Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


28 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q20  Mr. Horam: How do you assess the state of Israeli public opinion in the light of these developments? Are things changing or not?

  Dr. Gooderham: Simon may want to say something as a former ambassador in Tel Aviv, but perhaps I will start off by saying that I think it is fair to say that the reaction in Israel to the Mecca agreement has been pretty negative.

  Q21  Mr. Horam: Pretty negative?

  Dr. Gooderham: Yes, pretty negative. The Government in Israel, like ours and others, are adopting a wait-and-see approach, but it is fair to say that the reaction in the Israeli media has been pretty negative.

  Q22  Mr. Horam: Why is that?

  Dr. Gooderham: Because they feel that the agreement does not even come close to the three principles, so in their eyes it is a disappointing outcome. However, our assessment is that this is a process, and we should not rush to judgment; we do not think that it would be right to do that. We hope that there is more to come, and we naturally hope that over time the Israeli people will come to a similar conclusion.

    The Israeli Government are not in a strong position domestically, largely because of the fall-out from the Lebanon war last summer, which continues to reverberate in Israeli politics. Inevitably, that constrains the extent to which the current Government are able to operate in respect of these issues.

  Q23  Mr. Horam: Does it really hog-tie them completely?

  Dr. Gooderham: Not really, because Olmert has taken steps. He met President Abbas before Christmas, and then there was the trilateral meeting with Abbas and Condoleezza Rice, as a result of which Prime Minister Olmert has committed to another bilateral meeting with President Abbas, which we welcome. That is against the backdrop of critical commentary in Israel over the performance of his Government, which inevitably constrains his room for manoeuvre somewhat. Simon, do you want to add anything?

  Mr. McDonald: I should like to add a couple of points, if I may. First, I am struck that although, as Peter says, the Government have little room for manoeuvre, there is still great popular support for a peaceful, two-state solution.

  Q24  Mr. Horam: That remains strong, does it?

  Mr. McDonald: That remains strong. Recent polling put it as high as 74%, so there is interest among the populace. However, as Peter said, the Government are constrained. The polls are poor for Mr. Olmert's Government; he has a 65% negative rating, and his Defence Minister has a 1% approval rating.

  Q25  Mr. Horam: So there is a complete dislocation between the aspirations of the Israeli people, who still want peace, and their expectation as to whether the Government can deliver it.

  Mr. McDonald: At the moment.

  Q26  Chairman: Before we move on, can I ask you whether support for unilateralism is now completely off the scale—is it minimal in Israeli politics?

  Mr. McDonald: My observation is that Mr. Olmert's platform last March was the Hitkansut—the convergence plan—which was unilateral, as the disengagement from Gaza had been. That plan is parked because of his political difficulties. However, he is still interested in it personally. If he could find a way, he would still be interested in making progress. At the moment, he is just not able to.

  Q27  Mr. Horam: Can we come back to the Mecca agreement. That was a bit of a gamble for Saudi Arabia, was it not?

  Dr. Gooderham: I think that is putting it a bit too strongly. Earlier on I mentioned the role of the Quartet. One of the other positives of recent months has been a much greater commitment by a number of Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, to trying to find a solution to the Israel problem.

  Q28  Mr. Horam: In those Arab states, would you call Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates a quartet?

  Dr. Gooderham: Yes, they are the so-called quartet. They are not the only countries to be involved. The Americans have also had a series of meetings with the Gulf Co-operation Council countries, two of which are members of the quartet.

  Q29  Mr. Horam: But they are all marching together, are they?

  Dr. Gooderham: They are all clear about the importance of trying to find a lasting solution to the Israel and Palestine conflict. The Lebanon conflict last summer was a wake-up call for all of us, including Arab Governments.

  Q30  Mr. Horam: These Governments are always getting wake-up calls, and they do a little bit then back off and go to sleep again. Is that what happens?

  Dr. Gooderham: Well, I do not think that they have dozed off yet, considering the Mecca agreement, which you just mentioned. What really precipitated the Saudi determination to broker an agreement in Mecca was the sight of Palestinians fighting each other in Gaza in an ugly way. It looked for a moment as though the matter could get seriously out of control, and people were talking about a civil war and so on. That horrified many around the world, including of course in the Middle East itself.

  Q31  Mr. Horam: But what can the Saudis really do? They have a lot of money, so they can put some money behind the problem? What do they want? How far are they prepared to push it?

  Dr. Gooderham: They are trying to push it. As I said earlier, they are trying to get Hamas to understand the importance of accepting a Government of national unity with a platform that reflects the three Quartet principles. That would be in Hamas's own interests as well as those of the Palestinian people as a whole.

  Q32  Mr. Horam: But are the Saudis prepared to wield the stick as well as offer the carrot?

  Dr. Gooderham: They are trying to use whatever influence they can, and they succeeded in Mecca, at least to the extent of bringing about a cessation of the violence between the Palestinian factions, so they are to be applauded for that. I certainly do not think that they have now given up. They will want to continue.

  Q33  Mr. Horam: They will continue to make these efforts?

  Dr. Gooderham: I believe that they will, yes.

  Q34  Mr. Horam: How will Iran see all this? There is a rivalry between the Saudi and Iranian Governments and people and so forth. How will they look at the Saudis exercising their muscle a bit more?

  Dr. Gooderham: One would hope that the Iranian Government will also agree that the sight of Palestinians fighting each other on the streets of Gaza should not be allowed to continue. One would hope that they will also see merit in the effort that the Saudis put into brokering the Mecca agreement. It is no secret, of course, that Iran is a supporter of Hamas. It has said from time to time that it would accept any outcome to which the Palestinian people themselves were committed. Naturally, we hope that it will abide by that and that, if a Government of national unity are formed and their platform reflects the three Quartet principles, Iran will not attempt to undermine that Government and bring about their collapse.

  Q35  Mr. Hamilton: To follow on from what John Horam has just asked, as the country that feels that it is the regional power in the Middle East, will Iran not feel outflanked by the Saudis and quite resentful? Is there any danger that if Hamas does co-operate or is pushed into some sort of recognition, however neutral, of the state of Israel, Iran will withdraw its funding from Hamas?

  Dr. Gooderham: I would be surprised if that were the outcome. You say that Iran sees itself as the regional power. I do not think that any other country in the region sees it, or wants to see it, as the regional power. Some of the activity that we have seen on the part of the Arab Governments, particularly since the Lebanon war, has clearly reflected that. There has been a determination to demonstrate that actually there are other Governments in the region who can play a positive role and are determined to try to do so. That is why there has been the emergence of the so-called Arab quartet, which is an informal grouping. I do not think that those countries themselves would want to call themselves the Arab quartet, but that is the term of art that has arisen to describe their coming together and they are willing to get much more involved, particularly on the security side in the Palestinian Territories. That is where they have really put some effort in—to try to sort it out, rather as we have been trying to sort out the messy set of arrangements that exists for the Palestinian security forces.

  Q36  Mr. Hamilton: Will Iran withdraw funding from Hamas if Hamas does not do what Iran thinks is the right thing to do? If Hamas is persuaded to recognise the state of Israel in some form, will its funding be cut off by Iran?

  Dr. Gooderham: I do not see why it should be. In our view, we have not seen anything to suggest that it would be. Clearly, we would prefer to see a Palestinian Authority getting funding through overt means—through the revenues deriving from customs and through international donations that are given in an overt fashion. We would much prefer that.

  Chairman: Let us move on to some questions on Syria.

  Q37  Mr. Moss: Dr. Gooderham, turning to the Syrian connection, it seems that the international community is continually looking for signs that Syria is prepared to become involved in a more positive way with Hamas, and prepared to use its influence over Hamas. Brokered talks between Khaled Mashal and President Abbas were held back in January in Damascus. Do you see that as a positive sign that Syria is inclined to become more involved?

  Dr. Gooderham: Our assessment at the moment is that the jury is still out on that particular aspect of Syrian behaviour. Simon might want to say a word about Syria's relationship with Iraq, which is one of the three—

  Mr. Moss: I am coming to that.

  Dr. Gooderham: In which case, I suggest that Simon hangs fire.

  As far as Syria and Hamas are concerned, we have certainly, along with many others, appealed to the Syrians to use their influence in a constructive way to bring Hamas to reconcile itself to the three Quartet principles. I cannot say that we have got any explicit evidence yet that that is the case, but we shall keep trying, and we hope very much that Syria will use its influence in that way.

  Q38  Mr. Moss: Thank you. Turning now to the Syrian and Iranian connection with Iraq, in his statement to the House on Iraq and the Middle East last week, the Prime Minister said that there were signs that Syria's role in Iraq may be changing for the better. What is the evidence for that? Do you think that Syria will continue down that road?

  Mr. McDonald: As you know, on 30 October last year Sir Nigel Sheinwald went to Damascus and saw President Bashar. As Peter has said, there were three areas of discussion—three tests, if you like, on how we judge progress—one of which was Iraq. Since that visit, relations between Syria and Iraq have improved somewhat. The first evidence of that was that they re-established diplomatic relations. Secondly, Muallem, the Syrian Foreign Minister, visited Baghdad and reopened the Syrian embassy. Since then, there has been a series of high level visits between the two capitals. Most importantly, Bulani, the Iraqi Interior Minister, went to Damascus and they agreed a memorandum of understanding covering sensitive border issues. President Talabani has been to Damascus. We see a more positive rhythm in the relationship between Syria and Iraq. I have to say that the story is most positive between those two. I do not think that the Lebanon side and the Palestine side have been as positive.

  Q39  Mr. Moss: Turning to Iran and its involvement or otherwise in Iraq, in the same speech, the Prime Minister gave support to the evidence provided by the Americans about Iranian involvement, particularly with regard to the sophisticated nature of some of the roadside bombs that are now being used. He said: "No one can be sure of the precise degree to which those in the senior levels of the Iranian Government are complicit, but it is certainly very clear that that is the origin of that weaponry".[2] Is there any evidence from the work that British diplomats are doing in, say, south-east Iraq, that we have obtained that supports that American view?

  Mr. McDonald: We share American concerns. It is because the Prime Minister is reading the material produced by the military and the diplomats in the south-east that he made the statement that he did.

2   Official Report, 21 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 269 Back

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