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7 Jun 2006 : Column 121WH—continued

3.28 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I start, as is obligatory but highly appropriate on this occasion, by congratulating the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate. This is the highest attendance I have ever seen for a debate in this Chamber, and it reflects not only the interest in the subject, but, regrettably, the entrenched views in this House, which perhaps mirror the entrenched views of people in the area that we are discussing.

It was a privilege to listen to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who drew on his expertise as a former Foreign Secretary and, before that, Defence Secretary. In six minutes, he encapsulated the kernel of our entire debate.

Drawing on the contributions, I want to touch on four subjects. First, my party and I strongly believe in the necessity for a two-state solution. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s most telling point was that this conflict, unlike others, has an end point, on which almost everybody, regardless of their opinion, can agree. For the Israelis, that end point is security and being seen as legitimate by their neighbours, by people across the middle east and by the world. To balance that, for the Palestinians, it is having a viable state.

Politicians can be so immersed in conflict resolution, especially in troubled areas of the world, that they lose sight of what much of day-to-day politics is about. I was particularly struck by what the hon. Member for Hartlepool said about the minimum wage in Israel and about the elections, in which some slogans and themes of Labour’s 1997 and 2001 campaigns were drawn on, perhaps unwisely—well, given the success of the outcome, perhaps it was wise. Relating politics to people’s day-to-day concerns is extremely important; politics needs to address people’s concerns. Ultimately, politicians should not be judged solely on their ability to strike poses and negotiate settlements in protracted disagreements that have lasted for many decades. They also have to be able to bring tangible economic and social benefits to the people whom they serve.

My second point is on Israel’s place in the wider middle east. It is extremely welcome news that Israel continues to enjoy cordial relations with Egypt and Jordan. That points the way forward for mature relationships with other parts of the middle east. Everyone would agree that the Iranian president’s rhetoric about the existence of Israel is alarming, but there is some cause for optimism even there, although I do not want to exaggerate it. We should not underestimate the leap that the Americans have made in the past week or two in offering to have dialogue with the Iranians. Also, interestingly, the Iranians have shown imagination—something that is not always displayed—by at least engaging in that process. I do not wish to overstate the progress made, but nor do I wish to understate it.

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My third point is about the security wall, which has been touched on in nearly every contribution so far. People disagree on how to describe it, but let us call it a wall for the time being. I well understand the reasons why that wall was built. We need only go back to events in London just under a year ago to understand the threat and the terror that suicide bombers pose to people going about their normal business, and we should never lose sight of that concern and that menace. However, it is also reasonable to observe that the wall is aggressively placed, and that it divides communities both economically and socially. I do not particularly wish to make a judgment, other than to say that no wall has ever offered a lasting solution to a political problem, whether it is in Northern Ireland, Berlin or elsewhere. Some people may take the view that it is necessary in the short term, but I caution anyone against thinking that it is anything other than a short-term measure.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I am conscious of the pressure on time. It is precisely on that point that I wanted to speak. Does he accept that people who comment on the security fence or wall that has been developed in the middle east ought to visit Northern Ireland to see precisely the same abomination in Belfast? No matter where a wall is put, it is an aggressive intrusion into communities, but in Northern Ireland, where both Conservative and Labour Governments have built these abominations, the experience of communities on either side is that the immediate relief that a wall brings from snipers, bombs and stonings means that people can begin to refocus on their economic circumstances, on their education and on local well-being. It allows breathing space. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a wall is short term. In Northern Ireland, they have been there too many years—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Briefly.

Jane Kennedy: For the middle east, the wall may be a solution that will be of some benefit in the short term.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for that intervention, because it essentially, and eloquently, reinforces the point that I was seeking to make, which is that one can understand why the wall is located there. If one puts oneself in the position of someone who feels under threat, one can understand that even more; but also, if we take a step back, we can see that there is no long-term viability in a political settlement that includes literal barriers between people.

My final point is on Hamas and the government of Palestinians. People can interpret the result of the elections differently, but I would like to think that some of Hamas’s support—perhaps even the bulk of it—was more the result of a social cry than a political statement. By that I mean that one should never underestimate the desire of people voting in elections to concentrate on the basics—on jobs, prosperity and the future of their families. That is a point that I tried to make earlier, and that the hon. Member for Hartlepool also made. Sometimes, people feel the need to make a dramatic statement in order to underline their desire or desperation.

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To draw on a point made by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and others, it is important that we continue to recognise that there is huge social deprivation in the Palestinian territories, and it is potentially perverse for us to make that worse, or to cause ourselves greater difficulties, by making the situation more problematic. Even if we see that as a potential political solution, the likelihood is that it will turn out to be quite the opposite, and that it will lead to greater militancy and a greater desire on the part of rank-and-file Palestinians to seek more radical solutions to their problems.

My party and I agree that Hamas should renounce violence against the Israelis and should recognise Israel as a state. Indeed, it is in the Palestinian interest to do both those things; it is not just of benefit to the Israelis, because the scope for politics and a political solution is very limited until the Palestinians put themselves in a position with which the Israelis can more reasonably negotiate. They will inevitably find that easier if both those concessions are made.

In summary, my party and I—and, I think, people across the parties in the House—favour negotiation. Imposed solutions are likely to be short-term solutions, particularly with regard to borders and land. Although there is not often cause for optimism in that part of the world, we hope that at least with the rapid political change that is taking place there, there may be more reason for being optimistic looking forward, than there has been looking backwards.

3.37 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate. He has spoken in similar debates over the past six months with great eloquence and commitment. The one thing on which we can all agree is that, in a period in which so many political commentators—and, indeed, political leaders—in the United Kingdom say that politics is dead and that it is all about packaging, spin and a feel-good factor, one need only come to Westminster Hall for a debate such as this to hear real issues being debated with real passion by people who believe in what they say and take a line that may not be consensual, because this is not a subject on which it is easy to find consensus.

In this debate, I am struck, as was my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), by the historical anniversaries: this year is the 90th anniversary of the Arab revolt and the 50th anniversary of the Suez operation. The point about that—and we can draw other historical analogies—is that Britain had, and still has, a deep, important role in the middle east. At least some of the things happening today are a direct consequence of actions taken by previous Governments, so Britain has an interest and, to a certain extent, a responsibility.

Another point that I draw from this debate has already been made by a number of Members. I suspect that the actions of the Israeli Government, in terms of their security policy—what they refer to as defendable frontiers—and the election of Kadima, have bought a period of negotiations. The Israelis believe that they
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have established security against terrorism in the short term, and that they have placed themselves in a strong negotiating situation. I agree with Members who say that those who have suffered terrorist activities within their borders will feel a powerful motivation for anything that can prevent those activities. However, that is not a long-term political solution. Israeli security officials tell us, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea said, that people will undoubtedly find other ways of directly attacking Israel in the medium term. A political solution is likely to be the only answer.

Several hon. Members referred to the plight of the Palestinians—I and many people in this Room have seen it—and brought it graphically to life. There is no doubt that the plight of the Palestinians is not just related to the fact that, compared with Israel, they appear to be a poor people, as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said. Their plight is not just a result of actions taken by the Israelis, the United States of America or any of the other western powers. It is also a direct result of a failure of their own leadership and corruption on a scale that makes that in many other parts of the world look puny. When I went to Palestine, I was struck by the large number of people wandering around wearing designer clothing and driving modern cars. There is a lot of money in Palestine and the ordinary people are being cheated, not just by outside organisations but by the Palestinian authorities.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: I will not because I have very little time, and I want to keep my comments short so that the Minister has time to speak.

The crucial question that I draw from the debate and similar previous ones is simple, but it is the most difficult one to answer—I do not expect the Minister to answer it. What is Israel, and what is Palestine? It is almost impossible to agree immediately on what the definable borders of Israel and Palestine are. That will be the most difficult problem to resolve. The question the Minister has to face is what role the British Government have in keeping those negotiations open and persuading the two sides to come together. I suggest that we do so in the following way. We have a responsibility in the historical context. We also have one because we have been—and still are—directly in contact, both formally and informally, with a wide range of those involved in the conflict. We still have tremendous influence among the bordering states, and I would like more action to be taken by the neighbours of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Many of them stand on the sideline criticising what is going on, but they could make a much greater effort. It is a question not just of providing money, but of political support for dialogue as well.

In addition, we have influence on the United States of America. It seems that the United States is sometimes very heavily engaged in this area, but at other times, it seems totally disinterested and not engaged at all. We have a responsibility and duty to encourage the US, whatever the Administration, to continue direct engagement, showing the sort of imagination it has shown recently in giving diplomacy a chance in negotiations with Iran.
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The United Kingdom also has a responsibility to continue direct practical support, which has taken place under this Government and previous ones, to Israel and Palestine. We do so by giving advice, supplying officials, assisting security and through United Nations and other humanitarian aid.

Sometimes, we hear colleagues say that Westminster Hall debates are irrelevant. After all, we are out of sight. Who sees us? It would seem only a few people sitting at the back of the Room. But most of us know, from talking to those directly involved in Israel and Palestine, that they watch, listen and hear what is said. I urge the Government to continue their good offices in bringing the sides together, as far as possible, to seek a solution. That will not be found in the next few months, but there is a window of opportunity because of the actions taken by the Israeli Government.

3.44 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I add my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) for raising this issue for discussion in the House. It is appropriate to examine the way forward in the middle east at this time, four months after the election of the Hamas-led Government in the Palestinian territories and two months after the Israeli elections.

Others have reflected on their visits to the region, and I shall do so as well. Nearly seven years ago, I went to Israel and Gaza to negotiate final status issues. Negotiations took place on borders, water rights, the status of Jerusalem and refugees. I hope that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) is right to be optimistic because it is clear that the actions of the two new Governments will determine whether the path of peace in the middle east, which we all want to see taken, is actually pursued.

Jane Kennedy: While listening to the debate, I was greatly struck by the number of Members in all parties who have recently visited the middle east. The Minister has described his own, not-so-recent visit. However, I would like to put on the record that it is a long time since I was able to visit the middle east. There may be people listening to this debate who are able to change that.

Mr. Hoon: I am not entirely sure how to respond to that. [Laughter.] Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

The British government have consistently made it clear that Hamas came to power as a result of free and fair elections and that, as a consequence, it has a democratic mandate. However, those who take part in the democratic process must play by the rules of democracy. Democracy is about more than elections: it is about assuming the responsibilities of government. We expect the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority to assume their prime responsibility to the Palestinian people by working actively towards a lasting peace with the state of Israel. Peace remains indispensable for the creation of the vibrant, fully functioning Palestine that we all want to help to develop.

The way towards that is set out in the road map, endorsed in 2003 by both the Israeli and Palestinian Governments of the day. It sets out clear steps to be
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taken by both sides and the international community, culminating in the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel in peace and security. We and our international partners are profoundly attached to that vision, and we regard it as the best possible means of achieving the two-state solution.

However, we cannot advance the agenda for peace—the road map—as long as one party refuses to recognise the other. It is essential that the Hamas-led Government commit themselves to non-violence, recognise Israel, and accept previous agreements and obligations, including the road map. Those are the principles set out by the Quartet on 30 January, and endorsed by Palestinian President Abbas and most of the international community. We are firmly committed to them. We are asking nothing more than we asked of the previous Palestinian Government, but so far Hamas has not signalled a readiness to accept the principles.

We naturally welcome the process of national dialogue launched by President Abbas on 25 May. We are encouraged by the President’s clear desire to establish himself as the international representative of the Palestinian people, and we recognise him as such. I sincerely hope the outcome of the national dialogue is positive for the Palestinians, and positive for the peace process. The UK is certainly eager for Israel and the Palestinians to re-engage with the peace process as soon as possible.

Barbara Keeley: On the point of trying to bring forward that re-engagement, I mentioned earlier the international women’s commission, which is convened by Unifem—the United Nations Development Fund for Women—and supported by European countries, particularly Belgium. Given that women MPs in our party and throughout the House are interested in supporting both that initiative and elected women in Israel and Palestine, will my right hon. Friend advance possible membership and support of that organisation from the UK? We have been asked to support it, but that matter has not been resolved yet. Given the interest from women MPs, now is a suitable time to do something about it.

Mr. Hoon: We welcome any practical way of furthering dialogue and understanding. If my hon. Friend would care to write to me or the Minister directly responsible, we can consider that in more detail.

We welcome President Abbas’s call on the Hamas Government to endorse the prisoners’ accord. Their doing so would be a step in the right direction towards meeting the Quartet’s three principles.

The UK, along with most of the international donor community, continues to provide assistance to the Palestinian people. Along with our EU partners, we have a strong record of support for the Palestinian people. On 25 April, the Department for International Development announced a £15 million payment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The UK alone has given £147 million to the Palestinian people since 2001, and we continue to be one of their largest donors.

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Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hoon: I anticipate that my hon. Friend will want to intervene after I have made my next point. If I may make it first, I shall certainly give way to him once I have done so.

In the present circumstances, the UK and the international community cannot renew direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority institutions. Given Hamas’s position and, in particular, its support for terrorism, we simply have no choice. We are, however, determined to continue to support the Palestinian people and to help to provide for their basic needs. We have been at the forefront of the debate on how best to do that. The international funding mechanism endorsed by the Quartet and now being worked up by the EU was based on a UK proposal on how to channel funding to meet the Palestinians’ basic needs while bypassing the Palestinian Authority. The mechanism should be in place soon and the United Kingdom is, of course, willing to contribute funding.

Jeremy Corbyn: Can the Minister confirm that pressure will be placed on Israel to pay the tax due to the Palestinian Authority, to which it is clearly legally entitled? In his discussions through the UN work, has he received any assurances from the Israeli Government that they will no longer prevent the United Nations from moving around by impounding vehicles and by doing all the other things that they do that make life impossible for the UN administration?

Mr. Hoon: I shall deal with those points in due course, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.

We are concerned about the deterioration of the Palestinian economy. We continue to press Israel to open crossings into the Gaza strip to enable Palestinian goods to be exported. We want to do more, but it is a fact that the true regeneration of the Palestinian economy—which would require public and private international investment and access to regional and international markets, and would make a sustainable difference to Palestinian living standards—can be achieved only through a lasting peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has spoken on several occasions about his ideas for further withdrawals from the west bank, although those ideas have yet to be set out in detail. We certainly support the principle of further withdrawals, just as we supported disengagement from Gaza last summer, as a step in the right direction, but we and international partners, including the US Secretary of State and the UN Secretary-General, have been clear that the final status issues, such as borders, must be determined through a process of negotiation.

The UK and the international community have on numerous occasions set out their strong views that there should be a negotiated solution. President Bush repeated that to the Israeli Prime Minister in Washington two weeks ago. We are encouraged by Prime Minister Olmert’s and President Abbas’s commitment to negotiations. We hope to see those two leaders act on their commitment in the near future.

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