Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-137)



  120. Do you think it was prudent to reject it absolutely rather than to negotiate for other concessions?
  (Mr Gilmour) I think complete rejections are never sensible but, again, Palestinians would say they did not reject it completely.

  121. Are you being now, effectively, just a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, or do you try to understand what is happening within Israel itself?
  (Mr Gilmour) Very much. We are the only people who move from one side to the other. All the diplomats in the country are accredited either to the Israelis, if they are in Tel Aviv, or, if they are Consular Generals in Jerusalem, to the Palestinians. We are the only office that move from one to the other.
  (Mr Keating) If I may add, we think there is a terrible irony at work at the moment which is that the focus on security—and obviously Israel has very legitimate security concerns—if it is at the expense of progress on the political front, may prove very counter-productive, and that there is a vicious cycle at work which is that the focus on security and the absence of political progress is creating a sense of hopelessness and despair. That in turn is contributing to an environment in which violence can thrive and that, in turn, is reinforcing the focus on security. We believe that, while this focus on security must remain, there must be a political track that is robust enough to survive these outrages that are inevitably going to punctuate the effort, and this is taking place at a time when the economic fundamentals are just appalling. Just below 50 per cent of the population in Gaza is now unemployed: 46 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line: trade is impossible; the West Bank and Gaza are now divided in up to 200 separate blocks; there are checkpoints and blockades everywhere; and the Israeli government has imposed these closures in order to improve security for Israeli citizens which we consider to be entirely legitimate. However, the Israeli defence forces themselves in an internal audit are questioning whether this approach to security is going to yield security and not doing precisely the opposite. It is creating flashpoints between the two sides; it is the cause of humiliation on a daily basis; it is not stopping the terrorists from getting inside Israel; and it is resulting in economic despair as trade and employment collapses.

  122. What do you say about the current settlement policy? As there is more money set aside and the budget for these existing settlements are being expanded, what is your assessment of the current position?
  (Mr Keating) On settlements?

  123. Yes.
  (Mr Keating) In the context of inciting further violence, the Palestinians consider them to be the single major affront to their aspirations for statehood. There is an international agenda, supposedly, as a result of what President Bush said, what Prime Minister Blair said and what Secretary of State Powell said, which is international support for the movement towards a viable Palestinian state, and any viable state needs a number of basic attributes to make it viable, and settlements are an example of a reality which really prevent the emergence of a viable Palestinian state and, therefore, the Palestinians consider them to be not only a massive problem in terms of conducting their everyday lives but also a living example of the lack of real commitment to what they consider to be the political future that has been mapped out by the international community for the region, and as a means of trying to resolve the conflict.

  124. And these are proceeding apace? Is it just expansion of existing settlements or new ones?
  (Mr Keating) Both. The most dramatic recent development has been the occupation of Har Homar. I believe this House has paid a lot of attention to Har Homar. It began to be occupied I think four days ago, so the evidence would suggest that both the expansion of settlements and the population of existing settlements is proceeding.

Sir John Stanley

  125. We seem to be in a complete cul de sac of policy at the moment. Could you explain to us how the Israeli government, which continues to demand that Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority should take firmer action to deal with the terrorists, can expect the Authority to do it when at the same time the Israeli government seems to be systematically dismantling the ability of the Palestinian Authority to do so, taking out their police stations and taking out an increasing amount of the civilian structure and organisational ability of the Palestinian Authority? The policy seems to be wholly contradictory; it is wishing an end, certainly in rhetorical terms, and then systematically preventing the Palestinian Authority delivering the means to achieve the end.
  (Mr Keating) I do not know how to respond to that except to say that the evidence would suggest that what you say is valid. It is very difficult to see how, at a time when the capacity of the Palestinian Authority is being eroded and indeed dismantled, they can be expected to control the streets, let alone capture the imagination of the Palestinian population in terms of there being a viable future. In terms of security I cannot speak for the government of Israel but clearly Mr Sharon does have a plan. I think Andrew may have a better sense of what that is than me.
  (Mr Gilmour) Yes, likewise. I have put that question to Israelis, very much as you have said it, including the IDF, and the people who give the answer are never very convinced by what they say. The inference from what you say is exactly how I would draw it as well. We find it hard to imagine that the Palestinian police can arrest when they are not allowed to go to their offices, when their cars have been blown up, their offices have been destroyed and they cannot move. It is a serious problem. The Palestinian security services have been unable to operate.

  126. So what do you judge are the real objectives that the Israeli government is following? Are you saying that it appears that they are systematically trying to dismantle the main means of operation of the Palestinian state, to ensure that that state never becomes viable? What is the objective that they are trying to pursue?
  (Mr Gilmour) The Israeli government would deny that it is trying to systematically destroy but many people within Israel will tell us that this is, indeed, perhaps the case.

Andrew Mackinlay

  127. It struck me, to cut through the catalogue of deprivation of the Palestinian Authority, presumably at some stage they have no revenue, have they, even to run the police and ambulance services, their foreign services? There can be no method of collecting taxes and also you cannot collect taxes from people who have nought? Is that right? Is there a problem of resources as well?
  (Mr Keating) There is indeed.

  128. Which, of course, invites gifts from people as well.
  (Mr Keating) Yes. At the moment, or until recently, I believe the Palestinian Authority was receiving something like $50 million in budgetary support per month and there is a short term fiscal crisis at the moment because this money has been coming largely from the Islamic development bank in the Arab world and some of it from the European Union, and it is a constant struggle to ensure that this revenue keeps coming, but there are other ways in which the Palestinian economy and society is helped to stay afloat. One is through the UN—the biggest UN agency in the world is located in the West Bank and Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency which has over 22,000 employees and several hundred thousand beneficiaries, if not millions, in the forms of schools, clinics and all the rest of it, and they are facing financial problems as well. But the income basis of the Palestinian Authority is weakening. I think it has to be said, however, that there is scope for reforming the political economy of Palestine. The problems that are faced by Palestinians cannot exclusively be laid at the doors of its neighbours or the international community. There is plenty of scope for a renewal of Palestinian institutions, for a much stronger governance agenda and more accountable government, and so on, so if there is to be a way forward it requires action by the Palestinians themselves. We believe there is scope for the Israelis to do things which do not compromise their legitimate security concerns but do make life easier for the Palestinians in terms of managing their own affairs, in terms of their economy, as well as continuing support by the international community.

  129. What could the UK government bilaterally or the European Union do to try and get the problem to turn, as it were?
  (Mr Keating) I would immediately make three points: first, to identify and support impulses within Palestinian society for political reform and not to reject them when they emerge. There are signs of political reform—not necessarily from the top but from other parts of society, and this is very important. Secondly, to enter a dialogue with the government of Israel on whether the way it is meeting its security concerns could be done in ways which do not inflict so much damage on Palestinian society and economy. We are convinced that the government of Israel can meet those concerns in other ways and could take a number of immediate steps which would relieve the pressure on Palestinian society. The third is by trying to bring the parties back to discussions on the political track, as well as maintaining our very generous support to Palestinians through the UN, the World Bank and a number of projects.

  130. On that last point, do you think at this moment the west, the European Union, the UK government, other players, are not trying to create that dialogue? Has it gone on ice, as it were? As we speak, are there people working in the Foreign Office trying to marshall a get-together, as it were?
  (Mr Keating) Our understanding is that there is a great deal of concern but there is a certain exasperation as well. Clearly Israel's security concerns absolutely must be addressed but the exasperation is that this is not being accompanied by progress on the political front. After all, there is an agenda there. There is Mitchell; there is Tenet; it is not as if there is a mystery as to how to move things forward but there is this fundamental blockage, which is that the government of Israel is insisting upon seven days' calm before anything happens, and I do not think it is for us to say whether the government of Israel is deliberately or otherwise preventing a resumption of political discussions but the evidence is they are not going back to those discussions, and many would feel that the only players who are able to influence them to do that are the United States, and maybe the UK can play a role in encouraging greater efforts by the US as well as through the European Union to get that political track.
  (Mr Gilmour) Increased engagement would be welcomed by many parties there, and at various levels. There is one issue only where I might have encountered complete consensus amongst Israeli liberals, Israeli right wingers and the Palestinians, which is that the US is perceived by all three—and I stress the word "perceived"; it may well not be the reality—to have aligned itself entirely behind the Israeli right wing. Now, of course, the reactions are quite different. One of the three elements is cock-a-hoop about it and the other two are depressed and demoralised, but there is that perception there. Britain is seen as having great potential influence over the United States. It also has a tremendous historic role which some people say perhaps could be played out more, and I would have thought frequent visits also allow people to feel that they have not been ignored and their problem has not been put on the back burner, which is how some people would see it right now. There is, if I may suggest, a permanent revolving door of parliamentarians coming from France, Germany, Italy and the United States. I think there were something like 30 congressmen from the US there last week. I was told by the Palestinian Legislative Council that there has not been an official delegation from this House since 1998, and I think it would be seen as very welcome were links to be solidified there.

  Andrew Mackinlay: Most interesting. Thank you.

Mr Olner

  131. What can the Americans bring to the table to get the peace process started? When the Committee were in America a few months back, it seemed to me that the American politicians are saying, "We had our fingers burned at Camp David, we are not going to go near the fire again". What can the Americans bring, if they want to?
  (Mr Keating) Pressure on both sides, essentially, to talk to each other. Our concern is that security in the Middle East is indivisible. It cannot be achieved for Israeli middle classes at the expense of the Palestinian middle classes and the Palestinian people and we seem to be stuck at a stage where the focus is so much on security, particularly for one of the sides, that the importance of exploring ways in which the security of the other side can also be met—economic and social as well as personal security—has drifted out of focus. We feel it needs to be re-emphasised and the Americans need to be persuaded to come back and look at the other side of the problem as much as one side.
  (Mr Gilmour) There is a perception out there that Mitchell will not be implemented and I think it would help very much if both sides were made aware that the United States really will try to persuade both parties to move ahead on that. At the moment we feel this is lacking out there.

  132. Is there an exasperation on the part of the Americans about the suicide bomber?
  (Mr Gilmour) "Exasperation" is a very mild word for that, yes. There is also exasperation they feel, as do many of us, that the Palestinian Authority has not always been entirely frank over the people it has been supposed to arrest. This has led to exasperation amongst many members of the international community.

Sir John Stanley

  133. It is very unfair to ask you a big question in the last couple of minutes but what is your view as to how you see the relationship between the Israel/Palestinian situation and the wider international al-Qaeda terrorist operation. In particular do you think that, for al-Qaeda, the Israel/Palestinian situation is a pretext for their terrorism, or do you think it is a genuine cause, as Mr Bin Ladin would have us believe? Putting it the other way, if the Israeli/Palestinian situation was resolved, do you think that that would result in al-Qaeda terrorism simply melting away, or do you think, if it was resolved, al-Qaeda terrorism aiming at the objective of attacking non-Islamic societies, the American society in particular and those of its allies, would still continue?
  (Mr Keating) My personal view is that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been exploited by al-Qaeda as an additional reason to explain and justify their actions, but I do not think al-Qaeda is doing what it has been doing in order to help the Palestinians, and I do not think many Palestinians think this either. I do not think that a successful pursuit of actions against al-Qaeda would in any way stop the violence continuing in the Middle East. It is as useful to see how different these two problems are as to see how connected they are. The interesting point is they have arisen quite separately and they may reach out to each other in various fumbling ways to justify each other and so on, but I do not think the links are all that strong. Our central contention is that the scope for more violence and terrorism in the Middle East is enormous, and we are concerned that the way it is being tackled at the moment is not necessarily going to result in a diminution of violence or terrorism. Indeed, at the risk of being very provocative, we may be at a stage in the Middle East which we were at in Afghanistan ten years ago, where a dramatically deteriorating social and economic environment combined with radicalisation of society, growing support for Islamic groups, erosion of the middle class, and delegitimisation of authorities may be creating conditions in which terrorism could breed and thrive, so I just do not think it is useful to take the spectacle of how you deal with al-Qaeda and put it on the Middle East and assume that the solutions and the influence points and levers will be the same. I think it needs its own approach.
  (Mr Gilmour) The Palestinian leadership resent very much the exploitation of "Palestine" by Osama Bin Ladin which they see as being as cynical as by Saddam Hussain in the Gulf War. Osama Bin Ladin had no known record for supporting the Palestinians before, so it was cynical. At the same time, I think it is clear that the continued occupation of "Palestine", as they see, it and Jerusalem is definitely a cause for Muslim humiliation across the Muslim world which is a cause for terrorism, yes. It is one of the underlying factors, definitely.


  134. What are your final thoughts on Syria and on Iran? To what extent has Hezbollah lack of action since September been due to pressure from the Syrian government?
  (Mr Gilmour) Hezbollah action has been very minimal ever since the pullout of the Israelis was completed in August 2000. There have been some activities in a disputed area of the Golan Heights otherwise Hezbollah action has been very minimal. Every six weeks they do an operation but, and this is the perception of the IDF as well, they are deliberately not killing people because they know this leads to a massive reaction. They try to indicate that they are still around and that their issues must still be addressed. We feel also that the Syrians, since September, have been careful to ensure that there are no other undue provocations.

  135. And Iran?
  (Mr Gilmour) Iran, likewise, Mr Chairman.

  136. Gentlemen, you have given a very gloomy prognosis. Are there any signs of hope at all for the Committee?
  (Mr Keating) There are indeed. I think most people on both sides want peace. Support for violence is a desperate measure and we believe that, if there is a return to a political process, very quickly you would see support for violence and support for fundamentalist groups dropping dramatically. We also believe that the economic fundamentals of the region are such that there could be tremendous economic development, the economies of Israel, of the Palestinian territories, of the sub-region, are very compatible: the IMF and the World Bank have done studies on this, and the scope for there being a prosperous sub-region is, in theory, enormous. So it really is a question of getting back to the political process; not letting the economic fundamentals crumble entirely, and meeting security concerns within that context.

Mr Olner

  137. Is that post Sharon?
  (Mr Keating) It may be. It may be post both of them.

  Chairman: At least there is an element of encouragement in the challenge at the end! Thank you very much.

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