Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)|
HOWELLS MP, SIMON
CMG AND DR.
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 reportby 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
I am pretty confident that those substantial
sumsmore than 600 million this year, for exampleare
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 themeverybody
had told me before I went that the Palestinian economy had collapsedI
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
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 Governmentthe democratically elected Government
for the whole of Lebanonwas 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
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 thatwe
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
inthis is what it is called, although I do not know whether
it actually existsthe 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 streetif I may
follow the lines of Mr. Heathcoat-Amoryis 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
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 thiscertainly 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 takesand
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. 
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 livedhe is dead, isn't
Simon McDonald: He is still alive,
in Tel Hashomer hospital.
Mr. Keetch: It is an easy mistake
Dr. Howells: It is, and I just
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 territoryRegev and Goldwasserand 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 bunkersmore 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
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
See Ev 59. Back