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24 Jan 2008 : Column 523WH—continued

4.15 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and all its members on the authoritative and wide-ranging report that we are debating. We have heard from many esteemed hon. Members. The hon. Member for Ilford, South opened the debate very well with a summary, in as much as one can have a summary of the middle east. He took us on a rapid tour around the various countries involved and, crucially, provided an update on what has been happening since the report was published last July. It is obviously a part of the world where events move quickly.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) made an eloquent and passionate contribution about the situation in Gaza in particular. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a characteristically powerful speech. I commend his courage and that of others who went to monitor the elections in Gaza. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) made a brief but welcome contribution about minority rights in Egypt and the discrimination against the Baha’i, which picked up on the similar point that we heard about religious discrimination against Christian students. Obviously, both types of discrimination are appalling and need to be on the agenda of our Ministers and diplomats in their relations with the countries involved. Incidentally, he made a very good argument against identity cards in general.

The hon. Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) made excellent contributions on Gaza. I found particularly interesting the at times tense exchange between the hon. Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) and for Birmingham, Northfield. That brought to mind the opportunity that I had when I visited Israel and Palestine on a fact-finding mission back in 2000. I was struck by the fact that, wherever I went, there was a great fear about security. People in the UK find that quite hard to imagine as they go about their daily lives. Notwithstanding the fact that there have been some terrorist attacks in this country, the atmosphere there is hugely different. It seemed that there were armed soldiers everywhere, which was even more shocking, because I was not yet used to the armed police officers around the House.

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What I took from that visit was the complexity of the situation. We went to the Golan heights and learned about the politics of the water supply. We spoke to some of the settlers. We went to the Palestinian Authority and, of course, Jerusalem, which is the focal point for three of the main religions in the world. Therefore, I can well understand the tension and the fear that Israeli citizens and Palestinians experience in their daily lives—they must be atrocious to live with.

When we note the intensity of the debate that we have had in this Chamber today, we can begin to imagine the challenge involved in getting people around the table when it is a case not just of polarised opinions, but of people who have lost family members and friends in terrorist attacks. To achieve some form of reconciliation will obviously be immensely difficult, as the past few decades have shown. However, we need to retain some optimism and hope that there can be a peaceful solution.

We can look to the excellent work that has been done by successive Governments of different political parties in this country with regard to the situation in Northern Ireland and the success that has been achieved, bit by bit, in the peace process there. Obviously, we must remain committed to a peaceful resolution of this situation and a two-state solution. It is incredibly important that everybody signs up to the three Quartet principles.

Mr. Moss: The hon. Lady mentioned Northern Ireland. We have to be very careful not to read across from the Northern Ireland situation. It seems to me that, if there is to be a peace process, both sides must have a deep desire for peace. The Northern Ireland process began with a message, through unusual channels, from the IRA that more or less said that the war was over and it wanted to negotiate. It will deny that, but at least there was an intention on its part to enter negotiations. Does hon. Lady agree that, at this point, it would appear that organisations such as Hamas have no intention of entering such negotiations?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We obviously need to get to that point, but the two scenarios have different histories and one cannot generalise too much. Nevertheless, as he said, elements of Hamas are clearly extreme. For example, it does not recognise the right of Israel to exist.

I have not had the advantage of visiting Gaza, like some hon. Members, but I suspect that, if we took polls in Gaza and in Israel, the ordinary people, not those who make the decisions, would still have a desire for peace. They might have different views about how to arrive at a settlement, but the important thing to remember is the wish for peace. No one wants to live in the current situation.

Richard Burden: Does the hon. Lady agree that, although things are now very serious and the implication is that some of the more hard-line elements in Hamas are now in control in Gaza, there was a massive wasted opportunity between 2005 and early 2007, when Hamas, although not a different organisation from the one it had been previously, was on ceasefire and had offered a long-term truce? The Northern Ireland experience tends to indicate that we should have picked that up to see how far it could be pushed, rather than rejecting it, as the international community did.

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Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman is right. It is vital that movement from either side should be picked up and the opportunity taken. There is a difficulty with Hamas not recognising the right for Israel to exist, but we must get it to the stage where it does. Nevertheless, I agree with the Committee’s recommendation that not engaging at all with Hamas is problematic and that we need to get to the situation where we can have a dialogue. The Government need to engage, as they did over the case of the Alan Johnston; indeed, I congratulate them on their efforts in that case.

There is also an issue with the Quartet not having an Arab representative, such as the Arab League. Perhaps we should have a Quintet. The hon. Member for Ilford, South pointed out that the US has traditionally been the key player in the peace process.

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The Quartet works closely with the Arab League, and I am constantly in contact with Amru Musa, its secretary general. We try to conduct initiatives in concert.

Jo Swinson: I very much welcome that statement. The US has been the key player in the peace process, but we need to recognise the reality that the US is not necessarily seen as an honest broker by many Arab nations in the middle east—after the Iraq war, that is even more so—and it might be instructive to consider alternatives, perhaps asking the UN to take the lead in such a process.

Interestingly enough, the Minister and I served on a European Standing Committee this week, and I found out much more about the Euro-Mediterranean forum, which seems to be one of the few places where we can get the Israelis, the Palestinians and the other nations around the table. It has a much wider remit, but I wonder whether a similar kind of forum—an Israeli-Palestinian congress—could be set up on an ongoing basis to provide a channel for dialogue.

The Gaza situation has taken up a great deal of time in the debate. We must make it absolutely clear that the attacks by Hamas on Israel are entirely unacceptable, as is Hamas’s denial of Israel’s right to exist. However, we must recognise also the dire humanitarian situation, which has been referred to by many Members. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) spoke of the collective punishment, and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling was right to quote the headline; Gaza is essentially one big prison. The fact that the Committee could not visit Gaza demonstrates the international community’s failure to respond to the conflict.

Egypt’s response to people breaking through the wall and obtaining basic food and supplies has been quite welcome in some ways. I say that with caution, but a heavy-handed response would have inflamed the situation. Those events underline the need for a renewed focus on solving the situation in that troubled part of the world.

On Lebanon, I welcome the following conclusion by the Committee.

The Committee is quite right, and it was not the only one to reach that conclusion. The UN Deputy Secretary-General said that the UK’s diplomatic efforts at the
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time were counter-productive, which is surely a damning indictment of our position then. I had hoped that the Government would take stock and learn from the situation, but sadly, their response to the report suggests otherwise. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that point.

The Lebanon conflict brought up the issue of cluster munitions, of which 3.5 million were dropped in the 72 hours after the Security Council passed resolution 1701. It is estimated that 1 million of those bombs remain unexploded. I was concerned to read in the report that the work to clear the munitions had been hampered by Israel. The Committee did well to highlight that point, but there seems to be a conflict in the report. It says that, on 2 July 2007, the Israeli ambassador wrote to the Committee saying that he had handed over the maps, and that it had been done voluntarily. However, the report then states that the Minister said on 3 July 2007 that he had “not had that co-operation”, so I should be interested to find out from him what further pressure the Government put on Israel after that and whether Israel is still not fully co-operating or whether the situation has been resolved.

The Government’s banning of dumb cluster munitions has been welcomed by others, and I add my voice to that welcome. However, I cannot get my head around the so-called smart bombs, of which 10 per cent. are still left unexploded. The Government said in their response that they need to balance

but how can they possibly justify the continued use of those immoral weapons when they know that those weapons will kill and maim innocent civilians long after a conflict ends? I should obviously welcome a signal from the Minister that the Government will ban them, too, although I shall not hold my breath about that today.

The Committee is undertaking a separate inquiry on Iran, which will give a more detailed assessment of the security situation there, but I should like to make one point about it. Notwithstanding the embarrassing media debacle after the release of the British sailors, the Government should be warmly applauded for securing the sailors’ release, especially as they seemed to come to no harm. On a related point, however, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) has asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but not yet received a reply, did the UK recover the naval vessel from the Iranians? If not, will the Government pursue the issue?

There has not been much discussion about Iraq today, but it is relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, particularly because the war in Iraq diverted so much energy and attention away from dealing with it. Others have mentioned the missed opportunities of the past few years. I was not in the House in 2003 when the votes and debates took place; I was marching through the streets of Glasgow in protest at the Iraq war with 50,000 others. It was an illegal war on a flawed prospectus, and just this week at a tribunal, the Information Commissioner said that the Government should publish a secret document drawn up by John Williams, the FCO’s top spin doctor at the time. It may have influenced the dodgy, sexed-up dossier that we know so much about. In its ruling, the tribunal said that

I hope that the Government will respect the information tribunal ruling and agree to publish that report.

This is a valuable report and we have had an excellent debate. I again pay tribute to the work of the Committee in undertaking the inquiry and raising several important issues, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

4.29 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and the Foreign Affairs Committee on a thought-provoking and comprehensive report. I hope that the Chamber will forgive me if I do not respond to every subject raised and point made this afternoon, let alone provide a point-by-point response to the many important issues signalled in the debate. I shall confine myself to a small number of issues and put a number of questions to the Minister.

Quite rightly the debate has focused on the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians and, in particular, on the situation in Gaza, which the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) described as a humanitarian catastrophe. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, it is easy to allow a sense of disappointment, pessimism and frustration to overwhelm all one’s thinking about the middle east. However, it is worth reflecting on three rays of light amid the current difficult situation.

The first ray of light is the series of civil society organisations in Israel, to which the hon. Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Islington, North alluded, which are committed to peace, reconciliation and civil rights, and campaign actively for justice for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs as well as for Jewish Israelis. Whatever criticisms anybody in the United Kingdom might have from time to time of one or other Israeli Government, we should all acknowledge that there is something admirable about a state that fosters that sort of vigorous, plural, political debate within its society, despite the fact that it considers itself under a threat to its very existence and that its future at the hands of its neighbours remains insecure.

Secondly, in my judgment, the Israeli Government have recognised that the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories will make it more and more difficult to sustain Israel as both a democracy and a Jewish state—Prime Minister Olmert has said as much. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) drew attention to comments by Mr. Lieberman. It is worth reminding ourselves that he has said that he and his party will withdraw from the Government coalition in Israel, because they disagree with the peace initiatives that Mr. Olmert and his Government signed up to at Annapolis.

Dr. Iddon: Is that not the crux of the problem in Israel? Every time we move towards a radical solution, one member of an extreme left or right party collapses the Government. The electoral system is the main reason why we cannot make real progress in Israel.

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Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman has identified one of the major problems with taking forward the Annapolis proposals with the vigour and speed that one would hope for. However, we also need to recognise that there are difficulties from the Palestinian side as well. I think that President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad are committed to a two-state solution, want a peaceful settlement with their Israeli counterpart and are ready for compromise. However, they too have to contend, not just in Gaza, but on the west bank, with those who argue for a more extreme approach and against compromise.

There is no doubt that the current position looks fairly bleak. I was in Ramallah when the news came through that permission had been granted for the expansion of settlements at Har Homa. I recall how people such as Saeb Erekat were utterly consumed by a mixture of rage and near despair at what they believed to be a betrayal of an agreement, entered into at Annapolis, the first time that it was put to the test. The political reality is that further expansion of existing settlements, let alone the creation of new ones, undermines the position of those in Palestine who argue passionately for peace and compromise. President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad need some quick wins, both economically and politically, to show a young and very frustrated population, who are suffering from high unemployment, that engagement and compromise deliver real benefits. What are the Minister’s hopes for that and will he say whether the British Government are confident that the admirable work that Tony Blair is doing to ensure economic progress will be matched by a willingness to open up transit points, with proper security checks that will satisfy the Israelis, because without freedom of movement for goods, we will not have economic growth? As long as trucks have to be unloaded every time they cross the barrier, people will not want to invest in the west bank, which means that there will be no jobs or prosperity.

The problem in Gaza is the complete lack of trust on either side. I was glad that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, who has consistently championed the Palestinian cause, made it clear how utterly he rejects the use of rockets on Israeli civilians by elements in Gaza. It was very important that someone with his political views on the middle east should express such views so trenchantly.

Do the Government believe that there is a prospect of the two sides reaching some undeclared agreement whereby the rocket attacks cease and the blockade is eased? I know that we will not get direct talks between the two sides. It is clear that some powers are able to talk honestly to the Israelis, but who is it, in the Government’s view, who has comparable influence over the Hamas regime in Gaza? Can we look to the Saudis and Egyptians to perform that role? Or has the situation moved so far that the Hamas leadership is, in effect, looking to Tehran for influence and support, and the leaders of moderate Arab countries, even powerful ones, no longer have significant influence?

That brings me on to the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and its relationship to wider conflicts within the middle east. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) was quite right to stress the importance of Lebanon and the need for sustained diplomatic effort to resolve the stand-off there. I also agreed with him that this country should do whatever it can to try to cajole Syria along the path
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towards playing a constructive rather than a malevolent role in the politics of the middle east.

We must consider our relations with Iran in this broader context. Iran exercises influence beyond its own borders—within Lebanon through Hezbollah, within Gaza through Hamas, as well as within Iraq. How are British Ministers approaching the dilemma of how to engage with Iran and seek to encourage it to accept that it has a legitimate and significant place in the politics of the middle east, but one that it has a duty to exercise responsibly and in the interests of peace? Is that a forlorn hope, or is it an objective that the Minister believes can be attained?

Because of the pressure of time, I shall not dwell upon the question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions except to say that I hope the Minister will ensure that there is an early statement to the House—oral or written—about the terms of the draft UN resolution agreed at Berlin this week and about the current state of affairs concerning the possibility of further European Union sanctions against Iran.

I shall speak briefly about Iraq. It seems to me that we have had some progress in re-establishing order, but that has been nowhere near matched by progress on political reconciliation. When I consider the situation in Iraq, I see few signs of that happening. How confident is the Minister that we can see movement forward on things such as the distribution of petroleum revenues, or on new arrangements for the election of local and provincial authorities on the status of Mosul? If those matters are not settled amicably, it seems to me that there is a real risk that Iraq will slip into a situation in which it will effectively be carved up between rival armed groups, each representing a different ethnic or religious interest.

We hear in the context of Basra but also elsewhere in Iraq, that the police are frequently corrupt, often operating as militias on behalf of one or other of the religious or political factions. Is that the Government’s judgment as well, or do they see signs that the quality of the Iraqi police force is now improving?

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire spoke about yesterday’s decision by the Information Tribunal. I offer the Minister one sentence, which is that that decision reinforced the case yet again for the Government to authorise the inquiry by Privy Councillors into the decision to go to war, which I believe is long overdue, and which Ministers have acknowledged ought to take place at some stage. The issue will not go away, and it is time that the Government got to grips with that challenge, setting an inquiry in motion.

Finally, I shall speak briefly about the Gulf. I believe that we need to give a much higher priority to our relationship with friendly Arab states than has been the case in recent years. When I talk to representatives from those countries, I am told how active the Chinese and Russians are in the middle east, and how active the Germans, the Italians and the French are in those countries in the Gulf where British interests and influence have historically been strong. It is important that Ministers should not take historic British interests and British relationships for granted; perhaps they should treat President Sarkozy’s visit the other week as a wake-up call for more intense diplomatic action on our part.

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