Middle East Peace Process — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:17 pm on 4th May 2011.

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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.