towards a two-state solution is not made in the coming year, it will, in all probability, not be made.

The message that we have given to the United States is that it is vital that they and we and the major EU countries put our full weight behind this over the coming months. However, we have to ask whether a motion on observer status being carried at the UN General Assembly now would make that easier or more difficult. There is a perfectly respectable and legitimate case for saying that it would be right to pass such a motion because this has gone on for so long and because Palestinian frustrations are so intense, for understandable reasons. I believe, however, that the balance of judgment comes down on the side of saying that to do so would be more likely to retard efforts to restart the peace process than to advance them—[ Interruption. ] Hon. Members will make different judgments about that. We will see, over time, what the reality is.

If such a motion is carried, we must of course move heaven and earth to prevent it from retarding the peace process and the attempt to restart negotiations. Our message to the United States would be the same. As things stand, however, because of the possible reaction of the US Congress and the possibility of Israel withholding tax revenues, the position of the Palestinian Authority could be made worse by the passage of such a resolution. We will therefore use our vote on this in whatever way we think will keep open the best prospect of negotiations. We will consult closely with our partners in the European Union about this, as I was doing yesterday. I hope that there will be a large measure of European agreement on how to vote on the resolution.

That is the reason for our position on the matter, and it has the best interests of the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state at heart. In international diplomacy, when our heart and our head pull in different directions, we have to give precedence to the considerations of our head, and the best way to pursue the peace process is to put our full weight behind it in the coming months.