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Today, an active and engaged foreign policy does not just mean dealing with so-called global security. It also means dealing with the global insecurity that can exacerbate international tensions and stresses, so we are pushing hard for an ambitious outcome to the Doha development round. We welcomed the renewed commitment by the EU, the US and the G20 at the recent G8 summit to overcome the remaining obstacles to agreement and, crucially, to show more flexibility. There is more at stake than the economic well-being of developed and developing countries. There is the fate of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable and the credibility of the multilateral system as a whole.

I am also determined that the Foreign Office will be at the forefront of a step change in the international diplomacy on climate change. Global warming is one of the greatest threats that we face as an international community, and progress on it is needed with immediacy and urgency. Again, there was some progress at the G8, including recognition of the need for a clear goal to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations. The Gleneagles dialogue meeting in Mexico will be the next step in taking that forward.

I began today by saying that these are grave and difficult times for the international community. I doubt that a single person in the House would disagree with that, however much there may be disagreement on other issues. In the current crisis in the middle east, it is not just the fate of those countries most directly involved and their peoples that is at issue. Rather, what is at stake is any prospect for a lasting peace in the region and with it the wider security of the international community as a whole. What stands out with utter clarity is that any or all of these different issues and events can be addressed, let alone resolved, only if we seek the maximum amount of common ground and co-operation from the international community as a whole. That is what the Government have sought to do and will continue to do.

3.15 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I am grateful for the Foreign Secretary’s speech and to the Leader of the House for arranging today’s debate, albeit a shorter one than would have been ideal. I put it to the Foreign Secretary that there may be a strong case for a further report to the House next Tuesday after Foreign Office questions and before the House adjourns. The House should take as much time as possible to discuss a matter of central concern to us all before the summer recess—the tragic situation of Lebanon, the heavy and daily loss of life in Israel and Lebanon and the ominous portents for the middle east of the outbreak of fighting of which she has spoken.

I want to pull off the perhaps impossible trick of ranging a little more widely than the Foreign Secretary did, while keeping my remarks briefer, as she generously turned her speech into a debate by taking so many interventions. I start, as she did, with the immediate situation. The immediate origins of today’s crisis are clear. She has been clear about where the responsibility lies, and we agree with her about that. One of the first concerns of all of us in the House, as reflected in many interventions, has been the safety of
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British citizens caught up in the conflict. I join in congratulating our embassy, consular staff and members of the armed forces who have been working around the clock to evacuate those people. We trust that that will continue to gain momentum and that British citizens will be removed from harm’s way.

There have been some criticisms of the transmission and quality of the information provided by our embassy in Beirut. If there have been any deficiencies, I hope that the Foreign Office has taken steps to rectify them and to learn any appropriate lessons for the future, including whether other nations were able to act more quickly by chartering passenger ships immediately. There may be lessons to be learned.

I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will be able to say how many British citizens are trapped in areas that have been put out of reach, and what discussions are taking place with the Israeli Government about ensuring their safety. While our first concern is of course British citizens, we must not forget the plight of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people trapped between the incapacity of their Government to tackle the terrorist threat in their midst and the resolve of Israel to attack. It is fair to assume that imminently there will be a serious humanitarian crisis in parts of Lebanon. The Lebanese ambassador told me earlier of potentially half a million displaced people and a serious law and order problem when many of them arrive in Beirut, added to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the occupied territories in the aftermath of the election of Hamas.

As Lebanon has only recently begun to emerge from nearly 30 years of the devastation of civil war and to remove a little of the instability that lurks behind its recent transition to democracy, that situation represents the most desperate tragedy for the people of Lebanon. One of the most dangerous outcomes of the crisis would be civil war breaking out again and a democratically accepted Government in Lebanon collapsing. If that happens, Israel could be left with an even worse situation than the one that it currently faces—a possibility that surely underlines the need to take urgent international action now.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that DFID and other donors face a difficult challenge as they see their investment in the reconstruction of Lebanon, which at last gave hope to its communities, destroyed in a matter of weeks? Does he think that the Government can persuade donors once again to commit that kind of money, knowing that a repetition of the situation will continue to be possible?

Mr. Hague: The situation is difficult and dispiriting. People will look once again to the generosity of the British and other taxpayers and donors. I believe that that generosity will continue in the future but the situation is immensely dispiriting, which brings me to the immediate issue of what can be done without delay to bring an end to the current bloodshed.

The right of Israel to defend itself, like any country, is clear. Its desire severely to damage the ability of Hezbollah to attack the Israeli civilian population is understandable. As the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday, calling for an unconditional ceasefire from
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Israel is futile, because there is unlikely to be a ceasefire unless the kidnapped soldiers are returned, rocket attacks on Haifa cease and some hope is provided that the international community will help Lebanon to have a stable future. However, it is not clear that it is in the interests of Israel, let alone of anyone else, to delay for one moment the effort to bring about a ceasefire under those or any other conditions.

In response to the question put by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), I think that we can say that elements of the Israeli response are disproportionate, including the attacks on Lebanese army units, the loss of civilian life and essential infrastructure, and the enormous damage to the capacity of the Lebanese Government. A disproportionate Israeli response will damage the Israeli cause in the long term, even if it was partly brought about, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said, by the callous stationing of military units in civilian areas.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Lebanese Government’s case would be immensely strengthened if they publicly disowned the activities of Hezbollah and requested the international community to take the action necessary to contain Hezbollah that they evidently cannot undertake themselves?

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend points to part of the immense difficulty for the Lebanese Government, because there are of course Hezbollah members of that Government. There is no doubt that the Government of Lebanon would like the implementation of UN resolution 1559. They believed that they had started a political process that could lead to that, but it did not happen in sufficient time to spare us from the conflict, which was launched deliberately, as the Foreign Secretary said, by Hezbollah.

Tony Lloyd: The right hon. Gentleman makes the essential case that as an act of policy Lebanon must be strengthened in terms of the functioning of the state, so that we can expect the Lebanese to do the things that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) has just suggested—but that will take time. Is not it in Israel’s interests to make sure that the Lebanon that emerges from the current situation has the capacity to rebuild itself? Continued bombardment will destroy that capacity.

Mr. Hague: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point and underlines the urgency of the case from the point of view of the international community. It is by no means clear that continued bombardment of Hezbollah areas will result in military success for Israel. The idea that it is somehow in the interests of Israel or of a longer-term solution for the fighting to go on for several more weeks may prove to be woefully misguided. The removal of Hezbollah from southern Lebanon and the implementation of UN resolution 1559 will require a political process of some kind, which requires a successful Lebanese Government who can work with the Israeli Government.

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Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hague: Let me make a little more progress, or my speech will become as long as the Foreign Secretary’s, understandably, became.

I do not underestimate the immense difficulties for anyone trying to bring about an agreed ceasefire in a conflict where one party is a terrorist organisation whose primary links are to countries such as Iran and Syria, which are already at loggerheads with most of the international community. However, it was dispiriting that the G8 summit at St. Petersburg, despite the reference to the UN Secretary-General of which the Foreign Secretary spoke, produced so little unity and such an apparent shortage of the will to take immediate action. The Prime Minister’s famous “Yo” conversation with President Bush meant that the headlines were once again about those two leaders being too close together, when the real story was surely that the G8 leaders as a body were not remotely close enough to each other. The evident failure of the leaders of countries with a huge influence in the middle east region, including France and Russia, to overcome their differences even to the extent of being able to take some co-ordinated initiative was the most enduring impression of the G8 summit.

Mr. Love: Was not one of the great successes of the Cedar revolution that the Syrians were made to leave Lebanon, and is not one of the great dangers now that Syria will fill the vacuum that is created?

Mr. Hague: Yes, absolutely. Again, that is a powerful point. Most of the hon. Members who have intervened on me or the Foreign Secretary so far have made powerful points—again underlining the need for the international community to move as quickly as possible.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Did my right hon. Friend by any chance listen to the remarks of Javier Solana on “Newsnight” yesterday, which quite clearly indicated concern about the position? Will my right hon. Friend indicate by what authority Javier Solana would speak on behalf of the European Union as a whole when the Government on the one hand and my right hon. Friend on the other see that there is a need to have a clear path to producing a solution to this problem, which will not come as a result of the intervention of people such as him?

Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend will forgive me—even though I may have some sympathy with what he says, we are not going to resolve that issue in today’s debate. That is not the debate’s role. Our priority is the immediate crisis in the middle east, in which EU representatives and others may have a constructive role to play.

Mr. Gerrard: The right hon. Gentleman referred to the G8 and the fact that nothing very strong had been said. Is not one of the real problems the US attitude? If any other state had been doing the sort of thing that
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Israel has been doing and smashing to pieces the infrastructure of one of its neighbours, we would have heard much stronger words from the G8, the US, the UK Government and the UN.

Mr. Hague: I do not want to apportion blame about the G8. I am making a general point. The United States has enormous influence over Israel, but France has enormous influence in the Arab world and Russia has enormous influence when it comes to Iran. There is a general argument to be made about the ability, willingness and capacity of the leaders of those countries to work together on something such as this. The finger cannot be pointed just at the United States.

Greater co-ordinated action, not just in the UN, is now needed. I hope that the Government can tell us more about the apparent plans of the US Secretary of State to travel to the middle east, about whether there is any possibility of the Prime Minister travelling there, as he clearly offered to go in his conversation with President Bush, and about whether the announced visit of the French Prime Minister to Lebanon is in any way co-ordinated with British and American diplomatic efforts.

It is also important to hear much more about the proposal floated by the Government for an international force to act as a buffer in southern Lebanon. We should have an open mind about such a proposal, but not forget the immense difficulties faced by such a force in the 1980s, which resulted in heavy loss of life and mounting resentment against the west. To avoid the limitations of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, such a force would have to have a robust mandate, operate on a large scale, and be well equipped and made up of good quality troops. Given that the British Army is stretched to the limit, and American forces could not fulfil a peacekeeping role in this context, it is not clear where those forces are to come from. I hope that, when the Minister winds up, he will be able to say more about the discussions taking place with our allies, particularly France, and about whether these proposals are being worked up in detail and whether it is understood that, to be useful, such a force would have to be involved in actually disarming Hezbollah—obviously a difficult undertaking.

We all hope that the meeting of the UN Security Council will help to produce a strong impetus for a co-ordinated approach from the world’s leading powers—particularly one involving Russia and France, for the reasons that I have just given. We all fully realise that the Government cannot bring about such co-ordination on their own, but the efforts of the British Government in calling for it should be vigorous and clear. So far, the failure to produce an international initiative is ominously reminiscent of the early stages of the Balkan crisis of the 1990s. One of the reasons why this is so worrying is that the crisis in Lebanon is likely to make the other problems of the middle east harder to deal with. Those problems, taken together, are becoming by far the single greatest foreign policy challenge for us and our allies.

It should be a sobering thought for all of us who deal with foreign affairs—in government or opposition—that instability in the middle east could
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become seriously worse in the coming years. Whoever wins the next election in this country or the United States could easily face a nuclear-armed Iran, continued violence in Afghanistan, a still unstable Iraq, a stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and major instability in one or more of our major Arab allies all at the same time. All those conflicts have the potential to feed into, or to be hijacked by, forms of international terrorism.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point about the need for international action. Does he agree that British interests are under direct attack? British citizens are having to be evacuated, British forces are being diverted and British aid money is being destroyed and bombarded. Does he share my concern that the British Government do not seem to be able to speak clearly about British interests without reference to an American lead that requires them to conform entirely, rather than defend our interests as well?

Mr. Hague: The British Government have to work closely with our allies, including our American allies. There should be a distinctive British approach to the middle east and, despite the limitations of a short debate, I shall mention that briefly in a few moments.

I was making the point that such a combination of factors presents one of the most alarming outlooks for world peace that we have seen in decades. Even though this week’s urgent news is from Lebanon, it is thus vital to keep in mind the many other components of the darkening scene in the middle east and to develop a clear strategy for the coming years. As the Foreign Secretary did, I want to touch on a few of those other matters.

On Israeli-Palestinian relations, there is an urgent need to find a route back to a genuine and equitable peace process on the basis of a two-state solution. That clearly requires the new Palestinian Authority to meet the international community’s demands to renounce violence, to recognise Israel and to accept previous agreements. It also requires Israel to preserve the Palestinian institutions and infrastructure that will form the basis of a Palestinian state. The security barrier that was erected by Israel, which many of us have visited, has, for the moment, brought greater security for Israelis, but it is now clearer than ever that long-term peace and security for Israel can come only through agreement with its neighbours. When the Minister for the Middle East winds up the debate, will he indicate whether the Government can tell us anything more about any progress at all on such matters? Can anything more be done to ensure that the necessary flow of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people actually takes place?

In parallel, we have the continuing stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme, about which the Foreign Secretary spoke. We certainly welcome the decision to return the issue to the Security Council. Britain has quite rightly been at the forefront of efforts to generate and maintain consensus over Iran. We hope that the united front that the permanent members of the Security Council have shown to date will be maintained now that we are approaching a critical juncture in our dealings with Iran. Perhaps the Minister can tell us
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whether we can be confident of the robust support of all members of the Security Council at this stage. Have Russia and China indicated at all their willingness to support a resolution that would pave the way for meaningful sanctions, if necessary, should Iranian intransigence continue?

At the same time, we face a very difficult situation in Iraq, with the UN assessing the number of civilian deaths as 6,000 in May and June alone. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), has conceded that the threat level in Basra has increased, and the Prime Minister recently stated that Iranian armaments have caused the deaths of British soldiers. It would be a disaster to do anything now that would make the job of the democratically elected Iraqi Government more difficult. The one encouraging factor is that they have been able to take control of larger areas of their own country, but are Ministers satisfied that there are sufficient patrols along the Iran-Iraq border and that the security situation in southern Iraq will not deteriorate further? As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) asked the Foreign Secretary, if we believe that Iran is sponsoring terrorist attacks on our troops, what action is to be taken? There is no indication that the Iranian ambassador has been called in. What the Prime Minister says publicly and the Foreign Office does in relation to ambassadors should be consistent, so we hope that it will be in the coming weeks.

Simultaneously, in Afghanistan—if I may briefly mention that subject—the Government have admitted that British troops in Helmand have met stiffer resistance than was anticipated. More troops have been sent, as we know, but given the serious possibility that further troops will be required for the Afghanistan mission to succeed, would it not be a good idea for the Government now to make the case to our NATO allies that the consequences of failure in Afghanistan would be catastrophic, and that a much larger contribution may be required from the rest of NATO?

Yesterday, in a Parliamentary answer to the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the Secretary of State for Defence said:

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