Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:16 pm on 22nd January 2008.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs 9:16 pm, 22nd January 2008

My Lords, this debate is partly about Northern Ireland as well as the Middle East, and I am conscious that I am one of the participants who is less expert on Northern Ireland than most. I have some strong memories of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, on which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, partly bases his proposal. It was a Soviet initiative, intended to hold to the status quo of Soviet domination over eastern Europe and cleverly used by the Germans above all to begin to change the nature of the discussion between hostile states in western and eastern Europe. It left us with the problem of how we dealt with states and dissident groups. The Charter 77 groups, which used the Helsinki final act as a lever and a rationale for standing up against their Governments, were not something with which western Governments found it easy to deal. Did we deal formally with the socialist states, or did we support those who opposed them? It is not such an easy model on which to base this proposal.

However, I strongly support my noble friend Lord Alderdice in his suggestion that we need to build a broader group in which to operate, that we need to treat the region as a whole, and that we have to bring the Arab League more formally into the discussion about the future of the Israel-Palestine peace process. At my own party conference, we passed a resolution on the Arab-Israeli negotiations in which we called for the quartet to be expanded into a quintet, bringing in the Arab League. It is clear that the Saudis are key players. What Prince Turki said yesterday in Germany about opening up the rest of the Middle East to the Israeli economy after a settlement was a very positive step forward. We do not know how much it represents the views of the rest of the Saudi Government, but there are ways in which we clearly need to grasp at everything which is possible.

The CSCE included powers from outside the region—the United States and the Soviet Union. It is clear to all of us that, in any move towards a process for negotiations about the region, Israel will not accept being left on its own. The United States, the European Union and probably Russia have to be engaged as counterweights to the Arab League. I take it as given that the United Kingdom cannot usefully act alone—that we have to make the best of our role as a player within the European Union, which is part of the quartet.

As noble Lords have already said, there is also the problem of movements and what we do about those powerful, non-state actors, particularly Hezbollah. Whether we regard Hamas as part of the Palestine Government—it was elected as so—or as a hostile movement is a question with which we have to grapple. It is a huge mistake of the Israeli and American Governments to attempt to delegitimise Hamas, which is what they are doing, in the hope that collective punishment in Gaza will reduce popular support for Hamas, relegitimise Fatah and so provide a more reasonable Palestinian authority with which to negotiate. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, will remember the long history of British Governments preferring to choose the more reasonable people in Northern Ireland with whom to negotiate rather than negotiating with the less reasonable people. It was not always very successful there, unfortunately.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, has talked about some of the immediate issues. We shall get nowhere if Gaza collapses. The immediate humanitarian crisis there has to be dealt with. I was briefed today by a distinguished Israeli academic on the current situation there. I have to say that he is remarkably optimistic that President Bush's recent initiatives and the clear change of direction from the US Administration is going to take us forward relatively rapidly towards the beginnings of a settlement. I hope that he is right, but we will not achieve that if Hamas collapses into civil war and disorder in the next few weeks. We have to grapple with that—which means that we cannot entirely ignore Hamas.

I am happy to understand that there are informal conversations going on between the Americans and Syria. That is very positive. When we look at it, we all understand that there is a basis for an agreement between the United States and Syria. One knows what the only acceptable settlement between Israel and Palestine could be in outline, but I fear that reaching even the heads of agreement of that between now and next January 20, when President Bush leaves office, leaves us very short of time.

We also agree that we must be inclusive with regard to the current Iranian regime; nothing would do more to weaken the power of President Ahmadinejad than for us to embrace the Iranian regime, offer it security guarantees and show the Iranian public that the West is not fundamentally hostile to Iran. We have to hope that we get over these short-term disagreements. I desperately hope that President Bush is able to push things forward, that Prime Minister Olmert can carry his Government—having lost the right, holding on to the left—and that there are a Palestinian Government able to respond with the positive support of the Saudis, a more constructive response from Syria and a constructive response from Egypt. The question is how we make that stick.

However far these negotiators get in the nine months, they can achieve only the beginnings of a different peace process. That is where the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has some very useful things to say about a collective continuing conference for the region, with outside support, which will open up economic exchanges and encourage social interaction and educational interchange. The Middle East already has some advantages over a wider Europe in the 1970s and early 1980s, when we had great difficulty communicating across the east and west of Europe. Western television reached only parts of East Germany and western radio was jammed, but television carries all the way across the Middle East, and multichannels with different programmes and points of view are already beginning to transform the discussions within some of those authoritarian regimes.

We need to bring together Iran and the Arabs across the Gulf region and the Arabs and Israelis across the Fertile Crescent. Whether we can also include the countries of the Maghreb I am not entirely sure; it saddens me desperately that that Algerian border remains closed with Morocco and Tunis. Both those neighbours of Algeria should be trading actively and interacting tremendously closely, or the Maghreb simply does not work, never mind sorting out the detail.

I urge the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, to outline support—to encourage us to believe that the European Union would like a more active and continuing multilateral process rather than just have the external quartet handle the immediate problem of the Arab-Israeli process and the longer-term problem of how we build a more peaceful and economically integrated Middle East.