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Middle East Peace Process

3. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): If he will make a statement on the initiatives taken by his Department to assist in the middle east peace process. [86574]

4. Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): What steps he plans to take to support the new Israeli Government in achieving a lasting peace settlement in the region. [86575]

5. Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): When he expects the Palestinian authority to be accorded statehood by the new Government in Israel. [86576]

11. Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): If he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's relations with the state of Israel. [86583]

14. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): When he next expects to meet representatives of the Israeli Government to discuss the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. [86586]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): We welcomed the election of Mr. Barak as Prime Minister of Israel. It provides an opportunity to break the stalemate on the peace process. Mr. Barak has yet to form his new Government, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken twice with him and offered him an open invitation for an early visit to Britain.

We have called for full implementation of the Wye agreement as a first step back on the path to peace. We helped to draft the EU Berlin declaration and we fully support its call for final status talks to be completed within a year.

Britain is one of the largest bilateral donors in support of the peace process. The Foreign Office recently supported a highly successful visit by Palestinian and Israeli teachers to Northern Ireland to study reconciliation projects. That has led to student exchanges between the two communities.

Progress on the peace process is primarily a matter for the parties to it, but Britain will do everything that it can to help them reach an outcome that brings a lasting and just peace to the region.

Dr. Iddon: My right hon. Friend will be aware that just two weeks ago the Israeli Government confiscated a very large tract of land between Mu'ale Adumim and east Jerusalem. If that land is developed it will cut off the north of the west bank from the south. In any negotiations with Mr. Barak, will my right hon. Friend try to dissuade him from developing the land, which is far more controversial even than Har Homa?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend touches on an important issue. In the Berlin declaration and in the declaration of the G8 summit at the weekend, we have called on the Government of Israel to cease settlement activity that unilaterally broke the peace agreement. I welcome the fact that Mr. Barak has said that he is not necessarily bound

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to develop all the settlements. I hope that there will be a return to the negotiating table rather than a unilateral attempt to change the situation on the ground.

Ms Blears: Does my right hon. Friend agree that to achieve a lasting settlement throughout the region good relations between Israelis and Arabs are as important as good relations between Muslims and Jews? Will he urge the Iranian Government to release the Jewish people who were arrested in March this year? They have been subjected to spurious charges of spying and could face death. Does he agree that if any harm came to the Jewish people in Iran, it would be appropriate for us to reconsider whether our ambassador should remain in that country?

Mr. Cook: We have just sent an ambassador to Iran. President Khatami has made some welcome statements about his wish to ensure that all religious minorities in Iran are protected. We have made representations insisting on a fair judicial process for the 13 who have been arrested and for any charges against them to be publicised and brought to court. I welcome some of the balanced and favourable comments that have appeared recently in the Iranian press, criticising some of the people who have prejudged the guilt of those who have been arrested. It is important that they should have a fair and open trial.

Mr. Wyatt: As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has already said, there are serious problems in one part of the Palestinian area. The situation is incredibly difficult for the Palestinian authorities. What is the current state of discussions between our Government and the new Labour Government of Israel on illegal Israeli settlements?

Mr. Cook: As I have said, the new Government have not yet been formed, but I look forward to an early consultation with the Foreign Minister once he is appointed. We have already sought an early meeting with Mr. Barak. In the communications from our Government and from the European Union we have stressed the importance of making sure that settlement development does not proceed, because of the risk that it would make it difficult to bring both sides back to the negotiating table. The way forward on the peace process is through dialogue, not unilateral action.

Mr. Colman: I am sure that my right hon. Friend welcomes the commitment from Mr. Barak to withdraw all Israeli troops from Lebanon within the next 12 months. Of course, they were put there to stop the terrorist incursions and the missiles that were fired on to northern Israel. Will my right hon. Friend urge the Lebanese Government to ensure that when Israel withdraws--as it has from Jezzine--they take up their rightful role of policing the area to prevent the resumption of terrorist attacks on northern Israel?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend is quite right to say that, in the event of an Israeli withdrawal, there must be no security vacuum. I very much welcome, as I did last month following the election of Mr. Barak, the indication that he gave that he hoped to secure the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon within a year. I hope

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that that timetable will prove possible. Progress on the Lebanese and the associated Syrian track will help to prevent any security gaps.

Mr. McNulty: My right hon. Friend's comment about Jewish communities throughout the middle east being part of the middle east peace process is welcome. Can he give me a little more reassurance on the plight of the 22 Iranian Jews arrested in Iran on trumped-up charges? While a commitment to free and fair trials is of course welcome, those people have had no visits in prison, they have no legal representation and their plight, and indeed that of the entire 25,000 Jewish population in Iran, must be a serious concern. What representations are we making?

Mr. Cook: We have made representations to the Government of Iran both on the need for legal representation and for due legal process. I can assure the House that we shall continue to do so. My hon. Friend touches on a wider issue also. It is a matter of concern that the Jewish population of Iran has fallen from about 100,000 to barely a quarter of that figure. That is testimony to the pressure that has been put on them. The Government condemn anti-Semitism wherever it occurs and we shall certainly remind the Government of President Khatami that we expect them to implement fully their commitment to protecting the rights of all religious minorities, including the Jewish community.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire): A cause of intense disagreement between Israel and Palestinian negotiators is the future of Jerusalem. Does the Foreign Secretary envisage Jerusalem becoming the capital of both Israel and an independent Palestinian state?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is one of the most contentious elements within the peace process. That is why it was reserved to the final status talks. It would not be helpful for even the strongest well wisher of the peace process, such as the United Kingdom, to express a view on what should be the outcome of those final status talks, but we support--and helped to write--the Berlin declaration that called for the final status talks to begin as soon as possible. We believe that there is no reason why they could not be concluded with good will within a year. They would have to include an agreement on the future of Jerusalem.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Is the Foreign Secretary aware of the wide support in and outside the House for the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) regarding the members of the Jewish community arrested on trumped-up spying charges in Iran? They include a chief rabbi, teachers and other members of the religious community. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this grisly spectacle does immense harm to Iran's standing in the world and that the elements in Iranian society that are responsible for it should bear that in mind?

Mr. Cook: As I have told the House, certain elements of Iranian society have expressed quite robust and strong views about those who have prejudged the guilt of the people who have been arrested. We insist that the Government of Iran should ensure proper observation and due legal process and proper legal rights for those

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arrested. The Iranian Government would rightly expect that for any of their citizens that we arrested, as indeed they would expect that from Israel. It is right that the international community should remind Iran that they must treat the Jewish members of their own society in the same way.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): In reflecting upon the peace process, will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that the early general election in Israel was precipitated by the inherent instability of that country's so-called proportional representation voting system? If the right hon. Gentleman can bring himself to acknowledge that simple and salient fact, will he also acknowledge that a strong Government with a clear mandate would be a better negotiating partner in the region for the simple reason that they will be able to focus on the policy agenda and not the grubby struggle for seats around the Cabinet table?

Mr. Cook: At two successive Question Times I have welcomed the result of that election, therefore I would be unwise to criticise the basis on which it was secured. I simply invite the hon. Gentleman to reflect on whether the past two years' history of the peace process would have been any better had Mr. Netanyahu had a strong majority.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Further to the question from the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) concerning the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, is the Foreign Secretary aware of the generally held belief that President Assad is using Hezbollah as his proxy militia to fight the southern Lebanese army and Israeli forces in south Lebanon? To facilitate the withdrawal from southern Lebanon, will the Secretary of State endeavour to meet President Assad to try to impose on him some regulations, or at least to encourage him to withdraw his support for Hezbollah in Lebanon?

Mr. Cook: We retain strong dialogue with Syria. I have met President Assad, and I met the Syrian Foreign Minister recently. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), is meeting the Syrian Foreign Minister tomorrow. We continue to press Damascus on these matters, but it will not be easy to secure the outcome that the hon. Gentleman seeks without progress on the Syrian track, on which Damascus, quite rightly, has its own legitimate views.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): Everyone in this House would wish Prime Minister-elect Barak success in his coalition building, particularly as he seeks to include in the coalition those organisations that believe in the principle held by the previous Prime Minister of land for peace. If the new Government are to get off to a good start with the Palestinians, they must concentrate on freezing development of the settlements as a genuine sign that there is a determination to reach final status discussions on all outstanding matters. I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments, because unless there is a comprehensive peace that includes peace with Syria and Lebanon, there will be no peace in the region.

Mr. Cook: I reinforce my hon. Friend's point that if the peace process is to be successful, there must be progress on all its tracks, and not just on the Palestinian

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track. He is right that nothing could do more to jeopardise this unique opportunity to get the peace process back on track than a continuation of the unilateral breach of the peace agreement by settlement building. It is a matter of regret that during the interregnum before the new Government take over, some are taking advantage by continuing settlement building. I hope that Mr. Barak will stand by his pledge not to be committed to those changes that have taken place without any democratic mandate from the people of Israel.

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