Middle East Peace Settlement — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:35 pm on 14th January 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 8:35 pm, 14th January 2014

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for giving us the opportunity for what has been a well attended and wide-ranging debate. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in the other place, it is impossible to overstate the challenges and the gravity of the threats in the region if current openings and opportunities in Iran, the Middle East peace process and Syria are not brought to fruition. The UK is working closely with international partners to drive forward progress.

The question today is specifically about the European Union’s contribution to these developments, and I shall now focus on that issue. I endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and my noble friend Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne, about the fact that the EU’s leverage and stability allow it to play the positive role that it does in international disputes.

I shall start with Iran. As the Foreign Secretary announced yesterday, the first stage deal reached between the E3+3 and Iran in Geneva on 24 November will come into force on 20 January. This is the first time an agreement has been reached with Iran that halts all elements of Iran’s nuclear programme and, in some cases, rolls it back. UK negotiators worked tirelessly with their E3+3 counterparts and the European External Action Service to achieve this breakthrough. EU sanctions, agreed by all member states, were a significant factor in the success of our policy of pressure, coupled with a readiness to negotiate. I, like other noble Lords, pay tribute to the tremendous work of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. Once the six-month period for implementing the Geneva agreement begins, the E3+3 and Iran will enter into intensive negotiations on a comprehensive agreement. We will continue to work closely with the EU and the E3+3 towards a comprehensive solution that addresses all our proliferation concerns.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked about the role that Iran could play in relation to Syria. The Foreign Secretary discussed the need for peace in Syria with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif in New York last September. He made it clear that Iran could play a constructive role in Syria, including by supporting the Geneva I communiqué. Unfortunately, at this stage that has not been endorsed, but we continue to ask questions, as did the Prime Minister in a letter to Dr Rouhani, about the positive role that Iran could play in relation to a peaceful resolution of the Syria crisis.

The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, spoke of concerns about extremism in Syria. It is not a choice between a tyrant and terrorists in Syria. We must stand with the majority of Syrians, who want peace and freedom, and ultimately require political solutions to what is now an intense humanitarian challenge. That is why we support the attendance at Geneva of the opposition regime too.

The issue of the Middle East peace process was raised by a number of noble Lords. We welcome signs of growing momentum in the Middle East peace process and the continued commitment of Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peace agreement. The EU is a leading trading partner for Israel and the Palestinians and can play a vital role in encouraging progress in the talks. As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said—the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, referred to this too—on 16 December the EU Foreign Affairs Council agreed conclusions setting out an unprecedented package of European political, economic and security support to both parties in the context of a final status agreement. We are working with the European External Action Service to develop a firm offer in the coming months.

My noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley spoke about the EU’s financial contribution. The EU is the leading multilateral donor to the Palestinian Authority and provided $2.2 billion of support to the Occupied Territories between 2007 and 2013. This assistance in helping strengthen state institutions, law and order and the provision of essential services in the West Bank and Gaza is essential. In other words, it is helping the Palestinian Authority to build the foundations for a sovereign and viable Palestinian state, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Bew, mentioned. I assure my noble friend Lord Leigh that the UK and EU are working to build the institutions of the Palestinian Authority but accountability and transparency are important goals in strengthening governance.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester spoke about settlements. We have repeatedly condemned Israel’s announcements to expand settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including east Jerusalem. As well as being illegal under international law, settlements undermine the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and those working for a sustainable peace. We are advising British businesses to bear in mind the British Government’s view on the illegality of settlements under international law when considering their investment and activities in the region. Like my noble friend Lady Tonge, the British Government opposed calls to boycott Israel, but we do not recognise the Occupied Territories, including the settlements, as being a part of Israel. We understand the concerns of people who do not wish to purchase goods exported from Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It was in order to enable consumers to make a more fully informed—