Middle East Peace Process — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:37 pm on 4th May 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Liberal Democrat 7:37 pm, 4th May 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of progress in the Middle East peace process.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I was going to apologise this evening for drawing your Lordships' minds away from the tumultuous events in the Middle East, the dubious NATO campaign in Libya and the capture and assassination of Osama bin Laden, but I shall not in view of other developments over these past few days. This debate is very timely.

I want to make an appeal that we all remember the Palestinians and the injustice that has been meted out to them since 1948. It is an injustice which lies at the very heart of Arab Muslim angst against the West and which has allowed one country, Israel, supported by the USA and the European Union, consistently to break international law since 1948, when it was decided that the Palestinians would pay the price of the Holocaust even if they had had nothing to do with it.

Let us remind ourselves quickly of the facts on the ground. The wall or security barrier has been built between Israel and the West Bank. Fair enough, I would say. I witnessed during the second intifada the sheer terror of Israeli citizens as they experienced the suicide bombers-the al-Aqsa martyrs as they were then-encouraged and supported by Fatah. Let us remember that Fatah is now Israel's chosen partner for negotiations. The barrier was quite understandable, but what was outrageous was that the course of that barrier grabbed a huge amount of land and water in the West Bank from Palestinian farmers and families.

Palestinians have difficulty accessing healthcare and education, and humiliation continues daily at the check-points. The settlements go on expanding despite exhortations from the international community and repeated criticism from this Government. Farmers are attacked, crops are ruined and children are brutalised and imprisoned. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than at al-Walaja near Bethlehem. The town and its people are being strangled. I have no time to give noble Lords the details, but I hope that the Minister will comment on what is happening.

In Gaza, little has changed. Food is scarce if you are poor, as most Gazans are. Together with the terror of constant overflying and sonic bombing, and the poor education that the children are getting, the international community, by its inaction, is allowing a whole generation of children to grow up malnourished, undereducated and deeply traumatised by the actions of their neighbour, Israel. A more recent development is the targeting of children by snipers as they attempt to collect gravel for building purposes, because building materials are not allowed in. Gaza is an academy for the terrorists of the future: I cannot repeat this often enough.

We must not forget, in this overview of the situation, the plight of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living in Israel, who are subjected to an apartheid-like regime of control and lack of freedom, let alone the 7,000 to 8,000 prisoners languishing in Israeli jails. Will the Minister update us on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the West Bank, and on what the Government intend to do about it?

There have been great changes recently in the situation. In March, after a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Foreign Secretary said:

"The Peace Process must not be allowed to become a casualty of uncertainty in the region. It is too important to be allowed ... to falter".

He said that a big hindrance to any negotiations taking place was the divisions between Fatah and Hamas. He also cited the problems of the settlements, East Jerusalem and Gaza. William Hague looked forward to the upgrading to mission status of the Palestinian delegation to the UK, but did not comment on the fact that, a month earlier, the USA had vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlements, even though it used the same words that Hillary Clinton used a year before when the USA called for an end to settlement expansion. Is this yet more evidence of the power of the Israel lobby in the United States?

The Palestinians have made progress and, thanks to the good offices of the new Egyptian Government, and Mr Al-Arabi in particular, a reconciliation has been brokered between Hamas and Fatah, and promises have been made by Egypt to open up the Egypt-Gaza border crossing at Rafah. Mr Al-Arabi is a very distinguished man and a former judge at the International Court of Justice. He is to be applauded for his efforts and I hope that we will encourage him in every way possible.

The Israeli Government, predictably, has said that Fatah must chose between Israel and Hamas. They always produce another hurdle when one is removed, and never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. They have also decided to withhold taxes worth $56 million that they have collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority on the grounds that the money may be used by Hamas to buy arms. Mr Al-Arabi has made it clear, as have the negotiators in Cairo, that a unity Government composed of independents and technocrats from the West Bank and Gaza will run the Palestinian Authority until elections have taken place. It will not be run by Fatah or Hamas. Israel must be told that this could be its last chance to get a two-state solution. A huge opportunity was missed after the Palestinian elections in 2006, when we refused to give the Palestinian people the Government they wanted after a monitored, free and fair democratic process.

Israel's fear of Hamas is based on the old Hamas charter, which is a relic, and on the fact that neither Israel's leaders nor ours have ever bothered to talk to Hamas leaders. On numerous occasions I and other parliamentarians have been assured by Hamas leaders, in particular Khaled Meshaal, that they will accept a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, and will maintain a truce. However, things are getting more difficult. The rockets fired recently were from dissident groups in Gaza, which get more numerous and better supported as Hamas is seen not to be able to make progress in its negotiations with Israel.

Finally, Israel has been indulged for too long in the interests of American foreign policy as well as its own. The rights of Palestinians under international law have been ignored, and much suffering and injustice have been endured. International law was not mentioned in the 2003 road map, which was meant to provide a framework for negotiations. The International Court of Justice ruling on the separation barrier was ignored, and President Obama, after he took office, ignored completely international law in his speech in Cairo on Israel and Palestine. Why?

International law is for everyone. It is for Israel, Palestine, Bahrain, Syria, the European Union-and even the United States of America. If we continue to apply it selectively, there will be no future for Israel, and the world order will ultimately collapse. I implore the Minister to tell the House that we will bring pressure to bear on Israel to co-operate with Egypt and the Palestinian negotiators in Cairo. We must not miss the great opportunity of the Arab spring-however difficult it is, and however many road blocks are put in the way-to bring justice also, at last, to the Palestinians.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I gently remind noble Lords, before we move into the main part of the debate, that it is time limited and that when noble Lords see two minutes on the clock, their time is up.

Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative 7:46 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for introducing this very important debate. I remind the House that peace is a puzzle of many parts, and in the Middle East one of the important parts is Pakistan. It is a country in great crisis. It also has an arsenal of nuclear weapons. The price we would pay for the failure of Pakistan would be devastating. It would destroy the prospects for peace in Afghanistan and infect the entire Middle East. That failure would almost certainly be lived out also on the streets of this country. It could put in the hands of extremists like bin Laden the most terrible weapons of destruction.

It is very easy to lay blame. Did Pakistanis know that bin Laden was hiding there? Of course some of them did, but it would be folly to kick over the entire barrel simply because some of the apples are rotten. Perhaps it is scarcely surprising to see the media sneering, but I was desperately disappointed to hear the CIA director, Leon Panetta, publicly proclaiming that Pakistan could not be trusted over bin Laden. In one broad, sweeping, trite statement, he humiliated them all. It is precisely that sort of insensitivity that could push Pakistan into the abyss.

The country needs help, not humiliation. A stable Pakistan is a precondition for a wider peace. We in Britain have a unique role to play. Our ties are abundant. We have educated their politicians, trained their officers-and one day we might even beat them at cricket. Britain needs to be the sort of good and patient friend to Pakistan that only we can be. Restoring stability will not be easy. It will not be completed in one year, or probably even in 10; but the prize is worth every effort, because if we fail, the alternative is not just a subcontinent but an entire Middle East in nuclear chaos.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 7:49 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, I will make four points. First, the prospect six months ago of achieving peace in the Middle East through the peace process appeared very bleak. Progress made by Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas in 2008 was reversed by the new right-wing coalition led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who could plausibly point to the fact that there was no negotiating partner on the other side who could deliver, and to the increasingly sophisticated rocketry passed by Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas. Again the hopes raised by President Obama's Cairo speech were dashed, and most commentators at the time were confidently predicting the renewal of armed conflict.

Secondly, much remains unchanged, but there are now flickers of a positive movement both in the Palestinian economy and in their security services. The Arab spring has weakened the rejectionist Syria, and the new Egyptian initiative today unites the Palestinian factions. It would be helpful to have the Government's analysis of the significance of this. However, the way in which Hamas is mourning the death of bin Laden is surely not helpful.

New factors put Israel on the defensive; Egypt will shortly open its borders with Gaza, and a Government responsive to their people in Egypt might in fact repudiate the 1979 treaty with Israel. Again, the Palestinian Authority will press the United Nations General Assembly in September for recognition. There will be much international support, and this Government will have to have a clear position by that time.

Finally, the status quo is no longer tenable. Friends of Israel should urge Prime Minister Netanyahu to respond positively to the new challenges. Time is not on their side. One hopes that the challenge today of President Abbas-choose settlements or peace-will be answered positively.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 7:51 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, the strategy that has been adopted for some time-isolating Hamas in Gaza-seems no longer tenable. As many of us have advised, it was not a long-term option. In the case of Egypt itself, the Arab spring has meant that instead of standing in the way of an accommodation between Fatah and Hamas, Egypt has within weeks facilitated it. It has also, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, indicated, pledged to open the borders. This in practice makes the siege of Gaza impossible to sustain. However, while we might focus on others in the few minutes available to us for this debate, I should like to put to the Minister the question of how Her Majesty's Government will respond to two developments.

The first development is the move towards a Palestinian Government who are more inclusive and supported by Fatah and Hamas. Will Her Majesty's Government engage with that new Palestinian Government, or will they do what they have done in the past, and what they did after the Mecca agreement, and avoid engagement because of the support or participation of Hamas?

Secondly, in the event-as seems extremely likely, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said-that the United Nations General Assembly approves a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, albeit a relatively virtual one, what will be the approach of the United Kingdom Government? Will we support such an application? If it is approved by the General Assembly regardless of whether we support it, what will be the attitude? This is not, of course, a question only for us or the United States. If Hamas is part of a UN-approved Palestine, what will be its reaction to a UN-approved Israel? Everyone is put under pressure to recognise each other. However, I would appreciate the Minister's response on those two questions.

Photo of Lord Weidenfeld Lord Weidenfeld Crossbench 7:53 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, I am afraid that the two-minute speaking limit prevents me arguing certain basic facts with the noble Baroness, having myself been involved for over 60 years with Israel. There are many facts concerning even its creation which I should very much like an opportunity to discuss here at greater length.

I think that the Arab spring is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it has given fresh hopes; on the other, the symbolism of Tahrir Square has also meant assault and savagery against a hopeless American woman. I think that the important thing now is the attitude of the reunited two forces, Hamas and Fatah. If Prime Minister Abbas, whose Administration has a great record of economic improvement and recovery, were willing to prove to the whole world that Hamas is unmistakably and irrevocably prepared to accept the existence of the state of Israel and of two adjacent states, an Arab state of Palestine and a Jewish state of Israel-and, indeed, if Hamas itself would endorse that-then I think that the road is open for negotiations.

I had the opportunity in recent weeks to be in Israel and to speak to leaders of the Government, the opposition and other people of importance and influence in the country, and I can tell your Lordships that there is considerable desire for true peace along the lines of two countries, Arab Palestine and Jewish Israel. However, Hamas has to submit to the supreme test-that it is unmistakeably and irrevocably agreeable to the existence of Israel. Nothing else would suffice or enable a negotiation to start.

I also believe that in the shadow of the death of the greatest terrorist of all time, we will all have to be watchful. The fanatical followers of bin Laden will try to wreak revenge. We therefore need to have an iron will, patience and understanding, and still not falter in our desire to have peace.

Finally, I believe that the unilateral recognition of a state of Palestine is a disastrous move that would aggravate the issue unless it were immediately preceded by efforts to get the parties to the table. I know that responsible European leaders are using their influence in every way to prevent this proposal coming before the United Nations, and certainly not before the Security Council.

I believe that we should all now be working together under the leadership of the United States, reinvigorated as it now is by the success against bin Laden; try to see the position fairly; and bring the parties together on the basis of total and unconditional mutual recognition.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 7:57 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, I recently visited the West Bank; it was my first time there. Of course any solution must acquire security for Israel, but also dignity, self-respect and justice for the Palestinians.

As part of the visit I went to see the Israeli military courts in Ofer. I believe that the way in which these courts operate is an obstacle to achieving a just peace in the region. We went to see how children are treated by this system of military justice. Approximately 700 Palestinian children are prosecuted every year in these courts, and at the end of January this year some 222 were in jail. In the court we visited we saw a 14 year-old and a 15-year-old, one of them in tears, both looking absolutely bewildered. What shocked me as much as anything was to see that these young persons-children-had chains or shackles around their ankles while sitting in court. They were also handcuffed as they went into court. Although the handcuffs were taken off while they were in court, they were put on again as they left the court.

When being interogated these young people do not have the security of video recordings, lawyers or parents present. In fact, if parents want to visit, their permission might take 60 days to come through, by which time the young person might have served his or her sentence. The court proceedings are in Hebrew, with translations of a doubtful quality. The verdicts are mostly based on uncorroborated confession evidence. The evidence against one young person that we saw was of throwing stones at an Israeli armoured vehicle, for which he is likely to get 60 days in custody.

I do not believe that this process of humiliation represents justice. I believe that the way in which these young people are treated is in itself an obstacle to the achievement by Israel of a peaceful relationship with the Palestinian people. I think that the Israelis should apply proper standards of human rights to the way in which they treat them.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Chair, EU Sub-Committee F - Home Affairs 7:59 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, I raise three questions, and I hope that the Minister can respond to them.

The first is whether this is the moment at which we should be trying to revive the peace process, or should we be-as the Israeli Government would wish us to-sitting back, waiting for the dust to settle, doing nothing hasty, and making no innovations? I am sad to have to say that I think that the second choice is disastrous. I hope we will explain to our Israeli friends that we think it is disastrous because the new regimes that are emerging in Arab countries will be more sensitive to public opinion and will be open to radicalisation, and if there is no process to engage with we can be quite sure what will happen. We will drift towards confrontation and perhaps even hostilities. I believe in everything that the Minister and her colleagues have said in recent weeks, and I hope that they share this view and will be active in trying to revive the process.

Secondly, how is the vacuum in the peace process best filled? I do not think we can hope that Israel or the Palestinians will fill it spontaneously. In those circumstances, I feel that it is important to argue with the United States that it, together with the quartet, should put some kind of outline down on the table and test the views of the parties to that outline. It need not be anything particularly ambitious. It could be within the parameters of the Clinton negotiations at the White House and the subsequent Taba negotiations, but we need some substance on the table, otherwise the thing will just go round in circles.

Thirdly, who should we, Britain, and our European allies be talking to? I believe we should be talking to everyone, and that includes Hamas. We must surely now make a distinction between talking to everyone and negotiating. That is the essence of diplomacy. We should not negotiate with anyone, including Hamas, who does not desist from violence and does not accept the Arab peace initiative, but we should talk to everyone because we will have something to say if an outline is put on the table, and preserving the old system of boycotting Hamas completely will be counterproductive.

I hope that we can hear a response from the Government on those three points. We are at an important moment, and I hope that we will turn it into an opportunity, not another entry in the long catalogue of missed opportunities.

Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Liberal Democrat 8:02 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, I think it is worth restating that, quite rightly, the coalition Government's, and I hope most people's, policy is for a two-state solution. To carry this forward, all sides have to put the past behind them, however unpleasant-and much of it is unpleasant-and concentrate: first, on understanding that Israel's natural priority is its own security; secondly, on ensuring that Israel understands that settlements, other than the large towns grouped near the 1967 border, will eventually need to go, just as Israel moved all its settlements out of Gaza; and, thirdly-these all go together-understanding that Hamas needs to accept, albeit reluctantly, the state of Israel permanently and that no longer will rockets pour down on Israeli towns such as Ashkelon and Sderot.

Progress has been made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, the Fatah-Hamas agreement does raise real difficulties and challenges. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred to this, and I shall give greater detail. Ismail Haniya, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, said about Osama bin Laden:

"We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior".

The Times, which is not noted as a pro-Israel newspaper, carried an interesting editorial on 29 April. It stated:

"Hamas ... promotes its own concept of peace, founded on the Islamic concept of hudna, or an extended ceasefire. Yet it seeks an Islamic state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, promulgates The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, launches rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, and has received money and arms from Iran".

So my question to the Minister is: how does this affect the securing of an eventual settlement that, as the Times put it,

"respects Israel's security needs and creates a viable, pacific Palestinian state"?

I firmly believe that this is the way to create a stable Palestine alongside a secure state of Israel. Both sides have to sit down at the negotiation table, put the past behind them and look towards the future. This Question is about the "assessment ... of progress". That is the future.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 8:04 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, today's meeting in Cairo provides some hope of reviving the peace process, but we cannot count on it while Mr Netanyahu is in charge of Israel. Our Prime Minister has described Gaza as a prison camp. Conditions there have deteriorated. Far from withdrawing, Israel has in fact tightened its grip, and IDF restrictions have made life for Palestinians almost intolerable. There are innumerable stories of people unable to get even proper medical help.

One aspect of present policies is the trauma and psychological damage done to young children in the West Bank and Gaza. The poorest Palestinian children include those who have suffered from conflict, street violence and the worst kinds of abuse. One admirable service in Jerusalem is the Spafford Children's Center, which provides counselling and speech therapy to children who would otherwise drop out of the school system. Arts therapy and cultural alternatives to violence have been highly effective in relieving post-traumatic stress disorders. The centre's work now also extends beyond the city and the separation wall through outreach clinics, but it now takes hours for Palestinian health workers and students even to get from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, let alone to obtain visas to train abroad. What are Her Majesty's Government doing to convince Israel that freedom of movement is essential for this kind of work? Are they urging Israel to ease the blockade? Finally, will the EU have to pick up the pieces if Israel suspends payments to the Palestinian Authority?

Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative 8:06 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, I care about humanitarian issues, and I have been involved in facilitating two convoys of humanitarian aid being sent to Gaza through the Rafah crossing. I have also visited Gaza with the consent of those on my Front Bench and the Conservative Party. I, along with three other British parliamentarians, visited Israel and the West Bank last month. While in Ramallah, we had a meeting with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the West Bank. During our meeting, the Prime Minister said that if and when the Palestinians get full independence, the half a million Israelis would be welcome to stay in the West Bank. We also spent the best part of a day with an Israeli army officer and high officials in the Israeli Foreign Office to hear the Israelis' point of view. I have therefore visited Gaza, Israel and the West Bank and have first-hand knowledge of the various issues.

In regard to Fatah and Hamas, the leaders of both groups have today signed a reconciliation pact in Cairo aimed at ending their four-year rift. The agreement paves the way for a joint interim Government and fixes a date for general elections next year. The Palestinians are aiming for a declaration of statehood in September, and I very much hope that all parties involved in the dispute will have something positive to say before the declaration. I think that the peace plan submitted last month, whose signatories included two former leaders of the Israeli intelligence agency, Shin Bet, a former chief of Mossad and a former chief of the Israeli defence forces, needs to be considered. Israel is a mighty military power, but it must be magnanimous and arrive at a two-state solution whereby it has a guarantee of security and nationhood, but in return it must ensure that Arabs are fairly treated and have full independence. To achieve this, we need active participation and help not only from the two countries involved but from the United States, the European Union and, of course, other members of the quartet.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 8:08 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, I am particularly glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and my noble friend Lord Dubs mentioned children in this debate. The plight of children is deeply disturbing. The condition in which children in particular are being held in prison in both parts of Palestine is an affront to any decent humanitarian standards, but it is also totally inexplicable in terms of peacebuilding because of the bitterness it must engender in the young.

The coming together of Hamas and Fatah certainly provides a great opportunity, but I would like reassurance from the Minister that the Government are totally convinced that if a success is to be made of this opportunity, the process, as well as the solution, in making peace must be owned by the parties themselves. It has to be inclusive and preconditions have to be kept to a minimum. The point about peacebuilding is that you build commitment in the context of the process. Insisting on too many preconditions before the process begins prevents the process getting under way. That is the whole challenge of a peace process.

Finally, I believe that the outside world, including the United States-I would like an assurance from the Minister that this is the Government's position-must realise that it cannot impose or manage a solution here. As I have said, that solution has to be built by the parties. There is a difference between facilitating, which we should all seek to do, and trying to impose or manage, which we must try not to do, because the solution will be the solution of the people themselves.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 8:10 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, says that we must not miss this opportunity to advance the peace process. But progress depends on repudiating the noble Baroness's thesis that Israel and what she describes as the Israel lobby are solely responsible for barriers to peace. Progress essentially depends on a recognition of the interests, the concerns and the mistakes of both sides.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

I will not give way. I have only two minutes.

The unfortunate Palestinian people continue to be denied freedom of expression and an independent judiciary. It is therefore very difficult for leaders to emerge who are able to say clearly to their own people what needs to be said. What needs to be said is, "It is in your interests to abandon the futile attempt to destroy the state of Israel. Let us concentrate on education, prosperity and the development of a civil society of our own". That, more than anything, would give confidence to the leaders and the people of the state of Israel that a peace settlement can be achieved which is a lasting solution to an extremely difficult problem so that security walls, blockades and military courts are no longer needed.

Photo of Lord Sacks Lord Sacks Crossbench 8:12 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, I welcome this debate because it allows us to focus on both words of the phrase "peace process". We who pray for peace understand by that word a state in which I recognise your right to exist and you recognise mine. That is what peace minimally means. How can we be speaking about peace when Hamas remains committed as a matter of principle to the elimination of the state of Israel; when it engages in missile attacks against innocent civilians and uses its own innocent civilians as human shields; when it propagates some of the most vicious anti-Semitic myths ever to have inflamed the hatred and to have anaesthetised the conscience of human beings, and two days ago praised Osama bin Laden as a holy warrior; and when it refuses to agree to the fundamental principles laid down by the quartet, not least of which is the recognition of Israel's right to exist? Until Hamas undergoes fundamental change, there may be a process but there will not be peace. Peace is more than a resting place on the road to war. I cannot make peace with one who denies my right to exist.

No one familiar with the history of the Jewish people through its 4,000 years of history can fail to appreciate how deeply Jews within Israel and outside long for peace, pray for peace and long for the ability to live as other people live-without fear, without hate, without being treated as a pariah, without being blamed for the troubles of the world and without being denied the right to exist. That is why I urge the Government to be resolute in their insistence that the path to peace in the Middle East must begin with the unequivocal recognition of the state of Israel's right to be.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 8:15 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, given the time that I have, I am going to have to restate a position. The conditions for peace require a major development in good faith on all sides. Good faith in the pursuit of peace imposes a clear duty. Any progress cannot be destroyed by either party by taking steps or striking positions which they know in advance are abhorrent to the other.

The quartet, which we support, has set out what must be pursued actively, in good faith and in a climate of restraint. Israel should desist from expansion, from building illegally on Palestinian land and from making it ever less possible to create a viable Palestinian state. The question inevitably will arise about the sincerity of a desire for a two-state solution when that two-state solution becomes more difficult by the day in the financial, economic and other arrangements.

An equally plain and equally great impediment is the routine and continuous firing of sophisticated rockets and other munitions into Israel, which undermines confidence among ordinary people that a peaceful solution is possible. The refusal to recognise the right to exist of the Israeli state, not least by Hamas-whatever the noble Baroness may have said at the beginning-speaks to a long-term resistance to peace and that cannot be ignored. In terms of recognition, we also welcome the extension of the diplomatic status of Palestinian entities.

Two viable states, respect for life, respect for law including international law, and recognition of legitimate states and their right to exist are the foundations of what will strike an honourable peace.

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 8:17 pm, 4th May 2011

My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lady Tonge for allowing us to have this debate which is so crucial at this time. I should also like to thank all noble Lords for the measured way in which this debate has been approached, considering the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

We are seeing unprecedented change across the Middle East combining immense potential for greater democracy with the risk of instability and violence. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made it clear that the peace process cannot become a casualty of regional uncertainty. This Government are working with international partners-the US and the E3-to get the Israelis and Palestinians to return to direct negotiations as soon as possible.

The negotiations should be based on a two-state solution on the basis of clear parameters. As noble Lords know, these parameters are: an agreement on the borders of the two states, based on the 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps agreed between the parties; security arrangements that, for Palestinians, respect their sovereignty and show that the occupation is over and, for Israelis, protect their security, prevent the resurgence of terrorism and deal effectively with new and emerging threats; a just, fair and agreed solution to the refugee question; and fulfilment of the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem. A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians must be determined to enter into meaningful negotiations. We look to both parties to return to negotiations as soon as possible on the basis of the clear parameters I have outlined. Our goal remains an agreement on all final status issues. We will contribute to achieving this goal in any and every way that we can. Noble Lords have raised important questions and crucial points, many of which I am sure will be raised this evening when the Prime Minister meets with the Prime Minister of Israel.

I will now respond to some of those points and questions, but I hope I will be forgiven if I cannot answer all of them. I undertake to write to noble Lords and have copies placed in the Library.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, asked about the expansion of settlements, especially at al-Walaja. We are aware of this and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs visited the settlement in January during his visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories. Our view is that all settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories is illegal and an obstacle to peace, and therefore we will raise this issue with the Prime Minister of Israel again.

We remain concerned about the prevailing situation in Gaza, although some welcome progress has been made on the humanitarian aid side, the move from a white to a black list, and the increased volume of imports. But a fundamental change is needed to achieve pre-2007 levels of exports as soon as possible, along with improved co-operation with the United Nations and the NGOs. The recent Israeli measures to facilitate exports out of Gaza are welcome, but they need to be made swiftly and implemented quickly. This means action on the ground. It is also vital that Israel should allow Gaza to import the raw materials necessary for manufacturing exports. We are discussing with Israel, the EU and the UN how we and others in the international community can help to move the issue forward. We continue to encourage the Government of Israel to enable Gaza exports this year to attain the levels of 2007. The British Government believe that a strong economy in the Occupied Territories is key to promoting peace, stability and prosperity.

The noble Baroness also spoke of Hamas, as did a number of other noble Lords. Our policy on Hamas is clear. The quartet has set out clearly that Hamas must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previously signed agreements. Hamas must make credible movements towards these conditions, which remain the benchmark against which its intentions should be judged. The clear focus for now must be on a return to direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine as soon as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, asked about the United Nations General Assembly in September. Our focus remains on getting the parties back to the negotiations as the best way to achieve a two-state solution, but as we approach September, we are all clearly going to be faced with some very difficult choices which we are currently considering.

The noble Lords, Lord Anderson, Lord Weidenfeld and Lord Hannay, and my noble friend Lord Alderdice all talked about the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. We renew our calls to both sides to commit to peace talks leading to a Palestinian state that exists in peace and security alongside Israel. Britain hopes that the announcement of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas will lead to the formation of a Government that reject violence and pursue a negotiated peace, and we will judge a future Palestinian Government by their actions and readiness to work for peace. Intra-Palestinian reconciliation remains a critical component of the peace process. We are of course examining the detail of the recent announcement and we are in discussions with our partners.

On Palestine's recognition and on state building, we see negotiations towards a two-state solution as the only way to meet the national aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians, leading to a sovereign, viable and contiguous Palestinian state living in peace alongside a safe and secure Israel and its other neighbours in the region. The UK is fully committed to supporting the Fayyad plan and helping to build the institutions of a future Palestinian state, but a negotiated solution remains the only result that will actually bring peace and justice to the Palestinian people. We therefore call on the parties urgently to return to negotiations. The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, can be reassured that our focus is on bringing the parties back to negotiations, that it must be that both parties feel safe and secure, and that it is a settlement which is agreed by all and recognised by all.

My noble friend Lord Dubs was absolutely right about a stable Pakistan. It is crucial that we have a stable region, and that is why our aid programme has been increased. By working with Pakistan, we will be able to tackle terrorism.

A number of noble Lords spoke about the importance of the Palestinian Authority, and that is why we have upgraded the Palestinian general delegation. It was agreed by the Foreign Secretary on 8 March that, in view of the signs of improvements made by the Palestinian Authority in its state-building agenda and the progress being made on its road-map commitments, the upgrade of the delegation office means that it will now be renamed as the Palestinian mission. There will be simplified visa arrangements, but it is important to make it clear that this is not the first step towards recognising the Palestinian state, which I repeat must be achieved through negotiations. Diplomatic status will only be conferred on diplomats from states that we recognise.

There are many points that I have not addressed, on which I undertake to write to noble Lords, but in my closing paragraphs I will address some further questions. The most important lesson we have learnt from the Arab spring is that legitimate aspirations cannot be ignored and must be addressed. If we cannot create a path for those legitimate aspirations to be secured through negotiation, there is a risk of violence and a generation of people who see little hope for the future. This should not be allowed to happen. We understand Israel's deep and justified security concerns, and we will work with Israel to preserve her security and the stability of the region around her. We hope that the signing today of the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo will lead to the formation of a Government that reject violence and pursue a negotiated peace. As I have said, we will judge a future Palestinian Government by their actions and readiness to work for peace.

We are extremely concerned about the escalating violence and the deaths of civilians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, including the bomb attack at a bus station in Jerusalem and the surge in rockets and mortars from Gaza. We have condemned the extremists for instigating this violence and deliberately attempting to wreck the chances for peace. They should not think that while the attention of the world is elsewhere, we will turn a blind eye to their actions. Israel has the right to defend herself, but we will call on her to be proportionate in her retaliation, and we call on both sides to do all they can to prevent the further loss of innocent life.

We recognise the significant progress made by the Palestinian Authority in building the foundations of a viable Palestinian state in line with its road-map commitments. The UK continues to support the creation of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, but also continues to believe that the best way to achieve a lasting solution that delivers a sovereign, independent and contiguous Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel at peace with her neighbours is through a negotiated solution. We will be working with the international community to do everything we can to achieve this, and we look to both parties to come to negotiations based on the clear parameters as soon possible.

I have a note on children being held in custody. I would just like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and others who raised the issue that we are taking it very seriously and are raising it with the Israeli Government at every juncture. We continue to monitor the situation, but in the interests of trying to get the two parties back into negotiations, it is really crucial that while we treat Israel as a close and candid friend, we are also able to be frank about those things that we disapprove of.

I have reached my 12 minutes but I reiterate that I will write to those noble Lords whose questions I have not managed to answer. This has been an important debate and it is one that I suspect we will keep returning to.

Sitting suspended.