Global Security: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

6  Regional factors

159. We considered developments in the regional states of Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in some detail in our 2007 Report on Global Security: The Middle East. In our present inquiry, which is of more limited scope, and in connection with which we did not visit any destinations other than Israel and the OPTs, we briefly touch on a number of recent developments concerning some of those states which are most relevant to our consideration of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.


160. In our 2007 Report, we presented evidence about Iran's increasing influence over Hamas, and its ongoing support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. We also discussed the way in which Iran's growing role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and across the region—combined with its continued nuclear programme—was arousing concern and greater activism among Arab states wishing to limit its influence.[357] We concluded that "Iran is rapidly increasing its influence and power across the Middle East".[358] In 2008, we published another Report, specifically on Iran, which further tracked these issues. We concluded on that occasion that "Iran is a malign influence with regard to the prospects for peace in the Middle East."[359]

161. The evidence which we gathered during our current inquiry suggests that the trends which we outlined in 2007 and 2008 have strengthened. As regards Iran's influence over Hamas, Dr Bregman told us that it was "very strong".[360] Ms Bar-Yaacov told us that Egypt found itself "negotiating implicitly with Iran"[361] when it dealt with Hamas, and that Cairo blamed Tehran for having held Hamas back from renewing the ceasefire with Israel in December 2008.[362] Dr Albasoos told us that Iran provided financial support but not weaponry to Hamas, whereas both Dr Bregman and Nomi Bar-Yaacov said that Iran also supplied Hamas with weapons.[363] Referring to both Hamas and Hezbollah, Mr Blair told us that he regarded Iran's strategy as "very simple: it is to use pressure points of proxies within the region to exert power. […] It will try to do what it can to push back people it regards as hostile to it by using those proxies in the region".[364]

162. Ms Bar-Yaacov attributed Iran's increased influence over Hamas partly to the policy towards that organisation which the Quartet has pursued since 2006 (and which we discussed in paragraphs 95-103). She told us that:

When Hamas won the elections in January 2006 it was not a movement that was affiliated with Iran at all. It was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and all they really wanted to do was govern in Palestine. The Iranian links developed much later as a result of the international boycott, as a result of the Quartet's three conditions and as a result of the fact that even when the national unity Government was formed in February 2007 with the Mecca agreement, even then the […] Quartet decided not to talk to any of the Hamas Ministers, even those who gave up their seat for more minor roles. The entire policy of trying to isolate Hamas and not letting them govern has led to, among other things, their very strong links today with Iran.[365]

163. We outlined the hostile relations which exist between Iran and Israel in our 2007 and 2008 Reports. Following Hamas's takeover of Gaza, and amid signs that Iran may soon have produced enough uranium to make a nuclear bomb, Iran has become Israel's leading security concern. From Gaza and southern Lebanon, Israel feels itself to be threatened immediately on its borders by proxies which are being armed by Iran, which itself represents a direct military threat. We were exposed to the overriding concern about Iran which now exists among many Israeli policy-makers during our visit to the region in March, and the priority which Israel now gives to the perceived Iranian threat has been confirmed since the Netanyahu government took office.[366] Mr Blair told us that it was "totally understandable" for Israel to see Iran as a priority.[367]

164. Mr Blair confirmed that many of the Sunni Arab states with which he has contact also regard Iran as a "destabilising influence".[368] For example, hostile rhetoric between Iran and Egypt has increased since April, after Cairo closed down a Hezbollah cell operating in the country.[369] The Gulf state of Bahrain has raised concerns about what it perceives as a possible Iranian territorial claim against it.[370]

165. We were struck during our visit by the extent to which, as a result of Iran's backing for Hamas, Palestinian Authority figures shared the kind of concern and hostility concerning Iran that is also found in Israel. For example, Palestinian Authority President Abbas used the opportunity of a press conference with visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March to accuse Iran publicly of seeking of deepen the intra-Palestinian split, and to suggest that Tehran "needs to take care of its own issues and stay away from intervening in Palestinian affairs".[371]

166. The rising concerns that exist about Iran—in Israel, the West and many Arab states—are raising questions about the relationship between policy towards Iran and policy towards the Middle East peace process. Mr Rammell told us that Western policies towards the two were now "inextricably linked".[372] The central question which has emerged is whether policy towards Iran or towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should enjoy priority.

167. The Netanyahu government appears to support what has been called an 'Iran-first' policy[373]—that is, an approach that gives tackling Iran's behaviour priority over Israeli-Palestinian issues. Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon has been quoted as saying that "If we want to have a real political process with the Palestinians, then you can't have the Iranians undermining and sabotaging".[374]

168. Mr Blair acknowledged that both the Iranian and the Israeli-Palestinian issues needed to be addressed.[375] However, he tended to award priority to Israel-Palestine. Mr Blair said that Iran exerted influence among Muslims partly by being able to point to the situation of the Palestinians in order to underpin its critique of Western power. Mr Blair argued that "if you put the Israel-Palestine question on a path to resolution, you will push Iran back from that".[376] Mr Blair argued that Iran would not expend money and effort supporting proxies opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process if it did not regard their continued existence as useful.[377]

169. Mr Blair implied that, if progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were framed partly in terms of the opportunity which it might present to weaken Iran, it might be a way of encouraging strengthened Arab engagement in support of the peace process.[378] This is closely connected to the recent reinvigoration of the Arab Peace Initiative, to which we refer in paragraphs 195-200 in our next chapter.

170. Alongside the debate about the relative priority which should be given to Iran policy, there is a debate about the nature of the policy itself. President Obama has offered an "extended hand" to Iran, seeking a "new beginning" in relations through diplomatic engagement.[379] Israel is reportedly sceptical that President Obama's diplomatic initiative will bring Iran to halt its nuclear programme before Tehran reaches a nuclear weapons "breakout" capability—which some in Israel expect to occur by the end of 2009. Giving evidence in February, before Prime Minister Netanyahu took office, Nomi Bar-Yaacov told us that he would like to attack Iran.[380] After his first meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington in May, President Obama reassured his guest that "we're not going to have talks forever" and implied a deadline of the end of 2009 to assess whether the diplomatic effort with Iran was bearing fruit.[381]

171. As we completed this Report, there was further uncertainty over Western relations with Iran, as a result of that country's contested Presidential election on 12 June. Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the victor, but his main rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, did not accept the result, alleging election fraud. The dispute provoked demonstrations and clashes in Iran in which several people died. Iran accused Western governments and media of seeking to undermine the stability of the regime by supporting the protests,[382] and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei singled out the UK as the "most evil" of the accused Western powers.[383] On 22 June, Iran expelled two British diplomats; the Government announced the following day that it was expelling two Iranian diplomats in return.[384] Iran subsequently detained nine local staff of the British Embassy in Tehran; as we completed this Report, one remained in custody.

172. We conclude that a realignment is underway in the Arab world against Iran which gives some Sunni Arab states and Palestinians some shared interests with Israel, and which therefore has significant implications for the dynamics of Middle East peace-making. We recommend that the Government should not allow the urgency of addressing Iran's nuclear programme and regional role to diminish efforts to tackle pressing Israeli-Palestinian issues.


173. Egypt is one of the Sunni Arab states at the centre of the Middle East's current geopolitical repositioning. Having reached its own peace agreement with Israel in 1979, Egypt has traditionally been one of the leading pro-Palestinian Arab states supporting Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts. Cairo's position has been immensely complicated by the rise of Hamas on the Palestinian side of the conflict. In addition to Hamas's links with Iran, this complication of Egypt's position has occurred especially because of the links between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, a strong Islamist opposition movement in Egypt which is proscribed by the authorities there. On the one hand, Egypt is now the main interlocutor with Hamas on behalf of the Arab League and, effectively, the Quartet, seeking to persuade Hamas to accept the existence of Israel and join a Palestinian unity government with Fatah. Ms Bar-Yaacov told us that Egypt was "the key to solving the Hamas-Fatah rift".[385] She also implied that Egypt had warned Hamas before the launch of Operation Cast Lead about the possibility of a massive Israeli military response to its rocket fire.[386] On the other hand, given its relations with Israel and the US and its domestic concerns about political Islam, Cairo is suspected by some Arab opinion of sharing anti-Hamas objectives. Dr Albasoos told us that Egypt had effectively engaged in a "conspiracy" with Israel against Hamas over the conflict in Gaza.[387] Dr Bregman told us that Cairo's position over the conflict had certainly placed it under "a lot of pressure" domestically.[388]

174. In addition to broader political considerations, Egypt occupies a particular position by virtue of its control over the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, the only crossing into the territory not controlled by Israel. As we noted in paragraph 40, Egypt has kept Rafah largely closed since the Hamas takeover of Gaza. In part, this is in line with the Quartet's policy of seeking to undermine Hamas's position in Gaza. Egypt also fears that opening the Rafah crossing would reduce the pressure on Israel to open the crossings into Gaza over which it has control. The FCO's Dr Jenkins told us that the Egyptians believed that any expansion of Rafah's role in providing access into Gaza "would mean that they would be expected to assume greater responsibility" for the territory,[389] in a context in which Gaza's annexation to Egypt is sometimes mooted as an alternative to its inclusion in a future Palestinian state.[390] Bill Rammell implied that the Government was resistant to any resolution of the situation at Rafah which did not also include an easing of conditions at the Israel-Gaza crossings.[391] As matters stand, as we discussed in paragraphs 43-45, British Government policy regarding the Egypt-Gaza border is focused on the effort to halt arms smuggling under it, through the tunnels.


175. We discussed in paragraphs 20-24 the possible impact of the 2006 war in Lebanon on Israel's military operation in Gaza in 2008/09. In our 2007 Report, one aspect of the 2006 Lebanon war to which we drew attention was Israel's failure at that time to hand over to the UN maps which would assist in the clearing of unexploded cluster bombs which it had fired into southern Lebanon.[392] We are pleased to note that in mid-May 2009 Israel handed to the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, the maps and other data that it had been requesting.[393] In our 2007 Report, we reported that the Government estimated the likely date for completion of de-mining in Lebanon as December 2008.[394] However, in March 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that an estimated 12 million square metres of land remained to be cleared in 2009.[395] Funding for mine clearance operations is reported to be running short.[396]

176. We recommend that in light of Israel's provision of relevant maps, and the concerns that have been raised about a funding shortfall, the Government should in its response to this Report provide an update on the progress of—and prospects for—the de-mining operation in southern Lebanon, including information on the UK's contribution.

177. In a report from March 2009 on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which established the ceasefire at the end of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, Mr Ban judged that the period of the 2008/09 Gaza conflict represented "the most serious challenge" for the parties to the 2006 war since the ceasefire.[397] Rockets were twice fired from southern Israel into Lebanon during the Gaza conflict, and a third attack took place in February, all prompting Israeli counter-fire. We are pleased to note that violence did not escalate further. Nevertheless, in his most recent report on the implementation of UNSCR 1701, from the end of June, the Secretary-General continued to characterise the Israeli-Lebanese ceasefire as "precarious".[398] The Secretary-General said that Hezbollah continued to "maintain a substantial military capacity distinct from that of the Lebanese state". He also noted that Israel and Lebanon had not resolved the issue of the village of Ghajar, where Israel continues to occupy an area north of the UN-designated "Blue Line", and that Israel continued to make overflights of Lebanese territory; both Israeli actions are in violation of UNSCR 1701.[399] We expressed concern two years ago, in our 2007 Report, that "the Government's calls on Israel to halt overflights are having little impact".[400]

178. In the context of our discussion of Quartet policy towards Hamas in paragraphs 95-103 above, we discussed the Government's decision in March 2009 to reverse its previous position and open contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah. This was particularly significant in the run-up to general elections in Lebanon which were held on 7 June. In our 2007 Report, we outlined the way in which Lebanese politics was increasingly divided—in broad terms—between a Hezbollah-dominated pro-Syrian camp, and the pro-Western, anti-Syrian "March 14" coalition led by Saad Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. Explaining the background to the Government's change of policy towards Hezbollah in a Westminster Hall debate in May 2009, Bill Rammell pointed to a number of "welcome developments" in Lebanese politics, primarily the formation of a national unity government including Hezbollah in May 2008.[401] In the June 2009 elections, Mr Hariri's coalition emerged as the largest, with 71 of the 128 seats, while the Hezbollah-led bloc gained 57.[402] At the end of June, President Suleiman asked Mr Hariri to form a government. The Foreign Secretary welcomed the peaceful polls, which he said "demonstrate[d] the commitment of the Lebanese people to resolving their many issues through the democratic process".[403] In the wake of the polls, and as discussions got underway on the formation of a new government, the British Ambassador in Beirut held official talks with a senior Hezbollah Parliamentarian for the first time.[404]

179. We welcome the Government's decision to open contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah, in line with the recommendation which we made in 2007.

180. We welcome the fact that Lebanon's general election has passed off peacefully and yielded results which appear to be accepted by all parties. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government should provide its assessment of the impact of the election results on Syria's position vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Lebanon.

357   Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: The Middle East, paras 191-193, 198-204 Back

358   Ibid., para 209 Back

359   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2007-08, Global Security: Iran, HC 142, para 66 Back

360   Q 16 Back

361   Q 32 Back

362   Q 2 Back

363   Qq 16, 18 Back

364   Q 199 Back

365   Q 18 Back

366   "Israel Puts Iran Issue Ahead of Palestinians; Shift on One Tied to Progress on Other", Washington Post, 22 April 2009 Back

367   Q 202 Back

368   Q 200 Back

369   "Egypt strikes out at Iran's expanding reach", Christian Science Monitor, 14 April 2009 Back

370   "Iranian hostility sparks fears in Gulf", Straits Times, 24 February 2009 Back

371   "Clinton rebukes Israel over demolition plan", The Independent, 5 March 2009 Back

372   Q 159 Back

373   "Ahead of summit, Obama and Netanyahu press different agendas", Christian Science Monitor, 17 May 2009 Back

374   "Israel puts Iran issue ahead of Palestinians; shift on one tied to progress on other", Washington Post, 22 April 2009; see also Efraim Halevy (former head of Mossad), "America must deal first with the threat from Iran", Financial Times, 15 May 2009 Back

375   Q 202 Back

376   Q 199 Back

377   Q 202 Back

378   Qq 201, 204 Back

379   Inaugural Address, 20 January 2009, and "A New Year, A New Beginning", video address, 19 March 2009, transcripts and recordings via Back

380   Q 48 Back

381   "Obama presses Netanyahu over two-state plan", BBC News, 18 May 2009, via; "Obama hopeful on diplomatic message to Iran", Financial Times, 19 May 2009 Back

382   "West 'seeks Iran disintegration'", BBC News, 22 June 2009, via Back

383   "Protest at Iran's 'evil UK' claim", BBC News, 19 June 2009, via Back

384   HC Deb, 23 June 2009, col 661-3 Back

385   Q 32; see also Q 40 [Dr Bregman]. Back

386   Q 4 Back

387   Q 7 Back

388   Q 35; see also "Arabs turn on Egypt for collusion over siege", Financial Times, 30 December 2008. Back

389   Q 123 Back

390   For example, Daniel Pipes, "Solving the 'Palestinian problem'", Jerusalem Post, 7 January 2009 Back

391   Q 125 Back

392   Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: The Middle East, paras 113-115 Back

393   "Israel hands over cluster bomb maps to UN force in Lebanon", UN Daily News Digest, 13 May 2009 Back

394   Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: The Middle East, para 113 Back

395   UN Security Council, "Ninth Report of the Secretary-General on Security Council resolution 1701 (2006)", S/2009/119, 3 March 2009, para 47 Back

396   "Funding crisis threatens to slow demining", Daily Star (Beirut), 18 May 2009 Back

397   UN Security Council, "Ninth Report of the Secretary-General on Security Council resolution 1701 (2006)", S/2009/119, 3 March 2009, para 56 Back

398   UN Security Council, "Tenth Report of the Secretary-General on Security Council resolution 1701 (2006)", S/2009/330, 29 June 2009, para 2 Back

399   Ibid., paras 5, 15, 32, 62, 64 Back

400   Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: The Middle East, para 112 Back

401   HC Deb, 12 May 2009, col 211-212WH Back

402   "Lebanon confirms Hariri election win", BBC News, 8 June 2009, via Back

403   "Lebanon election results (08/06/2009)", statement via Back

404   "UK envoy in first Hezbollah talks", BBC News, 18 June 2009, via Back

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Prepared 26 July 2009