I am very grateful, Mrs Main, to have the opportunity to debate this very important and timely issue. I thank the Minister for being with us today; I realise that since he has been in government, as Minister for Europe, this matter has not been his brief, but I know that he is well versed in it because it was part of his shadow brief. I very much hope that he will be able to give us some idea of the UK Government’s current thinking. I thank also the hon. Friends and hon. Members on both sides who are present; the level of attendance reflects the interest in the subject.
The context of this debate is the early-day motion that was tabled yesterday by my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd. She wished to be with us today but unfortunately could not be. The early-day motion calls on our Government to recognise an independent Palestinian state, alongside Israel, and to support its admission to the United Nations. The early-day motion is already supported by over 40 right hon. and hon. Members, and I am sure that more will add their name in the coming days.
Time is very limited, and before I move on to the issue of Palestinian statehood, I want to say that recent weeks have given us all a timely reminder that this conflict has already claimed far too many lives. We have seen Israeli and Palestinian civilians killed, including children on the Palestinian side. At least 15 Palestinians and nine Israelis have been killed in the past few weeks, and many more have been injured. I am also concerned about reports that the Israeli military is apparently planning to train settlers in the west bank and arm them with tear gas and stun grenades, and that it is talking up confrontation around the possibility of a vote at the United Nations in a few weeks’ time. I would be grateful if the Minister briefly explained what representation the UK Government are making to the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli Government and others, to encourage them to avoid any escalation of violence or confrontation in the run-up to the UN meeting.
Every debate and I think virtually every Foreign Office questions I have attended since I have been in this place in which the subject of Palestine and Israel has come up has returned to the fact that we all support a two-state solution. Based on what we say, I think that few things have a greater degree of consensus in this House, but what the Palestinians are asking of us now, in their initiative at the United Nations, is no more and no less than for us to mean it—to do what we say. The Palestinians are not asking for anything that Israel has not demanded and had recognised by the international community for more than 60 years.
I hear opponents of recognition suggest that the recognition of Palestine as a state and its admission to full membership of the United Nations should be treated differently—that somehow it is a way of avoiding the urgent need for a negotiated settlement. I do not believe that those two things are contradictory.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate at such an important time. I have recently returned from a trip to the Gaza strip, where I learnt at first hand about the plight of the Palestinian people. A third of them depend on food aid, which is under threat. From talks with politicians, the United Nations and others, it appears—
Okay. In talks that I was involved in, it was clear that the Palestinians felt that they did not have a voice. Does my hon. Friend agree that the granting of UN membership will provide them not only with that voice but with equality with others on that world stage?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point about equality, because Israel is recognised as a full member of the United Nations and I am not aware of any state that says it should be derecognised as such. Israel has internationally recognised borders, delineated by the green line, and that has not been seen as an impediment to a negotiated settlement; indeed, in some cases recognition of Israel is seen as a precondition to a negotiated settlement. The Quartet has even suggested that individual political parties should be excluded from peace talks unless they sign up, unilaterally and in advance, to recognition of Israel.
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that granting the Palestinian Authority UN membership would embolden extremists, who would view it as a reward for refusing to make concessions for peace?
No, I do not agree. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to talk about the fact that having extremists in government should be an impediment to recognition of the state that that Government represents, he could perhaps look at some members of the Israeli Government, particularly the Foreign Minister.
As I have said, the Quartet has even suggested that some parties should be excluded from peace talks unless they sign up in advance to recognition of Israel, but if recognition is so fundamental in respect of Israel, what is the problem with recognising Palestine as a state, as requested by the Palestinian people, and accepting it as a full member of the same United Nations, with precisely the same borders as those that are recognised for Israel—in other words, the green line?
Does my hon. Friend not recognise that a big problem is that Israel is occupying large parts of Palestine and, more importantly, that Israel refuses to recognise what its own borders are?
Israel does appear to have the problem of not being able to decide exactly where its own borders are, but the international community is very clear about where they are, as are successive United Nations resolutions: the green line.
What the early-day motion simply says, and what I and the Palestinians are saying, is that the same border should apply on both sides, for a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. When the Minister responds, will he give the UK Government’s view on that? Does he see recognition of a Palestinian state as an obstacle to a negotiated settlement, and if so, what impediments has he identified, and why does he believe that they would hinder such a settlement? Why, if they are impediments to the recognition of Palestine, are they not seen to be impediments to the recognition of Israel that we all accept? If the Minister does not agree that recognition is an obstacle, does he agree that recognising Palestine at the United Nations would not prevent the future negotiations, which we all agree are needed to reach a lasting settlement, from taking place?
I declare an interest as a member of Friends of Israel. Does the hon. Member agree that Palestine should also recognise Israel in every sense of the word, and that part of that recognition should be that terrorist attacks coming from Palestinian lands towards Israel should cease? Does he agree that that would be a gesture that should be done as well?
I and, as far as I know, everyone in this room is on record as calling on both sides to cease violence against the other. If the hon. Member is active in Friends of Israel he would perhaps already be aware that Israel is recognised: Palestine recognised Israel many years ago. Israel is a member of the United Nations and no one has called on it to be removed, or for its derecognition.
When we visited Lebanon in January, we were impressed by the offer by that country’s Prime Minister that if the Palestinian Authority or, in fact, a UN-recognised Palestinian state, gave an identity card to the people of Palestine living in Lebanon, those people would be freed up to take up employment and break through all the barriers that do not allow them to have a decent life in that country. Is that not another incentive for the UN to recognise the state of Palestine?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am not alone in making the points that I am making in this debate. As the early-day motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley notes, 122 countries, representing nearly 90% of the world’s population, recognise Palestine. Even among Israelis, polls suggest that 48% support recognition and only 41% oppose it.
What is more, last year, President Obama set a target of September 2011 for welcoming the independent sovereign state of Palestine as a new member of the United Nations. That aim was endorsed by the UK last year. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, has been congratulated many times by the international community and in this place for the state-building work that he has led, and the Palestinian Authority have been congratulated by many leading international organisations. Recent reports by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the UN have all said that not only is Palestine ready for statehood, it already operates as a state in many ways. Does the Minister share the view of those major institutions that Palestine has proved itself ready to function as a state? If not, what more does Palestine need to do either to be recognised as a state or to gain full membership of the United Nations? If the two differ, what must Palestine do to meet each requirement?
Statehood does not solve everything. A negotiated settlement will still be needed, and the parties will still need to come together to agree the many difficult issues that lie at the heart of the conflict in the middle east. However, the Palestinians look at it in this way. The international community’s continuing unwillingness to make recognition of Palestine’s right to statehood more than theoretical means that in practice, Palestine’s chance of achieving a two-state solution shrinks with every month that passes. It shrinks with every settlement built or expanded in the west bank. It shrinks with every roadblock that cuts the west bank into Bantustans. It shrinks with every Palestinian home demolished in east Jerusalem, with every Palestinian farmer cut off from the land that he or she cultivates by the construction of Israel’s barrier within the west bank rather than along the green line and with every olive grove destroyed by Israeli settlers. It shrinks with every Gaza fisherman prevented from fishing in waters off the Gaza coast, with every Palestinian workshop prevented from exporting its goods from Gaza into Israel or the wider world and with every truckload of reconstruction equipment prevented from entering Gaza to rebuild homes shattered by war.
That is why Nabil Abu Rudeina, the spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, said recently:
“As long as Israel’s settlement activities continue and as long as Israel refuses to accept the 1967 borders, after 60 years of occupation, we have no other choice but to turn to the international community. We are not declaring war. We are applying to the United Nations.”
After the Arab spring, at a time when the UK Government have been at the forefront of support for people calling for self-determination across the middle east, are we really saying that the Palestinian people should be different? If not, we return to the essential question. It is not about what we keep saying; it is about deciding what we are going to do.
The EU has said clearly that individual states must make up their own minds on the matter at the UN. When will the UK decide whether it will recognise Palestine and support its admission to full UN membership, if that is the recognition that the Palestinians ask for? In practical terms, what is preventing the UK Government from doing so now?
It is time to help to level the playing field and to support alongside the independent and recognised state of Israel an independent and recognised state of Palestine. Both peoples’ legitimate right to self-determination must be realised. The two states can then enter into negotiations on an equal footing to agree the details of a lasting and peaceful two-state solution and the final borders between those two states based on justice and international law. That is all that the Palestinians ask. Why is it so difficult for us to agree to it?
I thank and pay tribute to Richard Burden not just for securing this important debate but for the way in which, for many years, he has championed the cause of the Palestinian people with commitment, passion and, in my experience, always with immense courtesy to other Members, whether they agree with or differ from him on the issue. The events in the middle east are important to him and to everybody in the House; the attendance at this debate demonstrates the importance that the House gives to the matter.
It is also right for me to say that despite everything else that has been going on the Arab world in the past 12 months—in north Africa, Syria and Lebanon—the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Alistair Burt have consistently held the view that finding a just and peaceful settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians must remain a central part of British and international policy towards that region. I have heard my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary say on many different occasions that what has been happening in the Arab world makes it more urgent, not less, that the international community should use every bit of leverage that it has and every bit of diplomatic energy that it can spare to press for that settlement to be agreed sooner rather than later.
This is the 20th year of the middle east peace process, and it has been 20 years since the Madrid conference was launched, but if we are honest, not much has changed for Palestinians and Israelis in the 20 years since the Oslo accords were signed. Israelis continue to face threats from violent extremists, and Palestinians, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield said, still have no state. The United Kingdom Government, whatever party has been in office, have long made it clear that peace in the middle east enabling a resolution of that long-running dispute has enormous importance for both global and regional security. The goal of the international community should be to ensure that this is the last year of process and the beginning of a lasting agreement between the parties.
After the events of the past few months, the world can no longer claim that change in the middle east will come slowly and incrementally, nor can we allow the middle east peace process to limp along indefinitely as it has done. If the peace process becomes a casualty of wider regional change, that will feed instability and violence rather than democracy and human development.
The Government believe that there is no alternative to negotiations to address all the fundamental issues at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict. A solution cannot be imposed from outside, although other countries can influence those directly involved. We want the parties themselves to redouble their efforts to break the impasse and resume negotiations for a two-state solution before the window to such a solution closes. Bold leadership is needed on all sides. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can afford to let the opportunity for peace slip further from their grasp. In our view, the two-state solution, however difficult it is and however narrow the remaining window of opportunity, is the only way to realise both the aspiration of Palestinians for a state of their own and the long-term security that Israelis deserve.
This month marks the time frame set out by President Obama for welcoming Palestine as a full member of the United Nations. September also marks an important waypoint in the Palestinian Authority’s good work on their state-building programme. I applaud and welcome the progress made by the Palestinian Authority on institution-building and financial management initiatives, which the United Kingdom has supported. We recently signed a memorandum of understanding to continue to support the Palestinian Authority in their work to build up the institutions of the embryonic state and support the Palestinian people. In the current financial year, the Department for International Development expects to provide almost £80 million to this end as part of a total of £275 million allocated to the occupied Palestinian territories for the next four years. We hope that the Palestinian Authority will complement this admirable work on state building with the necessary progress on the political track.
I understand clearly, and remember from the visits that I paid to the occupied territories during my time as shadow spokesman on the middle east, the sense of anger and growing frustration that exists among ordinary Palestinians at the things about which the hon. Gentleman has spoken—the settlement building, the roadblocks, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the construction of a barrier, the reason for which one can understand in terms of Israel’s security needs, but which goes beyond the green line and which, as the hon. Gentleman has said, in too many places separates working rural families from their farmland or makes it more difficult for Palestinian workers to travel to their accustomed place of work in Israeli-administered areas.
The Prime Minister made our position on UN recognition of a Palestinian state clear during President Obama’s visit in May. He agreed with the President that a Palestinian state was a legitimate goal, but the best way of achieving this was through a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
This is an important issue for Britain for four key reasons. First, as I have said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains one of our top priorities. Secondly, there is a sense of growing frustration and pressure among the Palestinian people, which threatens the stability that we have seen over the past year. At a time when we have seen people all around the Arab world fighting for, and realising, their rights to shape the societies and Governments under which they live, it is only just that the Palestinians too should realise their goal of an independent, viable state of Palestine.
Thirdly, the security of Israel and her prosperity matters deeply to the United Kingdom as an important strategic partner and friend. We have long said that Israel’s own need for long-term security can only be assured if there is a comprehensive settlement to the Israel-Palestine dispute, including the creation of an independent, sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state.
I think that one could find different lawyers who would be prepared to argue almost any point of detail on that question. I want to come on to the point about national recognition and the UN position. I make it clear that the Government’s position is that we believe that, whatever we say or vote for in this Chamber and whatever is voted for in the United Nations, whether in the Security Council or the General Assembly, a lasting, enduring, peaceful settlement on the ground is something that, in practice, will only be secured through negotiation, not by resolutions passed in a particular place.
In the context of all the negotiations that have taken place or that have, at times, broken down, we have often heard from Israel that the problem from its perspective is that it does not have a reliable, equivalent partner with which to negotiate. Would not some progress in terms of recognition of statehood remove some of the claimed problem that Israel says it has in the context of this very frustrating negotiating process?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but we also have to accept the political reality that various acts have taken place in the past few years that have made it difficult to keep negotiations going. Direct negotiations of a serious character are not now taking place. In the absence of such negotiations, I think that there is simply going to be greater bitterness, greater difficulty and the narrowing still further of that window of opportunity for the successful creation of a two-state solution. I think that the emphasis for the United Kingdom and the international community should be on trying to get those negotiations back on track.
My fourth and final point about why this matters to Britain is that, of course, the dispute deeply affects the politics of the broader region, and the fluid dynamic resulting from the Arab spring makes the prize of stability that would come from an Israel-Palestine agreement even more significant.
We want to see a return to negotiations on the basis agreed by the Prime Minister and President Obama. The United Kingdom Government want to see borders based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, security for Israel, and the right for Palestinians to govern themselves in a sovereign and contiguous state. We see Jerusalem as being a shared city which will be the capital of both countries, and we also of course accept that there needs to be an agreed and just solution for Palestinian refugees.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being most generous with his time. Can he cast any light on the Government’s views on the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in particular, and what would happen to their status in respect of recognition of a Palestinian state?
The detail of that is something that will have to be worked out in negotiations. I think it is fair to say that the negotiations that took place between President Abbas and former Prime Minister Olmert began to address the issue of refugees, even though no final agreement could be reached before Mr Olmert left office. Our view on the humanitarian treatment of those people, particularly in Lebanon where there are some serious problems concerning the treatment of Palestinian refugees, is that we urge the host Governments to treat those Palestinian refugees fairly, humanely and equally.
I hope that the Minister will do that and I will make my question brief. I agree completely with what he has said about the need for a comprehensive settlement to achieve peace, but my question is: does the UK Government see the recognition of a Palestinian state as an impediment to achieving that comprehensive settlement? If not, why do we not do it?
We think that the recognition of a Palestinian state is something that needs to be achieved within the framework of negotiations. That is certainly the best way in which to go about it. It now looks as if Palestinian action at the United Nations this month is increasingly likely. We are working closely with partners to build consensus on a way forward that recognises the progress Palestinians have made on their state-building efforts, that meets Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and that avoids confrontation at the UN, which would have a damaging effect on the resumption of negotiations. Whatever action is taken in New York, it is important that that increases and does not diminish the prospects for a return to negotiations. We have reserved our position on the question of recognition of a Palestinian state while we continue to urge all parties back to talks. Recognition is a matter for each Government to decide bilaterally and, if needed—no resolution has yet been tabled—we will take a decision nearer the time, in consultation with the European Union and other partners.
It is important to remember that action in the UN is not an end in itself. September is not the closing date for resolution of this conflict. What happens afterwards is vital, which is why our goal remains ensuring that steps taken now to pave the way for significant and conclusive talks, and why we believe it is vital that any action in the UN does nothing to endanger the prospect of such talks.
As co-chair of the Liberal Democrat international affairs committee, I would welcome a British yes vote in September. Is not the irony of the American and Israeli position in opposition to this that both the United States and Israel themselves declared their own statehood in advance of the final resolution of their negotiated borders and many other issues?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point tellingly and well, but I will not be drawn into 1776 and all that. We want the new generation of Palestinians to grow up in hope, not despair, believing in a peaceful settlement with Israel, and not impoverished and not susceptible to terrorist recruitment. I want to assure the House that this Government will not cease in its efforts to support the parties in finding a long-term sustainable solution to this conflict that will make that vision a reality.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (