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Speaker's Statement

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before I call the Prime Minister, I wish to express on behalf of the House our warm thanks to the Serjeant at Arms and to all those staff who contributed to the preparation of Westminster Hall for the lying in state of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, or who assisted in handling the large numbers of visitors who came to pay their respects. Many of the staff involved have worked extremely long hours with great dedication and the House is proud of them. I also wish to inform the House that a book of condolence is available for Members to sign in the Library of the House. I have signed it myself, and I encourage colleagues to do so.

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Middle East

3.32 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): May I join you, Mr. Speaker, in the sentiments that you have just expressed? All those who worked so hard on the lying in state, the funeral and the procession gave the country a ceremony of which we can all be justly proud.

With permission, I should like to make a statement following my discussions with President Bush in Crawford, Texas. Normally, an informal bilateral meeting would not be the subject of a statement. Exceptionally, because of the situation in the middle east, I thought it right to come to the House and give hon. Members a more extended chance to put questions than Prime Minister's Question Time affords.

Of course, at Crawford, we discussed many issues, including bilateral relations, trade issues, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Russia and NATO, Africa, and energy policy. I am very willing to answer questions on those issues. However, I shall concentrate on the middle east. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will also deal with this issue in the usual way in tomorrow's business statement, and there will be a further opportunity for debate next week.

There are many situations, both at home and abroad, which are called a crisis when, in truth, they are not. In this case, however, it is hard to overstate the dangers or the potential for this conflict to impact far beyond the region. It is, indeed, a genuine crisis, and one on which all of us, in whatever way we can, small or large, have a duty to act.

In the past few days, I have discussed the situation not just with President Bush, but with President Putin, President Mubarak, President Chirac, Prime Minister Jospin, Prime Minister Aznar and others. I look forward to discussing it in depth with Chancellor Schroder of Germany this weekend. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been in constant contact with his counterparts.

Nobody who has been following recent events on television could fail to recognise not only the seriousness of the situation but the appalling and real human suffering. In the past fortnight, there have been at least 55 deaths in six suicide bombings in Israel. Just this morning, at least eight people died in a suicide attack on a bus near Haifa. On the west bank, at least 230 Palestinians and 34 Israelis have died. Over 1,500 Palestinians have been injured, and a million Palestinians live under curfew.

There have been terrible human tragedies on both sides. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims, whether Israeli or Palestinian: the two Israeli women who went with their families to a cafe in Haifa and lost their husbands and children in a dreadful suicide bomb attack; the Palestinian bell ringer of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem who was shot and killed in Manger square; and the 12-year-old Palestinian boy who went out to buy some milk when the curfew was lifted and never returned—he, too, was shot and killed. Amidst the suffering, there appears to be no strategy to end it, and therefore no hope.

Both sides must see that violence is not, and never will be, the answer. The solution to this crisis will never be reached if it is seen purely as a security or military question. There must be a political process too.

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I believe that the whole House will welcome President Bush's statement last week calling on the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories, and on the Palestinian Authority to tackle the terrorism. Without those basic minimum steps, or some steps towards meeting those objectives, and without a proper ceasefire, we cannot even begin to get a political process restarted.

So what can be done? In summary, I can tell the House that we are taking the following steps. We are in close touch with the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the United States, with our European Union partners, and with Governments in the Arab world in the urgent search for a way of stopping the bloodshed and getting a political process restarted.

We shall be seeking a UN Security Council resolution, based on Crown Prince Abdullah's plan, to promote such a process, following Secretary of State Powell's visit to the region this weekend. We stand ready to help with monitoring, both of detainees and of a ceasefire when one is established. I am convinced that this is a role that the European Union is well placed to undertake.

We are also ready, together with our European partners, to help the Palestinian Authority rebuild the infrastructure of the west bank and Gaza, and to work with it, too, in reconstituting its administrative structures. We are also ready to help the authority establish an accountable and transparent security structure that can co-operate with the Israelis and the wider international community to ensure peace and security in a Palestinian state and so underpin the stability of the region.

In respect of stability in the region, I shall say a word on Iraq. Forgive me, Mr. Speaker, if I repeat some of what I said earlier. There will be many occasions on which to debate Saddam Hussein's flagrant breach of successive UN resolutions on his weapons of mass destruction. For the moment, let me say this: Saddam Hussein's regime is despicable, he is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked. He is a threat to his own people and to the region and, if allowed to develop these weapons, a threat to us also.

Doing nothing is not an option. As I said in my speech in Texas, what the international community should do through the UN is challenge Saddam to let the inspectors back in without restriction—anyone, any place, any time. If he really has nothing to hide, let him prove it.

I repeat, however, that no decisions on action have been taken. Our way of proceeding should be and will be measured, calm and thought through. When judgments are made, I shall ensure that the House has a full opportunity to debate them.

I return now to the more pressing matter of Israel and Palestine. At some point, both sides will realise that, no matter how much blood is shed and no matter how many lives are wasted, Israel will still be there, and the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians will still be there.

The initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah, to which I referred a moment ago, has been agreed by the Arab nations and is based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 1397. It is the only realistic basis for a solution—land for peace. The Israelis must allow a state of Palestine, secure in its own borders. In exchange, the Palestinians and the whole

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Arab world must recognise and respect Israel's borders and her security. A UN Security Council resolution restating these principles, with firm international backing, is the best way forward politically.

The House will know that in the region, particularly from the Israelis, there is much hostility to the idea of outside intervention. I entirely understand why, but the sad and simple truth is that the hatreds are too deep, and the wounds too raw, for the two sides to be able to resolve this alone. The US is right to be engaged and to press both sides to change, and I am clear after my visit to the US that the focus and engagement that is required will be forthcoming. Colin Powell's visit to the region is welcome evidence of that.

Both sides have heard many words of condemnation, and I do not need to add to them here. I understand the anger of the Palestinians, who see the steady encroachment of Israeli settlers who take their land from them in defiance of international law and successive UN Security Council resolutions. That must stop, but so must the appalling suicide bombings that have taken so many Israeli lives in the past few months. Palestinians have supporters the world over for their cause, but that support is weakened every time the suicide bombers act. Chairman Arafat must speak to his people and do everything in his power to stop these murderous outrages.

Both sides, therefore, know from the international community what needs to be done and they should get on and do it now. Real leadership is tested by the tough decisions and not the easy words. So, no matter how strong the feelings, no matter how deep the hatreds, now is indeed the time to pull back, to stop, and to realise that the current strategy is going nowhere, that the time for violence is over, and the time to get a peace process going is long overdue.

The international community is ready to help. People the world over are willing us to do so. Wherever we can help, we will. Whatever we can do to help, we will. But we need co-operation from both sides directly involved in the conflict.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): May I start by joining the Prime Minister and you, Mr. Speaker, in congratulating the Serjeant at Arms and all the members of staff in both Houses who helped so significantly in preparing this House and Westminster Hall in particular for the Queen Mother's lying in state?

We thank the Prime Minister for making his statement today. The appalling terrorist attack this morning has reminded us—as he pointed out—that the crisis in the middle east remains on a knife edge.

The Prime Minister's list of those innocents from Haifa to the west bank who have lost their lives, particularly this morning, is tragic and memorable. Today, the prospects for resuming any kind of peace process seem remote. It is because of the gravity of the situation with which we are now confronted that there must be a stepping-up of our efforts to help both Israel and the Palestinian people find a resolution to this conflict, as the right hon. Gentleman said.

Of course, we wish the United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, well in the round of negotiations that he is conducting and is about to conduct in the region and we welcome the reaffirmation today by the Prime Minister and President Bush of their commitment to a just

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settlement—one in which the two states, the state of Israel and a viable, democratic Palestinian state, can live together in peace and security.

We also agree that the incursions by Israeli troops into Palestinian Authority territory must end without delay, as has been said. Whatever the short-term successes that might be gained through military action in the west bank, there can be no purely military solution to this centuries-old dispute. Does the Prime Minister agree, however, that it is also the duty of any Government to protect their citizens from violence, including terrorism, as I believe he pointed out? The Israeli people have also been subjected to a vile and orchestrated campaign of terror. Day by day, suicide bombers have massacred innocent civilians, while Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority appear to have taken little or no effective action to confront those who are behind them. Does the Prime Minister agree that, in line with our demand for an Israeli withdrawal, there is now a heavy responsibility on Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority? They simply must deliver.

I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware of two documents that the Israeli Government maintain were found in the camps. If they are genuine, they show a clear link between Chairman Arafat and the terrorist networks sustaining the suicide bombers. That confirms the belief that if the will exists within the Palestinian Authority, it is possible to deliver a period of peace—it happened for 24 days over Christmas. Chairman Arafat has admitted that he was responsible for that peaceful interlude. Now, he will have the opportunity to deliver again. There must be sustained pressure on the terrorists from Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

I wonder whether the Prime Minister agrees that Arab states of good will must make it clear to countries such as Iran and Iraq that they should cease their meddling in these affairs, as it is becoming more and more clear they have been doing in the past few months.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the biggest issue and perhaps the key to the whole peace process, has to be the short and long-term guarantee of Israel's security? The worst outcome would be an Israeli withdrawal only to be followed by a further wave of suicide bombings. In the event of such bombings, Israel would again want to act to defend itself and its people, which would plunge the whole situation into crisis. The Prime Minister is aware of the problem because he has spoken about the need for observers—he did so again today. They may have a useful role to play in the coming months, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that they cannot be expected to police terrorism on the west bank in the way that Israel would understandably require as a precursor for further talks? What is the Prime Minister's assessment of Chairman Arafat's willingness to guarantee Israel's security against future attack? What is his assessment of the ability of Arab states to assist in this crucial short-term task, beyond the long-term peace negotiations?

The principal lesson that we can take from Northern Ireland—the Prime Minister is right to make this point—is that only when terrorism ends will there be a realistic prospect of a resumption of meaningful peaceful dialogue. In his statement, the Prime Minister referred to rebuilding the infrastructure of the west bank and Gaza. Does he agree that a complete and unequivocal end to terrorism could lead to significant economic benefits? Does he

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agree that holding out such a prospect in very obvious terms could be an encouragement to those who are engaged in terrorism perhaps to think again?

We agree that the basis for any resumed dialogue following an end to violence should be the proposals put forward recently by Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which remain the only prospect for long-term peace and security in the area. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the plans should include the guarantee of the short-term security of Israel; otherwise, they will not come to anything at all. The two cannot be divorced, as I hope the Prime Minister agrees.

The Prime Minister is right to say that now is the time for real leadership to shine through. The crisis will only get worse unless two things happen without delay: the end to violence, coupled with those guarantees of security. The Opposition will continue to support the Government and the United States in their pursuit of those two objectives.

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