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3.25 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I begin by declaring an interest in a company that operates in the middle east. On 12 January, the Prime Minister made a powerful speech in Plymouth, in which he tried to defend the Government’s failed policy in both Iraq and the middle east. He chose to make that speech from the deck of HMS Albion, and as he laboured through it, I had an irresistible recollection of the boy who stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled.

The Prime Minister made two claims in that speech. He claimed that the extraordinary and terrible events of 9/11—the attack on New York by al-Qaeda—were the origin of all the problems that we face. He went on to argue that to deal with the problems of terrorism caused by those events, it was necessary to have not only soft power, but hard power. I have no difficulty in agreeing with much of what the Prime Minister said: of course he is correct to say that the events of 9/11 were seminal, and have dominated much of our thinking since then. He is also correct to say that in dealing with terrorism and threats from around the world we need both hard and soft power, but I am sad that it has taken him 10 years as Prime Minister to come to the conclusion that our armed forces are undermanned, and that the Ministry of Defence needs its requirements to be met.

However, the Prime Minister made two basic mistakes. First—and this underlines his whole policy on the middle east—he assigned an unjustified
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importance in global terms to al-Qaeda as an organisation, and to the events of 9/11. That has meant a dangerous oversimplification of the world in which we live. Secondly, by concentrating on hard power and interpreting the world in that way, he has given the impression that if one accepts that there is a threat from al-Qaeda, and a need for hard power, that by itself justifies the attack on Iraq, and its invasion.

The reality is, and will always be, that one cannot justify a pre-emptive attack on another country merely by reference to some universal principle. That war was a terrible mistake. The Prime Minister should have reflected on Bismarck’s observation that pre-emptive wars are rather like committing suicide because of a fear of death.

The Prime Minister’s mistakes essentially stem from fundamental misunderstandings about the course of recent history. The real seminal date in our recent history is not al-Qaeda’s attack on New York. It is the end of the cold war, which opened up a series of circumstances, of which al-Qaeda is one consequence. When one looks, for example, at the rebirth of xenophobic nationalism as seen in the Balkan wars, Azerbaijan or elsewhere in the Caucasus, that is all a consequence of the collapse of communism and the end of that period in our lives. The emergence of democracy throughout Latin America, the far east and eastern Europe, too, has been a consequence of the end of the cold war. The emergence of China and India as major powers in the world is a result of their adoption of capitalism, which became possible only because of the elimination of communism as an alternative economic theory.

Against that background, al-Qaeda’s threat, important though it is, should be seen as simply one of the consequences of this extraordinary period in human history. That is not only a theoretical point. It is highly relevant in explaining why so much of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy has gone so disastrously wrong. He has been required, as has George W. Bush, to attempt artificial linkages in order to produce some overall theory of the world in which we live. So there was the absurd attempt to imply that Saddam Hussein had links to al-Qaeda that justified the invasion of Iraq—obvious nonsense, which Congress has now ruled definitively against.

A second example was the embarrassment of having to be ambivalent about the Russian oppression in Chechnya. The Russians claimed that they were suppressing not just a nationalist movement but an Islamic terrorist movement, which would justify the support of the United States and the west. There has also been the foolish attempt to say that the way to make progress in Baghdad starts in Jerusalem.

I agree with anyone who argues that progress in Israel and Palestine is crucial to the wider world, but to imply that somehow that is the solution to the problems of the middle east is absurd. The suggestion that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait because of Israel and Palestine, or that al-Qaeda, which has hardly a single Palestinian member, is a consequence of the frustration of the Palestinians, are examples of how the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, regularly go wrong in their analysis and bring us to the circumstances that we now face.

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An interesting comment was made by Ferdinand Mount in a recent issue of Prospect, when he wrote:

the end of the cold war—

What the Prime Minister and President Bush have been doing is trying to provide some new world paradigm, and all the real facts have to be forced into this artificial construct. That explains the mess that we have today.

Where do we go from here? First, with regard to Israel and Palestine, things are not all bad. Looking not just at the past couple of years but from an historical perspective, we see that there was an enormous breakthrough in Israel’s relationship with Egypt, the withdrawal from Sinai, followed by the peace with Jordan, and followed, even with the Palestinians, by a mutual recognition of a need for a two-state solution, which very few Israelis would have conceded a few years ago, and very few Palestinians would have acknowledged. What produced that breakthrough were statesmen—Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein—people who looked to the future, not backwards.

I believe that there is now an opportunity to make progress, but I must make one fundamental point, to the Israeli Government rather than to anybody else: there cannot be any prospect of long-term peace based on a two-state solution in the middle east unless there is not only a Palestinian state, but a viable Palestinian state. It must have boundaries that enable it to take its place among the world family of nations, and not be a combination of small fragmented entities nominally called a state, but without the realities that are required to produce the substance of statehood. Otherwise, young Palestinians in particular will not be able to begin to think of themselves as ordinary citizens of an ordinary nation, and thereby contribute to growing tranquillity in the region.

Secondly, with regard to Iran, it is one of the great ironies of recent events that the United States and our own Prime Minister have been the single greatest contributors to the emergence of Iran as a hegemonic power in the past few years. Iran traditionally had two opponents in recent times—Saddam Hussein on one side and the Taliban on the other. Thanks to George Bush and our own Prime Minister, both were eliminated without the Iranians having to act in their own interest. But Iran is a serious regional power, and our objection to Iranian policy is not its aspiration to play an important role in the region, to which it is entitled, but its aspiration to acquire nuclear weapons. A response is required by the United States, which has more influence than anyone else, offering not only dialogue with Iran but a serious opportunity of normalising relations—similar to the opportunity that it offered to, and was accepted by, Gaddafi and Libya. If the United States could accept the Libyans after Lockerbie, it should be able to contemplate the prospect of full normalisation of relations with Iran.

Mr. Duncan Smith: My right hon. and learned Friend will acknowledge that Libya renounced all its nuclear ambitions and America responded. Does not he believe that that should happen with Iran?

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Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I accept my right hon. Friend’s comment. The quid pro quo has to be two things from Iran: an effective and verifiable renunciation of its nuclear aspirations, and renunciation of support for terrorism. In exchange for that, it should be offered not only dialogue but a full normalisation of relations—far more than the Americans are currently offering. The advantage is that either the Iranians would accept the offer—we must remember that many in Iran, unlike those in North Korea, do not want isolation but wish their country to be a normal respected member of the international community, so there is a serious prospect of such an offer being perceived as attractive—or they could reject it. If that happened, the United States would be in an infinitely stronger position to say to Russia and China, “We need effective sanctions and pressure on Iran to make it reconsider the position.” That is the best way forward.

Like all hon. Members, if I wanted to go to Baghdad I would not start from here. Although the situation shows odd glimmers of encouragement, it is more desperate than any of us could have anticipated. One important fact, which is not good and has not been mentioned so far, is that no fewer than 2 million Iraqis have fled their country since its invasion. They did not flee in disapproval of the invasion or because they disliked western policy, but because they were in danger of losing their lives. The 2 million are those who could afford to go—they are overwhelmingly the middle classes of Iraq, potentially the people who could build the new country. They cannot now do that.

The withdrawal of troops is an issue not of principle—the Iraqi Government want troops to be withdrawn—but of timing and extent. We do not require a fixed date but a gradual withdrawal, in co-operation and dialogue with the Iraqi Government.

In the speech that I mentioned a few moments ago, the Prime Minister concluded:

It is rather sad and pathetic that we are holding the debate this afternoon and the Prime Minister is not taking part in it.

3.37 pm

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): In the shifting sands of change in the middle east, there is one established certainty. We know—the House has been privileged to hear it first—that, without peradventure, irrespective of circumstances, the Liberal Democrats, were they in government, would commence the withdrawal of troops from the middle east three days before the local elections in this country and complete withdrawal by October. That is one of the most appalling examples of opportunism by the Liberal Democrats—and I have witnessed many. I deeply regret that an otherwise serious and sober debate has included such flippancy about dealing with a serious problem.

Many—if not a large majority—of my constituents were dismayed and upset by the decision to go to war. I have the most profound affection for my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) and the deepest respect for many hon.
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Members who opposed the commencement of the war and others who changed their position to criticise our engagement in the conflict. However, I have yet to meet an Iraqi in my surgery or my constituency who believes that the UK Government should withdraw their troops from Iraq. I have quite a case load of refugees or asylum seekers who look for refuge in the UK and with whom I have discussed what is happening in their country and how we should respond as a democracy.

Mr. David: Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that it is important to emphasise that there is a democratically elected Government in Iraq and that there must be consultation and partnership with them in determining the best time for the people of Iraq for British troops to withdraw?

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend is right. It is too easy to dismiss the election of that Government and to describe them as either a puppet regime or a regime that is there only with the support of the United States. It is there with the overwhelming support of the Iraqi people who participated in the election, and, indeed, of the leaders of Iraq, who have been brought to this House—and to whom we have been afforded the opportunity to listen—by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who earlier so movingly read a letter that she had received from an Iraqi. We have had the opportunity in the past two or three months to listen to at least three elected representatives of the Iraqi people, and they have asked us—almost pleaded with us—not to be precipitate in taking any decisions about our troops’ involvement in Iraq. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary confirmed, eight Arab countries have indicated their support for the new initiative that has been outlined by President Bush and that has been discussed at length here in the House.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made a typically challenging and thoughtful speech today. To a degree, however, he used the wisdom of hindsight—if he will allow me—to describe the way in which the United States’ policy mistakes had impacted on the ability of the United Kingdom’s troops to carry out their objectives. I have some sympathy for what he was saying, but I wonder what the House will make of what the United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said when she gave testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 11 January:

I do not seek to categorise that as a clash of cultures. I invite the House, however, to acknowledge that we are facing a serious challenge to western democracies and to consider the way in which we respond to those who seek to perpetuate violence and intolerance.

The Foreign Secretary covered the wide remit of the debate in her speech. I want to return to the question of Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. I declare an interest, as
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chair of Labour Friends of Israel, although I derive no pecuniary interest from the position. I have long watched the events in Israel with great interest. There was almost complete unanimity in the world community following the election of Hamas last January, and funding from many sources in the international community was frozen as the world struggled to grapple with a democratically elected Palestinian Authority who could not produce a Government whom the world could recognise as legitimate.

A consequence has been that the taxes that Israel was collecting on behalf of the Palestinian Authority were frozen. It is therefore to be welcomed that, as a result of the meeting between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas in the Palestinian Authority area, an agreement was reached that $100 million worth of those tax revenues would be released by Israel directly to the office of President Abbas, to afford some relief from the widely recognised distress that is now apparent in the Palestinian Authority area, and about which a high degree of concern has, quite properly, been expressed.

Malcolm Bruce: Of course that is a welcome step, but does not the right hon. Lady acknowledge that, in terms of the revenues that Israel has withheld and the budget support that the international community was giving, the Palestinian Authority has lost $90 million a month? So $100 million after 10 months does not go anywhere near to covering the deficit.

Jane Kennedy: I was about to acknowledge that the $100 million represents one sixth of what the Israelis have collected and are holding for the Palestinian Authority. To bring about the full release not only of those resources but of the resources from the international community, which stands ready to assist, it is essential that progress be made towards a political settlement that will enable there to be a Government in the Palestinian Authority who can be recognised internationally. Every effort of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to assist in bringing that about is greatly to be welcomed. Nor should we forget that the two leaders also discussed the lifting of travel restrictions in the west bank and a prisoner exchange. Slow, incremental progress is being made.

On security, it should be recorded that the Israelis deserve credit for resisting what might otherwise have been a violent response to the 100 rockets that have been fired from Gaza into Israel since the ceasefire was agreed in November, not even three months ago. As late as Monday this week, three Qassam rockets landed near Ashkelon in the south of Israel. In 2006, 1,200 Qassam rockets were fired into Israel. As with many issues across the middle east, the Governments of the countries concerned are trying to ensure the security of their peoples.

We are discussing war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee described, the prospect of three civil wars across the region if we cannot find a way of avoiding them. No side in this debate has a monopoly on revulsion at violence or distress and sorrow at loss of life. During my three years as security Minister in
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Northern Ireland, I learned that every single death is a matter for deep regret. There were two deaths in particular in Northern Ireland that I will never forget. I know how my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench feel every death. When they come to the House to record that another soldier has lost his or her life in the middle east, it is a matter of regret for all of us, not just those who were against the war in the first place. None of us supported a war or otherwise with anything other than a heavy heart.

Israel has built a fence to secure its borders and to keep its people safe. If I may, I shall relate one last anecdote from Northern Ireland—those hon. Members who know me are aware that I have many, most of which are amusing; the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) is smiling. The fences and barriers that we have built in Northern Ireland do bring security to the communities living on either side. It is a fact that the fence or barrier—or whatever it is called—in Israel has brought about a reduction in the number of attacks on the people of Israel.

John Bercow: If the purpose of the construction of the fence were merely to establish and preserve Israeli security, and if that construction were on Israeli land, it would be defensible. However, it is because it is intended to construct facts on the ground, and will have the effect of doing so, that it incurs such widespread criticism, even from historic supporters of Israel, among whom I number myself.

Jane Kennedy: I understand that criticism. The primary objective of Israel, however, is the defence of its people, and that barrier is bringing about a more secure environment for Israelis within Israel, even though there are now more rocket attacks over the fence. In the long term, the best solution for Israel, the Palestinians, those in Lebanon and the whole region is one that will stand the test of time.

I have only 20 seconds left, and I do not have time to do justice to Professor Susser of the Moshe Dyan centre at Tel Aviv university, but he argues that Turkey could also be invited to play a greater role in the middle east. It has done so historically, and there is a strong case, which I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider, for inviting it to do so again.

3.49 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): While it was perfectly fair for the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) to make a speech expressing her own point of view, I think it was somewhat demeaning of her to suggest that the speech from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) about what we should do now in Iraq was anything other than an honest statement of a policy assessment by a party which, incidentally, when it opposed the war unanimously, did so against a background of popular opinion in favour of the invasion. It does not have a record of simply taking the popular line. It takes the principled line, and my right hon. and learned Friend has a long track record of integrity on issues of foreign affairs which I think that the right hon. Lady will recognise and her constituents will respect.

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