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Israel

2. Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): If he will make a statement on the situation in Israel. [32389]

3. Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Palestinian Authority about the peace process in the middle east. [32390]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): I am sorry that the previous question was out of order, Mr. Speaker, as I had a very good answer, but I am not challenging your decisions.

I had discussions yesterday in Barcelona with Ehud Olmert, Vice Prime Minister of Israel, and Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, about the middle east. Although, of course, many difficulties remain to be overcome, I am more hopeful about the prospects for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians than I have been at any time in the past four and a half years. The withdrawal of the Israeli defence force from Gaza, and from some settlements in the northern west bank, was a hugely significant first step towards the creation of a separate and viable state of Palestine alongside a secure state of Israel, as was the opening of the border at Rafah between Gaza and Egypt, where the European Union is providing international monitors.

I have often commended Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his courage in setting those events in train. I should like to do so again. He has now broken from the Likud party to form a new party, Kadima, which stands for "forward". A general election in Israel is due on 28 March.

Mrs. Villiers: The Secretary of State has acknowledged clearly that Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip and parts of the northern west bank is a major step towards a peace settlement and completion of the road map for that peace settlement. In the light of Israel's significant step and concession, will the Secretary of State guarantee to the House today that he will redouble his efforts to ask the Palestinian Authority to live up to its obligations under the road map, and to do everything it can to cease the attacks against Israel and its citizens by too many terrorist groups?

Mr. Straw: I have already placed on record my commendation of President Sharon, and I am glad that the hon. Lady agrees with it.

We must return to the road map as quickly as possible. The withdrawal from Gaza was a major first step, but there is much more to do. All sides have obligations that must be met. Under the excellent leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority is making significant moves
 
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forward. It is getting a grip on its security forces, although it needs to do more. Self-evidently, no attacks were perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority on Israelis, including Israeli citizens. Some rejectionist terrorist groups are still operating from within the occupied territories and from across the northern border, and we look to the Palestinian Authority to continue its efforts to control those organisations.

Mr. Jenkins: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, but he knows that no one can compromise from a position of weakness. We recognise the brave leadership that Ariel Sharon has given to Israel. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that it is incumbent on all parties in the region to leave their entrenched positions if we are to achieve a peace that the international community can support?

Mr. Straw: I do recognise that. Following a period during which everyone was digging into preordained or preconceived positions, there has been a dramatic change in the politics of both the Palestinian Authority and Israel over the past 12 or 13 months. The position now taken by Prime Minister Sharon and members of his breakaway party—including Ehud Olmert, whom I met again yesterday—has moved significantly from the position that the Israelis were taking four years ago at the height of the armed intifada. The Palestinian Authority is also moving. I believe that gradually both sides have recognised that the only future for Palestinians and Israelis lies in peace and in two states.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): What will the British Government do to prevent the illegal encirclement of Jerusalem from continuing?

Mr. Straw: We continue to make strong representations both directly to the Israeli Government—I keep doing that—and to the Government of the United States, the Government with the most influence in the world over the Israeli Government.

The sooner we reach final-status negotiations, the easier it will be to resolve the issue of the wall. The Israelis say that they are ready to shift the wall, as they shifted an earlier line of control in the Lebanon, as soon as there is political agreement on the borders between the new state of Palestine and the state of Israel. Those issues are to be resolved in the final status negotiations. My reply to the Israelis is that while in one sense shifting a wall is straightforward, it would be profoundly objectionable for settlements to be built within the wall to pre-empt any shifting of it later.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend will know, there will be elections for the Palestinian Authority on 25 January. Does he agree that it will be impossible for the elections to be seen to be free and fair while more than 600 road blocks are operating in the west bank—an area the size of East Anglia—and that it is essential for everything possible to be done to allow the elections to take place freely? Otherwise, only the terrorists and those who oppose the peace process will benefit.

Mr. Straw: I accept that the election operation will become very difficult while the road blocks are there.
 
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That is a responsibility of the Government of Israel, but it is also a responsibility of the Palestinian Authority's security personnel and of the rejectionist terrorist organisations, which are subject to sophisticated political control from outside Israel. We look to all three parties to take steps to ensure that the elections can take place in reasonable order. The matter will be discussed at the ministerial level of the Quartet, which will meet in the second week of December.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Is not the key to further progress towards peace, and removal of the wall and the road blocks, further progress on the question of security for the Israelis themselves, so that moderate leadership in Israel can be supported? In view of what he said about rejectionist elements—including Hezbollah, which during the peace process has launched rocket attacks on northern Israel—will the Foreign Secretary do all that he can to bring international pressure to bear on rejectionists and the states that have supported and encouraged them, including Iran, whose leader has made such reckless remarks?

Mr. Straw: I share the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman. Putting pressure on Iran, but also on Syria, which hosts Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, is extremely important. That is the subject both of our private representations to the Government of Syria and of very public condemnation, which I issued during the debate in the Security Council three weeks ago in respect of the Syrian Security Council resolution.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My right hon. Friend referred to the encirclement of Jerusalem by the wall. Does he agree that the increasing destruction of Palestinian homes in and around Jerusalem is also a matter of concern, and that the international community needs to resist the "de-Arabisation" of east Jerusalem? Will he make urgent representations to the Israelis about that, and take up the suggestion of the EU heads of mission that we should press for the reopening of Palestinian institutions inside east Jerusalem, such as the chamber of commerce?

Mr. Straw: I accept what my hon. Friend says, and its implication—that if east Jerusalem were detached from the rest of the west bank, a functioning state of Palestine would be nigh on impossible to operate. That would be wholly unacceptable to the international community, as it would be to the Palestinians. We have made very strong representations to the Israelis—particularly about not encircling east Jerusalem and not continuing to build what is known as the E1 area, north-east of east Jerusalem—and we shall continue to do so. The suggestion by the EU heads of mission is an interesting one, which Ministers will consider within the EU General Affairs Council.

European Constitution

4. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future of the European constitution. [32391]
 
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The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Following the rejection of the treaty in the French and Dutch referendums, the June European Council agreed unanimously on the need for a period for reflection to consider the right way forward for Europe. The position remains that the Council will return to the issue of the draft constitutional treaty at the June Council in 2006.

James Duddridge: What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in Germany, given that Chancellor Merkel has said that she wants to press ahead with the constitution, but the British public clearly do not want it?

Mr. Alexander: The Prime Minister has now met the incoming Chancellor of Germany, but it is to state the obvious to say that it is ultimately for the Germans to reach a decision on the ratification of the draft constitutional treaty on behalf of the German people, just as it is the perfect entitlement of the British Government, and ultimately the British Parliament, to reach a judgment on the right response of the United Kingdom to the decisive rejection of that treaty last spring by the French and the Dutch.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Clearly a period of reflection is in the interests of the whole of the European Union. However, there are elements of the constitution that match Britain's reform agenda. Is my right hon. Friend confident that during our presidency we have achieved what we set out to achieve in connection with reforming the structure of the EU? Will he assure the House that if we do not get those agreements by the end of the presidency, he and the Foreign Secretary will pursue this agenda until the EU is made more efficient and effective, irrespective of what happens to the constitution?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend's question contains a number of points. First, the judgment that the British Government reached, in the light of the decisive rejection in France and the Netherlands, was that the best use of the time during the British presidency was to engage in a broader conversation about the future of Europe. That explains the agenda that we set for the Hampton Court meeting in October in relation to specific future reforms of the European Union. Of course we have made substantive reforms in policy areas—for example, on the sugar regime, as was mentioned earlier—but in the coming six months further reflection is needed on the correct way forward, not least given the disparate range of opinions now being expressed in Europe on the future of the constitutional treaty.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Will the Minister confirm that existing treaties and EU rules remain in force, including guarantees on the rule of law, democracy and human rights? What is the UK presidency doing to clarify the serious allegations about detention camps and rendition flights, which are surely against all decent standards?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman may be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has, on behalf of the European Union, written to the United States Secretary of State on exactly that matter.
 
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Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that, rather than concentrate on what people might view as abstract issues of constitutional detail, there should be an emphasis on bringing home to the British people the benefits of EU membership?

Mr. Alexander: I certainly agree that people in both France and the Netherlands were voting on the text, and we need to respect the judgment that they reached. The broader context of how Europe can meet the challenges of globalisation explains the broader conversation in which European leaders engaged when they met at Hampton Court in October.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): As the EU presses on with the defence agency, criminal law code and the strengthening of foreign policy in many other crucial elements of the constitution, should not the Prime Minister keep his word to this House and the British people by holding a referendum in this country before the constitution returns to the EU agenda next year? The promise was unequivocal: we were told that we would have a referendum irrespective of what other countries did.

Mr. Alexander: That was a worthy attempt, but the position of the British Government has been set out several times in the House and elsewhere. The draft constitutional treaty would be ratified by means of a referendum in the United Kingdom, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that there needs to be a legal basis for decisions taken by the European Commission and, indeed, by the other institutions of the EU. That continues to be the case, notwithstanding the period of reflection for the constitutional treaty.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Given the reality that the constitution is as dead as the Monty Python parrot, would it not be better for Britain to propose a more sensible alternative: the idea that, in future, Europe should be an association of independent, democratic states responsible for their own internal affairs—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]—co-operating only where there is mutual benefit to be gained?

Mr. Alexander: I think that the cheers of Conservative Members reflect the candour with which my hon. Friend has revealed his true agenda, which underlies so many of the questions that he asks—not only in Foreign Office questions but in wider debates on the issue. It is, however, continually the case and remains the case that the draft constitutional treaty was agreed by 25 member states, so it is not the role of any one member state to declare it dead. That explains the unanimous decision that was reached back in June, which will be the basis of further conversations in the European Council next spring.


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