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28 Nov 2007 : Column 282

The Prime Minister: We have set up a review into exactly that matter—the special needs of young people and particularly children at school. I believe, again, that there should be all-party consensus about what needs to be done. Let me repeat: our policy is educational opportunity for everyone until 18, not just for some.

Mr. Speaker: Order. A deferred Division is under way in the No Lobby. The pink voting papers were not circulated in the usual way with the Order Paper, but they have been made available to Members in the Vote Office. They are also available in the Lobby.

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Middle East

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the middle east peace process, following the Annapolis conference, which I attended yesterday at the US naval academy in Maryland.

For several years there has been neither peace nor a peace process in the middle east. Insecurity for Israelis and the suffering of Palestinians have fed off each other, deepening divides and fomenting mutual distrust. The conference represents a determined attempt by both sides, and by the United States, to break the cycle of violence and discord. Its significance comes as much from the attendance list as its immediate results; representation from nearly 50 countries showed the degree of concern about the current situation as well as the consensus for action.

As I pointed out in my contribution yesterday, in 1993 at the signing of the Oslo accords the late Prime Minister Rabin talked of an atmosphere of hope tinged with apprehension; today in the region there is an atmosphere of apprehension tinged with occasional hope. Yesterday represented one such ray of hope, but the context of extremism, terrorism and the dangers of nuclear proliferation provides a spur to action. All present understood that the Annapolis conference could be a success only if it was the start, not the end, of a new drive for peace based on the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.

There is now for the first time a clear and shared goal. To quote from the joint understanding read out at the beginning of the meeting by President Bush, it is

UN resolutions 242 and 338 provide the agreed foundation for progress.

There is also a timetable. Today, the parties will meet at the White House; a joint steering committee will meet continuously from 12 December; President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert will continue their bi-weekly meetings; there will be an international donors conference in Paris on 17 December; the Russian Foreign Minister has offered Moscow as the venue for a review conference by the end of the first quarter of 2008; and I offered London as the venue for a meeting after that. Crucially, there is an end date. All agreed that these negotiations should seek to conclude by the end of 2008.

There is also a follow-up: the parties have committed themselves to implementing their respective obligations under the road map and have agreed to a US, Palestinian and Israeli mechanism, led by the US, to follow this up. The US has committed itself to monitoring and judging the fulfilment of these conditions. That means an end to settlement construction, the removal of outposts constructed after March 2001 and renewed efforts on security in the occupied territories.

The rest of the international community will have a vital role to play. We know that peace and prosperity depend on each other. We need a massive upgrade in our collective effort. I am pleased to report that the UK is in the lead. First, we have committed up to $500 million to the Paris donor conference, the first country
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to do so. That will stand alongside European and American commitments. We look forward to working with Arab colleagues on an Arab economic initiative side by side with the important Arab peace initiative.

Secondly, our priority is to help to build effective national Palestinian security forces. We have been involved in that effort for several years now. We commit our people, resources and experience to making a difference on the ground. In Nablus, in Bethlehem and in Jericho—where I saw raw recruits for myself 10 days ago—the fight for security is the fight for legitimacy and hope for the Palestinian people. It is often unglamorous, it is always hard and it is absolutely necessary. President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad are committed to the task, and we will support them.

Thirdly, we need to support the parties as they strive for success. Prosperity driven by the private sector needs reform driven by the public sector. That is why the reform and development plan prepared by Prime Minister Fayyad is so important as a statement of intent—about clean government, about responsible budgeting, and about politics based on promises that are made to be kept. That will bear fruit only if Palestinians are given the freedom to work, to trade and to reap the benefits of commerce. The efforts of Tony Blair are vital in that regard, and the announcement last Monday of four projects, with Defence Minister Barak and Prime Minister Fayyad in support, is an important step forward.

Fourthly, we must not lose sight of Gaza, an integral part of a future Palestinian state. Continuing rocket fire into Israel by extremist groups within Gaza is a reminder of the dangers Israel faces. However, the deteriorating humanitarian situation is a real cause for concern. The UN Secretary-General spoke forcefully to that issue yesterday and we support his efforts to ensure that the interests of the civilian population are not forgotten.

Fifthly, our immediate focus must be on Israel and Palestine. But any peace must be comprehensive. The current situation in Lebanon vividly illustrates the need for a wider settlement. The prize is full normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world. I encouraged the Syrian Foreign Minister to attend the conference when I met him in New York in September, and the presence and speech of the Deputy Foreign Minister was a welcome sign of Syrian engagement.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons for people to be sceptical about the latest stage in the search for peace. Given the experience of the 16 years since the Madrid conference, we should indeed all be cautious. The road from Annapolis will be hard, but there is a real basis for engagement.

The unmatched injuries of the Jewish people and the stateless tragedy of the Palestinians make both sides fearful of compromise; but without compromise there is only fear. Thirty years ago, the late President Sadat said of his bid for peace:

We all have a duty to do what we can to challenge the sceptics, to prove them wrong, and to help Palestinians and Israelis live out their common humanity.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and express strong support for his words and for what he and his counterparts did in Annapolis. The hope that he
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expressed that the conference will give new impetus to the hope for a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is shared across all parties in this country and, indeed, most of the world.

We welcome the fact that the conference reaffirmed the vision of a negotiated, two-state solution based on the road map. The priority now is, obviously, to build on what momentum has been created and to address some formidable obstacles that remain. Among the greatest threats to the negotiations must be the continued refusal of Hamas to recognise Israel and renounce violence, its rejection of the conference outcome and its complete unwillingness to prevent rocket attacks against Israel. What discussions did the Foreign Secretary have about those issues, and can he explain how Gaza, which he rightly describes as an integral part of the future Palestinian state, will be approached within the negotiations?

On Israel’s part, alongside the freeze on settlement activity to which the Foreign Secretary referred, does he agree that speedy progress on movement and access would make a considerable difference in improving the quality of life for Palestinians and demonstrating that the path of peace brings tangible benefits and the promise of a better life?

I have a few questions about the process going forward. The Foreign Secretary referred to a timetable for follow-up on the negotiations, including review conferences. However, little has yet been said about the timetable of the negotiations themselves, and even before Hamas came to power neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis had been able to adhere to the previous timetable. At what stage of the road map will those negotiations pick up the thread? How confident is the Foreign Secretary that a realistic timetable for negotiations will emerge, given the expressed intention of concluding a peace treaty by the end of next year?

Secondly, is the Foreign Secretary confident that there is the sustained commitment needed to push both sides towards the necessary compromises? Did he form the impression at Annapolis that President Bush and his Administration will invest the immense amount of time and political commitment necessary to move this initiative forward?

What specific role will the Quartet play in the coming months, given that the joint understanding refers only to an

to monitor the implementation of the road map? Does the right hon. Gentleman also see a role for the so-called “Arab Quartet”, who have been crucial in marshalling Arab support for the peace process and proposing a basis for wider Arab-Israeli peace?

The joint understanding issued after Annapolis made no mention of the Syrian-Israeli track, although I understand that that was on the conference’s formal agenda. What is the Foreign Secretary’s understanding about when that track will be addressed? He referred to Lebanon, which once again is on a knife edge. What steps is Britain taking to try to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate, and that Lebanon does not spiral afresh into violence?

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Finally, Iran is emerging as one of the primary causes of instability in the region. Does the Foreign Secretary share our concern that the nexus between Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas has the potential to derail the peace process? Is it not vital to intensify the peaceful and multilateral pressure on Iran, including effective financial sanctions across the EU?

Given how many tensions and potential conflicts that there now are in the middle east, is not working to resolve the difference between Israelis and Palestinians one of the highest possible priorities for the international community? Is it not the duty of us all—Governments, Oppositions and nations of every continent—to do our utmost to support that?

David Miliband: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s approach to this matter, and I shall try to deal in detail with all the questions that he asked.

When I spoke yesterday at the Annapolis conference, I made the point that, although I was obviously speaking on behalf of the British Government, I believed that I was speaking on behalf of all shades of political opinion in the UK. I think that that had a resonance, and it has certainly been backed up by what the right hon. Gentleman has said today.

At the beginning of his response to my statement, the right hon. Gentleman said that there were formidable obstacles, and at the end he said that the middle east peace process must be one of the highest possible priorities. He is right on both counts.

Hamas took control of Gaza in June, and it is striking that since then there have been about 1,000 Qassam rocket and mortar shell attacks on Israel. That is a very serious security concern for the Israeli Government, but it should be a serious concern for us all. Equally, I spoke yesterday to the UN Secretary-General about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and I have also spoken about that to various members of the Israeli delegation. From my visit to the middle east last week, I know that there are ongoing discussions between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government about what is happening in Gaza. President Abbas is the elected leader of all Palestinian people and he was speaking in that role yesterday. That is why it is right that the responsibility for negotiations lies with him, as does the responsibility for deciding when and how to approach the issue of reconciliation among the Palestinian people.

Three or four months on from Hamas’s takeover, and not least in light of the killing two weeks ago of six innocent civilians who were demonstrating peacefully, it is my impression that Hamas’s rule in Gaza is doing nothing for its popularity among its own people. However, we should not underestimate the force of Hamas’s organisation in Gaza or the strength of its structures there, and it is for President Abbas to lead that process.

The right hon. Gentleman was right in what he said about movement and access. It makes sense to deal with the security of economic projects one by one. At present, there are some 530 checks on, and other interruptions to, the movement of Palestinian people in the west bank. One approach is to try to tick them off one by one, but another is to build economic growth and tackle each of the security impediments or checkpoints around those poles of economic activity. I think that that second approach lends itself to progress.

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The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timetable for the negotiations. The first meeting on 12 December will be key to setting a forward plan, and I shall be happy to keep him and the House informed about that.

In respect of the US commitment, the deep freeze of the last six or seven years has been ended by the conference. The strong words of President Bush and Secretary of State Rice, formally and informally, suggest that they realise the depth of commitment that is needed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): President Bush is anti-Palestinian.

David Miliband: I look forward to my hon. Friend’s turning his statement into a question.

There is recognition in the United States, and in the Arab world, that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is closing for a number of reasons. Unless the opportunity is seized now, the consequences will be very grave indeed, which is why there is not a moment to lose.

The Quartet will continue to have an important role, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to notice that the structures are being moulded to fit the new circumstances of the negotiations. The approach forged from the Quartet on to the road map required that phase 1 of the road map be completed before phase 3—the final status negotiations—started. One of the big changes at Annapolis is that that distinction has been ended and the parties will start the final status negotiations, but the Quartet has a continuing role, not least in the donors conference next week.

My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East will be in Lebanon in two weeks’ time, and we are all waiting day by day, even hour by hour, to see the next step forward, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that compromise is essential if Lebanon is to avoid descent into another bloody civil war.

Many players have the capacity to disrupt the process, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that discussions about financial and other sanctions against Iran are ongoing at ministerial and official level among the E3 plus 3 and across the European Union to make sure that we make it absolutely clear to Iran that it has a clear choice—full engagement with the international community, including access to civilian nuclear power, or confrontation and a nuclear arms race in the middle east. The latter is not an option that the rest of the world wants Iran to take and is something it is prepared to do everything in its power to prevent.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, welcome the modest beginning of this new start. The Foreign Secretary referred several times to the situation in Gaza, and to the division of Gaza from the rest of the Palestinian Authority. What can the Quartet and our Government do to bring about the reconciliation of the Palestinian people and ensure that there is a viable two-state solution, with one Palestinian Authority governing both parts of the Palestinian territories for the benefit of the people of Gaza?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend may have noticed that on Monday the spokesman of the President of the United States said he was determined to support a two-state solution in the middle east, not a three-state solution. That certainly remains our view.

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On what we can do to promote reconciliation, we have to recognise that President Abbas is the key player. One hundred and twenty-nine people—innocent Palestinians, many of them—were killed in the attempted coup in June. It is for President Abbas, as the elected leader of all the Palestinian people, to lead his people and seek the reconciliation of which my hon. Friend spoke. I am convinced that the moderate majority, in Gaza as well as the west bank, wants a clean, effective administration that can govern in the interests of all the people. That is the best way forward. The political horizon that has been established can give credibility to President Abbas, and that is the best way we can support him.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I, too, thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for coming to the House so soon after the conference concluded. All of us in the Chamber recognise that it was no small achievement to get everybody to Annapolis in the first place and to reach any kind of agreement as a result, so we do not want to downplay the importance of what has been achieved, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the brief reference in his statement to the crisis in Gaza was more than was managed in the official communiqué, and that without serious attention to the problems there no deal over the next 12 months will get anywhere? Does he agree that there is not enough in the agreement to offer any prospect of an end to the choking of Gaza’s economy, which exacerbates the humanitarian crisis? Does he accept that although we all demand that Hamas satisfy the Quartet principles, not least the end of the deadly missile fire into Israel, there must be diplomacy and engagement through neighbouring Arab countries to work towards fulfilment of those criteria, not simply continuing to offer the people of Gaza international sanctions and the threat of indefinite isolation?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman is right to distinguish between what was agreed yesterday and the process that has been set up. He is right that the cautious promise that comes out of yesterday’s meeting is about the process, and the shared goal, rather than what was agreed. The intention was not to produce a comprehensive blueprint; it was to produce a structure that could deliver a serious process that would enable us to reach the goal that we share.

In respect of Gaza—I have addressed this issue a couple of times already—there is a political leadership of all the Palestinian people. It is up to them to lead the process of reconciliation. I agree that we must be attentive to the economic, as well as the humanitarian, situation. There is hardly an economy left in Gaza. Some 60 or 70 per cent. of the people are completely dependent on UN aid. The situation with power supplies, which the Secretary of State for International Development and I addressed in our statement on 30 October, is a cause of deep concern.

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