Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:47 pm on 28th November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN) 3:47 pm, 28th November 2007

My Lords, the noble Lords have asked very important questions. I begin by reminding them of yesterday's primary achievements in Annapolis. They have correctly been described as the beginning of a process, and I agree that one must set one's aspirations accordingly. First, there was a commitment to immediate good-faith negotiations. Those negotiations started today at the White House between the two leaders, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, under American auspices. There was also a commitment that this will not be an open-ended, leisurely negotiation that will go on indefinitely but that every effort will be made to complete it by the end of next year.

Secondly, there is a joint steering committee of the two sides to oversee the negotiating teams and it will meet for the first time on 12 December. Thirdly, there will be fortnightly meetings between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. Fourthly, and perhaps most significantly, the US, which had previously resisted a direct role in monitoring implementation, has agreed to join the Palestinians and Israelis in monitoring the implementation of the road map. The detail of the agreement shows that the US will need to verify that the conditions of the road map, including the rolling back of settlements and the effort by the Palestinians to end the violence against Israel, have been achieved. Those conditions must be met before any final peace can be arrived at. So there is fuller American engagement in the operationalisation of the peace process than we have seen in a long while, and that is to be welcomed.

Obviously the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is right that there are major outstanding issues, such as how big a settlement roll-back is to occur, and those issues that have brought previous peace processes to an end, such as the status of Jerusalem and the return of refugees. These all lie ahead of us in the negotiations to come.

Both noble Lords asked about the broader engagement of other countries. They will have noticed that almost 50 countries attended the negotiation yesterday. We all know that you need to find a balance between a small enough group of countries that in a sense prevents the two parties gaming the different participants in the talk in a way that they can get some concessions out of one set of countries and not another. The origin of the quartet was the need to get a small group of countries and institutions that could move this forward on behalf of the broader international community. In that list of 50 invitees was a recognition on the part of the quartet—the United States particularly—that the engagement in this process of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Governments, and of the international community more broadly, was critical.

Noble Lords will see that continue. There is an opportunity at the Paris donors' conference called by Tony Blair for that to be effected. Japan, which was mentioned, is supporting an economic zone in Jericho, so there will be plenty of opportunities for Asia both to express political support for this process and to provide economic assistance to it.

I turn to Hamas, which has made troubling threats already, although I fear predictable ones. The case remains that it has ruled itself out of participation in the negotiations through its unwillingness to accept peace talks, let alone recognise the state of Israel or accept an end to hostilities. The fact that it has done that does not remove the need for us to address the humanitarian crisis, which is worsening by the week. If this cycle of suffering is left unchecked, it represents a real risk to the welfare of Palestinians living in Gaza, and more broadly to the stability of the region.

We certainly recognise that the recovery or development of a viable economic entity in the Palestinian territories requires the encouragement of the private sector, and that is indeed much more than just building the infrastructure. It means creating incentives for that wonderful spirit of Palestinian entrepreneurship, which any visitor can see, to allow it to grow and provide jobs and opportunity in the region.

Both noble Lords inquired about the broader Middle East issues of Lebanon and Syria. There was a major debate before the conference started to ensure that they were both reflected on the agenda. The Arab countries pushed hard for reference to those broader issues of a comprehensive peace agreement. Both were spoken to, but again noble Lords will reflect on what was possible in one day with 50 speakers. It is fair to say that no issue was entered into with the depth that noble Lords would have wished.