Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)


14 MARCH 2007

  Q140  Richard Younger-Ross: I seem to remember that that was not Fatah's position when we both started in politics a long time ago.

  Dr. Howells: Well, Fatah has changed. We all change, don't we? Or we should.

  Q141  Richard Younger-Ross: Which is perhaps why we need to engage with it.

  Finally, Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas, recently visited Russia, even though the Quartet's principles have not been met. Is that likely to undermine the Quartet's position?

  Dr. Howells: I do not think that that will undermine the Quartet's position, but I cannot answer for Russia. The Committee will have to try to get Mr. Lavrov here or someone else. Russia makes those kinds of decisions itself. Since that visit, it seems determined to remain part of the Quartet and to subscribe to its joint statements.

  Richard Younger-Ross: We may get a chance to talk to him later this year.

  Dr. Howells: Very good.

  Q142  Mr. Illsley: May I ask a few questions about the financial situation regarding the Palestinians? If the Quartet decides not to give financial support to the national unity Government, will the UK encourage the European Union to continue the temporary mechanism until an acceptable Government are in place?

  Dr. Howells: Yes, I believe that we would. The situation would have to be very different from the current one for the Quartet to say that there should not be financial assistance for the Palestinians. As you know, in the financial year 2006-7, the European Union and the UK gave more money to the Palestinians than ever before.

  Q143  Mr. Illsley: What were the goals of the UK's financial and diplomatic boycott of the Palestinian authority? Did we make any progress with what we sought to achieve with that boycott?

  Dr. Howells: I think that we made progress. Pressure has been put on Hamas to understand that it can be elected by a democratic process. We have acknowledged that that was a proper democratic process and that it won that free and fair election. However, responsibility comes with that. It has to recognise that Governments have no automatic duty to pay money into organisations that support, for example, suicide bombers. I would find it very difficult to explain to the House of Commons why we were giving hundreds of millions of pounds to Hamas, when at the same time, they were using it to fund the families of suicide bombers. That is not a viable position.

  Q144  Mr. Illsley: Given that the incoming Finance Minister of the Palestinian Government has said that the financial system is in a complete mess, if the Government decide to resume aid directly to the Palestinian Authority, how will we guarantee that the money will be used as is intended?

  Dr. Howells: There are some very stringent financial monitoring arrangements in place that are associated with the temporary international mechanism or TIM. One of the upshots of that has been a report—by Oxfam, I think. It said that bank charges are too high in the way that that money has been handled. They are high because there are five separate security checks on who receives the money to make sure that it does not go into the hands of terrorists or groups that fund terrorists.

  I am pretty confident that those substantial sums—more than €600 million this year, for example—are going to organisations that are not funding terrorism and, almost as importantly, that are not corrupt. I saw one of the most shocking things that I have seen when I went to Ramallah for the first time in 13 years. It had a new outskirt, which consisted of luxury apartments. When I asked who had paid for them—everybody had told me before I went that the Palestinian economy had collapsed—I was told that they had been built by Fatah members from the kickbacks given by the Fatah leadership. I must say that they were a very dismal sight.

  Q145  Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Can I again ask you about contacts with Hamas? Last month, the Prime Minister said that he wanted to advance this issue and would contemplate discussions "even with the more sensible elements of Hamas". The Russians have spoken to Hamas, and it appears that we would contemplate doing so, if only to elements within the organisation. Have any such discussions taken place?

  Dr. Howells: Not that I know of. Peter, do you know of any discussions?

  Dr. Gooderham: No, we have had no discussions with Hamas.

  Q146  Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: So we have not taken forward the Prime Minister's initiative. Why is that?

  Dr. Howells: As I interpret the Prime Minister's analysis, those elements within Hamas would have to be part of the national unity Government and subscribe to a general statement by that Government that would go some way at least towards the Quartet's principles. If that happened, we could contemplate talking to Hamas.

  Q147  Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Joining a unity Government and, do I also infer, recognising, although not diplomatically recognising, the right of Israel to exist? Would that be an adequate step?

  Dr. Howells: Yes; if we believed that Hamas had made that very big step, we would have to look very seriously at talking to Hamas.

  Q148  Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Thank you; that is helpful.

  Can I ask you about the slightly wider issue of the standing of British diplomacy and reputation in the Middle East, particularly the Arab world? It has been said to us in evidence sessions that great damage was done in the Arab world by our refusal to call for a ceasefire early on in the Lebanon conflict last year. Do you now regret the position that the Government took and do you think that it has damaged our standing and therefore our standing as a peacemaker?

  Dr. Howells: No, I certainly do not regret it. We were in a position where we tried very energetically to get a cessation of violence that would mean that the warring factions would not have or use the opportunity to rearm and start fighting again a short while later. That was my biggest concern when I went there in the middle of the war in July. It seemed obvious to me that unless we could get all the players to agree that there ought to be a proper settlement, and the sovereignty of the Siniora Government—the democratically elected Government for the whole of Lebanon—was seen to be real, we would simply be allowing both Hezbollah and the Israelis to rearm and to start fighting again only a short time later. The very fact that the arrangement that was arrived at has held is quite an achievement.

  Q149  Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: But the delayed ceasefire was seen at the time as giving Israel an opportunity to do its business in Lebanon before a ceasefire. The outcome was completely the opposite, but that must have undermined our credibility. It was known to be the American position, and we backed President Bush very strongly, almost instinctively. That must undermine our status as an independent force, willing to mediate between the factions. Do you agree, in retrospect, that that damaged our reputation and that we are now seen to be part of the American position on the Middle East?

  Dr. Howells: No. I hate to disagree with you, but I do not think that that is true. I spend a lot of time in the Gulf at the moment, and I shall be interested to know what impression you come back with at the end of your trip out there. I do not pick that up at all. I think that there is a great deal of respect for Britain's position. It is recognised that we worked very hard to try to get the United Nations and all of the players in the Middle East on side to achieve a permanent ceasefire in Lebanon, and they have been very supportive of our subsequent position in trying to ensure that UNIFIL was properly expanded and deployed properly across Lebanon. I do not pick up the sense that people do not want to talk to us as much as they did previously as a consequence of what happened in Lebanon.

  Q150  Mr. Keetch: So what sanction or penalty have we imposed on the state of Israel in the past five years?

  Dr. Howells: I am not sure. I take it that you are implying that we ought to be putting some sort of sanction on the state of Israel.

  Mr. Keetch: Yes.

  Dr. Howells: Well, I am not sure that that would help in any shape or form.

  Q151  Mr. Keetch: We will not talk to Hamas on the one side, we are cutting off aid to the Palestinians on the other—

  Dr. Howells: No, we are not cutting off aid. We have given more aid than ever.

  Q152  Mr. Keetch: We appear all the time to be punishing and putting sanctions on one side of the argument, yet on the other side there is the state of Israel. Phase one of the road map requires Israel to halt settlement expansion and dismantle illegal outposts. Israel has not done any of that. You have been very vociferous in complaining about that, but what have we done to punish Israel or to persuade or cajole it into meeting its side of the road map? We allow Israel to continue bombing the Lebanese, we do not call for an early ceasefire, we do not talk to elected politicians. Where is the balance?

  Dr. Howells: You used the expression "persuade or cajole". We certainly try to do that—we do it all the time, especially on the question of the expansion of settlements, the continuation of illegal settlements and the route of the barrier. We protest about that constantly, and argue that it is having a very bad effect on the peace process, especially in—this is what it is called, although I do not know whether it actually exists—the Arab street. It is very important that we should try to engage Israel on those issues. However, I cannot see what good putting a set of sanctions on Israel would do to our attempts to build a peace process.

  Q153  Mr. Keetch: Only in that there is a widespread view in the Arab street, as you called it. We have all be there many times in the past few years and we are going again. A widespread view in the Arab street—if I may follow the lines of Mr. Heathcoat-Amory—is that we are simply doing what the Americans tell us to. The Israelis do whatever they want to do, but we do not consider sanctions and we still keep up a dialogue, yet whatever the Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians do, and whatever the Iranians say that they want to do, we still keep talking to the Israelis and never consider punishment for them. That seems to be an imbalance that is felt throughout that street. I think, as do many Committee members on this side of the table, that that imbalance does British diplomacy no good.

  Dr. Howells: Well, I am not sure what good it would do to British diplomacy for us to start putting sanctions on Israel. We already consider very carefully any components that we may sell to the Israeli armed forces or security forces, for example. We are very careful about this. We do not treat Israel as we might treat another member of the European Union, or many other countries. We are very careful about the way in which we trade with Israel, and so on, and we are vociferous in our criticisms of the way in which we think that it has been breaking UN Security Council resolutions. Having said that, I have to reiterate that the object of the exercise is to try to get to a peace process that is going to bring real change there. If we take our eye off that ball, I do not think that we are ever going to get there. I would say that placing sanctions on Israel would do nothing to help that.

  Q154  Mr. Keetch: But Israel does have a special EU trade relationship, which we as a Government support. There were suggestions that, during the crisis in Lebanon last summer, American arms were coming in through US bases in Britain.[1] Can you categorically tell the Committee that during that crisis no arms for the use of the Israeli defence forces came in on US aircraft coming through British bases?

  Dr. Howells: We are not aware of any arms coming in or going through British airspace. If they did, we do not know about that. We take a very dim view of special cargoes landing. We should have been notified and we were not notified. We looked at this matter thoroughly when it first arose and did not find any examples of this—certainly not under a Bush presidency.

  Q155  Andrew Mackinlay: Following up my two colleagues' point, putting aside sanctions, which we have talked about, there seems to be an absence of admonishment when things go wrong. I can illustrate that by mentioning the footage that we saw on worldwide television of Israeli soldiers pushing a young adolescent in front of them when doing house raids. Has the British Government flagged up any concern or admonishment regarding that incident? If not, why not? To what extent have we done so? This goes to the heart of the Arab street. It is not just a question of sanctions. We do not seem to condemn and deplore even that kind of apparent wrongdoing. I want to know, from you, to what extent we have done that.

  Dr. Howells: We constantly remind the Israelis that we place human rights at the heart of our foreign policy. They know that. We try to convince them that we take a dim view of the abuse of human rights, in whatever form it takes—and sometimes it has taken the form of British citizens being shot in and around the West Bank. We take a very dim view of that and we urge the Israelis always to understand that those kinds of actions do nothing to enhance the reputation or the cause of Israel in the Middle East, or anywhere else, if it comes to that. However, I cannot give you an answer on that specific case, because I do not know if our ambassador has spoken to them. I have not spoken to them about this.

  Q156  Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful for your last point. Perhaps they could be told, because constituents raise such matters. It is not that far-fetched. Perhaps you could find out from the ambassador and let us know, please.

  Dr. Howells: Yes, I will undertake to do that. [2]

  Q157  Mr. Horam: The heart of the peace process in Palestine is still the road map, even though it is some four years old. As Mr. Keetch pointed out, we have not even got to stage 1. The Israelis have still not frozen settlement building and so forth, so we have not got that far. Yet at the same time, Condoleezza Rice is asking that the Israelis and President Abbas engage in what she calls endgame negotiations in order to provide some sort of political horizon for the Palestinians and an idea of what the state would look like. That seems a bit odd, frankly. We have not got to stage 1 of the road map, but we want Israelis and President Abbas to talk about the endgame. That seems rather peculiar diplomacy to us.

  Dr. Howells: I can see that there is a lot of frustration, and I am going to give you my instinctive response. I do not know, and I have not spoken to Condoleezza Rice about why she has been using such language recently. Perhaps Peter could come in in a minute and say something about that.

  Whenever I have gone out and spoken to Palestinians or Israelis about this, I have not got the sense that there is a step-by-step approach. The rejection of such an approach is at its most extreme, I think, in Israel. I suspect that six or seven years ago, or maybe even 10 years ago, they decided that they would start to think about unilateral action as opposed to the process until then, which had been a case of saying "You do this, we'll do that" in a succession of steps. I suspect that the decision to build the barrier was the first unilateral step. Getting out of Gaza was probably the second, and I think that if Prime Minister Sharon had lived—he is dead, isn't he?

  Simon McDonald: He is still alive, in Tel Hashomer hospital.

  Mr. Keetch: It is an easy mistake to make.

  Dr. Howells: It is, and I just made it.

  The third step would probably have been an order saying, "You get west of the barrier and the wall, or you are on your own, mate" as far as the west bank was concerned. I know that Mahmoud Abbas was very upset about this. He saw the process as short-circuiting the recognised negotiating system that had existed until then. Although within Israel there was general applause, especially over the decision to get out of Gaza, it certainly was not shared by Fatah and the PLO.

  The mood at the moment is one of saying, "Well, we know about the road map, but we don't know how you get to the end if you don't know what the end is". That has probably been provoked by the argument over the route of the barrier. It has become a burning issue that neither the Palestinians nor, apparently, the Israelis, can define where their frontiers are going to end up. That was always seen as part of the final negotiations. Instead it has been pushed to the forefront of the process in a way that makes people feel very frustrated. I suspect that what Condoleezza Rice is trying to do is recognise the high ground that she thinks everybody should aim to reach.

  Q158  Mr. Horam: The shining city set on a hill, maybe?

  Dr. Howells: It could well be. She is then trying to say, "Okay, we have got this mechanism, this vehicle for getting there"—the road map—"but we would like a clearer picture of what exactly we are trying to get to".

  Q159  Mr. Horam: But here again, Israel is causing problems. As I understand it, the Prime Minister refuses to talk about any form of final status. That makes it difficult to outline what he envisages.

  Dr. Howells: I think that you have put your finger on the big difficulty. I have tried to explain why I think she said what she said, but that is going to cause tensions within Israel and it is certainly causing tensions within the Palestinian Authority. Simon was our ambassador, of course, and could perhaps tell you a bit more about this.

  Simon McDonald: Where shall I start? One thing I should like to say at the beginning is that there is a presumption in what the Committee has said so far that Israel was to blame for what happened last summer. Okay, that may be the final conclusion, but we need to bear in mind how it started. It started with the kidnap of two Israeli soldiers from Israeli territory—Regev and Goldwasser—and the bombing with Katyusha rockets of northern Israeli towns. Israel reacted to that; the campaign went on a long time and most of the television pictures were, indeed, of what Israel was doing in southern Lebanon. That was undoubtedly going on, but all the time Hezbollah was attacking Israel by rocket fire from Lebanon.

  The casualties were, of course, very unbalanced: about 140 Israelis died and more than 1,000 Lebanese. One reason for that was that more than 1 million Israeli citizens were spending every single night in bunkers—more than one sixth of their population. So Hezbollah was trying to kill Israelis throughout, but was less successful because of the action that the Israeli Government were able to take. You can conclude what you want, but you should bear in mind the actual start of that war and how it progressed.

  Throughout that time, as the Minister says, I was ambassador and in touch with the Israeli Government about the proportionality of their response and about certain targets that they were going for. Several times, I woke up Prime Minister Olmert's chief of staff in the middle of the night because my colleague in Beirut was in touch, as something was happening and we wanted to protest about it. We thought that something needed to stop, and I said so to Mr. Yoram Turbowicz, who passed it on to Prime Minister Olmert.

1   See Ev 59. Back

2   See Ev 59. Back

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