Middle East

– in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Leader In the House of Lords, Leader, House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 3:24 pm, 31st March 2004

rose to call attention to recent developments in the Middle East; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, in introducing this very important debate I point out that at the other end of these great Houses of Parliament there is extreme interest, concern, public and media involvement in the subject of higher education fees. I suggest that the debate that we are having at this end of these great Houses of Parliament is of least of an equal degree of importance concerning as it does one of the most difficult international problems that exists, one that increasingly threatens the peace of the whole region and one in which the United Kingdom and her allies are so intimately involved.

I begin this debate with a very brief quotation from what I believe was an inspiring and very moving article by the former Speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003, Mr Avraham Burg. I beg Members of this House to read the article because I believe that it goes to the heart of the tragedy of the Middle East. He said,

"The Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or anti-missile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations".

Israel has an astonishing record of achievement. Its citizens are among the most innovative and well educated of any country in the world. I do not often make personal remarks. I am absolutely certain of one thing. As someone married to a leading Jewish American who died recently, both of whose parents were on the Gestapo black list, which had on it only a few hundred names in the United Kingdom, nothing on Earth would persuade me to be anti-Semitic or to be other than a strong champion of the survival and the safety of the state of Israel.

Like many other Members of this House, I have the right to be critical of the leadership of the present government of Israel. It is not because I wish to damage the state of Israel, but because I believe that the leadership is profoundly ill advised in the way it is trying to go about creating peace and security for that country.

I would not for one moment treat it lightly. Israel has suffered outrageous atrocities. I saw a picture in Haaretz a few days ago when I was in Israel which moved me very deeply. It was of a father and a brother, their heads turned away from the funeral corpse of their son and brother who had been killed by mindless and uncaring suicide bombers. It was a picture that one could not see without feeling one's own heart moved. So I do not make any excuse for the outrageous behaviour of some of the Palestinian extremists.

I also cannot make an excuse for what I have seen of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by the state of Israel. We spent some eight days there in an all-party group, which was led by Christian Aid and a non-governmental organisation, which consistently works in the field of humanitarian relief in the West Bank and Gaza. We went out of our way to speak to Israelis, Palestinians and members of the Israeli Government as well as to members of the Israeli opposition. I did not know until I went there that, for example, the West Bank is honeycombed by marvellous roads with highways paid for in part at least by outside donors, which link one settlement with another, but which are not available for use by Palestinians at all.

I did not know that the settlements, which now contain some 198,000 people in the West Bank and Gaza, and another 170,000 in east Jerusalem, now cover one hill after the other with their handsome, regimented, white-painted houses. I did not know that Palestinian villages are blocked off from access to the major roads by a series of heavy boulders rolled into place so that one village after another cannot even use a truck to gets its produce out.

I did not know that in many areas on the grounds of security—I understand those grounds—citrus groves and orchards had been grubbed up and then bulldozed, leaving the hapless folks who are the victims of collective punishment with no legitimate means of survival. I did not know that many of the villages close to the border between the West Bank and Israel have been made virtually unliveable in because of sniping on both sides. I met a lady in Beit Hanoun, which is close to the border, with nine children in her care, not all her own—some of them were her sister's and her brother's children. All were under the age of 11—the Palestinians have large families—and were so terrified at meeting strangers that they all fled behind their mothers' skirts when we arrived. That woman was somehow trying to keep that family alive but all her citrus groves had been destroyed.

I did not know that in place after place medical centres, education centres, schools and even churches are divorced by the wall from the people they are meant to serve. I have seen the wall, as have other noble Lords. In many places it is three metres high and has very few gateways punctuating its grim perception.

All of this continually adds to the bitterness on both sides. What we are looking at right now is a vicious spiral of retaliation and revenge from which absolutely no one gains. I have to add to that one other thing which I find profoundly saddening. So far, at least, the Arab states that should be profoundly concerned in solving this problem find themselves so divided that they seem unable to be effective. The collapse of the Tunis summit is a tragedy for all of us because many supposed that at that summit the attempt to try to launch a new peace process would be initiated.

This very day the situation has taken yet another turn for the worse, not just due to the argument over the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, but perhaps equally disturbing the cutting off, just today, of all United Nations aid to Gaza because the United Nations has said that it is no longer able to get food into that place through the many checkpoints on the way. Seventy per cent of the people of Gaza depend today on the World Food Programme and on humanitarian aid, but that programme has, as of today, had to stop altogether. God knows what they will live on.

But this, bad as it is, could be an opportunity and not just a tragedy. Perhaps out of all this horror, the proposal that Mr Sharon has made for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza could be turned into the first stage of the long walk back to peace. It is just possible that if it could be brought within the structure of the road map and of multinational commitment, instead of being the end of a road to disaster, it might be the first step back. Why do I say that? I say that because on both sides of the border in the past few days there has been a courageous declaration in favour of peace from both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

On the Palestinian side, the declaration—published in both Palestinian and Israeli papers—of 17 outstanding Palestinian leaders and intellectuals led by Hannah Asrawi, calls on their side to show restraint and not to go back to the cycle of violence. On the Israeli side, as many of your Lordships will know, there is an astonishingly courageous opposition to Mr Sharon's policies. Five conscientious objectors are serving time in prison—most of them have not yet even reached the legal age of adulthood. Many, many Israelis have courageously committed themselves to trying to help Palestinians as doctors, human rights workers and so on.

All this gives us some slight hope. I come now to the last part of what I want to say, which concerns what we can do about the situation. I pay tribute to the Minister and, indeed, to the Government for their very hard work to try to draw the world's attention to the need to get back to a peace programme in Israel and the Palestinian territories. I pay tribute to the help they have given in supporting the restoration of security by the Palestinian Authority so that when it is called upon to deal with terrorists it at least has some means to do so. Many of your Lordships will know that it has not had those facilities recently because many have been destroyed.

There is one more step that Her Majesty's Government ought to take. When I was in Gaza one of the most outstanding human rights lawyers of that area, Dr Raji Gourani, told me that one of the deep tragedies for moderates in Palestine who call upon their fellows not to revert to violence and who condemn suicide bombing was the failure of the West to support the referral of the wall, which is built almost entirely within West Bank territory, to the United Nations. Your Lordships will know that the General Assembly passed by a very clear majority a decision to refer the line of the wall to the High Court at the Hague. Your Lordships will also know that the United States voted against that. We, along with our EU partners, abstained. When we call upon both sides to recognise the rule of law, we must not apply double standards.

All is not lost. There is some chance to build upon the passionate desire of both sides to create a peace. There is some chance to build on the good will and decent commitment of ordinary men and women, both Israeli and Palestinian. I conclude by asking your Lordships to consider how best we might help in any way we can to bring the peace process back to the start, for if we go the other way, there is no hope for us. I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:37 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. I agree with her totally about the critical importance of the subjects we are discussing today; namely, developments in the Middle East. It is a measure of our times that almost every current issue, domestic and international, seems to lead back to developments in the Middle East at the moment. I can scarcely think of one that does not.

Whether it is global terrorism, domestic terrorism, Al'Qaeda, divisions in Europe and chronic anti-Americanism, the Iraq war or the political fortunes of President Bush or, indeed, for that matter, the fortunes of our own Prime Minister, the Israel/Palestine conflict, about which the noble Baroness just spoke so movingly, and which is still spiralling downwards, the state of affairs in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya or any of the Mahgreb countries, or the overall alleged confrontation—one that I do not believe really exists—between Islam and western civilisation, in every case the trail leads back to the Middle East labyrinth.

Of course, it does not even stop there for the same thing goes for current debates about weapons of mass destruction and nuclear proliferation. It applies to questions about the reform of the United Nations, which is now deeply mired in the oil-for-food scandal with Iraq. It applies obviously to OPEC and to key questions about oil and gas markets and prices and, therefore, to the whole world economy. All these are directly related to Middle East affairs and Middle East developments. Indeed, even history itself is being re-opened as arguments rage around us from the British imperial role back to the Crusades and, indeed, to the story of Islam in Europe long before that.

It is no wonder that it is extremely difficult to decide in this debate on which aspects to focus. In making my selection I can make a confession straight away, which is that I am determined to be on the optimistic side about the whole Middle East region. Despite all the horrors, I believe that the case for hope and therefore for pressing on with current efforts is broadly the right one to make. I know it is obviously very hard to be optimistic in face of the sheer horrors that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has described: the horrors of the suicide bombing, which I see is now brought to a new low point of evil by Hamas with the ultimate sickness of using young children to wear explosives; or when faced with the ill judged killing of Sheikh Yassin, however much blood was on his hands as a Hamas leader—and there obviously was some; or to be positive after the Ashura slaughter at Karbala in Iraq, or indeed the equally appalling slaughter in Madrid which had Al'Qaeda's fingerprints on it.

I know, too, that the debate will continue—maybe not this afternoon, or maybe it will—about the question of whether the original coalition invasion of Iraq was right, legal, or well timed, or whether the arguments deployed by the Prime Minister at the time were wise or not so wise. I personally think that the invasion was right, but I am not so sure about the arguments that were used; I think they had the wrong emphasis. But to me it is just common sense that the renaissance of a better Middle East has to begin, and had to begin, with the removal of Saddam Hussein, a tyrant who spread instability and hate throughout the entire region, besides killing his own people in Stalinist numbers—many of them killed by gas and poison weapons. The world is unquestionably a better place without him in power. I believe we will yet live to see the Middle East region in all its aspects—including those to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict—a better place as well.

We are all constantly assured—by those who claim to know—that there is no connection and never was between Saddam and Iraq on the one hand, and the promotion of global terrorism and the stirring up of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the other. I believe that evidence may well show otherwise. What about Ansar al-Islam, which is a killer organisation to whom Saddam gave ample space and which undoubtedly had loose Al'Qaeda links? Was not the whole terrorist network of the region undoubtedly set to run through Baghdad even if its origins were in the training camps of Afghanistan? Was not money from Baghdad helping to fuel the hatred and bitterness which has led to the disaster that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has rightly described in the Arab-Israeli conflict?

But now—after Iraq, but still facing the horrors in that conflict—we are where we are. Whatever the past arguments, I want briefly to offer two propositions on which we should base our next steps forward, because forward it is that we have go. The first is that although it will take far more time than the impatient media experts and commentators will allow or even understand, Iraq will slowly over several years come good as a peaceful, prosperous and pluralist society, provided that the coalition stays firm and committed. If I am asked why I am so sure of that, the answer is because there are strong signs of recovery already. Of course we just get the news of the horrors and deaths—that is inevitable—but behind the grim headlines the facts are quite different.

Today, a year after the Iraq invasion, the majority of children in Iraq are back at school with better-paid teachers, often in better schools; hospitals are all open and many are re-equipped; Baghdad's streets are crowded and the wheels of commerce are spinning; a new financial and banking system is up and running; shrewd investors are already putting in their money; there are 100,000 Iraqi policemen back on the streets and the numbers are rising fast; and there are also contingents of Iraqi soldiers working under the coalition command to restore stability.

Experts all predicted that there would be civil war between the factions, but despite grave provocation that has not happened. The vast majority on all sides, including the Kurds, want to keep Iraq united. All the big players in the region want the same thing. Experts also said that there would be a massive refugee problem and widespread starvation; none of that has happened either. The infrastructure investment is roaring ahead and I hope that we get a good, decent share of it. Electricity production is said to be higher now than it was under Saddam. Waterways are being cleared, sabotage is falling and oil exports are overtaking pre-war levels.

Are not all the signs that, despite many of the poisonous difficulties, other Arab states are drawing some of the right lessons: that sponsoring terrorism does not pay and that reform in the direction of pluralism and democracy, plus integration with the global market system—each country at its own pace, no uniform pattern—is the path that pays? That surely is the lesson that is being learnt in Tehran, in Damascus, in Tripoli and in Cairo, and, in a different form, in Riyadh, as well as up through the Gulf States?

Of course little of this gets reported, but what it adds up to is that the long-term vision of a more stable Arab region is not just a mad American dream. With the exception, I admit, of the Israel-Palestine struggle, it really could be that in the next few years the Middle East hotbed of terror and Islamic fanaticism could become the more prosperous, democratic, engaged and tolerant Islamic world it certainly is fully capable of being. It may even be that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is right—she often is on these things—that there is some hope even in the misery of the Palestine question. It certainly continues to baffle me that the powerful Jewish community in the United States—most of whom are enlightened people who realise the dangers of Israeli extremism and the dangers of the Sharon policy, which may well destroy his country and not save it—seem so quiet and so ineffective in bringing their political weight to bear. I hope that they change their view and carry forward the right case for Israel and not the wrong case for Israel which so often seems to come to the fore.

That brings me to my second proposition, because there are plenty of people around who deny that democracy and stability can ever break out in the whole of the Middle East region. Both at the radical end of Islam and outside it there are plenty of voices saying that Islam and democracy cannot live together, that they are incompatible. I believe that that depends on what one means by "Islam" and what one means by "democracy".

Islam is not just a contained system of governance ordained and directed by Allah, as the radical extremists who distort the Koran and the divine texts wrongly keep arguing. Similarly, democracy is not just about majority rule and votes—as some people rather closer to home appear to believe as well. Moderate Islam is perfectly suited to operating alongside democracy, tolerance, pluralism and indeed the high-tech age—all within the Islam rubric. Democracy is certainly not just an exclusive western model, or a single formula; it has been rightly called "a contested system", and it is about constitutionalism and the rule of law as much as it is about votes. That I believe is something that all wiser Muslims understand and welcome when surveying the Middle Eastern scene.

We have to build on the links with moderate Islam, and we have to now build hard and fast. I would just add that I believe that that starts very largely not in the Middle East but at home. London, with a million Muslims, I am told, is one of the larger Muslim cities of the world. Because we are still an open society we allow all kinds of extreme, radical, fanatical Islamic expression in this country of a kind which would certainly never be permitted in most Islamic lands and Islamic societies. So that makes it all the more important that now—particularly now—we unite with the vast majority of Muslims who reject all that extremism and denounce it as superficial, as it is, and a distortion of the Koran, as it is, and who want to be both British and Muslim, and who deplore and reject terrorism in all forms or as a solution to the Palestine tragedy or any other conflict.

Arab-Israel conflict may be one of the worst poisons in the Middle East well. But terrorism and Western hatred have, I think, still deeper roots and are based on deeper misunderstandings, by both sides, which we have allowed to develop. These we can overcome by understanding how Islam can work perfectly well together with modernity. Indeed, it may even provide a better grounding for the information technology revolution and modern industrial patterns than crumbling Western values. As I said, we can overcome that by working with and learning from, and not patronising, separating or fencing off, the Islamic community here in our own country.

As I suspect today's debate will show, the Middle East problems are as many-sided and as seemingly intractable as ever. They will take years to calm down, let alone solve. My contribution to this debate is to say that we can start here at home, and that we should do so with vigour, hope and confidence.

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour 3:51 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I am delighted to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. They have injected into the debate not only passion but common sense, two essential ingredients if we are ultimately—and I stress "ultimately"—to see peace in that area.

The noble Baroness spoke of the tragedy of the Middle East and I share her view—I think it is a tragedy. When Israel was formed, and despite the incursions of various Arab states, the atmosphere was very optimistic. There was a sublime idea that, somehow, Israel could offer the world an example. I think that, basically, that is still true. She spoke also of her right to be critical of the leaders of Israel, and to some extent I share that view as well. Perhaps we can also agree that the present leaders of Israel are not wholly wrong. Ultimately, however, I endorse the opinion of Shimon Peres, who spoke movingly the other day about Israel's mission, a mission which I wholly support.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, spoke of his optimism. I share that view, too. In the long term, however, we have to be patient. It will not happen by next June. It may take several years before the situation in the Middle East settles down. As the noble Lord rightly emphasised, however, the situation is by no means confined to Israel. If Israel did not exist, the avarice of some Arab leaders would not, in my view, disappear. Barbarism would simply be transferred to other countries and other places. Saddam Hussein was, sadly, not unique. I can recall going to Saudi Arabia in 1996. In Riyadh, the first thing I was shown—shown with pride—was the execution locations. I was absolutely horrified and my hosts were gratified by what they were able to show. That is all too common among some tyrannical Arab leaders today.

Although I have reason to doubt the purposes stipulated for the invasion of Iraq—a view which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, advanced today—the removal of Saddam Hussein has been beneficial for the people of Iraq and the people of the whole world. Iraq is a much better place without him. But why, oh why, do we have to pretend about the weapons of mass destruction that the Iraqis are supposed to have had? In my view it is an absolute irrelevance.

I believe that a durable peace will ultimately be possible in that area, but I doubt whether it is advisable to pretend that it can be achieved by the end of June or in July of this year. As I said, I think that it will take many years. It follows, therefore, that Iraq must be given time in which to settle down. Although I think that immense difficulties will confront that country, I share the noble Lord's ultimate optimism about it. The welfare of that country and its people must now be given precedence over the convenience of the United States and other occupying countries. The election in the United States must take second place to that.

Regrettably, however, the situation in the Middle East is far more volatile than it has been for some 50 years—the assassination of Sheik Yassin, Hamas's attacks on defenceless Israeli men, women and children, the Israeli assaults on Gaza and other outposts occupied by Palestinian Arabs—it goes on and on and on. Will there be an end to this dire escalation of violence?

I believe firmly in a Jewish state—a state which embodies all the democratic values for which the founders of Israel stood and fought. They were compelled to fight to exist, and exist they certainly did. Over several years, Hamas has refused to come to terms with this unalterable fact. In my view it still does. Its former leader, Sheik Yassin, vowed its destruction. He was not simply a spiritual leader, as some would suppose. He was far removed from being a benign figure in a wheelchair. He believed in the destruction of the state of Israel. He supported the idea of suicide bombing to achieve that. He opposed vitriolically any possibility of agreement between the two sides. That was the nature of the man. Nevertheless, I wholly oppose his assassination, on two essential grounds. First, it was inimical to the long-term viability of a democratic Israel. Secondly, it would have been more likely, if he had died from natural causes, that his supporters would not be able to pretend that he was a so-called martyr.

I do not think that Sharon's potential political demise, followed by the possible election of Benjamin Netanyahu, would represent a real improvement. Both support the barrier. I think, like several Likud ministers, that it is the antithesis of a durable peace. That is also the view of the majority supporting settlement evacuation who, tellingly, have also pointed out that this appeared to be consonant with Sharon's own plans.

I do not conceal from the House that Israel and the Palestinians face turbulent times. It is idle to think that Israel should turn the other cheek when confronted by vicious assaults from Hamas. Would we, if faced by a similar situation? We certainly did not when faced by the murderous ambitions of Al'Qaeda. After all, Israel cannot ignore its own electorate any more than we can. But it is one thing to repel attacks, another to behave proportionately and have a more positive response than sheer violence. That is the stance of the Israeli Labour Party, Shenui, Arab parties and all those who support the view that, ultimately, it is in the interest of Israel to have a lasting peace.

Unfortunately, that will not happen rapidly. It is vital that, somehow or other, Palestinians must be identified who are prepared and disposed to negotiate. That is a condition precedent for any advance. I do not accept the doctrine, promulgated by some in the Israeli Government, of being able to eliminate violence first and speak later. Dialogue with moderate Arab Palestinians is an absolute prerequisite. It is essential to give them a distinct role. It may be difficult to do it at the present time but, ultimately, it has to be done.

Israel's position needs to be more widely understood, not least by the European Union. Trade between the expanded European Union and Israel is vital, especially if we are to witness peace in that area. Ultimately, it is better to talk than to engage in bloody war.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench 4:04 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I am sure we should all be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for having initiated this debate on a situation which is, in many ways, perhaps the most dangerous and sensitive of any in the world today. I would also like to say that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, once paid me the compliment of saying that, to his surprise, he had agreed with something I had said in a speech. I return the compliment by saying that I agree with almost every word he said in that preceding speech.

I do not propose today to rehearse the many reasons why I and many others still maintain the view that last year's invasion of Iraq has never been convincingly or honestly justified by either the United States Administration or Her Majesty's Government. So long as the full case put forward by the Attorney-General is withheld from us, it is difficult to judge the arguments by which the Cabinet were persuaded to enter the so-called coalition, given the fact that we had repeatedly been assured that regime change was no part of the British Government's policy.

The revelations by Mr Richard Clarke over the past week do not surprise me. Several of us have argued that the obsessive determination of the Bush administration, if not of the President himself, to invade Iraq and change the Iraqi regime long predated the horrors of September 11. Attempts to justify the invasion by linking Saddam Hussein with those horrors are not only dishonest, they also seriously detract from—or, as Mr Clarke has put it "greatly undermine"—the credibility and effectiveness of the so-called war on terror. In those pre-invasion debates, many of us asked "Why now"? Iraq was the wrong target at the wrong time.

I do not know how many of your Lordships will have read a devastating critique of the failure of the Bush Administration's diplomacy towards Iraq, by the former Under-Secretary in the State Department, Mr James Rubin, in the New York Review of Books last year. Mr Rubin underlined the disastrous consequences of placing United States policy towards Iraq solely in the hands of Mr Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon, and of failing to use—indeed, refusing to employ—the experience and skills of American diplomats, many of whom, as I know from my own contacts, have a deep understanding of Iraq and the Middle East. The most serious error was to have linked the war on terror with the attack against Iraq, thereby negating the immediate upsurge of sympathy for the United States after September 11 from virtually every country in the world—some of whom then found themselves branded as members of the infamous Axis of Evil.

But I do not want to concentrate on the past. In Iraq, the top priority must be to ensure security, to enable the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their country again. An early withdrawal of troops—whether American, Spanish, British or from other coalition partners—could have very serious and dangerous consequences for the Iraqi people, some 10,000 to 15,000 of whom are believed already to have lost their lives as a direct consequence of our invasion and occupation of their country. The old lesson that the history of the Middle East should have taught us—that it is easier to enter than to exit—is, I fear, coming home to roost.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, I welcome Her Majesty's Government's continued perseverance in their attempt to maintain tolerable relations with the governments of Iran, Syria and now Libya, against many odds. In this respect, at least, the Government have not been afraid to distance themselves, with our European partners, from the more hard-line antics of the neo-conservatives in Washington. I also suspect, but do not know, that the welcome decision by the United States to withdraw, at least for the time being, what they describe as their "Greater Middle East Initiative" may owe something to the more balanced reservations voiced from this side of the pond.

The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on taking the risk, as he himself put it, of going to Libya last week to talk with Colonel Gaddafi—something which would have been regarded as totally unthinkable even two years ago. I was particularly struck by the positive reaction to his initiative from bereaved relations of the Lockerbie victims, in spite of attempts by some of their interviewers to get them to denounce it. Is the lesson of that visit that we should never regard any mutual hostility as immutable? If we remember our own post-colonial history of dealing with leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta, whom we had once regarded as beyond the pale, is it so unthinkable that both the Americans and the Israelis might soon be prepared to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians, whom they currently denounce as terrorists or whom they have isolated in the ruins of Ramallah?

It is, as always, the situation in Palestine which holds the greatest dangers for all of us. I am glad to see some signs that President Bush may himself be prepared, even as the date of the presidential elections draws near, to take a modest initiative by inviting Prime Minister Sharon to Washington. I do not under-estimate—none of us should—the political difficulties of removing illegal Jewish settlements from Palestinian territory or of dismantling the appalling security fence that cuts deep into Palestinian territory beyond the green line.

It has always amazed me that successive Prime Ministers of Israel, with American approval, have persisted in encouraging more and more illegal settlement in the Occupied Territories. Surely it must have been obvious to all of them that they were creating a rod for the backs of themselves and their successors? If, as Prime Minister Sharon has suggested, all Israeli settlers are to be removed from Gaza, where will they go? I hope that the Minister can reassure us that we will make every effort, both bilaterally and through the Americans, to ensure that they are not transferred to swell the numbers in existing illegal settlements in the West Bank or around Jerusalem. If they are, and if the security fence remains in place, I see no prospect of a viable Palestinian state as part of the two-state solution which President Bush claims to support.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, we all deplore the continued use of suicide bombers and, in particular, the sickening spectacle of young children tricked into believing that killing Israelis will win them a reward in paradise. But the continued Israeli practice of targeted assassinations—rightly condemned in public statements, if not in Security Council votes, by Ministers as illegal—is not only a flagrant breach of international law by a country which prides itself on obeying the rule of law; more tragically, neither targeted assassinations nor the security fence are doing anything to protect and preserve Israel's security or to contribute to the war on terror. Quite the contrary: they are whipping up a surge of resentment against Israeli occupation, expropriation, deprivation and intimidation in the West Bank and Gaza, which no Palestinian authority can possibly be expected to control.

Tragically, the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin appears to have contributed to the decision to postpone this week's Arab summit in Tunis at which the Saudi Government had apparently been ready to revive their peace initiative agreed two years ago at the Arab summit in Beirut.

So is it too late to expect any early and realistic progress on the road map to peace? I think that I agree with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that all is not lost. I hope that I am right. But I also hope that, when she comes to sum up the debate, the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance on this vitally important question. Let us hope that President Bush is now ready, as he promised the Prime Minister in Belfast, to put as much personal energy towards the Arab/Israel situation as the Prime Minister put, and continues to put, towards Northern Ireland. A genuine, determined and balanced American commitment to peace in Palestine, if supported and encouraged by their partners in the quartet, would do more than any military operations or assassinations to contribute towards winning the so-called "war on terror".

Photo of The Bishop of Coventry The Bishop of Coventry Bishop 4:15 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I am both delighted and humbled to follow the masterly exposition of the noble Lord, Lord Wright. Today, I was wondering whether to speak on Iraq or on Israel/Palestine, but the noble Lord's contribution has enabled us to see the two in very clear connection and we are most grateful.

I am also very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, not only for initiating the debate but also for the very moving way in which she introduced it. Sadly, a number of us could provide examples similar to the stories that she gave so movingly today. The sadness is that there is no shortage of examples such as those to quote.

I am also grateful to the noble Baroness for making it clear that to be critical of the Government of Israel is not necessarily to be anti-Semitic. That, I believe, is a lie that needs to be nailed again and again. I remind your Lordships that the word "Semitic" is a generic term. It applies to peoples and languages across a broad region. Whatever else the relationship may be between the Jews and the Arabs, they are, at the very least, first cousins, if not brothers, both in terms of their language and their culture.

I want to say something today about the religious elements of the Middle East conflict and something about the importance of inter-faith dialogue. I speak about the religious elements in this conflict as, in a sense, a professional. As a professional, I want to say at the outset that I believe that religion can be an incredibly dangerous and tyrannical force when it is wrongly used. We see examples of that in many different parts of the world, and there is no shortage of examples of it in the Middle East situation that we are addressing today.

Riah Abu El-Assal is the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem. He was born an Arab, a Christian and a Palestinian. He is still an Arab and a Christian, but his passport tells him that he is now an Israeli citizen. That is because the town in which he was born changed its status in about 1947–48. For some time, and until fairly recently, a considerable number of Arabs within the state of Israel were also Christians but most have now left. They have done so for a variety of reasons, some of which are quite complex. But there seems to be a single thread running through all those who have emigrated from that part of the world. It concerns their inability to live with what they describe as a "hybrid" identity in a situation where polarisation has taken place to such a point that they no longer find themselves with any place at all. One is either an Israeli or an Arab; and one is either Jewish or a Muslim.

Bishop Riah cannot bring himself to speak of Israel/Palestine as the Holy Land—a term which many of us westerners use with nostalgia, and perhaps with sentimentality, to describe the place of the birth of Jesus. At best, Bishop Riah can speak only of the "Land of the Holy One". He asserts, not only that holiness is a moral and spiritual quality, most appropriately used of persons rather than places, but also that the actions taking place on his soil are anything but holy.

And yet there is no escaping the fact that so much of the territory in question is regarded as sacred by adherents of all the three Abrahamic faiths, who regard this plot of land—that is no bigger than the size of Wales, a former Prime Minister reminded us—as their spiritual home. These so-called "holy sites", not least those in Jerusalem, form part of the ongoing territorial dispute, not least because they are regarded as having supreme religious significance for all—or in some cases for just one—of the faith communities.

It is for this reason that I wish to plead for a better understanding of the religious issues that form an integral part of the Middle East conflict. Just one month ago the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, spoke of the religious dimension in the peace process, as one which,

"threatens to transform what is essentially a political and territorial conflict into an ideological one, and one that will be even more difficult to resolve".

That kind of scenario certainly seems to apply to some Muslim extremists as well as to some Christian Zionists. They claim divine authority for the violent acts of aggression or for the criminal acts of murder that are perpetrated. That same divine authority is often claimed by those who are settlers on the West Bank.

When Sheikh Yassin was assassinated last week, he was on his way home from morning prayer. While it is true that he was a terrorist leader, it is equally true that on the ground, among his own people, he was regarded as a spiritual leader. There is no escaping that fact. To acknowledge that simply serves to heighten the religious dimension of this conflict.

It was in an attempt to address such extremism that the Alexandria process was set up. After considerable preparatory work by the International Centre for Reconciliation in Coventry, and by Canon Andrew White in particular, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, now the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, chaired a three-day meeting in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

This meeting was attended by senior religious leaders representing the three Abrahamic faiths in Israel/Palestine. It was co-chaired by the Grand Immam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi. The resulting declaration contained a joint condemnation of all violence in the name of religion, and a call for implementation of the Mitchell and Tenet recommendations.

In the weeks following this declaration of January 2002, tension increased on the West Bank, with IDF operations in Jenin and other refugee camps. The most acute tension centred on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and significant numbers of those religious leaders who had taken part in the Alexandria consultation were actively involved in the eventual resolution of that stand-off.

One of the most moving long-term consequences of the Alexandria consultation has been the deep friendships across traditional boundaries. Michael Melchior is a Jewish rabbi and a former deputy Foreign Minister in the Israeli Government. Sheikh Tal al-Sidr was a founder member of Hamas; he is now a peace activist in Hebron. These two men now embrace each other publicly as brothers, acknowledging the shared roots of their faith and risking constant opprobrium from their more extreme compatriots.

Sheikh Tal al-Sidr spoke last year at the German Kirchentag, and he was proud to declare:

"Rabbi Michael is my brother and we will walk this long and difficult path of reconciliation together. We can only walk it together. And as we walk our task is to pull up the thorns and to plant flowers for those who will come after".

Religion can be a terrible master, but genuine faith can be a dynamic liberator into a fuller experience of what it means to be human. As I end, I can do no better than to quote the exhortation of the psalmist that we should,

"pray for the peace of Jerusalem".

Photo of Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld Labour 4:26 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I join in complimenting the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on her choice of subject for today's debate. It is appropriate because it is so necessary to keep the issues of the Middle East before Parliament, the Government and the country. This debate helps to achieve that.

I should state that I am chair of the Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group, which is in effect the all-party group concerned with all matters pertaining to Israel and its relations with the United Kingdom.

The problems and issues of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict have been with the world for decades. It is not to the credit of the world community that the problems continue and seem as far from solution as ever they have been. The road map on which so much hope was invested seems to have led nowhere. Agreements and concordats brokered by the United States have not, regrettably, had a continuing momentum. However, the search for a just solution must go on and the policy of Her Majesty's Government must be to support that end. We cannot have further decades of conflict.

The largest single hindrance to the peace process is the terrorist war waged on Israel. Over the past three years, there have been 21,033 terrorist attacks against Israeli targets, claiming the lives of 916 people. That is the equivalent of 16 terrorist attacks per day. Of those attacks, 425 have been carried out by Hamas, murdering 377 Israelis and injuring 2,076.

The figure of 377 murdered Israelis equates to 8,621 British people, or 43,136 citizens of the United States, or 58,963 citizens of the European Union. That puts in true perspective the appalling carnage wrought by a merciless terrorist organisation owing nothing to humanity or civilisation. No political objective can justify such inhumanity.

I was amazed to hear the BBC describe Sheikh Yassin as a "spiritual leader"—although nothing that the BBC says about the Middle East should amaze me. No real and genuine spiritual leader could surely preside over such a murderous record. He encouraged the cult of martyrdom in Palestinian society—a notion that for decent people is totally abhorrent and beyond comprehension.

There is an international war on terrorism and Israel must be allowed to fight it. Prosecution of the war is not confined to the United States of America and western democratic powers. Israel has to fight it, for it is surely in the front line. Its civilian population is targeted by Hamas and the other terrorist groups.

Yassin and his like stand in the way of any peace process. His position was impossible to achieve. Israel cannot be eliminated from the map either as a geo-physical entity or as a people. The world community will not wear that ever and at last there are signs—the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, made reference to this—that more moderate counsels are beginning to make themselves heard within the Palestinian community. We must pray that they prevail.

Last week my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer instructed the Bank of England to direct financial institutions to freeze any funds they hold on behalf of five senior members of Hamas. Those people are believed to facilitate acts of terrorism. Mr Brown is to be congratulated on that action which, it is to be hoped, will be replicated in the financial capitals of the free world. For too long we have differentiated between the military and political wings of Hamas. The Foreign Secretary played a key role in ensuring that both wings were outlawed in EU policy determined last September, and now we have frozen the financial assets of those whom we believe are involved in terrorism. At least three of those individuals would be classified as members of the political wing of Hamas.

The time has come for us to take the additional step of including Hamas in its entirety in the list of terrorist organisations outlawed by the Terrorism Act 2000. We must take that action as a matter of haste, before those who support the goals of Hamas find further British men or women—I mean British men or women—who are willing to follow in the footsteps of the two British suicide bombers who killed three and injured 55 in a bar in Tel Aviv on 30 April last year.

Her Majesty's Government have a record to be proud of in working for a peaceful, just and lasting settlement to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Last week I chaired a meeting of the Britain-Israel All-Party Parliamentary Group here in your Lordships' House. The speaker was His Excellency Her Majesty's Ambassador to Israel, Simon McDonald. He gave an upbeat, optimistic and hopeful expose of the problems facing the world community in seeking to resolve the conflict. It was an encouraging experience to hear him. We are fortunate indeed to have such an outstanding diplomat in such a difficult and sensitive posting. I wish to place on record the thanks and appreciation of our group for the time that he gave to us.

The arguments surrounding the Middle East and in particular the Palestinian/Israeli conflict have been well rehearsed in this Chamber over many years—probably from the time of the Balfour declaration onwards. We know, as the world knows, what needs to be done. The two-state solution that gives each state secure borders and a viable infrastructure, most notably in the provision of water supply, can be achieved. The way forward is clear, but without an end to Palestinian terror little can be achieved. Prime Minister Sharon has stated his willingness to withdraw fully from Gaza. The Government should welcome that plan, support it in every way possible, and encourage the Palestinian leadership to work with the Israelis to make this move an opportunity for peace, within the road map, and not an opportunity for terrorists like Hamas.

This country has a history in the region and now must make history again by encouraging an end to terror and every possible route to peace. Fences, walls and settlements are removable; human lives lost to terror are irreplaceable.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Shadow Minister, International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 4:34 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, as I listened to my noble friend Lady Williams introducing the debate, tears came to my eyes and I thought, "What can I possibly add?". The case that she made for peace in the Middle East and the balance that she struck are surely unanswerable. My noble friend Lord Russell, who is not in his place at the moment, persuaded me that we all have to speak up, so I was not let off the hook.

People warned that the Middle East would become a tinder box if the US and the UK attacked Iraq. President Bush said that that would not be so, arguing that the road to peace in Jerusalem lay through Baghdad and that Saddam Hussein's removal was key to a settlement there. At the very least, the jury must surely be out on that. Our Prime Minister emphasised that renewed efforts would be made to try to bring peace to the Middle East. I have little doubt that he did, and does, mean that, but with all the pressures of Iraq, tuition fees and other assorted distractions, I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that the Middle East is extremely high on the Government's agenda.

We have already seen a distraction from the Israel/Palestine and the Afghanistan situations to Iraq. Iraq has proved a much more difficult country in which to establish unity, security, order and democracy than was predicted. Has the US exercised its considerable influence in the Israel/Palestine conflict? When the Israelis assassinated Sheikh Yassin, it was the US who vetoed the UN resolution condemning it as an illegal act.

Between September 2000 and June 2003, 74 Israelis and 2,494 Palestinians have died. Israel has suffered over 100 suicide bombings and there have been attacks on settlers. Anyone with any historical knowledge can understand just how threatened Israelis feel. But is their present government right in their current strategy? The Palestinians point to their own casualties and to their imploding economy. Naive young people use what is happening as an excuse for extremism.

If we look at the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is very clear that Israel's security measures, the curfews, movement restrictions, the wall and the network of settlements are having a devastating effect. The International Development Select Committee of the House of Commons has described the impact of those as being,

"so severe as to bring about a situation which is best described as de-development".

Malnutrition is increasing rapidly in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, not because of the shortage of food, but because it is difficult to obtain food. As my noble friend has said, the UN said yesterday that it will have to halve food deliveries to the Gaza Strip from tomorrow because of restrictions imposed by Israel on the movement of staff and supplies. The head of the UN's aid agency for Palestinian refugees, Peter Hansen, said that it was unable to cope with the impact of increased Israeli security at crossing points. The World Food Programme estimates that 150,000 people in Gaza are dependent on that food aid. Hansen has also protested about Israeli measures that were forcing staff to cross in exposed areas, prompting his agency to prohibit some aid workers from entering the Gaza Strip because of "unacceptable risk and danger". He has said that there had been no response following repeated complaints to the Israeli authorities this month.

Closures have broken up the West Bank. Settlements and their segregated access roads also help to fragment because the Palestinians cannot use those roads. Land has been confiscated and agricultural lands are cut through. Settlement activity, with its associated road building, as the Select Committee has concluded,

"threatens . . . the viability of a future Palestinian state".

Despite agreement to freeze settlements, they continue to be established and expanded. Now we have the wall as well. It does not follow pre-1967 borders; it extends into Palestinian territories, encircles Palestinian communities and splits Palestinian areas.

It has cut people off from basic services, it has damaged infrastructure such as electricity and water supplies, land has been confiscated and crops have been destroyed or rendered inaccessible. Goods cannot be brought to market and people cannot reach the markets to buy the goods.

The wall has already enclosed entire towns and villages, directly affecting more than 200,000 people; 14,000 Palestinians living in 17 villages between the wall and the green line are now effectively trapped. A further 35,000, who live close to the wall, have been separated from their land, losing their access to a livelihood, as well as to water supplies and basic services such as health and education.

The most fertile agricultural areas in the West Bank have been confiscated and lie outside the current route of the wall, effectively denying Palestinians the potential to develop a modern agricultural economy. The building of the wall has reduced access to medical services to a critical level. Oxfam reports that village clinics have assumed the full burden of emergency and chronic cases without having either the trained staff or the equipment to cope. There have been a number of deaths, including 14 children, which have allegedly occurred as a result of delays in obtaining medical treatment due to restrictions in movement. Medicines are not readily available where and when needed.

Is this destruction of the Palestinian economy deliberate and, if so, why? Whatever Israel's obviously genuine and well founded fears, do the Israeli Government really think that their strategy will lead to peace?

Oxfam notes that during the past three years, there has been,

"a dramatic deterioration in the humanitarian situation".

For example, Israeli policies of closure have prevented Palestinian communities, particularly those in remote rural areas, from accessing clean water. There has been a predictable increase in the prevalence of water-borne diseases.

Water has been a problem, and it is a symbol. Agreements under the Oslo peace process that Palestinians and Israelis should take joint responsibility for water resources through the Joint Water Committee have never worked, according to Oxfam. For any activity such as digging wells and repairing systems, the JWC needs to give permission. It rarely does so. The result is that the Palestinian communities are not permitted to build new water infrastructure. Yet the Israeli water company immediately connects new Israeli settlements in the West Bank to the mains water supply network.

On average, settlers in the West Bank consume up to five times more water than their Palestinian neighbours; 40 per cent of Israeli water comes from aquifers beneath the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip; and 80 per cent of water in the West Bank goes to Israel, leaving about 20 per cent for Palestinians.

The effect of the conflict on upcoming generations cannot be underestimated. Save the Children has reported more than once on the effect on children in the region. In the past three years, 465 Palestinian and 104 Israeli children have lost their lives. Currently, there are 350 Palestinian children detained by Israel, often in conditions that Save the Children describes as "cruel, inhumane and degrading".

Children see the wall as being like a prison that separates them from friends and family. It makes it harder or impossible for them to lead a "normal" life—to reach their schools, to play and to mix normally. The culture of violence, in which children grow up, pervades schools. Children and teachers report increasing levels of violence. In the Save the Children's latest report there are many comments from children. A typical comment came from a Palestinian child, who said:

"One day when we were in school taking exams, there was a curfew and when the (Israeli) army went into the school our hearts beat fast and we were scared. They threw tear gas but thank God we survived".

Another child described the wall as,

"a snake that spreads its poison".

Another child made a request to Prime Minister Blair and Britain—to us—by saying:

"I request to move this wall far from our school because it causes danger and fear. I really hope this comes true and thank you".

I am sure too that Israeli children echo the call for peace, security and normality.

Oxfam has argued:

"The humanitarian situation [in the region] is already bad and will not improve without a political solution that guarantees protection and justice for all the citizens of the region".

In its view the British Government should play an important part as they are,

"an important donor in the region, an influential member of the EU, and a key partner of the US in the Middle East. It is therefore well placed to use its influence in order to bring about such a solution".

Will the noble Baroness tell me what hopes they have that Israel could, for example, be persuaded to change the route of the wall? Are they encouraged by any reasonable voices coming from Palestine? And, what discussions are the UK having with the US over Sharon's visit to the United States?

The Israeli Government reject the notion that as an occupying power they have responsibilities under the Geneva Convention. Our Government have urged them to change that view. Is there any possibility that they might? Should we not do what we can to ensure that international human rights monitors, including child protection monitors, are deployed in the occupied Palestinian territories?

It has been said that the US will take no action against Israel prior to the presidential elections. Whatever the results of that election, neither Mr Bush nor Mr Kerry seem to have a commitment for taking any action thereafter. It is most depressing to read that. Surely, therefore, the EU has a role to play.

Ariel Sharon negotiated trade agreements with the EU earlier this year. Surely, they should be suspended pending action on Israel's part to try to implement the road map for peace, to which the EU is a signatory? The EU has, after all, tried to put pressure on the Palestinians to abandon terrorism. Will the noble Baroness tell me whether there are discussions with our EU partners to suspend these upcoming trade agreements?

We agree with the Government that a two-state solution is the only route to peace. There are those in Israel who think likewise. The Peace Now group in Israel has done brave work in trying to bring peace to the region. It is encouraging to see that there is a newly established Peace Now group in the UK, which is also arguing for such a two-state solution. It has sister branches in France and Italy and has plans to establish such an organisation in the United States. We wish it well.

Surely, it is in the interests of all in the Middle East to advance solutions that seek justice for both sides in this long and intractable conflict before it is too late.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 4:48 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, it is appropriate and timely that we should be discussing the Middle East; and not just one country in the region—Iraq—as we have done so often over the past two years, but taking a wider perspective. At no time in modern history have the prospects for that region been so cloudy; have the chances of achieving peace, prosperity and stability for all its peoples been so overcast by the deep shadows of war and terrorism; and have the optimists been so outnumbered by the pessimists. So the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is to be warmly thanked for providing the House with this opportunity to stand back from the day-to-day news from Baghdad and Basra and to look at the region in the round.

It seems fashionable just now to speak about a vague entity known as the "wider Middle East". I have never heard it precisely defined: does it stop at Iran or Afghanistan or Pakistan in the East? Does it include Central Asia? How far does it go into Africa? It sounds all too much like one of those Washington speechwriter's constructs—"the axis of evil" was one—which cause more friction and trouble than they bring enlightenment, focus and precision. Let us hope that if the G8 summit this summer is to focus on the Middle East, it will do so with its feet planted firmly on the ground of reality, and will deal with the region as it is, and not as we might wish it to be.

Realism surely tells us that if we are to address the overall problems of the Middle East with any prospect of success, we must face squarely two inescapable challenges; the need to see Iraq through its present travails, and the need to return without delay and with determination to the search for a peaceful, two-state solution to the problem of Palestine and Israel. If we try to proceed without addressing those challenges, if we try to brush them aside or ignore them, any words that are written about the future of the Middle East will be written in sand.

The Iraqi challenge will not be easy to resolve, but it is not impossible. No one can watch the fortitude with which most Iraqis are facing up to the dangers and insecurity of their daily lives, no one can hear of the optimism with which they seem to be looking to the future, and of their joy at being rid of Saddam Hussein, without a feeling of admiration and a realisation that the course on which we are set, of bringing that country to a prosperous, democratic and stable future, is the right one, and one of which we must not tire. To leave Iraq to slip back into anarchy, perhaps to split up, or to fall back into the hands of another egregious dictator, would be unpardonable.

That is what makes the recent change of heart in Spain so worrying. It is not that the Spaniards do not have every right to change their government, and we every need to respect that change. But the proponents of withdrawal from Iraq are, like so many here in London, still fighting battles over last year's war, and they, like those who do so here, risk doing that at the expense of the future of Iraq. Certainly, the Spanish demand that the UN be established as a central player in the phase which will follow the return of Iraq's sovereignty, planned for 1 July, is an entirely legitimate one. Let us hope that it can be met. The failure to involve the UN at the heart of the political future of Iraq from the moment the war ended, as it was involved in Afghanistan, was, I believe, a major error, and one for which we and the UN too have paid dearly.

The sanguinary stand off between the Israelis and the Palestinians will be even more difficult to bring to an end, and is even more necessary to remedy. It will not be done by building walls on territory that international law says does not belong to Israel. It will not be done by extra-judicial killings, nor by suicide bombers. It may be helped by unilateral withdrawals, both of Israeli troops and settlers; but even that will not in itself amount to a solution. A solution will be found only by returning to the negotiating table, and doing so without giving the men of violence a veto on any such negotiating process, and without trying to pick and choose with whom one will negotiate. It is truly tragic to see the Israeli people, in whose predicament and suffering we would be wrong to lose interest or sympathy, being led into a dead end. It may be that a further major international effort to resume negotiations will now have to await the outcome of the US elections, but it is crucial that thereafter it should become the first order of business for whoever is elected. The British Government and the EU should surely set that as a key objective of our foreign policy.

So much for the two essential components of any broader approach that we may take towards the region. But what should we be working for in the Middle East? Last year's human rights report on the region was a salutary reminder of how much is wrong and how much needs to be righted. It was all the more salutary in that the report was written by Arabs, for Arabs, and about Arabs—that is a fundamental point. We should not be seeking to impose some Western, democratic template on the region. We will anyway not succeed, even if we try. Look what happened in Iran after the fall of the Shah: a reminder, if ever we needed one, of the law of unintended consequences. So we should be working for evolutionary change, not mighty upheavals, and we should be working for peaceful change, which will take time and patience, and which will need to be brought about by the peoples of the region, not by outsiders.

Nor should we ignore the security policy dimension of what has been for decades a singularly insecure region. There is, I would argue, a golden opportunity to remedy in the Gulf region the absence so far of any sub-regional security arrangements. So long as Saddam Hussein ruled in Baghdad, that was inconceivable. Now that he is gone, it should be possible to negotiate regional confidence-building measures and security guarantees based on the triangle of key players in the Gulf: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Later, if there were an Arab-Israel peace settlement, it should be possible to go wider, but we should not wait for that in the Gulf. Will the Minister say something about the Government's thinking and plans in that respect?

Iran needs a special and separate mention. It is not an Arab country, and in many ways its situation and problems require different prescriptions and a different perspective. Last month's elections were a setback for all those who hoped for a steady, democratic evolution there, but they did not mark the end of democracy in that country, nor the extinction of all hope for peaceful, democratic change. We should not therefore be too discouraged, nor should we be diverted from our policy of critical engagement, which I believe to be the right one. The indications in the press of yet another setback in attempts to get some sort of dialogue going between Iran and the United States are worrying. If the United States can have a dialogue with North Korea, and can contemplate giving that country security assurances, what is the insurmountable obstacle to their doing just those same things with Iran? Perhaps the Minister could tell the House about the Government's views on that matter.

The temptation to give way to pessimism when looking at the Middle East is often hard to resist. It is so easy to draw worst case scenarios and to sink into mutual recriminations over the events of last year. But we really cannot afford such an approach. The Middle East is on Europe's doorstep, and we will have to live with whatever occurs there, for better or for worse. If the terrorists get their way and propel the West into a confrontation with Muslim countries, it is the Europeans who will bear the brunt of the extensive damage that will ensue, whether from the activities of terrorists in our midst, or from an interruption in energy supplies. So we really do need to exert ourselves and to pursue a positive and constructive agenda. We will succeed only if the Europeans can put behind them the disagreements of last year. We will need to speak up with a single voice in Washington and to stand our ground there in the face of those neo-conservatives who would pursue policies which they may sincerely believe are in their interests but which are certainly not in ours.

Photo of Lord Turnberg Lord Turnberg Labour 4:58 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for introducing this debate, and for speaking so clearly and in such a balanced way. I much appreciated what she had to say.

Everyone involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is suffering terrible hardship. The Palestinians feel helpless and hopeless and are suffering badly, while the Israelis are damaged, fearful and desperate. No one is winning, and everyone suffers. The situation seems to worsen day by day. Virtually everyone seems to believe that a just, two-state solution is the answer. Here in the UK and in Europe, there is a tendency to believe that Israel is largely to blame, and that if only Israel pulled down the fence, withdrew from the West Bank, and allowed free movement of Palestinians in and out of Israel, all would be well and the conflict would end. However, while the conflict would be over, it would be because Israel no longer existed. Not only Hamas, but Fatah, and other terrorist groups have repeatedly made clear that their avowed aim is the total destruction of Israel. One just has to look at Fatah's official web site to see that. It states:

"Complete liberation of Palestine and eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence . . . armed public revolution is the method to liberating, and this struggle will not cease unless the Zionist state is demolished".

That seems fairly unambiguous to me.

"Have no mercy on the Jews and wherever you meet them, kill them", and so on; was the message that poured out of Palestinian television in the wake of 9/11. That sort of propaganda inciting hatred, death and destruction continues day after day in the kindergartens, schools and mosques. Much of it was inspired directly by Sheikh Yassin. Is it any wonder that the young are brain-washed into violence; and is it any wonder that cynical terrorists can send out 12 and 14 year-olds as human bombs in that most cowardly and despicable of acts?

It is the terrible and long-standing antipathy to the existence of the state of Israel constantly inflamed by propaganda and the deliberate grooming of kindergarten children that fuels the terrorism, rather than the poverty and deprivation which the Palestinians undoubtedly suffer but which alone has never been a justification for terror anywhere else in the world. In any event, many of the suicide bombers turn out to be educated and relatively better off rather than deprived.

It is against that background that I come to the killing of Sheikh Yassin which was greeted with such an interesting range of responses. In the EU and UK it seemed often condemned as the assassination of a crippled old man in a wheelchair, a spiritual leader coming away from his prayers in a mosque—what could be more dastardly?—and among Hamas and in other Muslim countries as a disaster with vows of revenge and extreme retaliation. But can anyone doubt that Hamas is uncompromising in its implacable opposition to Israel and that its avowed aim, constantly reiterated, is the total destruction of Israel? The key point here is that it wants no truck with the idea of a negotiated agreement. Withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank is merely the first step on the way to the complete extinction of Israel and its people. That is Hamas's message and that is what Sheikh Yassin inspired his followers constantly to achieve. He would never have dreamt of denying it and he revelled in the fact that his hands were steeped in the blood of Israeli citizens. He continued to inspire his followers to pursue these ends until the day he died.

However, given that he was built in the mould of Osama bin Laden, it has been questioned whether it was wise to kill him now or indeed at any time. Would not it just inspire further terrorist activities? But terrorism against Israel is a daily way of life and death; and no doubt that will continue so long as it is not prevented. Indeed, one could say that our own Government's efforts to remove Osama bin Laden will not stop terrorism but we cannot simply roll over and leave him to get on with his activities; nor could Israel be expected to leave Sheikh Yassin.

To paraphrase Ferdinand Mount in the Sunday Times in a somewhat different context, Israel feels "damned if it fights terror, dead if it doesn't". We cannot uncouple Yassin from Mr Sharon's proposal to remove the settlers from Gaza and some of the West Bank. Here in Europe and the UK this has been greeted with a mixture of suspicion and anxiety and something less than enthusiasm. One might have thought that a little encouragement would not have been out of place, but instead there is suspicion that, first, Sharon did not mean it. While he can be accused of many things, and often is, I do not think that he can be said not to be blunt, outspoken and to mean exactly what he says. He does not prevaricate. Furthermore, he risks his political future by pressing ahead with this idea. So he means it and he has been saying it for over 12 months. It is also said that it is far too little and limited. But surely it is an important first step towards a negotiated settlement and deserves more generous recognition.

If that is the response in Europe, the response in Gaza has been even more confused. The Palestinian Authority has found it difficult to come to terms with and is uncertain how to respond, as it must now be seen to respond, while Hamas has greeted the news as a great victory. While Israel desperately wants peace, Hamas desires victory and the withdrawal from Gaza is seen as a victory for terrorism. It provides great encouragement to press on with more terrorism. If they can achieve withdrawal without negotiation, who needs to negotiate?

I imagine that in this war with Hamas—and it is a war—Israel has to show that withdrawal from Gaza is not only not a sign of weakness, as withdrawal from Lebanon was construed, but is a sign of strength and a willingness to take the first step in a negotiated agreement. That, too, is another reason for targeting the Hamas leadership now; and, furthermore, it might also help to redress the balance in favour of the moderates in the Palestinian Authority who, with a little more help from the West, might begin to exert some pressure on the terrorist infrastructure. It was encouraging to read of that brave group of Palestinian intellectuals who called for a repudiation of terrorism as a way of achieving a just settlement for the Palestinians. It was encouraging, too, to read of the UK Government's efforts to bolster the Palestinian Authority for this purpose. I hope that the Minister may give us some details of what we are doing to help improve security in Gaza and to provide more aid to those unfortunate people caught in the middle.

It is also against that background that the security fence has to be viewed. I do not refer to the barriers we have been putting up around the Palace of Westminster to prevent the possibility of a terrorist attack but to Israel where that possibility has been realised every week for the past couple of years. It is an everyday fact; and Israel's right and indeed responsibility to try to defend its citizens seems entirely proper.

The objections raised are, first, that it is a wall although less than 10 per cent is a wall—and that incidentally was built a little while ago and is right on the Green Line, as I recently learned from our ambassador to Israel—and the rest is a fence. It is undoubtedly a strong, secure fence and one which has proved to be pretty effective—hence the outcry from Hamas. Nevertheless, it is one which can be moved given the possibility of negotiation between the Palestinians and Israelis. Indeed, some of the fence has already been moved. But negotiation is the key. Once the threat of terrorism is removed, there would be no need for a fence. Its position is negotiable if anyone were willing to talk without the threat of violence.

The potential dividends for both sides, given only the beginning of a meeting of minds, are enormous. Even a modest reduction in the language of terrorism could bring tremendous benefits. Within Israel, the fact that Muslim and Jew can live together is shown in innumerable ways every day. When in Israel recently, I visited a number of hospitals and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In contrast to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, I was struck by the fact that large numbers of patients, staff and students from both religions were living and working together. I learnt that of the Members of the Knesset some 10 per cent were Arab Muslim. That seems rather larger than the proportion in any of the political parties in this country or, indeed, in any other western democracy.

The head of the transplantation services at Hadassah Hospital was a Muslim. While I was there, I heard about a Muslim patient who was receiving a liver transplant from a Jewish patient who had died. A Supreme Court judge is a Muslim. I am not sure that we have any. Sixteen per cent of the heads of departments at Afula Hospital are Muslim. No less than 34 per cent of the new medical student intake at Hadassah Hospital this year are Muslim. That is twice the proportion in the population.

There are myriads of examples of Arab and Jew living, working and playing together within Israel. Israel has shown, too, that it can live in peace with its neighbours in Jordan and Egypt. It is also the unfortunate case that no such admixture of Jew and Arab can exist in other Middle East countries when we know that over 700,000 Jews have been driven out of Iran, Iraq and Syria in the past few years.

But Israel is showing that it is possible for the two to live together and it is that which we must try to build upon. So I ask the Minister, first, for more details of the UK Government's efforts to bolster moderate Palestinian Authority leadership as it strives to improve security. There is time before Israel starts to withdraw from Gaza. Secondly, will my noble friend give more details about the humanitarian effort that the UK and the EU are making to relieve some of the grinding poverty in much of Gaza? Finally, can she indicate what efforts the United Kingdom Government are making to persuade Syria and Iran in particular to cease their support for training and funding for terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank?

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 5:10 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for the way in which she introduced this debate. Like her, I was able to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and some surrounding places early last month. The atmosphere was quite tense, with Israelis suffering fear as a result of random suicide attacks, while Palestinians tended towards despair as a result of military occupation and attendant humiliations. Both fear and despair all too easily lead to more violence. Both sides also see themselves as victims—of terrorism and hostile neighbours, on the one hand, and of military force and great injustice on the other.

Despite this gloomy situation, a strong will for dialogue and effective negotiations exists. Evidence for this lies in the Ayalon-Nusseibeh agreed principles, the Geneva accord and the work, at senior professional level, of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, known as IPCRI. Let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, that IPCRI has done, and is doing, excellent work on cleaning up educational material and removing from it what one might call sectarian prejudice.

From these positive and negative experiences which greet any visitor to the region, can one give advice to outsiders? I believe that the message to Europe and the United States should be, "Do not allow yourselves to become polarised in favour of one side or the other. Do not be swayed by the politics of the latest atrocity. Devote your whole energy to working for peace through a two-state solution".

What can we do in our own right? I suggest, above all, that we should be realistic, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Hannay. There is disillusionment caused by the failure of the Oslo agreement and the sense that all dialogue since 1993 has proved fruitless. Further disillusionment arises from the derailing of the road map. Both these were essentially top-down plans and both ignored the religious dimension. I therefore follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry in suggesting that we have to take religion very seriously as the motivating force of some of the most extreme people.

We should support the Alexandria declaration by religious leaders in the region and the follow-up work now being done. It is vital to agree on the common values of the three great monotheistic faiths. Religious harmony on the future of the holy places would be an enormous help. Religious principles for handling the intractable issue of refugees would be a boon. Religious mourning, even, with commemoration and repentance for the many atrocities on both sides, would pave the way towards peace.

Realism also prompts us to understand how the political leadership on both sides is widely distrusted. It demands that we accept the difficulties caused by the American presidential election this year. Despite these factors, the issues will not go away—neither the Israel-Palestine conflict nor the wider questions surrounding Israel and the neighbouring Arab states. We should therefore do our best to keep these issues at the top of the agenda for the European Union, the G8, the Arab League and the United Nations, if only because the Middle East is capable of unsettling the whole world.

Realism indicates that 2004 is unlikely to be the year for big negotiations or big agreements. It should be used to improve the situation in small ways. Now is the time for conflict management and for seeking detente. We should learn from the methods used to end the Cold War, looking closely also at the relations between Israel and Syria after 1974, and between Jordan and Israel in the years leading to 1994. Co-operation between all parties is most urgent on security and intelligence, leading, if possible, to truces and ceasefires. Co-operation can be informal, asymmetrical, but reciprocal. This can lead to a lowering of the risks and to informal "rules of the game" emerging. Confidence-building over practical matters is essential. Tripartite working parties have already had some success. Verification and monitoring are most likely to be needed. Analytical problem-solving workshops, independently facilitated, may prove useful, perhaps at the level of presidential advisers.

I conclude with some thoughts on the European Union. I agree somewhat with the noble Baroness, Lady Northover—the European Union should develop its common policy towards the middle eastern states in as much detail as possible. This should build on economic strength both in terms of trade and of aid. We should use every possible instrument to promote detente and co-operation. To give one small example, the ERASMUS programme for students and scholars should be extended to both Israelis and Palestinians, including those living outside the West Bank and Gaza.

The common approach of the EU needs to be explained to the people of Europe. How, otherwise, can they know what it is? There are already links between many NGOs in Europe and the Middle East. There is endless scope, therefore, for developing such connections for the benefit of all. With clear exposition of policy, many individuals can become involved and begin to have a helpful role.

History is highly relevant in relation to the present impasse. I therefore venture to suggest that leaders, both at the European Union level and in its member states, should begin to acknowledge, in public, that we have all had a certain historical moral responsibility for allowing Hitler's genocide to happen. This had lamentable consequences in Israel's expulsion of part of the Palestinian population and its subsequent move into the occupied territories. I say this not to inspire feelings of guilt but to encourage the taking of responsibility for the present, so as to help produce a just and peaceful future. The European Union can make a big contribution, and we all have our parts to play.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 5:18 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, perhaps one ought to separate the rest of the Middle East from Israel and Palestine. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that some optimistic things are happening in the rest of the Middle East. Iran, despite all the setbacks that it has had recently, is evolving its own pastoral democracy. It may yet submit to good international practice about its nuclear programme and perhaps improve its record on human rights. Iraq, after the removal of Saddam Hussein, may—with patience and a lot of imagination—become a federation with lots of autonomy for different parts of Iraq.

With respect to what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, I do not know how far the Middle East extends, but I am also very cheered that Libya has now decided to give up its nuclear programme and submit itself to international routes. Those are causes for optimism, but when we look to the core of the problem, I am afraid that I am completely pessimistic. I do not believe that any of the road maps or extended road maps that are about to be proposed will solve the problem in the slightest. We shall still be discussing the Middle East problem—with regard to Israel and Palestine—in 10, or perhaps 15, years from now.

I say that because, like many noble Lords, I have taken part in lots of debates about this question, read lots of books and thought about both sides. There is so much justice and injustice on both sides that it is hard to see where the virtue lies and where the problem is. It is possible to fear for the existence of Israel, given the history of previous Arab attacks and the recent spate of terrorism; but it is also possible to criticise Israel for its behaviour towards Palestinians within the Occupied Territories and elsewhere.

It is possible to understand the injustice done to Palestinians over their territory, and possible to understand why Muslims around the world feel that to be rank injustice—greater than any other injustice in the world. It may be a deeper cause of terrorism than any other that one can think of. At the same time, one can see the weakness of the Arafat regime, and the sort of terrorist tactics used by Fatah and Hamas are obviously not the way in which to solve the problem of Palestine. Indeed, I do not think that even moderate forces on both sides, such as they are, could possibly gather together and make the slightest impact on a solution to the problem. Not only are extremists in charge but, on both sides, the more extreme forces are more in power than ever before.

While I respect the right of Israel to live and hope that it will prosper, it is possible to distinguish between Ariel Sharon and Israel. It is possible to say that Israel deserves a better government than the one that it has; perhaps if it did have a better government, the prospect of peace would be better. It is possible to say that if Arafat was not the weakling that he is—if he had followed democratic practices and had a vibrant Palestinian national assembly—with a lot of local support, enough to be able to rule over terrorist forces and stop them, perhaps we would be better off. But that is not the situation. Indeed, the weakness of Arafat and all that has happened since 1999 has worsened the situation and made the terrorists more powerful. Given that that is the case—and either we are all to blame for it or none of us is to blame for it—it seems wildly optimistic to think that there is a solution to this problem that will be arrived at through negotiations. I say that because I do not actually believe that the two-state solution is a stable one.

The problem with the Israeli-Palestine situation is that some of the ideas on both sides are rooted in a land-obsessed nationalism, and there is not enough land to accommodate both Israeli and Palestinian demands. There just is not enough land—that is the end of the matter—especially when one considers the potential entrance to both those entities by Palestinian refugees abroad and the number of Jews who might want to settle in Israel, as is their right. I do not know how one can accommodate all those people in the amount of land that there is. While the notion of the state that each side wants is based on land, I do not know how one can reconcile the demands of both those peoples and hope that some reconciliation will take place. That has nothing to do with whether Israel should withdraw from occupied territories, whether a wall should be built or any of those things. The problem is that a rather old-fashioned 19th-century nationalism is now playing out its final tragedy in the Middle East.

This was the case in Europe, once upon a time, and millions died for Alsace and Lorraine. Now those places are completely irrelevant, and nobody knows where the border of France begins and the border of Germany ends. However, that took 90 years of war before it was settled. The key that Europe found was that prosperity comes not from territory but from trade and economic growth. Once one begins to believe in the possibility that one can have a win-win solution through trade and economic growth, one can stop being obsessed about land. We are nowhere near that situation in the Middle East. Unfortunately that is the case—and we cannot actually start dreaming of some sort of economic union for Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and so on.

It is hardly something that any government can accept, but, given the current pressures that there are on both sides, from within and from without, I do not see how a solution can be arrived at. As has already been said, 2004 is not the right year to expect a solution, because of the American presidential elections. I do not know why we should believe that in 2005 and 2006 American presidential policy on Israel should improve in any way. I do not know why either Mr Kerry or Mr Bush, were he re-elected, should make any difference, given that Mr Bush was unable to make any difference after being in his most powerful position, having won the Iraq war. If, in that position, he could not move either side an inch from their positions, I do not know what should make us optimistic about a solution.

Just because there is a problem does not mean that there is a solution. I am increasingly beginning to think that if a solution to the problem arises it will not be because the US or EU or anybody in the outside world intervenes in the Israel-Palestine question. I am sorry to say this, but I believe that it will come when, eventually, after the exhaustion of continuous killing, both sides realise that if they do not live together they will not live apart. There is no other way except for an internal solution, without outside interference. When that will arrive, I do not know; but I certainly do not see it arriving within the next decade or so.

Photo of Lord Skidelsky Lord Skidelsky Crossbench 5:28 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for initiating the debate, I agree with those noble Lords who say that we should look forward and not back. The question whether the Prime Minister deceived himself, was misled by the intelligence services or deceived the public on the question of weapons of mass destruction remains important and troubling for our domestic politics, but it is irrelevant to the future of the Middle East. We can also agree that the issue of weapons of mass destruction was not central to the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein; together with the far-fetched claim that the invasion of Iraq was in fact mandated by the Security Council, it furnished the legal pretext for a war decided on grounds that could not be openly avowed.

I have heard so often in this House the words that we have heard today—so eloquent, and appropriately so, in their expressions of outrage and horror at the suffering and in reciting the statistics of suffering, and so sensible in their prescriptions. There was unanimous agreement on the desirability of a two-state solution, with the notable exception of the well reasoned dissent of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. However, those words seem a world away from the ambitious design to reshape the Middle East, which has been hatched in the corridors and environs of the White House and the Pentagon over the past few years.

At an early stage in the run up to the war, the Prime Minister committed himself to the American project, with Britain cast in its now familiar role as junior partner, and it is about the sustainability of that project that I want to say a few words. I believe that that is the essential context of the debate that we are having in the House today.

The project has two aspects. The first is to change the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of the United States and its allies. The key interests here are the security of oil supplies, the security of Israel, as defined by the Israelis, and security against terrorism.

The second aspect is more idealistic. It is to westernise the Middle East, starting with Iraq, by spreading the western values of democracy, free markets and the rule of law throughout the region. This is the Wilsonian side of the project. I am not saying that idealism is simply a cloak for realpolitik. The two motives co-existed in different proportions in the minds and hearts of all of those who undertook this audacious adventure. In fact, the two aspects are connected. As the Prime Minister said in a speech in Chicago in April 1999:

"The spread of our values makes us safer".

To anyone with a sense of history, this combination of motives recalls nothing so much as late 19th century imperialism. There is the same mixture of commerce, security and moralism and, I should add, adventure. Moreover, in the ethical version of imperialism, to which the Prime Minister is heir, forcible interventions were not ends in themselves, but merely the means to spread western standards, a form of trusteeship later made explicit in the League of Nations mandates established in the Middle East and elsewhere after the First World War. Ethical imperialism was to be a preparation for independence.

The question is whether a project of this kind makes sense at the start of our own century; whether, in the modern phrase, it is sustainable. I do not think so. Let me consider first the idealistic aspect of the project of forced westernisation. America has never had an imperial vocation. The United States was born in an anti-colonial war, and the identity forged in that struggle has shaped its outlook ever since. In fact the agreement signed by the Iraqi interim governing council and the US-UK Coalition Provisional Authority stipulates the restoration of full sovereignty for Iraq on 30 June of this year, with a coalition contingent remaining,

"at the request of the transitional administration", solely to help to guarantee stability. Yesterday's imperialists never thought that democracy could be brought about in one year.

The second point is that in its idealistic form imperialism was a failure. With the notable exception of India, the post-colonial world filled up not with the peace-loving democracies of the liberal imagination but with unstable dictatorships and failing states, which exhibit a rich patchwork of repression and revolt, war and civil war, brigandage and random violence. We run a huge risk of recreating this cycle by our intervention in the Middle East.

I think that the Americans have in their minds the more successful interventions in Japan in 1867 and 1945 and in Germany after the end of the Second World War. But there will be a high degree of scepticism as to whether these are useful precedents for coercive intervention in the Middle East.

Nor do I think that the Realpolitik aspect of the American project can succeed. I do not think that the security of oil supplies can be assured in face of the radical instability in the regions through which the pipelines run. I do not think that the security of Israel can best be protected by planting American bases in Iraq. In fact, it is a fair bet that the main effect of the American military presence will be to harden the intransigence of both sides. It will suck the Americans into underwriting Israeli expansion and, contrary to what one or two noble Lords have said, that is a serious project, entertained by powerful groups in Israel and it is not a two state solution, but a solution that many Israelis see as being the only solution. No one hears much about the Middle East peace process today. On the contrary, Israel's programme of targeted assassinations is a disturbing sign that it now feels let off the leash. I am not sure what the implications are of Sharon's offer to withdraw from Gaza. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, is right in his optimism about that.

Further, the American project brings no security against terrorism: it inflames terrorism and makes us a prime target. I agree profoundly with George Soros when he writes that international terrorism should be treated as a crime, not as an act of war, requiring for its prevention or punishment good police work—such as we have just seen in London—not military action.

Finally, the unilateral nature of the project will, sooner or later, conjure up a world balance of power against the United States. The world does not consist of one giant and a collection of pigmies. China, Russia, India, and France and Germany in combination are great powers and they will draw closer together to resist overweening American pretension, for the simple reason that they will feel less secure. Do we want a new arms race? That is one of the implications of American unilateralism.

For all these reasons, I conclude that the fruits of the project are likely to be bitter. I think the best that can be hoped for is the emergence of quasi-legitimate client states in the Middle East with sufficient protection by the coalition forces to maintain a semblance of order and to allow some economic progress to take place, and, therefore, some gradual healing of wounds. But that is the best outcome, in my view, and not the most likely.

Having been so critical of the actions taken by the United States and by my own country, I would not wish to deny for a moment that the world does face problems of security and human rights that should be tackled effectively. I believe, with the Prime Minister, that the doctrine of national sovereignty does need to be qualified on account of the spillover effects of national policies and that terrorism does pose a security threat. But I insist, as I have said many times, that there has to be international agreement—at a minimum among the great powers themselves—about when it is right to intervene, and about the purposes and machinery of intervention. The Security Council of the United Nations remains the best forum for hammering out the terms of such an agreement. Further interventions of the kind we have seen in the Middle East carry the grave risk of igniting the flames of religious and racial hatred and destroying our best hopes for a secure and peaceful future.

Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 5:38 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I have listened to many speeches given by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, both in your Lordships' House and elsewhere. Her words are always wise and leave us all with much to think about. This afternoon we have heard the noble Baroness describe in vivid and moving detail the harrowing conditions in Gaza. I must thank her for sponsoring this debate.

I want to start by continuing where my noble friend Lord Hogg left off by quoting statistics. Two weeks ago in Madrid an offshoot of Al'Qaeda simultaneously exploded 10 bombs, killing 200 people and injuring over 1,000. It was an act of pure evil. In the past three years since the second intifada began, nearly 400 Israeli civilians have also been killed by terrorist bombings. As in Madrid they were going about their business: dancing in a nightclub, eating pizza, travelling on a bus, or sitting down for dinner to celebrate Passover.

Four hundred dead Israelis is equivalent to two Madrids. Spain's population is 40 million—seven times that of Israel. So, on a proportionate basis, Israel has suffered 14 Madrids. Closer to home, in 1998 a bomb set off by the Real IRA killed 29 of our own citizens in Omagh. Our population is 60 million—10 times that of Israel. On a pro rata basis, Israel has suffered the equivalent of 130 Omagh bombings. Fourteen Madrids or 130 Omaghs. Which democracy could withstand such an unremitting onslaught and what government could stand by and do nothing when faced with such an existential threat? Israelis, unlike Spaniards, do not have the luxury of throwing in the towel. Have the Israelis over-reacted? Probably. Is the situation for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank truly awful? Certainly.

However, we must be clear. Abject terror is the cause. Without it none of the horrors that the noble Baroness has described would exist. I have no particular liking for Prime Minister Sharon. To me, he is a man without vision and a bully, to boot. But in the face of terror he has acted like any other Israeli Prime Minister would under the same circumstances.

I wish to turn to two events that have been discussed in your Lordships' House today, that are relevant—the Yassin assassination and the building of the security fence. Sheikh Yassin had a sordid history. He had previously been arrested by the Israelis for the murder of two Israeli soldiers. He was serving two life sentences. Several years ago, in a prisoner exchange, he was released from captivity. After his release he resumed his activities as the leader of Hamas—not its spiritual leader, but its political leader. He directly planned and authorised many of the suicide bombings that killed many innocent Israelis. Yassin said the following:

"Islam is against the killing of all civilians. But Israelis are not civilians. We will continue our fight and kill Jews until Israel is an Islamic state".

One might call us over-sensitive, but we Jews are somewhat touchy when people say that they are going to kill us. We tend to believe them. Based on the history of the 20th century we have good reason for doing so. Sheikh Yassin kept to his word and he paid the price. The Israeli strategy with respect to the terrorists is clear. "If you kill our civilians we will attack your leaders—those who institute brute terror will pay the price and pay it personally". Is that not what we believe too?

At this moment in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are not our special forces working with the Americans in trying to track down and eliminate bin Laden and the rest of his terror network? And will we not feel just that little bit safer when they, too, pay the price of their evil? Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will explain to me, because I really do not understand, why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary described the Israeli assassination as "unacceptable and unjustified"? In Britain, are we not attempting to do exactly the same to another global terrorist? To me that seems somewhat hypocritical, or am I missing something?

The security fence is a measure of last resort. Since the intifada began, Israel's economy has been in the doldrums. The fence is costing over 1 billion dollars, an amount that the country can barely afford. But again, what other option do the Israelis have? The fence that has been built in the north has already reduced the incidence of bombings, just as the fence that surrounds Gaza has almost eliminated terror attacks from that area. The mistake that the Israeli Government have made has been to build a fence that encroaches beyond the green line. It is a provocative move, although it must be said that under international pressure the Israelis have backed off and rebuilt parts of the fence.

That is no way for the Israelis or the wretched Palestinians to live. We have two obdurate old leaders in Prime Minister Sharon and Chairman Arafat, both forged by many years of conflict. Sharon is brutal and ungiving. Arafat is corrupt and slippery. But there are Israelis and Palestinians who are younger and wiser. Those people who negotiated the Geneva accord are such people. The accord differs from many other attempts at peace, in that it is not an opening salvo, but a final peace treaty negotiated, line by line by brave Israelis and Palestinians. The accord sets out a two-state solution that offers Israel permanent security and offers the Palestinians the viable state that they yearn for. The accord has much to commend it.

I pay particular tribute to Daniel Levy, the son of my noble friend Lord Levy, for originating that project and helping to drive it to reach its conclusion. In the end, the Geneva accord, or something like it, will be the final peace treaty that the Palestinians and Israelis will sign. What a pity it is that today neither side has the men of vision or courage to make that happen.

Egypt and Israel signed their historic peace treaty in Washington 25 years ago this week. A brave man, Anwar Sadat, came to Jerusalem offering peace. The treaty was signed, but Sadat paid with his life. Today, a cold peace exists. Whatever else has happened in the region since 1979, the Israeli-Egyptian border has remained quiet.

Ten years ago Jordan and Israel signed a peace agreement, also in Washington. Another brave Arab leader, King Hussein, made his peace with Israel. The two countries have also both kept to their commitments. It is often forgotten that Lebanon and Israel also signed a peace agreement in 1983, but Syria, consistent to its hard line and destructive role, forced its neighbour to rescind and tear up the treaty. Several years ago even Syria itself came close to a peace deal with Israel and even now that is not out of the question. Israel does want peace and has shown that it will not only sign peace treaties, but will stick by them.

I want to end by making a comment about Arab society—not my usual area of expertise, but something I feel that needs to be said. A report published in 2002 by the United Nations Development Programme looked at Arab human development. For the most part its authors were Arabs. It highlighted three deeply rooted shortcomings in Arab society. They were lack of freedom, lack of equality for women and lack of knowledge.

The Arab people 600 years ago were the light of world civilisation. Today, despite their huge natural resources of oil and gas, the 22 Arab nations are at the bottom of the league by any measure of human progress. Growth per capita is less than 0.5 per cent per annum; 27 per cent of Arab men are illiterate as are 51 per cent of women. In 1,000 years, the Arab nations have translated fewer books than Spain translates in a year. Only 1.6 per cent of Arabs have computers, compared with 7.8 per cent of people in the rest of the world. Internet access is almost non-existent. Nowhere in the 22 Arab countries is there a universal franchise, or any form of democracy as we would understand it. Out of 250 million Arabs, only 1 million have the full franchise for men and women. And, irony of ironies, all of those live in Israel as fully participating citizens.

The Arab peoples are poor, repressed, unempowered and kept in the dark. No wonder they are driven to excess. They are also fed the most virulent anti-Semitic propaganda. On Arab television, in schools and in newspapers, Jews are demonised. The material would make Dr Goebbels very proud. Stopping that would send out a very positive signal to Israelis and to Jews world-wide.

Yesterday in Britain our security forces prevented what might have been a terrible catastrophe. All of us, particularly those of us who spend our time in this Palace of Westminster, live in the expectation that something terrible is going to happen in our midst. In Israel, the same sense of doom hangs over its population. It is expecting a terrible revenge for the Yassin assassination. Passover is next week and, no doubt, the terrorists will try to outdo last year's gruesome bombing at an old people's home.

Whether it is Al'Qaeda, the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad or Hamas, these people all march to the same beat. Their terror is universal and indivisible—they do not distinguish between Christians, Jews, Hindus, or even moderate Muslims. They will continue their war. It is up to us to stand firm.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 5:49 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, we are all once again in the debt of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, not only for introducing this debate but for bringing back her first hand and well considered impressions from the Middle East. I have noticed that when replying to debates Ministers take more than usual care to balance evenly what they say about Palestinians and Israelis. I can understand that and accept that there is violence on both sides. But I hope that as speakers we do not conform too much to that convention and measure our column inches so precisely. Neither do I believe that we should belong to one side or another, although that tends to happen in debates.

We all take up our positions based on our personal experience. In my own case, having worked with aid agencies, I am normally professionally concerned with people who live in acute poverty. That means that I am talking mainly about one group, the Palestinians. I have no doubt that there are some Israelis in that category, but they are not so obviously suffering from a lack of homes, jobs, food or water.

For example, Palestinians in Gaza now have an unemployment rate of 70 per cent and as a result the proportion of people living there in poverty has come close to 85 per cent. In Rafah alone, 9,970 people have been made homeless by demolition or other Israeli actions since the start of the intifada. These are the figures which persuade aid agencies and the United Nations that the Palestinians, for all their educational and other known advantages—I disagree to some extent with the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, because the Palestinians have some of the most highly educated people—in their present plight can be compared with some of the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. In addition, they suffer from a national identity crisis which Israel, thankfully, no longer has. One glance at the map reminds us that in spite of their expanding population, Palestinians have to live in an area which is less than one quarter of the size of mandated Palestine. The country was twice the size of Wales, but it is now only as big as two English counties. With the encroaching security wall, it is shrinking in size all the time.

On the political front, Palestinians are also suffering from a loss of leadership, which has been mentioned, not only through extra-judicial executions but through their own divided loyalties which the Israeli Government exploit mercilessly. They also have to live under the government of Prime Minister Sharon, assuming that he survives the latest corruption charges. I tend to agree with Sa'ib Urayqat, the Palestinian negotiator, that there are at least two Sharons for the Palestinians to deal with. There is the familiar old warlord Sharon who ignores the outside world and flouts international law when he decides, for example, to wipe out a whole Hamas leadership. Last week's assassination of Sheikh Yassin was in my view deplorable and counter-productive. How can this act possibly cure suicide bombing? Is it not likely to perpetuate it?

But let us not be hypocritical. The West is just as capable of assassination, if in a more subtle form, as Israel and he knows it. But that does not condone the action. The security wall and the expropriation of more Palestinian land are only the latest immoral and illegal acts of the government.

There is the Sharon of peace who is trying to play along the United States and satisfy Egypt and his own moderates through gestures such as abandoning the Gaza settlements and the partial dismantling of the wall. The jury is still out. The EU and the UN do not matter to Sharon, but the US is his lifeline and President Bush is looking for something in his election year.

While Bush condones anything which can be called anti-terrorism—and Prime Minister Blair seems to go along with that—he will not wish to hand Mr Kerry any card which is even loosely called democracy in the Middle East. This is also Prime Minister Sharon's internal political game. On the one hand he needs to keep Mr Netanyahu and his group in Likud and the settlers at bay and on the other he needs to show the centre and the international community that he has his own alternative to the road map. He is a master at the game, which while preserving Israel will also ensure his own survival.

But the stakes are very high. The pressure on President Bush to force a settlement on Israel, as part of a new diplomatic offensive leading up to the election, can only increase in the coming months. Meanwhile, as far as concerns Europe the road map remains dormant, if not dead, not least because of one fundamental snag. One cannot have a two-state solution without two states. As Tony Benn said on "Question Time" very aptly last week, there is no Palestinian state and it is impossible for the Palestinians to negotiate without the apparatus of a state. To its credit, the United Kingdom is doing its best to bolster the negotiating team, but that is only on the surface.

Again and again the European Union has been humiliated by Israel's demolition of the Palestinian infrastructure it has created—its communications, security forces and political institutions, not to mention the appalling human cost every day at checkpoints in the Gaza suburbs and in local Palestinian communities affected by the illegal wall. What is the European Union doing about that? We who are at one or two removes can easily make suggestions, but it is time for European leaders to offer something new and to say something more than "We are implementing the road map".

I accept the caveats of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, but I believe that the European Union could take more initiative this year in the area of economic development and trade. That was touched on by my noble friend Lord Skidelsky in his final prediction. This is where it does have some muscle if it were only prepared to show it in the Middle East, as it has demonstrated in successive WTO rounds against the United States.

Surely, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, it is time that the Council of Ministers reviewed and even suspended the EU/Israel Association Agreement. No doubt the Minister will have noticed that the International Development Committee has taken up this issue in its recent excellent report Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I quote from the IDC's report, Volume 1, conclusions 23 and 24:

"Israel's restrictions on the movement of Palestinian goods, its destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and its total control of the OPTs' borders are denying Palestinian exporters access to EU markets."

It is a simple statement. The committee goes on to urge the Government to propose through the Council of Ministers that it suspends the trade agreement with Israel until it lifts its restrictions on Palestinian trade.

The human rights clause alone would justify its suspension, but the committee is raising a more fundamental principle of fair and reciprocal trade, which this Government hold dear. In her capacity as the responsible Minister, can the noble Baroness say whether this option is now under consideration and why it has always been successively blocked by Britain, Germany and others in the Council in the past?

I note that the Government's response to the committee, which was published yesterday, says rather predictably and understandably that constructive engagement is the best approach and that suspension would not lead to a peaceful resolution. And yet one has to ask what possible political outcome for the Palestinians has come from such an engagement. Why are we still applying double standards as regards Israel?

I know that Israel is a friend of this country. Ministers sometimes speak as though Israel is regarded as the pariah state in the Middle East and deserving of our friendship when even without US backing, it has so many obvious defence and trading advantages over all its neighbours. Surely, "rogue state" would be a more appropriate title.

Noble Lords will also know that for the past three weeks nearly all United Nations and other humanitarian agency vehicles have been prohibited from crossing through the Erez checkpoint. In addition, the movement of food containers through Karni, which is the only commercial crossing point in Gaza, is still being obstructed. Today we have heard that all food aid is now affected.

What are the EU states doing to resist and counter this flagrant and illegal action by Israel? Does it not provide an immediate reason to suspend the trade agreement? Why should the UK deal with a government who make terrorism the pretext for actions which can only terrorise and alienate half of their population?

Finally, what is the UK doing to improve its own relations with the Middle East, to support the wider coalition against terrorism and to encourage peace initiatives by Arab states? This is a vast subject. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, was quite right about the priorities in education. I am glad that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is addressing some of those issues through the British Council and the Global Opportunities Fund.

The noble Baroness may well say that she is sorry that the Tunis summit was cancelled and that the Arab League is in some disarray. But that failure should be a warning for all those engaged in peace, and a further catalyst for some form of EU action, without which the US will continue to block initiatives from the international community.

On behalf of Christian Aid, of which I am a trustee, I again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for undertaking that visit.

Photo of Lord Janner of Braunstone Lord Janner of Braunstone Labour 6:00 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, both for introducing this subject so that we can discuss it and for giving her views on it, albeit I did not agree with many of them. However, she and I have been friends for so many years without agreeing on everything that I am sure that friendship will continue.

I was fascinated to hear the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. I managed to agree with one-half of one sentence when he referred to what had happened since the start of the intifada. We should not forget that the intifada started after Arafat turned down the chance of peace. He did not say merely, "I do not accept what Barak has put forward. I do not simply leave Camp David saying that I shall come back with other suggestions". He said, "No", and he started the intifada. He started the terror.

When that happens we have to think how we would react. I thought about that when listening to Sir John Stevens saying how inevitable it was in his view that we in the UK would be subject to attack and how we would have to be prepared to deal with it. Governments have a responsibility to their own people to save their lives and to protect them. That which we expect our Government to do is what the Israeli people expect their Government to do. Whether we would agree with the steps that they have taken is not totally relevant because we do not elect that government. The extraordinary thing about the Israelis is that they elect their government. They are the only democracy in the area. As I used to say during 18 years sitting on the opposition Benches, the problem with democracies is that they so often elect the wrong people. But eventually, of course, we got it right. Sharon, whether we like it or like him or not, is Israel's elected Prime Minister. I do not think that it helps at all to try to demonise the man. What we must do is to try to help the parties to get together.

That is a job that I have been doing for a very long time. It started with my trying to learn the Arabic language, which I do not recommend to anyone other than a total masochist. However, I learnt a little and it has helped during visits to most of the Arab countries on the trail of seeking common ground. I have been to the Yemen, Syria, the Gulf, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan. I have just come back from a visit to Jordan where I had the opportunity to meet the King, Prince Hassan and other leaders. I went on to the Territories and to Israel.

We have to keep doors open. The verbal attacks on other people that we have heard today will not help. They will not advance the cause of peace. The constant attacks on Sharon will not help him to do what he has to do. Whether he gets it right or wrong is a different question. In the view of my family who live in Israel, Sharon's job is to try to save their lives. They believe that he should try to prevent their children from being murdered on the school bus and to ensure that when the children go off to school in the morning they come back home alive in the evening. That is his job.

Did Sharon get it right with Sheikh Yassin? It seems to me that a majority of noble Lords consider that he did not. However, the majority of Israelis who elected him think that he got it right. They reckon that you cannot deal with these people. They reckon that Sheikh Yassin was not just a murderer but the organiser of murderers. He was not a man who would commit suicide himself, but one who would send others to do it. He has killed, and been responsible for the murder of, hundreds of people. Most Israelis took the view that that man should be taken out. We took that view with the sons of Saddam Hussein. I am sure that we would take that view if we managed to get hold of Osama bin Laden's people. That is a case of double standards. We would take out bin Laden's people to try to save the lives of hundreds of people—British people and others. That is what the Israelis believed that their taking out of Sheikh Yassin achieved and will achieve. That is how they have to handle the matter. It is not what they want to achieve in the long run. They know that they want peace.

The Israelis do not like the security fence. I have visited it with them. I visited the wall in Jerusalem with an Israeli soldier. It is a most unpleasant place. I asked the soldier how the wall could be justified. He replied, "Easily. Nineteen terrorist suicide bombers came through this exit within the past 12 months and killed and maimed hundreds of people. Since the wall has been built, there have been none. That is what we have to do. We do not like it either". That is their view—that if they need to have a fence in order to protect the lives of their people, they as the elected government will do that, just as we would if we had to protect our people.

I hope that we shall not be faced with that kind of problem. However, the question is: how do the Israelis move towards peace? To suggest that the Israelis do not want peace shows a total, absolute, abject lack of understanding of the Middle East and of the Israeli people. To suggest that they are a bunch of sadists who want to cause harm to the people who live next door to them is rubbish. What they want to do is to have safety, security and peace. They want safety and security for themselves and their children, and, ultimately, to be able to live in peace with their neighbours. The problem concerns how we can help them to achieve that. How can our Government help to create peace between these peoples? How can the international community work to achieve that? How can we as individuals help? Some of us have very good contacts. Indeed, I suspect that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, has much better contacts than I. He probably has contacts with people with whom I have none. But each in our own way must do what we can. We must try to help to get peace.

Meanwhile, we should understand what is happening. Today I asked the Library staff for a list of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in the past year. There were 44, some in Israel, others in Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Iraq, Chechnya, Morocco, Bogota, Kirkuk and south Russia. That is what is happening in our world. I believe that we in this place should do everything in our power first to recognise the reality as it affects others, and, secondly, to understand that it is flowing over into our world. As regards the Middle East, we should strive for understanding.

A little while ago I wrote a book entitled, One Hand Alone Cannot Clap. That is an Arabic proverb. One hand alone cannot clap and one people alone cannot get peace. I submit that our task should be to try to bring people together so that both hands can clap and we can help the people in that area to achieve peace for themselves and for others.

Photo of Lord Weidenfeld Lord Weidenfeld Crossbench 6:09 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for an opportunity for plain talk—plain talk about the Middle East. The catastrophe of these events on the Israeli-Palestinian front no longer brooks evasion and half truths. Cobwebs of cliches and stereotypes must be removed. After listening to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I submit, more convinced than ever, that the constant demonising of Israel, the Israeli Government and General Sharon—and the very view that there is a moral equivalence between barbaric terrorist attacks of suicide bombers and self-protective actions of retaliation—is not only unfair, it is also injudicious and unhelpful. It is unhelpful if you want the Israeli electorate overwhelmingly to press for negotiations and make major sacrifices.

Let us take the reaction to the killing of Sheikh Yassin. If British Intelligence and Czech resistance could justly earn their laurels for killing Reinhardt Heydrich, the Gestapo leader; if Special British Forces, commandos and SAS in successive wars can be justly praised for their lethal sorties behind enemy lines; if Prime Minister Blair and President Bush can urge their forces to get Saddam and bin Laden alive or dead, why are the people of Israel denied their basic right of self-defence? Yassin was the plotter and planner of a thousand deaths of men, women and children—Jewish and Arab children; Arab children, whom he sent into voluntary death, and Arab women. On 14 January this year Yassin issued a decree that entreated women to join the menfolk and become suicide martyrs.

I assure your Lordships that I have no doubt that there are many cases of gross injustice and utter folly committed by successive Israeli governments, but I submit to you the words of Chaim Weizmann, that moderate and wise first President of Israel, when addressing a British Royal Commission in 1935. He said:

"The Jewish/Arab conflict is not a conflict between a right and wrong but between two rights and two wrongs. However", he continued,

"ours is the smaller wrong".

These words have stood the test of time and are valid right up to the present.

The other day a leading Palestinian said to me in a private conversation that every time an Israeli describes the West Bank as Judea in Samaria any self-respecting Palestinian winces and clenches his fist. I fully understand his feelings, but what muscular motion or body language should express the feeling of an Israeli or indeed a Jew, who searches in vain for any Arab school atlas or wall map with any sign of the existence of the State of Israel?

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has come away with very distressing images of Palestinian suffering in Gaza as a result of the unending Jewish occupation. By focusing on effect we tend to neglect the cause of the tragedy and the course of history. The continuing occupation is the result of the continuing intifada, and not the other way round.

The Camp David and Taba discussions, and the resulting outline agreement, were supported by 80 per cent of the Israeli electorate, yet they were brought to nought by Arafat and not by Barak. Unless you call liars and cheats President Clinton, Ehud Barak and the majority of all those present, this is the very truth. That the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are a major, terrible road block to peace is clear, but they can, to a meaningful extent, be removed through negotiation—as they were after the peace with Egypt. And it was the much abused Ariel Sharon who, with settlers kicking and screaming, dismantled the settlements.

Terror existed before the first settler set foot in the West Bank. Before 1967 the terrorists were known as Fedayeen.

The mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians while Arafat is in power excludes in my view any real prospect of serious negotiation. Why do I mention only Arafat and not Sharon? Because, while Israel is a democratic society and the electorate responds to terror with unshakeable solidarity, it would equally respond to real, confidence-building initiatives on the Arab side by a moderate Palestinian leader supported by the majority of the Arab world. So far, confidence-building gestures from the Israeli side, such as the withdrawal from Lebanon, have been interpreted as weakness and have only put more heart into the intifada.

The United States must soon revive with full vigour the negotiations prescribed by the road map. Europe, Russia and the UN must follow suit, but let Europe speak openly and gravely to Arabs as well as to Israelis; let it not simply see itself as a counterweight to an allegedly wholly pro-Israeli America but weigh honestly charge and counter-charge without bias and bile. That applies particularly to the media in Europe and this country. The story of an all-powerful Jewish lobby in the United States is a popular myth, or at least a very simplistic concept. The support for Israel in the United States, where I have been recently and visit constantly, is deeply embedded in the public and by no means confined to Christian fundamentalists and the much derided neo-conservatives. Throughout the USA, in the middle west, the south and on the east coast, sympathy for Israel and the rejection of Palestinian terror is much in evidence. Paradoxically, the most potent critics of the Israeli case are the media controlled by Jewish shareholders. In America there are lobbies of every kind and description as part of the political system. Arab Americans are financially very potent and politically very influential; American think tanks and academic centres of Middle East Studies are awash with Saudi money, not to speak of the numerous religious centres which propagate the Wahhabite sect of the Islamic faith.

The defection of Gaddafi's Libya from the circle of terror-supporting Arab regimes is a landmark of progress. Gaddafi's son, in a recent interview, firmly insisted on radical reform in the Arab world as the order of the day. The right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister should be congratulated on this diplomatic success. But when he speaks of the next steps in the war against terror, encouraging Middle East regimes to accelerate the progress of democracy, and when he throws a lifeline to those variously described as rogue states, failed countries, tyrannical dictatorships, he should not waver but ask for positive action before admitting new members to the club of respectable countries. He will soon be receiving the Foreign Minister of Syria, a country whose regime has hideous credentials and is a veritable dinosaur in the zoo of the tyrants.

Only a few days ago, one of Sheikh Yassin's disciples, who operates out of Damascus, spoke from there by telephone relayed by loudspeaker to the people of Nablus. He threatened death and apocalyptic revenge on the Jews. Syria's young dictator might or might not favour reform; he is in practice captive to the influence of his father's old vassals. Gaddafi's earlier misdeeds pale before the massacres committed by Assad the elder. America's presence in the neighbourhood caused Damascus to co-operate and to expel Iraqi extremists, but as soon as Bashir Assad scented an American reverse he returned to his old stance.

In a recent debate in your Lordships' House the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, referred to the brutal and systematic incitement of schoolchildren through textbooks and obscene films. Syria can and must be influenced. The intellectual class feels oppressed and is beginning to raise its voice against the Ba'athist regime, which still operates on an emergency law dating from March 1963. In the north of Syria the Kurds, long suppressed, are battling for their human and civil rights. When Her Majesty's Government see the Syrian envoy I hope that they will not mince words and insist on Syria expelling the terrorists from Damascus—which is not, as the Syrian Government contend, a mere address for their information services, but one of the headquarters of international terror. Syria must also give genuine guarantees that its army will one day leave Lebanon, a country which it has economically exploited and, through making the Bekaa valley a centre for the international drug trade, also morally perverted. If the Syrian Government do not comply, the United States must not be discouraged from applying sanctions against the Syrian regime.

And so here the circle closes: if Hamas and Hezbollah can be contained and disarmed and Israel's borders be secured, the work and prospects of the quartet would stand a much greater chance of success. They could then influence, indeed lean on, Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and reach a fair settlement on the basis of two states and a compromise on Jerusalem. But this presupposes a sense of purpose and iron will and a measure of unity between Europe and America, an aim for which no sacrifice is too great.

In conclusion, I appeal to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams—whose staunch and convincing defence of human values at one time influenced me to cross the Floor and join her new party—to pause and reflect that in the Israeli/Palestinian crisis settlements can be relocated, protective fences re-routed, but innocent civilians, women and children, who are purposely and systematically murdered or maimed, cannot be brought back to life.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs 6:19 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, who I know has devoted a great deal of time to promoting better relations between the people of the three great faiths and to working for peace in the Middle East.

This debate has been of a consistently high quality. I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, only in being rather more pessimistic and in setting out the potential for the situation to deteriorate and the urgency of the need for more British and European engagement. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke of two intractable problems, but I would add a third. The whole question of the development of the Arab world, and the failure of Arab political, economic and social development—of which one or two people have spoken; such issues are raised in successive Arab Human Development Reports—is a third problem which may get worse.

The situation is not stable, with further deterioration possible not only in Iraq but also in Israel and Palestine. In Iraq we face the risk that some European governments may wobble in their commitment to what will necessarily be a painful and long-term engagement in rebuilding. The United States continues to resist full multilateral engagement, and Washington's illusions after the war that democratisation could be imposed remarkably quickly, remain in some sectors of the Bush administration. Clearly we are going to have to work in Iraq with a succession of imperfect regimes, as indeed post-Ottoman Turkey was a succession of imperfect regimes. We will not get a fully democratic Iraq, and that is something with which we will have to negotiate, deal and engage other Arab states in coping with.

On Israel/Palestine, the settlements continue to expand, as my noble friend Lady Williams remarked, and Palestinian infrastructure continues to be destroyed. Both sides are becoming increasingly embittered. One now has to ask whether a two-state solution remains possible. The Palestinian Authority scarcely exists any longer, and so the question of how one starts to negotiate a two-state solution becomes ever more difficult. Those of us who see ourselves as good friends of Israel worry about the deterioration in the quality of Israeli life, Israeli culture and Israeli democracy.

Then there is the problem of the development of the Arab world as a whole, about which the Bush administration wishes to launch a major initiative for the June G8 summit, which is another clock that is ticking. Rapid population increase; failures of economic development; deterioration in the quality of education about which the Arab Human Development Reports made some very sharp criticisms; the mixed record in terms of government-controlled media; and the fearful nature of so many regimes, mean that we have tremendous difficulties in coming to terms with how we encourage their slow progress towards more open societies.

The confused response of different Arab regimes to the Americans' first draft initiative demonstrated just how fearful they were. So did the collapse of the Arab League summit last weekend, which seems to me a very serious development. I was encouraged by the quality of the Alexandria document produced at a meeting two weeks earlier of a limited number of people from civil society organisations in those parts of the Arab world where it is possible for such organisations to operate. However, some of the questions posed in the Alexandria document about the encouragement of civil society across the Arab world were clearly more than many Arab regimes could stomach. There is rising anti-Americanism across the Arab world. There is a perception that the West is at war with Islam—something which could translate into reality if we are not careful.

There are conflicting rationales for not tackling all of these problems at once. We hear from Washington that we cannot tackle the Arab-Israeli peace process until democracy has been promoted across the Middle East. We hear that now in place of the old argument that we could not deal with Jerusalem until we had conquered Baghdad. The whole democratisation of the region is very much the flavour of the month in Washington, without a full understanding of just how long-term a project that is.

From Arab regimes, in turn, we hear that political and economic reform is not possible until there is a Middle East peace—a good excuse for kicking the difficult problems of modernisation to the side. But we have to move together on all of these fronts.

In that respect, current American policy and the current quality of the American debate is not helpful to those of us who wish to move forward constructively. Many of us are concerned about the fundamentalist undertones in the Washington debate. Several times a week, I receive from the Middle East Media Research Institute an e-mail report about the extremist language one hears in the Arab state-owned press—against the West and against Judaism, and so on. But I also receive from a number of American websites some pretty good examples of extremist anti-Islamic language used in the right-wing talk radio in the United States and in the think-tank community in Washington.

I read Charles Krauthammer's speech in January to the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute—one of the most influential institutes in the current Administration in Washington. Some of the language that he used was about what he called the "existential enemy"—which is,

"Islamic fundamentalism in both its secular and religious versions".

I am not quite sure what "secular Islamic fundamentalism" is, but he clearly believes that it is for the same thing. Had I been reading that from an Arab government's point of view, I think it would have persuaded me that I could not trust the Bush Administration on the greater Middle East initiative. That sort of extremist hard-line language, talking about a war between the West and Islam, is not one with which I would be comfortable. If I were advising an Arab government, I would certainly be extremely nervous about it.

There is a risk that Europe's secular societies will find themselves caught between contending fundamentalisms—three narrow and negative versions of three great religions, each claiming exclusive possession of the same sacred sites and Holy Land. We must be careful not to let the long-term struggle to combat Islamic terrorism deteriorate into a war against Islam. We hear in some parts of the West suggestions that we are engaged in a war against Islam. In this respect, I agree strongly with the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Skidelsky, that we have to look at ourselves and the problems that we went through in our states and societies during the painful process of modernisation, to recognise the difficulties which traditionalist Arab regimes now face.

We want the Arab states of the Middle East to go through the process, from traditionalism to open societies and democracy, without the sort or wars, expulsions of minorities and genocides of the fascist and communist regimes that European societies themselves went through. That is difficult, and we are asking them to go through it more quickly than we did.

As we criticise Islam, we have to recognise the history of our own religion—and I say this as a Protestant—including the witch hunts by the narrow Protestant sects in Britain, the Netherlands and the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries. We should recognise that the Roman Catholic Church regarded Catholicism as incompatible with democracy as recently as 60 years ago. The Spanish Roman Catholic Church really came to terms with democracy only 30 years ago. So suggestions that Islam is entirely different and incompatible with democracy slides over our own mixed history.

Many noble Lords have talked about Israel and Israeli responsibilities. I want to say one thing to those who have spoken passionately in support of Israel's current position. We are entitled to judge Israel by higher standards. That is precisely because—and I was brought up to believe this—Israel and the Jewish tradition is so much one of culture, civilisation and, recently, democracy. That means we must ask the Israeli Government to resolve the deliberate confusion about whether they want to occupy the entirety of Israel/Palestine. The expansion of the settlements, the expansion of the roads across the West Bank, the building of the wall where it is now, all look as if Israel wants to occupy the whole of Israel/Palestine west of the Jordan. I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, say that Israel should change the route of the wall. That is something we all now have to say loud and clear. A wall on the 1967 boundaries would be acceptable in a way that the current wall is not. The alternative—to face up to possibility that the two-state solution is no longer possible—is hardly thinkable: either the expulsion of the Palestinians, or a secular state in the long run, with a Palestinian majority.

So where do we go from here? What should we be doing? Many of us have welcomed Her Majesty's Government's engagement with Arab states across the region. We think it was right for the Prime Minister to go to Libya—not a very pleasant state, but we have to deal with states that are imperfect. It was similarly wise to engage with Syria, another extremely unpleasant state in many ways, but we have to try to encourage them where we can, as with engagement with Iran.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that the European Union as a whole needs to become more active on all fronts. We cannot safely leave the initiative to the United States, especially under this Administration. That means we need to revive the old European Union's Barcelona process, even with all the obstacles that process has faced. We should be putting more effort into encouraging education at all levels across the Arab word, perhaps with a new Euro/Arab university. We should be providing Arabic materials for the Internet, which all of the reports on the region say are most desperately needed. We should be promoting economic development as far as we can, and we should be making the difficult case that women's rights are essential for economic and social development. We have to revive the road map, through the United Nations, and to maintain our deep commitment as it moves forward. We have to recognise that, as it moves forward, the cost in terms of financial assistance—and potentially in terms of troops to police an interim settlement—would be very considerable. But conflict prevention is cheaper than state rebuilding, as we are now painfully discovering in Iraq.

I repeat: the situation is not stable. It has the potential to get worse rather than better. That is why we urge Her Majesty's Government to give this region the highest priority.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 6:32 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for introducing this very important debate. It was a real pleasure to hear the noble Baroness's masterly overview of what she described as the most difficult international problem.

This has been an excellent and very wide-ranging debate. Clearly the two key issues were the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the Iraq conflict. The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, thanked the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for the opportunity for plain talk. I think there has been plenty of plain talk today.

Any eventual solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem must be based on a peace process and dialogue, not conflict. As the noble Lord, Lord Janner, said, we must do all that we can to help get the parties together. A secure Israel, free from terrorism and suicide bombings, alongside a viable, independent Palestine: balance is the key to our approach. We must understand the fears and anxieties of both sides if we are to understand the dispute. Israelis feel vulnerable to terrible and regular acts of violence and, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, said, threats to its very existence. Palestinians feel humiliated and stateless.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I am a strong champion of the survival and safety of Israel. But the war on terrorism cannot be won by military means alone. While terrorism must be effectively engaged, the deeper reasons for its existence must also be addressed. What are the resentments that lead people to be sympathetic to terrorist acts? Why are young men and girls prepared to blow themselves up? As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry pointed out, religion can be a dangerous and tyrannical force. We must try to understand, and be tolerant of, other religions. Several noble Lords mentioned the killing of Sheikh Yassin. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, argued that the killing will not bring peace any closer—in fact, the opposite. Other noble Lords argued that his killing was essential for the security of Israel.

The noble Lords, Lord Turnberg and Lord Mitchell, mentioned the security wall. Israel has a right to defend its citizens against terrorist attacks. But while the wall may reduce the means available to Palestinians to commit terrorist acts, the hardship caused does stoke up the will to do so. Both the means and the will must be reduced in parallel, with security measures and dialogue to effect a long-term settlement.

Rebuilding the trust required for dialogue will not be easy, but it is paramount. I think all speakers tonight have made this point. Along with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, I share my noble friend Lord Howell's determination to be on the optimistic side. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, took a more pessimistic view.

In the event that a peaceful solution can be found, are Her Majesty's Government preparing plans for a stabilisation force? What role is envisaged for NATO, or the European defence army, in any peacekeeping operations to the Middle East?

Iraq has changed the geopolitical landscape. The action there has removed a regional threat, removed an enemy of Israel, the wider Middle Eastern region and any peace process, and also opened up Iraq's political and economic development. It has sent a message to other regimes—for example, Libya—and encouraged Iran to open itself up to IAEA inspections.

It is vital that we continue to build security and stability in Iraq, and rebuild the country's infrastructure. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, spoke of Iraqi optimism in looking to their future. Amid all the apparent gloom, there has been impressive progress there.

The Middle East is often viewed through the prism of these two conflicts, in a negative light. However, while the wider Arab world has much to wrestle with, there are positive developments. Much has changed, and is changing, in the Middle East. This we applaud and encourage.

In Saudi Arabia, we see the first stirrings of representative government, with moves towards elected local government. Crown Prince Abdullah has encouraged economic reform, and Saudi Arabia has applied to join the World Trade Organisation. This has involved opening some sectors of the economy, such as the gas industry, to foreign investment.

Syria is showing signs of adapting to the new geopolitical reality in the Middle East. It is a key player in helping to resolve the future of Iraq, and has announced its willingness to co-operate in restoring stability there. The relationship between Britain and Syria is developing steadily, and we should be positively engaging it to that end.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, pointed out that we should not be discouraged by the, hopefully temporary, setback in Iran. Democracy is still alive there.

Kuwait has bounced back economically from the Iraqi invasion. British exports to Kuwait were up by 30 per cent last year. Lebanon, which has for so long been synonymous with war and destruction, is now reasserting itself as an economic tourism and entertainment centre with a free market and liberal economy. Its democratic political system, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are nurturing a diversified political life.

Oman is a good example of a successful, measured and undemonstrative process of transition in the Middle East. Under Sultan Qaboos, Oman has been transformed into an economically successful, stable and highly prosperous country with a strong rule of law. It possesses a highly developed system of government, allowing for an ordered transition to an increasingly representative system. The pace of change is adapted to the needs of the country so that a balance can be struck at all times between modernisation and a preservation of traditions and values.

We must encourage transition to democracy throughout the region and wider. But, at the same time, we must make it explicitly clear that the export of cultural values is not part of our aim. The fear of their culture being diluted, or even replaced, by the encroachment and dominance of western ideas colours the attitude of many in the Middle East towards Europe and America. I do not share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that we are trying to do that.

There is political and economic progress in the Gulf states. Enormous trading opportunities are being created for British companies in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain, as examples. Dubai is planning to nearly quadruple the number of its tourism visitors from 4 million to 15 million in the next six years. Qatar has announced plans to build one of the world's largest airports, costing 2.5 billion dollars. It is also hosting the Asian Games in 2006.

In the past 18 months, world-class motorsport facilities have been built, safely and efficiently, in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain, creating new markets for high-performance motorsport engineering. I am fortunate to be President of the Motorsport Industry Association, which has been very active there from the outset. In May, we shall be hosting the first-ever DTI-backed motorsport trade mission to the Middle East.

This weekend, British engineering talent will be showcased to 200 million TV viewers as a result of the inaugural Bahrain Formula 1 grand prix. British companies have played a major role in that. We are warmly regarded in the Gulf region and we must build on that goodwill.

There are problems in the Middle East. Every effort should be made in the rebuilding of Iraq and in attempting to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. However, too often, the focus is on the negative. Many positive changes are under way in the region and we should recognise and welcome them.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 6:43 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, for introducing the debate today. I am sure that on every occasion that we have discussed this issue over the past few years, we have expressed a blend of hopes and fears about the future of the Middle East and, in particular, about the Middle East peace process.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, said, the debate today is, indeed, timely because we are at a number of turning points in relation to the Middle East: in our relationship with Iran; over Syria; in relation to WMD in Libya; and, of course, we are now contemplating the hand-over of sovereignty in Iraq in three months' time. In addition, we are hoping for more discussion on development and reform in the region in the run-up to the G8 in June, although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, we very much regret the collapse of the Arab League summit in Tunis.

However, perhaps most tellingly, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, said, we are also seeing a real possibility that the vision of a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli question will be undermined. That two-state solution vision is one that has been shared by many people of good will in the region and elsewhere.

As usual, not only have your Lordships demonstrated a wide range of knowledge and expertise on this longstanding and seemingly intractable issue, but we have also heard strong views, passionately held, eloquently expressed and, of course, diametrically different from each other. They varied from the optimism of the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, to the pessimism of my noble friend Lord Desai.

Like many of your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I visited the region very recently. I have been not only to Israel and the Palestinian territories but to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and farther afield—the Gulf, the Maghreb countries, Egypt and Iraq—where I have heard views forcefully expressed on the subject.

I believe that it is only by seeing and talking to Israelis and Palestinians at home that one can really understand the political complexity, the historical context and, indeed, the current bitterness and grief caused by this deeply difficult situation. I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said in that there is a sense of reaching a political crossroads. However, there is also a sense of a looming humanitarian crisis, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, described.

That sense of anxiety is evident among both Israelis and Palestinians. The relentless stream of suicide bombings has destroyed families and brought an ever-present fear to Israeli citizens going about their everyday lives, whether it is attending school or work or simply going to the shops.

On the Palestinian side, there is growing poverty; the destruction of homes, sometimes involving injury or death to those around; the collapse of law and order; the construction of the barrier; and, of course, increased settlements on Palestinians' land, which has made them ever more desperate. Too many Israelis and too many Palestinians are beginning to lose hope. The fact is, sadly, that neither side sees in the other a real partner for peace.

I hope to touch on some of the issues raised by your Lordships but, like the noble Baroness, I shall concentrate most of my remarks on the peace process. I begin with where we, the British Government, feel that it is right to concentrate our efforts.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, argued, the road map remains the best way of working towards a peaceful settlement. The two-state solution lies at the heart of initiatives to solve the Middle East conflict. The Arab peace initiative, conceived by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, offered peace on that basis. And the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security was set out eloquently by President Bush in June 2002 and the renewed international action that he started towards that goal. The result was the road map. I remind your Lordships that the road map was agreed by a quartet—that is, not only that great country, the United States, but also the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

The road map makes sensible and realistic demands on both sides. However, sadly, it is painfully clear that neither side has fulfilled its obligations under even phase one of the road map. The international community is unanimous in wanting both sides to honour the undertakings that they made. Each side must decide for itself, in pursuit of its own interests, to take the steps which have been laid out.

The fact is that Israel has not stopped building settlements. More houses, more roads and other settlement infrastructure have been built, despite Israeli undertakings to freeze development; nor has Israel removed settlement outposts, which are illegal even within Israeli law. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, was right. The new settlement outposts have sprung up on numerous hilltops. Efforts to remove them have failed or they have quickly been replaced. Therefore, despite repeated Israeli commitments to remove them, the number of outposts is almost exactly the same as it was last June at the time of the Aqaba summit.

But let us look at the other failures, too. Let us look at the Palestinian side. The Palestinian Authority has not fulfilled its obligations either. There is more that Palestinians can do to tackle security more effectively and to prevent terrorist attacks on Israel. Many will argue that Israeli actions such as shutting down police stations and refusing to allow Palestinian police to wear uniforms have prevented the Palestinians from dealing with these problems.

My noble friend Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld expressed himself very forcefully on this issue and on the issue of Hamas suicide bombings. Those of us who are dealing with these matters on the ground and talking to the Palestinians acknowledge the simple fact that the Palestinians have not done all that they could, despite the restrictions that have been placed upon them. They have not done what they could in reforming the way the security forces are paid, for example; nor have they worked to resolve the question of the tunnels through which weapons are brought; and they have not relinquished their Qassam rockets. That is why we have been talking so intensively to the Palestinians, in order to encourage and support their efforts to tackle the security issues.

That was on the top of my agenda when I went to Jerusalem and saw Yasser Arafat, and it was on the top of the agenda when Abu Ala'a came to London three weeks ago. He was positive in his response to these issues. Nabil Sha'ath, Saeb Erekat and Salaam Fayyad have also been energetic in trying to make headway on this issue. There also needs to be reform in the way that the Palestinian Authority operates, in order to make it more open, less corrupt and less dependent on personal patronage. The British Government will continue to work hard with the Palestinian Authority on these issues.

The United Kingdom Government played a leading role in the development of the road map and pushed hard to get it agreed by all sides. We have also been heavily engaged in encouraging progress and pressing both sides to fulfil their obligations to it. Whenever I travel to the region, or speak to visitors from the region here in London, they are unanimous in their wholehearted recognition of the commitment of this Government—including the Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary—to work hard for peace in the Middle East.

We set our hand to this task, and I freely admit that it has not been a good start. But we must not lose hope. In the current climate it is difficult to find positive signs to cling to. However, I do not think that the picture is as bleak as that portrayed my noble friend Lord Desai.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and my noble friends Lord Turnberg and Lord Mitchell, were concerned about the barrier. I will say a few words on that matter.

Israel has legitimate security concerns. It believes that the barrier will enhance Israeli security. The state has a right—and its citizens have a right as individuals—to that security. I agree on that point with my noble friend Lord Janner of Braunstone. We have to be clear on this matter, not only in Tel Aviv—where it is easy to be clear—but as clear in Damascus, Jerusalem and Hebron as we would be in London or Paris.

The route of the barrier is the problem. We believe that the route is unlawful because it is on the wrong side of the 1967 line. Security may mean separating Jewish settlements from Arab towns—as my noble friend Lord Janner implied—but I find it hard to see a realistic explanation for cutting through the heart of a Palestinian community, as it does in the Abu Dis district.

I hope that the barrier helps security because there is a heavy price being paid for it—in the destruction of precious agricultural land and in limiting access for some Palestinians to their land and water supply. In some areas it has created enclaves, cutting off Palestinian towns from their surrounding villages and drawing a seemingly arbitrary line that separates families from each other and makes it even more difficult for people to access basic services, such as schools and hospitals.

The noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, thought that our position on the case before the ICJ was inconsistent. I have been more polite on that matter than he was to us. We and our European partners have stated our belief that it was not right to pursue the matter at the International Court of Justice, because in order to go there we should have to have the consent of both sides. Otherwise the International Court of Justice would be being asked to arbitrate on a political conflict.

We have, however, made it very clear—not least to the International Court of Justice itself—that we believe that the barrier is unlawful. I am pleased to report that in some areas parts of the barrier have been removed or building work has been suspended. Within Israel voices are growing for building the future stages along the green line. We should support those heavily.

A more recent development was touched on by my noble friend Lord Turnberg. That is the proposal by the Israeli Prime Minister Sharon for a unilateral withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Like my noble friend, I believe that this is a serious plan. Mr Sharon's advisers and Ministers have been very busy over the past few weeks travelling to capitals to discuss the idea and gauge reactions to it. In some ways, it could be argued that it has succeeded in drawing the United States back into an active role in the Middle East peace process.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, may be right in implying that the US preoccupation elsewhere in the recent past has distracted from what is going on in Israel/Palestine. I assure her that they are now engaged on this point.

The plan is by no means finalised. It is not yet clear precisely what it might entail. At the moment it seems that the proposal will entail withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and possibly parts of the West Bank. But there are unanswered questions on the future of the northern settlements in Gaza. We have not yet heard precise plans for where the Israeli settlers would go, upon withdrawal.

When the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, asked whether the plan is a positive or negative development, we hope—and at the moment it is a hope—that it will be a positive one. We do not know whether all, or just some, of the Israeli defence forces would withdraw. Clearly, a full withdrawal of troops, without prior co-ordination, could leave the Occupied Territories in chaos. Hamas has already stated its willingness to fill any void left by IDF withdrawal. That is an offer that is not entirely welcome to the Palestinian Authority, let alone to anybody else.

Finally, the timing is not clear for any real developments on the ground, although given the process required within Israel to enable such a move, it seems unlikely that we will see practical progress much before the end of this year.

All of this has, of course, created its own tensions within Israel. Prime Minister Sharon risks losing the support of his right-wing coalition partners. If that happens, he will need to look for alternative support. Much will, naturally, depend on how the proposals for Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories are carried through. The British Government believe that this must be in line with the road map, that it must get us closer to the vision of two states—Israel and Palestine—living side by side in peace, and that it should not prejudice the final status negotiations on the borders.

Any withdrawal needs to be co-ordinated with the Palestinian Authority and the international community. A unilateral path is not a practical option. The Palestinian Authority should also be gearing itself up to respond positively to the opportunity that may be presented by Israel through its withdrawal from Gaza, and that it has to be building its capacity to take responsibility for security and law and order if those areas are vacated. The United Kingdom is prepared to help the Palestinians build up their civil peace capacity and will provide advice and technical assistance to the Palestinian police.

The EU also has a role here. Last week the European Council agreed to examine the requirements for further assistance. The great concern is the continuing level of violence. The Government have condemned this loudly and consistently. As the noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, said, we have frozen the assets of Hamas and we shall continue to try and persuade our partners in Europe to do the same.

We understand Israel's duty to defend itself against such atrocities as suicide bombing. But, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear, Israel needs to make sure that its response is within the bounds of international law. I strongly agree with my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis that targeted killings are unacceptable and unlawful and are unlikely to achieve their objectives.

My noble friend Lord Mitchell asked me to explain this point. Sheikh Yassin was no friend of peace. I acknowledge that a person can be as wicked from a wheelchair as they can from anywhere else. But Israel is a democracy under the rule of law. There was something of this in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. We expect better of Israel. We expect Israel to uphold the standards that we hold dear.

I agree with much of what my noble friend Lord Mitchell said about the Geneva accord and the brave and sensible way in which the Israelis and the Palestinians have been able to come together. I agree with much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said about the humanitarian and economic situation in the Occupied Territories being bleak. Poverty has increased dramatically since the intifada began. During the past two years the Palestinian economy has shrunk by half. Real incomes are 48 per cent lower than in September 2000, leaving 60 per cent of Palestinians living on less than the UN poverty threshold of two dollars and 10 cents a day.

I shall answer the specific points made by my noble friend Lord Turnberg. Emergency donor support has helped to prevent total economic collapse; the UK alone has spent between £30 million and £40 million in each of the past three years and the European Commission disbursed more than 270 million euros in 2003. But longer-term economic recovery is dependent on the lifting of closures and the free movement of goods and people. Yes, we are raising those points in relation to the World Food Programme, mentioned by a number of noble Lords, directly with the Israeli Government.

I strongly agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, about going forward and trying to find a partnership for the future in relation to Palestine between Europe and the United States of America. We want to work with our G8 partners in examining measures to reconstruct and revitalise the Palestinian economy when the time is right.

I turn to other issues now. I listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, said in his critique of the military action in Iraq, and in particular the link that he made between military action and the fight against terror. His point was very different from the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who reminded the House of his argument that terrorist organisations had links with the Saddam Hussein regime. I am sure he will recall that about this time last year we disagreed on that point on a number of occasions. However, I agree with him strongly that there are strong grounds for believing now that Iraq has a very real future.

Ten days ago I returned from Iraq, my previous visit having been towards the end of last year. I saw a marked difference in Iraq from my previous visit. There was more confidence, more focus and more steadfastness among Iraqis about their future. There are only about 100 days until the hand over takes place. Already more than 50 per cent of Iraqis believe that their lives are better than they were under Saddam Hussein and more than 70 per cent believe that life will improve further still.

I was struck by the extraordinary steadfastness of many Iraqis in the face of the violence. They reflected a stoic and determined community, with eyes firmly fixed on the elections next year, the new constitution and the improving standards in their schools, hospitals and in civil society. In the three days that I was there, almost everyone whom I met thanked the British Government and the British people for our action in Iraq. In press interviews, some of which were fairly robust and to the point, not a single person raised the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Instead they raised issues such as their future. They wanted to talk about trade, investment, education and the hard work that would be needed over the next 18 months.

My noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis was right to say that it will take time to achieve all of this. There is no doubt about that. June 30 will be a very important date. However, there will be other important dates in the next 18 months: the elections in January, the drawing up of the constitution, the referendum on that constitution and the next elections next year. Iraq will emerge as probably the most democratic, the most forward-looking state in the region with well educated people, Shia, Sunni, Turkoman and Kurd living together side by side in one state, with normalised relationships with their neighbours.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, spoke of the Arab desire for development, democracy, prosperity, improving their economies and dealing with the serious problems of poverty, human rights, security and terrorism. I agree with him. I agree that those are huge issues and ones that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary set out cogently in his speech on the subject a few weeks ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, asked how far the Middle East extended. I believe I was asked that question a few weeks ago in your Lordships' House. To be frank, I am of the school of thought that it extends as far as the Arab Middle East. Trying to extend it further towards Afghanistan, towards Pakistan, simply undermines, rather than reinforces, the work that we are trying to undertake at the moment. We have been discussing those issues for quite some time.

In my view there is a real appetite for taking forward those issues, but on the basis that reform comes from within a country. It cannot be imposed from outside. The one-size-fits-all idea on reform is simply not tenable in the Arab world. Dialogue and partnership are the right ways forward. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and my noble friend Lord Mitchell were quite right to remind the House that the UNDP report on the Middle East was a report by Arabs and for Arabs. The Gulf, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are the key players, but there are very important and crucial roles for Syria and Egypt.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked what this country was able to do in that respect. One reason why I have been absent from your Lordships' House for a few days virtually every week for the past few weeks is that I have been discussing not only Iraq and the Middle East peace process with the countries in the region, but also the issues concerned with reform in the Maghreb countries, in Morocco, in Tunisia and in some of the smaller countries of the region such as Qatar and Bahrain as well as the bigger powers. I have seen all the Arab League ambassadors together to discuss the issues and I shall be seeing them again in smaller groups.

I am trying to practice what I preach—"preach" is a nasty word, but that is a good formula. It involves consultation, discussion and partnership to discuss a wide range of issues. I agree strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said: if we are to make any real progress we must talk to those with whom we disagree as well as to those with whom we agree. Perhaps later this year we may consider a broader-based discussion involving noble Lords and others and those involved.

I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that it is such a pity that the summit collapsed. I believe that was a lost opportunity for an important statement not only on the Middle East peace process, but on the issue of Arab reform. I advise the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, not to spring to conclusions as to why it collapsed. A number of different reasons have been put forward in the region.

The noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, focused attention on Iran, Syria and Libya. I thank him for his remarks about the Government's efforts in relation to those three countries. Of course, he is right. I hope he reminded the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, about how different our policy has been from that of our friends in the United States.

In answer to the specific point made by my noble friend Lord Turnberg, the Secretary of State has persevered with remarkable stamina in relation to the nuclear issues in Iran, visiting five times in the past three years. That dialogue continues through the IAEA, bilaterally and of course through the troika that has been set up within the European Union.

In Syria we continue to try to make the case for further engagement to discuss border security, terrorism and trade. We would like to see a new Syrian-EU agreement, but it must be an agreement that acknowledges the issues that still need to be tackled, including human rights.

I listened very carefully to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, on Syria. I assure him that the issues that he raised are issues that I too have raised when I have spoken to President Bashar recently. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wright, for his remarks about Libya. Like him, I was struck by the support for the Prime Minister's visit that came from the families of those who were killed at Lockerbie and their hopes that the normalising of our relationships with Libya will reveal more about that terrible tragedy. The real message from the Libyan situation has been that the country has turned away from weapons of mass destruction and is turning towards the destruction of its arsenal. We hope that that may inspire others and show them what can be achieved through quiet negotiation rather than through loudspeaker politics.

I was very taken with the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the right reverend Prelate reminded the House of the religious dimension of the Middle East conflict. I confess that I did not agree with the whole analysis of the right reverend Prelate, but I strongly agreed with him and with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, about the work of the International Centre for Reconciliation and the work of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and Canon Andrew White through the Alexandria process.

I have met many of those who are involved. I have met Rabbi Michael Melchior and Sheikh Allal on a number of occasions. I regard both with great respect and with some affection as well. I believe that they are engaged in a genuine effort at reconciliation and that is making a real contribution to the peace effort. I thank my noble friend Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld for his kind and entirely accurate tribute to Her Majesty's Ambassador in Tel Aviv, Simon McDonald. I pay tribute to the outstanding and dedicated work of our consul-general in Jerusalem, John Jenkins. Both of them lead very able and committed teams of diplomats and we should not forget the locally engaged staff who often work in very difficult circumstances. Those diplomats and their staff have two of the toughest jobs anywhere in the world and they acquit them extraordinarily well.

I agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said about Europe and the need to be proactive this year. I think that we have to stand back from the events of the past few months. We must ask ourselves some honest questions about whether we did enough to support the Abu Masim government. I think we have learned from that by the way that we are now dealing with Abu Ala'a's government. We recognise that there is a real need for help in security but also in other developmental issues. The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, was of course right to say that we should try to work in partnership on these points.

Perhaps my noble friend Lord Desai and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, were right: 2004 may not be the year for finding the solution we need to the problems in the Middle East, but it is a year for keeping the hope of a solution alive and for some reflection on our own history, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, reminded us. I hope that in doing that we shall not lose sight of the important and practical measures that are needed on the ground, because there is a lot of work to do.

I recognise that at a time of high tension and violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, looking ahead to the steps needed for the peace process can be hard. But progress needs vision, courage and a positive approach from leaders on both sides. Both sides need to show clearly that their strategic choice really is for peace; not just to say it at every opportunity, but to take the action that makes us all believe it. That means that difficult compromises will have to be made. But this is the moment for hard decisions. The Israeli Government's plan to withdraw from the settlements could indeed be a breakthrough, if it shows the way towards the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

However, Israel cannot disengage from the process of seeking a negotiated solution: one side imposing its will on the other will not reach a lasting peace. The Palestinians also face tough decisions. Their society is on the brink of something approaching anarchy in cities like Nablus where law and order is undoubtedly breaking down. This has to be the moment when the Palestinian Authority shows it is serious about security and that wherever it has the capacity to act—and I fully acknowledge that it is not everywhere—it does so.

Both sides must show that they really are capable of being each other's partners for peace. A failure to return to negotiations now would condemn Israelis and Palestinians to more years of violence and instability. Leaders on both sides owe it to their people to take the initiative and to restore hope that a better life is possible. It will take courage to stand up against the voices that constantly argue for aggression, blame and revenge; but that courage is needed more now than ever before.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Leader In the House of Lords, Leader, House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 7:12 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, perhaps I may offer my thanks to your Lordships for a very serious, responsible and thoughtful debate. Although there are still substantial differences of opinion in the House, I think that every Peer who has spoken has addressed this terribly difficult issue with a real sense of trying to contribute to a peaceful and lasting outcome.

A number of noble Lords have suggested, not least the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that we have to recognise that some things take time; in particular, the implantation of any kind of democracy in a culture which is not used to it or accommodated to it. It is also true that there is very little time. One reason for that is that attacks are continually being made on the ground on both sides in this tragic dispute.

We are indeed at a crucial moment, as a number of noble Lords have said. It is a crucial moment when we could continue the spiral downwards or seize the opportunity and turn it around into something that could be really constructive and helpful. In this context one of the important questions is whether Dr Sharon proposes to withdraw from the West Bank as well as from Gaza, because Gaza on its own is little more than a basket case.

I offer my very warm thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Symons. We know that she gives a very substantial part of her undoubtedly great energy and thought to the Middle East crisis and to how to move in the right direction. I thank her for the way in which she invariably listens very closely to debate in this House—that is not always true of everybody, but it is certainly true of her—and the way in which she tries very carefully to address every one of the detailed issues raised.

I conclude simply by saying that I hope the noble Baroness will do her very best to try to make sure that food aid resumes. To add hunger to all the other desperate things in this region of the world might be enough to push even more people over the brink. I should like to thank her and the House as a whole for what I believe has been a very useful and constructive contribution to an extremely difficult problem. I beg to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.