Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


28 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q1  Chairman: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you very much for coming, Dr. Gooderham and Mr. McDonald. We are very pleased to have you here. As you know, the Committee is examining the whole issue of global security, but we are focusing on the Middle East at the moment and we shall visit the region in a few weeks. Both of you are very experienced in the region and in your current posts, so we shall be very grateful for your expertise and insights on the current situation. I shall begin by asking some questions about the current Palestinian situation and the internal politics of the Palestinian Authority. How would you assess the current power balance between Fatah on the one hand and Hamas on the other?

  Dr. Gooderham: Thank you, Chairman. I am happy to be here this afternoon to answer these questions. One needs to reflect back to the situation that has developed over the last year or so since Hamas won the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Since then, it has attempted to govern through the Palestinian Authority. On the other hand, of course, there has been President Abbas, who is a member of Fatah and who was also elected, through the presidential elections the previous year. So there has been a rather uncomfortable arrangement between the President and the Palestinian Authority—the Government, if you like, of the Palestinian Territories.

    In recent weeks, we have seen an effort by both sides to forge a Government of national unity. That is what was brokered by the Saudis in Mecca earlier this month. Under that arrangement, the Ministries will be shared out between Hamas, Fatah and some of the other political groupings in the Palestinian Territories. Under the arrangement, if it is promulgated and the Government are formed and approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas will still have the largest number of seats in the Government, but some Fatah members will come in, as well as some independents. That is the situation today. We are in wait-and-see mode now, as we see how the agreement brokered in Mecca is taken forward.

  Q2  Chairman: How important is the Mecca agreement? Does it simply reflect the current balance between Fatah and Hamas, or does it point a way forward for the future?

  Dr. Gooderham: We certainly hope it points the way forward for the future. We have been hoping that some arrangement of that nature could be brought about for some time. We have not been happy with the situation that we were confronted with roundabout this time a year ago, when a Hamas Government came into office who were not committed to the three principles that the Quartet had set out. It is not clear yet whether the agreement brokered in Mecca can be said to reflect those three principles, but President Abbas has said that it is a good first step. There is more work to be done between now and the formation of the Government, and naturally we very much hope that the programme of that Government will reflect the three principles, which would enable us to engage with them.

  Q3  Chairman: But there was this quote from the Financial Times, which I would be interested to know whether you agree with: "Under Mecca, the Islamists do not, and Hamas will not, recognise Israel."

  Dr. Gooderham: I do not think we can say that definitively, because we do not know what the full extent of what will follow from Mecca will amount to. This is a process. We know from discussions with President Abbas that what he was most anxious to achieve at Mecca was a cessation of the violence between Hamas and Fatah that had broken out over the past couple of months and which naturally was of great concern to not only him, but the international community as a whole. To that extent, it appears that the Mecca agreement has been a success. It has resulted in an ending to the intra-Palestinian fighting. It is still too early to say what that will mean in terms of the new Government's platform.

  Q4  Chairman: But you have an agreement that was signed not only by the internal Hamas leadership, Ismail Haniya, but the most important Hamas leader, Khaled Mashal. He is based in Syria, but he was in Mecca. Is that a constraint on the future movement of Haniya or does it mean that the external Hamas people are fully signed up to the process?

  Dr. Gooderham: We hope very much that it is the latter. It is significant that Mashal, as well as Haniya, were there and that the agreement was brokered by the Saudis. That is something that the whole international community applauded. It understood the significance of that. We must wait to see in the days ahead what that amounts to in terms of a programme for the new Government. It is significant that Mashal was present at the Mecca discussions and that he, as you said, put his name to the agreement.

  Q5  Mr. Keetch: Dr. Gooderham, you were right to say that Mecca is a process and that we are going down it. We still have to see how it develops and how the words of Mecca are put into action. However, the process will succeed only if Israel and the international community—notably the United States—actually accept it. How do you judge their initial reaction to the agreement? Unless they support it, it will go nowhere.

  Dr. Gooderham: Your analysis is exactly right. In light of what they said publicly and what they have said to us privately, our understanding is that they are also in wait-and-see mode. It would be fair to say that they would not regard the Mecca agreement as it exists today—the document and the letter of designation, which President Abbas sent to Haniya, the formal process for producing a new Government—as sufficient to constitute a programme that reflects the three Quartet principles. The United States, at least, has put its name to Quartet statements since the Mecca agreement, which make it clear that we recognise that it is a process and that we shall wait to see what further there is to come.

  Q6  Mr. Keetch: You mentioned the Quartet. Are you happy that it remains united, strong and together on the process? Again, it is surely vital that, if the process is to succeed, the Quartet should remain united in its previously described principles.

  Dr. Gooderham: Yes, I agree. It is easy to have a very gloomy view of the overall prospects for the Palestinian issue, but there have been some positives in recent months. One them is most definitely the role of the Quartet and the United States' willingness to commit to that. The Quartet is now meeting regularly at the so-called principles level; its most recent meeting was last week in Berlin. It clearly intends to meet again in the near future, which is all to the good. We are not at the moment a member of the Quartet in the sense that we do not sit at the meetings. The European Union represents us at the Quartet, but it is clear from the read-outs that there is a good atmosphere among the four participants and a good understanding of what needs to happen in respect of the international community.

  Q7  Sir John Stanley: Dr. Gooderham, you have made no mention so far of the utterly dire humanitarian position in Gaza and on the West Bank, which has been deteriorating steadily. From any humanitarian standpoint, it is absolutely appalling, and it continues as we have this meeting today. Do you agree that the Mecca agreement and the fact that Hamas appears to have gone at least some way towards the recognition of international agreements justifies the Quartet starting to make some moves on the lifting of economic sanctions, particularly when those sanctions are impacting so harshly on the Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank?

  Dr. Gooderham: First, it is important to say that we would not use the term "economic sanctions". In fact, what we have done since Hamas came into office is to find ways to get assistance to the Palestinian people directly, bypassing the Palestinian Authority. The figures speak for themselves. Over the past year, the European Union has given about €680 million to the Palestinian people through various mechanisms, including, of course, the temporary international mechanism. That is a record figure—the most money that the EU has ever given to the Palestinian people in any one year—and it is a reflection of the concern about the worsening humanitarian situation in the territories, which you rightly draw attention to.

    That situation is getting worse for a number of reasons, but not because the international community, for its part, is not providing assistance to the Palestinian people. On the contrary, our assistance over the last year has reached record levels and the UK, for its part, is one of the biggest donors among the EU member states. Our contribution bilaterally last year was £30 million. If you add the contribution that we give on a pro rata basis to the European Commission's funds, we gave over £70 million last year.

  Q8  Sir John Stanley: Whether you want to characterise them as economic sanctions or not, the reality is that desperately needy people, both in Gaza and on the West Bank, are dependent on outside help for the basic necessities of life—food, medicine, and so on. In many cases, they are unable to work and earn their own livelihood. Do you not agree that that is an unacceptable situation from a humanitarian standpoint? Also, could you reflect on what I said earlier: does the Mecca agreement not justify at least some modification of the policy and, coupled with that, some greater determination by the Quartet to make it clear to the Israeli Government that, although they are fully entitled to protect and defend themselves and to deal with acts of terrorism, that simply cannot continue at the expense of the basic human rights and humanitarian needs of the people of Palestine, in Gaza and on the West Bank?

  Dr. Gooderham: Again, I agree very much with you. We hope very much that it would be possible to work with the new Government, once formed, and once we have clarity on the extent to which their programme reflects the three Quartet principles. It is not only the international community that will need to be satisfied of that; Israel will also need to be satisfied. About 50% of the revenues that come into the Palestinian Authority are customs revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. However, since the elections for the PLC, Israel has not been prepared to transfer those revenues to the Palestinian Authority, with the exception of $100 million that was transferred as a result of the bilateral meeting that President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert held just before Christmas last year.

    We hope very much that all concerned, including Israel, will be able to conclude matters, once we have further clarification that this is a Government with whom we can do business and with whom we can resume direct assistance. In the meantime, we will continue to use mechanisms such as the temporary international mechanism to continue doing everything that we can to alleviate the plight of the Palestinian people—we completely agree that their plight is awful, and getting worse.

  Q9  Chairman: Before I bring in my colleagues, I would like to clarify what your assessment is of the total revenues now going into the Palestinian Authority. You said that the Israelis were responsible for payment of about 50% of those revenues and that they have paid some of that, in the form of the $100 million that you have just referred to, but presumably several hundred million dollars are still being held. Has the increase in the total EU contribution—reaching, as you said, a record level—in effect been a substitution for the money that the Israelis have held back, or is it not as simple as that?

  Dr. Gooderham: It is not quite as simple as that because, as I said, the money that the European Union—both the Commission and individual member states—has given has bypassed the Palestinian Authority, so we have not actually given any money to it over the last 12 months or so.

    My recollection is that before Hamas came to office, the revenue of the Palestinian Authority was about $120 million a month, of which about half—some $60 million—came from customs revenue, which Israel collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. An additional $30 million came from international support and contributions from the European Union and other donors. The remainder came from funds generated within the territories. As far as I am aware, that last figure has remained more or less stable over the last 12 months. It might have fluctuated a bit, but not dramatically.

    That is pretty much all that the Palestinian Authority has been able to draw on for its funding, which has obviously precipitated the difficulties experienced by Palestinian Authority employees, of which there are about 88,000 in the non-security sector. As a result, they have not been getting their salaries. The temporary international mechanism was designed to overcome that. About 88% of all those employees are now getting some assistance through that mechanism. It is not a full salary; I am not pretending that they are as well off as they were before Hamas came to office. That would be incorrect, but they are getting some relief.

  Q10  Chairman: Has there been an assessment of the amount of money coming from the Arab and Muslim worlds to the Palestinians? Are there any data on that? Has that figure gone up since Hamas came to power, or has it gone down?

  Dr. Gooderham: There are certainly no official figures of which we are aware. Some support has been given by some Arab states to President Abbas and his office, particularly in recent months. It is clear that Hamas has received funding, notably from Iran, and possibly from Syria as well. However, as far as we can determine, most of the funding went directly into Hamas's pockets, and not to the ministries of the Palestinian Authority.

  Q11  Chairman: Thank you. If you have more detailed information, it would be helpful if you could send us a note.

  Dr. Gooderham: Happily.[1]

  Q12  Mr. Hamilton: We have discussed the role of the Quartet in the region and how it has been trying to help the Palestinian Authority to manage, or at least play a role in bringing both sides together. However, do the British Government have a separate role and how are they viewed by the peoples of Israel and the Palestinian territories?

  Dr. Gooderham: There is definitely a role for us. We would not describe it as a separate one, but as a complementary one to that of the Quartet. I think that we are seen by the Israelis, Palestinians, most others in the region, our European partners and the US as a Government who over a good many years have demonstrated a commitment to, and expertise in this issue. I think that it is fair to say, therefore, that we are in the inner circle, as it were, of key international players. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have devoted a lot of time and attention to the issue in order to see what role we can play. We have tried to forge ahead in many areas in order to identify a distinct role for ourselves.

    We have been very active in helping the Palestinians to rationalise and improve their security sector, which certainly the Israeli Government have welcomed and see as a positive step—as do the Palestinians, of course. We have been working with the US security co-ordinator, General Dayton, to achieve that end. We have also been trying, particularly through the Department for International Development, to improve the governance arrangements in the Palestinian territories. You may recall that we hosted a conference in London about two years ago. It was designed to address that set of issues. It did not have the lasting impact that we would have liked, but we certainly have not given up. We see it as an essential prerequisite to what we hope will be the eventual formation of a Palestinian state.

  Q13  Mr. Hamilton: You do not believe that we are viewed with suspicion by the Palestinian population because of our close alliance with the United States and their friendship with Israel? I take it that that does not come into it.

  Dr. Gooderham: I think we are viewed by both the Palestinians and the Israelis as a country with influence and one that is trying to find a way to resolve the conflict. I think that, by our actions and by our words, we have a good track record in that respect.

  Q14  Mr. Hamilton: Do other European countries split their diplomatic representation in the way that we do, with an ambassador in Tel Aviv to deal with Israel and a consulate general in East Jerusalem to deal with the Arab and Palestinian populations? Are we unique or does everyone do that?

  Dr. Gooderham: Everyone does that, yes.

  Q15  Mr. Hamilton: Let me move on to the issue of Hamas. You have explained to us in great detail what the Mecca agreement means and how we hope that a Government of national unity can be created with Fatah and Hamas working together for the benefit of the Palestinian people, but have we had any informal contact with Hamas ourselves as a Government?

  Dr. Gooderham: No, we have not had contact since early 2005.

  Q16  Mr. Hamilton: In spite of the fact that Hamas continued to say that it was devoted to the destruction of the state Israel, will we be prepared to talk to this new unity Government once it is formed, even though Hamas is part of it?

  Dr. Gooderham: I come back to what I said earlier. We have to wait and see. I am sorry that I cannot be more forthcoming than that, but it really is a case of needing a little bit of time. President Abbas himself has drawn attention to that and has explained that this is the first step—he describes it as a good first step—and we obviously hope that he is right in that assessment, but we are not there yet. We need more time. I think that I am right in saying that Prime Minister Haniya has another three weeks before he has to present his Government to President Abbas for approval and then it goes to the PLC for ratification. There is still some time for the process that was launched at Mecca to evolve in what we hope will be a positive direction.

  Q17  Mr. Hamilton: I have one final question on this. In the light of what my colleague Sir John Stanley has just said, have we made any representations to the Israeli Government about releasing the rest of the money and resuming full payments to the Palestinian Authority? There clearly is a great deal of suffering not only by those who work for the Government of the Palestinian Authority—they are not getting their full salary—but by the very poorest people as well. Perhaps we could help if Israel is prepared to release those funds.

  Dr. Gooderham: We have made representations. Naturally, we welcome the $100 million that Prime Minister Olmert agreed to release as a result of his meeting President Abbas just before Christmas. We would like to see a transfer of the remainder of the funds, which Israel is collecting on behalf of the Palestinians. We take note of its view that the money should not be transferred to the PA itself as long as the PA is governed by a movement that is not yet committed to the three Quartet principles. There are other mechanisms, however, such as the temporary international mechanism, which is one that we have used ourselves to provide money to the Palestinian people, and one that we have encouraged the Israelis to use as well.

  Q18  Mr. Purchase: I would like to continue on the same theme, which is in regard to the continual and greater suffering of the Palestinian people whom I support. In the words of John Stanley, "We were there together". Since then, the situation has got worse, which is a tragedy for ordinary people. We saw support for Hamas grow simply because the ruling party Fatah was not delivering. Therefore, they voted and decided on Hamas, which I like no more than the Quartet does, but, for me, that is not a reason to stop speaking to it. Yet the Quartet laid down its three conditions: renouncing violence, recognising Israel and agreeing to past commitments.

    The first thing that a new Government do is not necessarily agree to past commitments—they are a new Government. It seems a bit thin to make that a condition. Recognising Israel? Well, there are many countries in the world that do not recognise other countries; China and Formosa come to mind, but that never stopped us talking to them—again, it is a very thin reason. Renouncing violence? There are so many states in the world that actively engage in violence, but we still talk to them. The conditions that we are imposing are superficial at best and malevolent in other circumstances, when we know that, ultimately, the whole of diplomatic history is littered with examples of not talking to someone, but really talking to them and then having to talk to them in order to make progress. You know better than me that the poor people of Palestine in these circumstances are suffering massively for exercising their democratic right. As diplomats, you must respond to this in a human way.

  Dr. Gooderham: We certainly do. On your point about the three Quartet principles, they do not set the bar very high at all. They are principles that the previous Palestinian Authority had no difficulty in signing up to and that President Abbas himself has proclaimed as his own platform and starting point. It would be an enormously retrograde step if the international community as a whole was to accept or conclude that this is, as it were, the best that we can achieve with the new Government. It would take us years, if not decades, backwards from where we had got to. Admittedly, if you recognise that the high point was 2000, we have been clearly sliding back from that since, with the intifada and so on. However, it is quite clear that if the international community was to abandon the three principles and simply forget about them, we would be going even further in a downward direction, away from the ultimate goal, to which the whole international community—virtually without exception—is committed: the two-state solution.

  Q19  Mr. Purchase: Very often, when you have minimum goals—if that is the right phrase—there is still a need to talk, to have a discourse, to interact, in order just to reach what you regard as a very low hurdle. It may well be a low hurdle. Why can we not talk now to put forward these ideas, views and conditions? They would be pre-talks, before the conditions are met. At least we would see some progress. At least, we would have some comfort knowing that progress was in prospect, if not actually being made.

  Dr. Gooderham: The answer to that is that it has been our judgment—and that of the Quartet and of the international community more broadly—that the approach that is more likely to bring us to a position where we can talk to an organisation such Hamas is to make clear to them what the basic framework and principles have to be for dialogue. If we do not establish that and, if we simply start from ground zero, there will be no pressure on the organisation to move or to evolve into the sort of movement that we would like it to evolve into, which is to say one that is committed to the three principles. That is why we have adopted the policy that we have.

  Chairman: Thank you. We will move on to Israeli politics.

1   See Ev19. Back

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