Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:43 pm on 31st March 2004.

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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) 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.