Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 260-279)


3 JULY 2008

  Q260  Dr Starkey: Prime Minister, I want to focus on just one particular aspect of the situation in Israel/Palestine. I accept and I think we all welcome the fact that there do seem to be a number of very positive moves across the region between the Israeli and Palestinian Authority Governments to move the situation forward and a great deal of international engagement. Notwithstanding for example the terrorist attack yesterday in West Jerusalem and some continued violence on both sides, there is an improvement, but there is one aspect, which is the one on which I want to concentrate, which is not improving, in fact it is going in the opposite direction, and it is an aspect that could sabotage the entire process, and that is the continued construction in illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Israeli Government has announced a whole raft of new commissions for over 2,500 new homes in these settlements. Since Annapolis the rate of settlement expansion has actually increased. Given that the UK Government is on record as saying that the settlements are an obstacle to peace, what can the UK and the EU actually do to insist that there is no further settlement building?

  Mr Brown: As you know, negotiations between Prime Minister Olmert and Mr Abbas have continued. A lot of detailed work is being done. The barriers to these being successful are not only the delicate problems that are raised about the future of refugees, Jerusalem, the borders, the map and everything else, but also what you rightly point to as these provocations. One is of course continued bombings and continued missiles being hurled into Israeli places and you have, like yesterday, these problems that arise from what seems to be a terrorist attack, but I agree with you also that it is not acceptable that at the point that we are trying to get to a peace settlement we have the problems with additional settlements being announced or planned. As you know, there was a report in the middle of June about plans to build more houses in East Jerusalem. We made it absolutely clear, as did the Americans, that such activity had the potential to harm all the negotiations going forward and we said at the time, and I repeat, that the settlement programme should be stopped because it is not only causing distress amongst the Palestinians it is actually preventing people seeing that there is, as I believe possible, a resolution to the problems that have eluded us for many, many decades and that there is a two-state solution possible.

  Q261  Dr Starkey: Absolutely, Prime Minister, the two-state solution is the only agreed international solution and would be in the interests of both Israel and Palestine if that could be achieved but, on the ground, the facts being created by the continued expansion of the settlements and indeed the continued abstraction of Palestinian land for the wall are foreclosing an eventual solution, even if all the other matters do get sorted out. Words, Prime Minister, do not seem to be enough. Important though Britain is, even the words of the Secretary of State of America does not seem to be having any effect. Why is the EU for example not considering taking action because there are levers the EU can use. On that point, can I press you; why has there been an agreement to deepen the EU-Israel Association Agreement in the margins of the General Affairs Council? Why was there no consideration given to using that as a lever to insist that the Israelis stopped settlement expansion before any such deepening would be considered? That is an actual lever that we have got; why do we not use it?

  Mr Brown: There are many points of negotiation and discussion at the moment. We held in Britain a Palestinian Investment Conference—

  Q262  Dr Starkey: Prime Minister, sorry, can I just stop you there. Everybody is in favour of that, everybody understands the need to expand the Palestinian economy, but if this settlement expansion continues there cannot be a two-state solution because there will not be the land to create a contiguous and viable Palestinian state nor a state in which an economy can properly function. Why are we not using the levers we have to at least get a freeze?

  Mr Brown: We are taking action on these settlements by making it absolutely clear that we do not see that as an acceptable way of moving towards a peaceful settlement of all the issues.

  Q263  Dr Starkey: Prime Minister, I am really sorry to insist but—

  Mr Brown: You are insisting but I need to be able to finish my answers as well. Equally, we have got to bear in mind that consistent provocation, with bombings into the Israeli territory, is also making it difficult for these peace negotiations to go ahead. I think it is good that despite all these provocations that people are still talking and still making progress and I would urge them to continue to do so. We have made our position on the settlements clear to Prime Minister Olmert when I have talked to him directly and on other occasions when the Foreign Secretary has visited Israel. We also make it clear to those people who are conducting violence on the part of the Palestinians that it is completely unacceptable to try to disrupt the peace process by persistent bombings or incursions into Israeli areas.

  Q264  Dr Starkey: I absolutely agree with all of that about the violence, but the settlement issue is a separate issue. There can be no security argument on the part of the Israelis for expanding settlements. It is purely and simply establishing facts on the grounds which will be very, very difficult to undo, and it has the potential to sabotage the eventual solution. I just press this: was there any consideration in the discussions at the recent council on the deepening of the Association Agreement on making further movement conditional on a settlement freeze?

  Mr Brown: When I have discussed it with my colleagues in the European Union, there has been a very big desire to see the bigger picture, that although there are provocations at the moment on both sides that it is very important that people see that despite the attempts, sometimes by people who are loosely associated with those people who are doing the negotiations or not at all, to either do settlements or alternatively to have these bombings in the Israeli territories, that we must continue with the negotiations and we must also continue looking at these bigger issues about the future of Jerusalem, about the return of refugees, about the territories and the mapping of them; it is very important that these discussions should continue. Nobody wants to see the settlements or the outposts; nobody wants to see the incursions through violence, but it is very important to see the bigger picture as well, and my colleagues in the European Union want to see that bigger picture and see it enacted in practice.

  Q265  Dr Starkey: Turning to that bigger picture, do you actually think that if settlement expansion continues there will be the possibility of establishing a viable Palestinian state on what is left.

  Mr Brown: I think everybody knows that this is one of the barriers to the final success of any peace talks. There are many barriers to that that have got to be removed and I think it is our responsibility to work in all these areas to see if we can get the two sides to the talks working more closely together, with the prospect, and I believe there is a real prospect that most of these problems are soluble, of these problems being solved in the next few months.

  Mike Gapes: We will move on to the difficult and appalling situation in Zimbabwe. Phil Willis?

  Q266  Mr Willis: Prime Minister, undoubtedly you inherited foreign policy in terms of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East from your predecessor and you were dealt a very difficult hand. As far as Africa is concerned, as Chancellor of the Exchequer I think all of us around this table would accept that your efforts in terms of the call for action on immunisation and debt relief in Africa were really quite outstanding, and I am quite prepared to put that on the record.

  Mr Brown: Thank you.

  Q267  Mr Willis: Do you not feel therefore incredibly disappointed with regards to Zimbabwe that your efforts so far have been regarded as little more than ineffectual grand-standing whilst Robert Mugabe simply cocks a snoot at you and the rest of the international community; and why is that?

  Mr Brown: I do not think you are right in your analysis about that. I think what has changed—and it is a huge change from where we were a few years ago—is that most of the major African leaders now recognise that they cannot associate themselves with the Mugabe regime that tries to intimidate people during elections, that practises violence against its citizens, and that of course has either arrested or intimidated some of the leaders of the opposition. I think you will see from the announcements of the African Union in a statement two days ago that African leaders will not again be happy with a situation where they can tolerate the status quo in Zimbabwe, so there is movement. The question is how quickly that movement of opinion, working perhaps with the United Nations, the African Union and SADC, can influence the change that needs to take place in Zimbabwe itself. I do not think it is us versus the Africans as you are presenting it. I think everybody, with very few exceptions, now recognises the need for the status quo in Zimbabwe to change quickly.

  Q268  Mr Willis: Can we look at something that you can influence directly, Prime Minister. You have made very, very strong comments in your condemnation of the Mugabe regime, particularly on the loss of life in Zimbabwe and the torture and abuse of human rights and the Foreign Secretary has made exactly the same comments. How therefore can you argue that the 13,000 Zimbabweans currently seeking refuge and asylum in the UK are anything other than refugees entitled to full protection under the UN constitution? Are you not a little bit embarrassed at least, if not ashamed, that at the one time you are denouncing Mugabe's criminal cabal and at the other time you are sanctioning the mass deportation of people back to Zimbabwe?

  Mr Brown: I just say to you, we continue to look at that situation.

  Q269  Mr Willis: Is that the only answer you can give?

  Mr Brown: Yes, we will continue to look at that situation.

  Q270  Mr Willis: While South Africa has got over a million refugees on its border and we are trying to get Mbeki to do more all we can say is, "We will look at the situation".

  Mr Brown: Each case where someone is seeking asylum has got to be looked at individually but we continue to look at the general situation. We have to bear in mind many factors operating in Zimbabwe where we must make sure that we protect people who may be at risk.

  Q271  Mr Willis: So you do not regard these as legitimate refugees in the UN Convention sense?

  Mr Brown: I did not say that. I said that each application is treated on its merits but we continue to look at the general situation.

  Q272  Mr Willis: You know that if the current Zimbabweans in the UK agree that they will go back to Zimbabwe at some future date they get aid and support cut off from them. How is that an example of Britain using its humanitarian muscle to support people in the most enormous distress?

  Mr Brown: I think I am telling you that we look at the individual case on its merits and see what we can actually do to help.

  Q273  Mr Willis: Back in December 2006 your predecessor, Tony Blair, together with President Bush and President Putin and 138 other leaders, attended the UN World Summit. At that, and you mentioned this earlier in your remarks to Mike Gapes, a resolution was passed which was to condemn the use of torture and terror in situations across the world and, indeed, to give protection to nations as an international community. As a result of that, Resolution 1738 was passed in December 2006. Why have you not, Prime Minister, under the auspices of that resolution, actually called for the naming of Mugabe and indeed his henchmen, who you have proof have conducted themselves in a way which was totally against Resolution 1738, so that they can, when they leave Zimbabwe, be arrested and brought before the International Criminal Court?

  Mr Brown: We are imposing sanctions on individual members of the regime and we are considering at the moment and will extend those sanctions, both financial sanctions and travel sanctions. It is not a question of us failing to take action against individual members of the regime, in terms of both sanctions about their financial affairs and their families' financial affairs and the travel sanctions, that is what we are doing at the moment. I would not like to comment on anything further.

  Q274  Mr Willis: One of the means by which Mugabe is able to maintain his presence, and indeed cock a snook at the international community, is because he is still being funded. He is still being funded, partly through the UK with our $70 million worth of aid. We are the largest supporter of Zimbabwe, and that is to our credit, Prime Minister, that is not a criticism—

  Mr Brown: You do know that—

  Q275  Mr Willis: Can I just finish my question and say, is there not an opportunity now for you as the British Prime Minister and Britain as the largest donor to get all the donors together, to withdraw that aid and agree a new package which will be entirely commensurate with a new political regime in Zimbabwe? Can you not use your financial muscle to do that?

  Mr Brown: First of all, the aid is going directly to people in Zimbabwe, it is not being channelled through the regime.

  Q276  Mr Willis: They are not taking any of it for themselves?

  Mr Brown: We would try to avoid that at all costs, but the aid is going directly to people in Zimbabwe through humanitarian agencies. Of course, one of the problems has been at certain points the government stopping the work of non-governmental organisations in Zimbabwe. Look, the major pressure at the moment, and I think we have to put this in its proper context, is we have had an election, first of all, that was won by the MDC where the Zanu PF came well behind the MDC, we have had an attempt at a second election that is a travesty of justice, during the election the regime has blood on its hands for what has happened, and we now have the pressure that is growing, I think, from the African Union countries and from the community of the United Nations that the status quo cannot be held, that action has got to be taken. There are discussions about what form of transition there could be. There is enormous pressure for that to happen. I hope that a UN envoy will go very soon to Zimbabwe, to Harare, to put that pressure on, but I think virtually the whole international community is saying the status quo cannot continue, the MDC has got to be recognised for the electoral support it had. There will be no support for this regime until democracy is restored. We will intensify the sanctions unless action is taken to change the status quo. I do not believe that President Mugabe could take any comfort from most of the African Union members who have walked away from him and are refusing to support the status quo in Zimbabwe.

  Q277  Mr Willis: Prime Minister, do you believe by the time this Committee next meets you that Mugabe will have gone?

  Mr Brown: I hope the transition can be quick. I think when a regime loses an election, as it did in the first election, and then tries to intimidate and claims a hollow victory from a second election where they have intimidated their opponents out of participating in the campaign, they can have no legitimacy at all.

  Mike Gapes: Can I bring in Sir Patrick Cormack on the same issue.

  Q278  Sir Patrick Cormack: Prime Minister, nobody can doubt your good intentions and good faith on this one, and I would like to echo what Phil Willis said about your record in Africa, but really we have got to be tougher with this man. I am glad you arranged to strip him of his knighthood. I suggest in all your public utterances you strip him of the title of "President" and just refer to him as "Mugabe". Could I ask you again though, on the point that Phil Willis raised, surely we can have a more positive response from you on the refugees? If we had had responses like that before the war, what would have happened to many of those Jews who fled from Hitler's Germany, and Mugabe's Zimbabwe, although much smaller as a problem, is not a million miles from Hitler's Germany?

  Mr Brown: We are trying to change this regime at the moment working with other countries to do so because we do not recognise that the Mugabe regime has legitimacy. I have said I will look at the issues which have been raised. We have dealt with these cases on an individual basis.

  Q279  Sir Patrick Cormack: Prime Minister, can you not, before this Committee, just say that there will be a presumption of being a refugee as far as anyone from Zimbabwe is concerned if they ask for political asylum?

  Mr Brown: I will look at what you say. I am more interested, if I may say so, in getting quicker action in dealing with the transition in Zimbabwe itself and I think that would be your first priority as well. I do not believe the African Union decisions are preventing the action that is necessary. There is an acceptance now that there was not a few months ago that the status quo is completely unacceptable. African leaders one-by-one are walking away from the Mugabe regime and I think it is important over the next few days to build on that recognition, that with United Nations and African Union pressure the status quo can be changed.

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