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21 July 2009 : Column 210WH—continued

The key to this lies in the politics rather than the law. I think everyone has recognised that no peace agreement will work if it fails to include Israeli withdrawal from
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the settlements. In my view, it is almost certain that if an agreement can be reached, it will allow some settlements to remain under Israeli sovereignty as part of an overall package that also involves land swaps. That was an element of the draft agreement being negotiated between the Olmert Government and the Palestinian Authority.

In debates such as this, we must recognise that there are genuine political problems for any Israeli Government handling this issue. First, there is the sheer number of people that we are talking about, and if we recall how traumatic and demanding of the Israel Defence Forces it was to insist on the removal of settlements from Gaza, that should remind us of the scale of the challenge involved in requiring the evacuation of many thousands of people from settlements in the west bank.

Secondly, there is the Israeli experience of Gaza. The fact that withdrawal from the settlements led not to an enduring peace in the south but to rocket attacks from the Gaza strip, has led not only traditional hawks, but many people in the Knesset and among the Israeli electorate who still think of themselves as advocates for peace, to be sceptical about the value of early withdrawal from existing Israeli settlements. United Nations resolutions and the various peace agreements that have been reached in the past, insist on Israeli withdrawal from settlements. However, that is seen as one element in a broader package including, most obviously, the cessation of all violent attacks on Israel, and the recognition of Israel by its neighbours.

The key message from any British Government to Israeli leaders should be that they should not underestimate the damage-the severe damage-that their settlement policy is doing to the standing of those Palestinian leaders who genuinely want a negotiated peace. I was struck by one passage in President Obama's Cairo speech, where he drew an analogy between the Palestinian experience and that of African Americans during the era of segregation. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the experience not only of settlements, but of the expropriation of property, segregated roadways, checkpoints and security arrangements that are in place to protect Israeli settlements, can only add to a sense of grievance and alienation among ordinary Palestinians and, above all, among young Palestinians who make up 60 per cent. or more of the population of the occupied territories.

Unless the Israeli Government face up to that reality, they will find that more and more young Palestinians give up on the idea of a two-state solution. I speak from anecdotal evidence, but I have been alarmed by the number of Palestinians who say openly that they will give up on a two-state solution and wait, as they believe, for demographic trends to do the work until the day when there is an Arab majority in the territories now occupied by Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Mr. Slaughter: The subject of the debate is Government policy. No doubt the hon. Gentleman aspires to be in the Government. Given the failure of Government policy, and that of previous Governments, which has seen an almost 40 per cent. expansion in the number of settlers in the west bank over the last six years, what would he like to see the Government do in order to address the problem?

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Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was coming on to. The policy of the British Government has to be set in the context of overall international efforts to bring about an enduring peace in the middle east. We must start by asking ourselves what is going to work. For example, I do not believe that a general boycott of Israeli goods and services will somehow lead to an Israeli Government who are more amenable to peace initiatives, and I ask the Minister to state clearly the Government's position on the question of food labelling, and whether that needs to be addressed at EU or national level. Will further development of the EU-Israel association agreement, and trade agreements between the EU and Israel, be related to progress on the issue of self-government for the Palestinians, in particular progress on the issue of settlements?

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lidington: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not. I want to give the Minister time to respond to the debate.

The key starting point now would be to persuade the Israeli Government to initiate another freeze on further expansion of existing settlements. That would give the Palestinians a reason to return to serious talks, no matter how difficult it might be given the state of play among the Israeli and Palestinian authorities at the moment. It is very much in our national interest for those talks to resume.

10.50 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) on securing this important debate. As he and other hon. Members are perfectly well aware, the middle east peace process remains a top priority for this Government. We remain committed to a comprehensive peace in the middle east, based on a two-state solution and a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state.

Hon. Members will also be aware that the central tenet of the UK Government's policy towards settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories has long been clear. Settlements are illegal and construction should be frozen as a matter of urgency, in line with Israel's commitments to do so in the 2003 road map. That is why we strongly welcomed President Obama's Cairo speech and strongly support the new, clear US policy on freezing all settlement activity.

I welcome this opportunity to expand on the Government's policy. It is important to set out why I believe that continued settlement construction remains an impediment to peace. By changing the physical facts on the ground, Israeli settlement construction unilaterally prejudices the outcome of any final peace solution. Moreover, continued construction threatens the geographic possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state. The UK Government remain firmly of the view that a two-state solution provides the greatest prospect of peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, so the damage done to that prospect by settlements causes us grave concern.

As hon. Members have said, the day-to-day physical impact of settlement building has a heavy cost on the Palestinian people. Elements of the Israeli settler movement
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exacerbate tension. Road and security infrastructure to protect settlements carves through the west bank and severely restricts Palestinians' movement and access. Although we welcome recent positive Israeli steps to alleviate some of the restrictions, much further progress is required. The symbolic impact of settlements is arguably as damaging as the physical impact. Continued settlement expansion sends an extremely negative message to the Palestinians that resonates around the wider Arab world. It continues to raise questions about the feasibility of a successful and lasting peace.

The UK has long made our opposition to settlements clear. We have pressed the Israeli Government continually at the highest level on the importance of fulfilling road map commitments: Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001. Our Prime Minister made the UK policy on settlement activity clear in his historic speech to the Knesset in July 2008, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has reiterated that position frequently.

A number of questions have been asked during this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West raised the question of the barrier. The first point to make about the barrier is that we recognise Israel's right to self-defence and to protect its citizens by constructing the barrier. However, the barrier must be built exclusively on Israeli territory. As Israeli courts have ruled frequently, any part of the barrier that is not on Israeli territory is simply illegal.

My hon. Friend not only discussed advocating a freeze on settlements but believes that our policy should be to evacuate all settlements. We feel that that pre-judges what we believe will be at the heart of final status negotiations: an agreement on the respective borders of both states. That is why we confine our policy at the moment to the freezing of all settlement activities. He also asked about the lower tariffs under the EU-Israel Association agreement and wants to ensure that they do not apply to goods exported from the settlements. I assure him that they most definitely do not. Moreover, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs is proactive in ensuring that tariffs are applied correctly in accordance with the agreement.

My hon. Friend asked why this country does not ban all goods from the settlements. We believe that that would raise a number of significant legal issues in relation to our European Community and international law obligations. Therefore, we do not believe that that is viable at the present time.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lewis: No, I do not have enough time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West also asked whether the UK has obtained a legal position on the legality or otherwise of such imports. Although we cannot disclose legal advice, Her
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Majesty's Government believe, based on the legal assessment, that such imports are not actually prohibited in UK law. He and other hon. Members suggested that there should be a ban on all Israeli imports, and he suggested in addition that this country should embark on an arms embargo. We disagree strongly with those two positions. The Government's position is to oppose a trade boycott or any other form of boycott against the state of Israel, and we are opposed to an arms embargo. We do not believe that either of those measures would progress the course of peace in any way at this stage.

I believe that I have dealt comprehensively with the crucial questions raised during this debate, but it is only right that we place this debate about settlements in the context of the overall situation. Other issues must be dealt with. It is essential that the Palestinian Authority develop their capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of their people. Hamas must put an end to violence, recognise past agreements and recognise Israel. Its behaviour-firing rockets at Israel, attacking rival political parties, smuggling arms, holding Gilad Shalit in captivity-demonstrates, sadly, that it is neither a partner in peace nor a constructive force in building a Palestinian state. At the same time, we make it clear that the Israeli Government must ease restrictions on the Gaza border and allow an immediate increase in the flow of essential aid and reconstruction materials into Gaza, as well as the legitimate flow of trade, goods and people.

We encourage partners from the Arab world to demonstrate readiness to increase recognition of Israel and move towards a normalisation of relations as envisaged in the very welcome Arab peace initiative. On that basis, I welcome the views of His Highness the Crown Prince of Bahrain on taking the Arab peace initiative forward, which he articulated in the Washington Post on 16 July. That is exactly the sort of positive engagement that we believe will help lead to peace in the middle east. It is vital that all Arab states demonstrate both their commitment to dialogue and peaceful relations and their willingness to respond positively to significant Israeli action to freeze settlement activity.

As His Highness noted, now is the time to take "simultaneous, good-faith action". The point will come when the Israeli Government respond positively to the clear statement of policy articulated by this Government and, for the first time, by the US in President Obama's speech in Cairo. It is our intention to continue to work with regional partners and with the US and EU to make progress and move from rhetoric to reality.

I will be visiting the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel during the parliamentary recess. I want to learn at first hand about the realities facing the Israeli Government, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli and Palestinian people, and I want to ensure that the United Kingdom plays a crucial role in pushing forward the peace process that is so crucial to peace and stability throughout the world.

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European Union

10.59 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I was deeply concerned when Baroness Kinnock was appointed Minister for Europe, because I feel passionately about our relationship with the European Union. It is pivotal to that relationship that there is more accountability to parliamentarians in the House of Commons on this issue. It is deeply regrettable that Baroness Kinnock was made a peer and that she sits in the other House.

One of Baroness Kinnock's first acts on being appointed was to state that the Government would support Mr. Blair's candidature for the European Union presidency, should the new constitution and that position come into being. Mr. Blair's father lives in my constituency, so I had a good relationship with Mr. Blair and gained a certain amount of access to him, which cannot be said of the current Prime Minister. However, he is the wrong man for the job.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I know the hon. Gentleman well from our days on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and respect him greatly. He criticises our promotion of matters European in the Houses of Parliament, but does he not think that the group that his party has joined in Europe is the most extraordinary mix of oddballs, malcontents, misfits, flat-earthers and unregenerate nationalist bigots? Is that not a fair and even-tempered description? Perhaps he should justify what his party has been doing in Europe since 4 June.

Daniel Kawczynski: I wondered when that matter would be raised. That comment crystallises for me the sheer arrogance of this new Labour Government and the Prime Minister; it is the arrogance of power. The hon. Gentleman must not forget that the oddballs to whom he refers are people who represent parties that have been elected democratically by the people of sovereign nation states. If any political party dares to have even a scintilla of thought or opinion that differs from the great Labour policies, it is described as containing oddballs and nutters. That is bad for the democratic process.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman has talked about democracy and accountability, but is not Labour the only party that has ever provided such things on European matters? At about the time of the hon. Gentleman's third birthday on 24 June 1975 Harold Wilson gave us a referendum on how Ted Heath had bulldozed us into Europe. I voted against at that time and have remained sceptical ever since. Is it not the Labour party to which people should look if they wish to embrace accountability and democracy?

Daniel Kawczynski: It was good of the hon. Gentleman to try to find out when my birthday is. I was actually born on 24 January.

David Taylor: I said the 24th.

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman said June, but let us not get into a debate about when my birthday is. I was born on 24 January 1972, which is the day on which Ted Heath signed the document to take us into Europe. I will come on to that later.

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Let me finish my important point about Mr. Blair. We need only look at what he did in this Parliament to see why he is the wrong choice for that position. He neutered this place by using the Whips to railroad through huge, poorly thought out constitutional legislation, and he used his position to go to war against the express wish of millions of British citizens. In my view, he is quite simply the wrong person to bring greater transparency and accountability to Europe.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) is a brilliant negotiator, whom I have seen in action in Europe. I hope that he will guarantee that when he becomes a Foreign Office Minister-that will be sooner than the Minister thinks-the Conservative Government will veto Mr. Blair's candidature to be President of the European Union.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I have a question to make the hon. Gentleman feel relaxed, comfortable and content. Does he think that any other member states would support the candidature of Tony Blair and, if so, will he name them?

Daniel Kawczynski: The honest answer is that I do not know. As somebody who feels passionately about this country and its position in Europe, it pains me greatly that I would prefer somebody from another country to be President than a former British Prime Minister. However, I believe that Mr. Blair's outrageous conduct in Parliament and his lack of regard for democracy should prevent him from becoming President.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Chris Bryant): Who is the hon. Gentleman's preferred candidate?

Daniel Kawczynski: We do not yet know who the candidates will be.

Our relationship with the European Union is under threat from the Prime Minister's conduct towards other Heads of State. I hope that the Foreign Office officials are listening carefully. I have spoken to many foreign officials who say that he looks bored at European Union meetings, treats Heads of State with disdain and does not follow basic diplomatic protocol.

I will take as an example Iceland, which is not yet a member of the European Union, but which has expressed a desire to join in its Parliament. During the Icelandic banking crisis, the Prime Minister and the Government used counter-terrorism legislation to seize the assets of Icelandic banks. I will never forget his language during an interview on Sky News because it was the most undiplomatic that I have ever heard. The rudeness, disdain and contempt with which he treated Iceland and the Icelandic people were disgraceful. I will not go into detail, but I have a copy of that interview if hon. Members wish to see it. I hope that people will look at it again, because it was unacceptable.

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