Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-313)



  Q300 Mr Sarwar: Prime Minister, I can understand that, but is it right for the international community to sit and watch the deteriorating humanitarian situation under a Hamas-led government?

  Mr Blair: No, I think what is important is that we find a way of ensuring that we can help the people, whatever happens, but it is very difficult for us to help the government, as such, if the government is committed to the abolition of the State of Israel. If the leadership of Hamas—and, obviously, there will be a debate going on within that leadership as to what to do—have the imagination I have no doubt at all that America and the world community want to take this process forward. If Hamas were to change is policy on the abolition of the State of Israel and embrace the democratic way forward, I have no doubt at all that America and the rest of the international community would stand ready to help them achieve what the Palestinian people want, but it has got to be on that clear basis. Otherwise the danger is here are we saying—and it is a consensus now—"We want a two-state solution", and you have got one of the partners to that saying: "But actually we don't; we want a one-state solution". I believe that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian people (and I think there is some evidence to indicate this) whatever reasons they had for supporting Hamas, did not actually support them in order to get rid of the State of Israel—they may have supported them for all sorts of different reasons. Therefore, I think if Hamas have a real political leadership and imagination they can make the change and they should understand if they do make that change the international community stands ready to partner them.

  Q301 Mr Sarwar: Prime Minister there is an old saying that opposition parties do not win the elections; governments lose them. It might be the case that the failure of Fatah to root out corruption from society has helped Hamas to win the election. But if we do not engage ourselves with the Government of Palestine and do not respect the democratic will of the people then what kind of messages will we be sending to the Muslim and Arab world about our commitment to democracy?

  Mr Blair: I totally agree, Mohammed. It is a very, very difficult question this, because we have to respect the mandate; they have voted, quite possibly for the reasons you say, in the way that they have; we cannot ignore that, that is a democratically-established mandate. The problem is what do we then do? Now, my point is this: that if they want our help, both financially and to take the peace process forward, we have to have a clear understanding of the basis of that, and the basis is a two-state solution, the existence of Israel respected and an independent, viable Palestinian state. We are prepared and President Bush is prepared—I have talked this through with him very closely indeed—to move this whole process forward, and wants to move it forward, but it is hard to do that if one of the main two parties to the process is saying: "Actually, we want rid of the other party". I hope and believe that they can exercise the political leadership to change that but otherwise it is going to be very difficult. It is difficult for Europe, and Europe puts £500 million a year into the Palestinian Authority; it is hard for us to put that money in to the actual Authority itself in circumstances where the Authority is saying: "We neither renounce violence nor the desire to get rid of Israel". So I think what has got to happen is that the pressure is put on, in part, as you rightly imply, from the Arab and Muslim world, to say to them: "This is your chance. You have got your democratic mandate, people respect that, but if you want our help—in other words, we have got to step up to the mark—we can only do that on these terms."

  Q302 Mr Sarwar: Prime Minister, the participation of Hamas in the democratic process may be a step further towards disengagement from the violence. Of course, I want to see Hamas renounce violence and accept the existence of the State of Israel but, according to The Financial Times, more than 50% of the Israelis believe that their government should talk to the Hamas-led government. Do you not think it is incumbent on the international community to follow, and that greater isolation of a Hamas-led government might further radicalise the situation?

  Mr Blair: You are expressing what is the conundrum when you are dealing with a situation like this. The real point I would make is this: that I think everyone wants to engage with Hamas because they recognise they have established a democratic mandate. The problem is quite simply this: that if you engage with them in circumstances where there is some ambiguity about the terms upon which we can take this forward, I think that does no one any favours. I agree there is a battle over what some parts of Arab and Muslim opinion may say is: "You are not respecting the democratic mandate" but I am making it very clear, and I want to repeat this publicly here, we entirely respect their democratic mandate, we stand absolutely ready, willing and able to take this process forward with Hamas, provided that it is clear what this process is about. It is about a two-state solution and you cannot have a two-state solution if one partner in that process wants to get rid of the other state. If we can shift that so that they embrace (which I think everyone else understands has to happen) the recognition of Israel and embrace democratic and non-violent means to achieve it, we stand ready to do it. I think the most frustrating thing about the whole Middle East peace process is it is obvious from what is happening in Israel that actually Israeli opinion does want a two-state solution. However, you can imagine Israel is not going to feel confident of its security if the state that is created next door is saying: "We want rid of you". That is the problem. Therefore, in the end, what is this? We all of us are familiar with the shibboleths within our own parties. I cannot really believe that the Hamas leadership is foolish enough to think that anyone is ever going to get rid of the State of Israel. So the best thing for them to do, as actually with much of the Arab world, is simply to accept the reality; there is going to be a State of Israel. Accept it, agree that the Israelis can be confident of that and then we can all get on with what we want to see. After all, the international community now has a consensus for the first time of a two-state solution.

  Sir George Young: Can we come back to the subject I touched on a moment ago, about Parliamentary involvement in the broader Middle East debate?

  Q303 Mike Gapes: Prime Minister, in 2003 we had a vote on March 18 before the military action in Iraq, and before then there was a process of involvement of the Members of Parliament which was unprecedented before any military action. Can I have your assurance that if we get to a question of possible military action with regard to Iran that we will have a similar process and that Members of Parliament will be able to make that decision?

  Mr Blair: Before I answer that I had better make it clear that in respect of any military action—and I am certainly not saying there is going to be military action in respect of Iran—the reality is, which is why, I think, with great respect to other political parties, you can overdo all this stuff about the Royal Prerogative. The fact of the matter is that I cannot conceive of a situation in which a government (and I think I have said this before, even here) is going to go to war—except in circumstances where militarily for the security of the country it needs to act immediately—without a full Parliamentary debate. Actually, as I say, the irony is, although people keep talking about this as a result of the Iraq conflict, I think the one thing you could not say is that we did not have a full Parliamentary debate or that we did not have a vote—because we did. I think the reality is that that is the way it will happen in practice, unless you have a circumstance where you need to act urgently.

  Q304 Mike Gapes: Do you, therefore, accept that because of what happened in 2003 and the importance to keep public support, that the days when a British Government could do what we did, for example, over the Falklands have definitely gone for all time, and from now on Parliament will have a say on these issues?

  Mr Blair: I think, to be fair again, Parliament probably—this was a Saturday—

  Q305 Mike Gapes: After the event.

  Mr Blair: I thought they met on the Saturday. I cannot really remember.

  Sir George Young: We were recalled on the Saturday.

  Q306 Mike Gapes: Parliament at that time was recalled.

  Mr Blair: As I say, I think one of the ironies of the situation is despite us, as a political class, continually saying that Parliament is bypassed, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, we have discussed two things, namely the renewal of our nuclear deterrent and potential military action, in which I would suggest there is a higher probability of extensive Parliamentary debate now, today, than there ever would have been 30, 40 or 50 years ago.

  Q307 Mr Arbuthnot: I was just going to come on to that. You almost committed yourself there to a vote because of the reality of the situation would be that any action on Iran would be—

  Mr Blair: I am not talking about Iran specifically—I just want to make that clear. I do not want to be suddenly—not that I am sure I would be misinterpreted in any way at all by those sitting behind you.

  Q308 Mr Arbuthnot: Yet you expressly refused to commit yourself to a vote on the issue of the nuclear deterrent. Do you not find that rather odd?

  Mr Blair: I have not committed myself to it. I understand the argument. All I am saying, though, is, James, on any basis we debate these things a lot more extensively in public than actually we did 40, 50 years ago. Which is why I actually think, when we are talking about Parliament and so on—and, incidentally, of course, this is the first time Prime Ministers appear in front of the Liaison Committee—there is a myth about bypassing Parliament which is to do with bypassing Parliament because of politicians and what we are not actually looking at is the real reasons why there is a problem in Parliament today, which in my view is somewhat different. Anyway, that is another argument which we can come to at another time, maybe.

  Q309 Mr Arbuthnot: So do you really agree with Ken Livingstone's view that if voting changed anything they would abolish it?

  Mr Blair: You gave me a bit of a shock there. Come again? What was that? I am sorry, James. Go on. What was it Ken Livingstone said?

  Q310 Mr Arbuthnot: I said Ken Livingstone's view was that if voting changed anything they would abolish it. I wonder if that is a view that—

  Mr Blair: I think that was before he ran for re-election.

  Sir George Young: Can I bring in Edward Leigh on something you mentioned a few moments ago, which were the protests?

  Q311 Mr Leigh: You have taken me to task when I have criticised you over the invasion of Iraq. You said that there are people who hate our way of life so much that whether we had invaded Iraq it would have made no difference. So what are we going to do about what happened in London last week? There is a feeling in the country that if other groups of people had gone around central London talking about beheading people and dressing as suicide bombers, that the police would have gone straight in under public order legislation—existing legislation, so they obviously have the powers—but somehow they were treating people with kid gloves. Maybe there were double standards; maybe they were frightened of being accused of being racist or attacking Muslims. There is a feeling in the country, is there not, that this was an intolerable situation.

  Mr Blair: There is a feeling, I think, entirely justifiably, of outrage when people see some of the placards that were there. I am very pleased that leading members of the Muslim community have expressed their abhorrence along with everyone else in the country. The police had a difficult situation to manage on the day. I think it is perfectly sensible for them to say: "Look, we want to study the evidence and come to conclusions", but let me make it absolutely clear, the police will have our full support in any prosecutions they mount, but that is for them to decide. You are right; I think there is a real sense of outrage. I think what is more healthy about the situation, though, (and I think it is very, very important that we emphasise this the whole time) is that that sense of outrage stretches across all communities. In my view there is a real issue about how the sensible, moderate Muslim leaders go into their community and confront this type of extremism, and that is something we discuss with them continually. However, it is very important for our overall good relations in this country that people understand there is no political correctness that should keep the police from taking whatever action they think is necessary. That is my position one hundred per cent.

  Sir George Young: Unless other colleagues wish to come in, Chairman, we have finished our session.

  Q312 Chairman: Thank you. Prime Minister, it is interesting to reflect way back into history when I was last here enjoying the joys of office in government, and in the late-1970s I sat on a Cabinet Committee looking at proliferation. At that time we were trying to work out how to frustrate the aspirations of the then Shah who was going to get in on the early days of nuclear capability. So it may not just be a regime factor. Our next session is due to be towards the end of the year. Can I just put up a flag? I will not ask you to commit yourself now but I ask you to take this away and think about it. This is the only Parliamentary Committee to which the Prime Minister comes, and we are grateful to you for the fact you have introduced this innovation. Can I ask you (and, hopefully, it will not arise) if between now and the time of the next session there were to be a dramatic deterioration in the situation in Iran, would you consider having an interim, briefer meeting—say, an hour to an hour-and-a-half—with this Committee, where we could have the same sort of exchanges as we have had today in reflection of this international situation? I do not want you to commit yourself, but go away and think about it.

  Mr Blair: I am very happy to think about it, but I do want to emphasise there is nothing that should make people anticipate that something is about to—

  Q313 Chairman: When the US says: "We will not rule out the use of military force" one has to note that it was not gunboat diplomacy the last time they said it! Thank you, Prime Minister. It has been a very interesting exchange. Thank you very much.

  Mr Blair: Thank you.

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