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In addition, I should like to condemn the human rights situation in Iran, which is appalling. Amnesty International reports that more than 5,000 people were arrested following the June 2009 protests, and hundreds remain in detention. The courage shown by the protesters on Iran's streets over those months clearly demonstrates the strength of the desire for democracy, human rights and freedoms among the Iranian people. The Iranian
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Government have responded to that desire for democracy with violence, brutality and oppression. This weekend, the opposition were again refused permission to organise demonstrations on the anniversary of the elections. This House will not forget those ordinary Iranians who stood up for their rights last year. We will continue to work with our international partners to shine a light on Iran's deteriorating human rights record and hold the Iranian Government to account. On Thursday last week, I met members of the Baha'i faith ahead of the trial of seven of their leadership last Saturday. Iran's flagrant disregard of even its own laws on due process and respect for human rights should not be accepted by the international community, which should highlight and scrutinise that at every opportunity.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Under-Secretary for giving way and compliment him on his new position. I endorse his comments about the need for human rights in Iran, but may I take him back to his work at the non-proliferation treaty review conference, which rightly condemned the potential development of any nuclear weapons in the region, but, for the first time, mentioned the existence of Israel's nuclear weapons? Where exactly will the process go now to achieve the aim of a nuclear-free middle east, which must involve Israel's possession of nuclear weapons?

Alistair Burt: This country has consistently asked Israel to join the non-proliferation treaty as a non-weapons-holding state. Israel was mentioned in the non-proliferation treaty review conference in the context of the desire to move the resolution on a middle east free of nuclear weapons and, indeed, weapons of mass destruction. The resolution looked forward to a conference in 2012 on the subject. The conference was a success in reaching the agreement that it did. It is good to have moved the process on a little further, but much is to be done before the conference is held. We all support a middle east that is secure for all its countries, and an understanding of its weaponry is clearly a key part of that.

Mr Baron: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Alistair Burt: No, my hon. Friend intervened earlier. I repeat that I am pressed for time, and I need to get my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) in before finishing.

Let me mention Yemen briefly. We are continuing to work with other middle east nations such as Egypt and Jordan actively to promote increased stability in Yemen, because we know that al-Qaeda looks to exploit instability where it can. In Yemen, that instability is caused by wider social and economic problems. We welcome the fact that the United Arab Emirates and Jordan are co-chairing the two working groups of the Friends of Yemen. For our part, we will continue our direct, bilateral assistance to the Government of Yemen, which aims to reduce poverty and build the capacity and capability of the Yemeni state.

We will also remain engaged in Iraq. In many respects, Iraq is a nation changed for the better. There have been significant improvements in security, the economy and politics. Iraqis now have control over their own destiny and have embraced democracy, voting in their millions in March's national election. Now that the election result has been ratified, Iraq's leaders must work together to form an inclusive and effective Government.

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I am sure that the House is proud of the extraordinary role that the United Kingdom's armed forces have played in making Iraq a better place. We are right to commit to building on their legacy by supporting the Iraqi Government and all the people of Iraq as they face the challenges of maintaining security and strengthening their new democracy. We will also work to deepen our close bilateral relationship to our mutual benefit.

Mr Ellwood: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It seems to fit you perfectly and I do not know why it has taken so long for you to get to that position, but it is great to see you there.

There seems to be a duality of approach to Iraq, with the Kurdistan area moving at a different speed from the rest of Iraq. As my hon. Friend knows, Kurdistan has advanced much quicker than the rest of Iraq because it was not so involved in the wars. There are no direct flights from the UK to Erbil in Kurdistan-or, indeed, to Baghdad. If any businesses operate in the north in Kurdistan, they are prevented, because of internal politics, from getting involved in business opportunities in Baghdad. I urge my hon. Friend to visit that area and try to resolve the problem that one either supports Kurdistan or greater Iraq.

Alistair Burt: My travel itinerary is already starting to look interesting, but I appreciate any new opportunities that come my way and any new suggestions from colleagues. I have noted my hon. Friend's with specific purpose, so I am grateful to him for raising it. He has been particularly involved and interested in those areas for many years and I know that I shall value his advice in due course.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Alistair Burt: No, because I am now pushing the time limit that I set myself. To be fair to other hon. Members and to stick to what I said, I will wrap up.

It has necessarily been a whistlestop tour because of the constraints of time. I am sure that we will return to the subjects often. One of the Government's first foreign policy priorities will be to give new momentum to our relationship with the Gulf. We also want to build broader relationships with Europe's close neighbours in north Africa. We can do that by elevating our personal links, pursuing a deeper and more nuanced partnership with Islam and continuing our dialogue on commercial, cultural and education links-and, I would go so far as to say, parliamentary links. There is much to be gained from relationships between legislators in different countries. By doing all that, the UK will be able to provide constructive partnership on issues that are core to our national interest.

The Government have already made it clear that, in our pursuit of an enlightened national interest, we intend to be a force for good in the world to seek the best for our citizens and society, not only because it is good for the people but because it is the right thing to do. In pursuit of that policy, we will uphold our belief in human rights, championing democracy and the rule of law, and working tirelessly for peace. Nowhere will that be more important than in the middle east. I look forward to colleagues' support and assistance in taking on that particular role.

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5.55 pm

Mr Ivan Lewis (Bury South) (Lab): I welcome you to your new role, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), on his appointment. As he said, we have known each other for more than 20 years-I know that I do not look old enough. We are both proud sons of Bury, the birthplace of Robert Peel, the home of the internationally acclaimed authentic Bury black pudding and a town that is immeasurably strengthened by its religious and cultural diversity.

The Under-Secretary is still remembered with great affection by his former constituents, irrespective of their political affiliations. However, it comes as little surprise that he was not given the Europe brief. His opposition to the views of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is matched in intensity only by that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane). As the Under-Secretary survived a prolonged-some would say indecent-period as Minister with responsibility for the Child Support Agency in the 1990s, the Prime Minister clearly took the view that responsibility for the middle east would be a cakewalk in comparison. More seriously, I know that the Under-Secretary will carry out his responsibilities with commitment, integrity and sensitivity.

I also wanted to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), to his post. Now that he has returned to his place, I can do that.

I want to take the opportunity to place on record my appreciation of Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials, especially those in my former private office, for their dedication and professionalism. Being Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was a tremendous privilege and an awesome responsibility. Their support was crucial in enabling me to do my job effectively, and I owe them a great debt of gratitude.

I welcome the opportunity presented by this timely debate. The middle east ignites strong passion in hon. Members of all parties and in communities up and down the country. In my contribution, I want to reflect on those passions and deal with the issues that must be addressed urgently.

The middle east peace process, Iran's nuclear threat, the new Iraq and a fragile Yemen are all pieces in a jigsaw that will determine whether a positive future can ever dwarf the tragedies and conflicts of the past. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary often says:

Solutions will be found only through better leadership in the region, supported by co-ordinated and effective international action. However, for several reasons the middle east is also crucial to Britain's national interest. They include security and stability, energy supply, the attachments of many of our diaspora communities and historic links, which give us special responsibilities.

The central challenge remains the relationship between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. I want to set my response to that challenge in the context of a question that I was asked several times in my ministerial capacity during interviews on al-Jazeera: how could I,
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as a Jew, undertake my role as British Minister for the middle east independently and objectively? Putting aside the appropriateness or otherwise of the question, my answer was and is straightforward. I am proud to be a friend and supporter of Israel, as well as someone who believes passionately in the right of the Palestinians to dignity, freedom and statehood. Too often in the House and outside, people are required to make a choice, and it does not and should not have to be like that. I sometimes wonder whether there would be more light and less heat if friends of Israel and friends of Palestine came together to form friends of peace in the middle east. In that way, people would be forced to confront their prejudices and certainties and be challenged to build mutual respect, rather than replicate the division and bitterness that have characterised the region for far too long.

The Labour party-in government and opposition-has long championed a two-state solution: a viable, contiguous Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Such a solution will be possible only if we demonstrate a sensitivity to and understanding of the fears and insecurities of ordinary Palestinians and Israelis. I have witnessed for myself the anger and injustice felt by Palestinians on the west bank as their daily lives are interrupted by Israeli checkpoints and a security barrier that, in places, physically divides communities and therefore families. Occupation dehumanises both the occupied and the occupier. I also know families who have been traumatised by the impact of losing a loved one at the hands of suicide bombers who have wreaked carnage in towns and cities in Israel. I visited Sderot, where children live in fear of the next rocket attack from Gaza. Terrorism is no more legitimate in Tel Aviv and Haifa than it is in London and New York.

Palestinians yearn for freedom and statehood, Israelis for the certainty and guarantee of security. The political issues to be resolved are well known and frequently debated in this Chamber, but I want to spell them out clearly, with less ambiguity than in the past. What would a fair and just settlement actually mean? First, it would mean borders that ensured that the two states-Israel and Palestine-each had a volume and quality of land consistent with 1967. That would require land swaps, the principle of which has been accepted in previous negotiations.

Secondly, it would mean not a divided but a shared Jerusalem that can be the capital of both Israel and Palestine. The conventional wisdom is that in that scenario, the holy sites would have to come under some sort of international jurisdiction, but I disagree. An authentic, meaningful peace would mean that those sites should be the shared responsibility of the two states.

Thirdly, a settlement would mean justice for Palestinian refugees. They should have the right to return to a new, sovereign Palestinian state, and fair compensation should be paid to those who had homes and land within the borders of Israel.

Fourthly, as offered by the Arab League, a settlement would mean normalised relations between the Arab world and Israel. That cannot mean simply an exchange of ambassadors; it must also mean a commitment to end all support, financial and otherwise, for the military and terrorist activities of Hamas and Hezbollah, as well
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as a commitment to end the promotion of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda via state-controlled media and education systems. An agreement to begin work on a framework for a middle east economic zone would be the strongest signal that the conflict is really over and that the focus has shifted to building a better future.

Fifthly, the settlement must be agreed as a full and final resolution of all contentious outstanding issues. Resolving those five issues in a comprehensive and just settlement would address positively the hopes and fears of the mainstream majority of both Palestinians and Israelis. It is true that the detail must be negotiated and agreed by the parties, but we should no longer be cautious when it comes to spelling out the parameters of such a settlement.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): How optimistic is my hon. Friend that the Fayyad plan to build a Palestinian state within two years will be successful?

Mr Lewis: I shall come to that, but I believe that this country and the international community should give that plan every support. Prime Minister Fayyad, and indeed President Abbas, have done a remarkable job in the west bank on security and economic development, so we should give as much support as we can to the Fayyad plan.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he did as a Minister and for his clear statements this afternoon. Does he agree that it is vital that all parties understand that we need a secure middle east not just for Muslims and Jews, but for Christians and for people of other faiths and none across the region, and that the growing pressure for conflict prevention and resolution in the Parliaments and Assemblies of the middle east is one way forward? If we engage people on the ground on conflict prevention, we could do as much good as getting the world's superpowers to try to solve the problem from afar.

Mr Lewis: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. One lesson we should have learned from a long history of conflicts all over the world is that preventive work, both at a political and a people level, is far more effective than intervening when things go wrong.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he would not achieve his fifth point unless he got a resolution on his first four points? There can be no overall settlement unless the aspirations on both sides of the argument can be met at the same time.

Mr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman has a perfectly common-sense perspective. As all hon. Members know, although setting out the parameters is important, in a negotiation of such complexity, when the stakes are so high and when public opinion on both sides matters, there must be the necessary compromise. If non-negotiable matters are not resolved, no lasting and just settlement will be accepted by the people on both sides.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend agree that a good step forward would be if Israel released the substantial number of Palestinian parliamentarians who are still held in prison, several years after the election? Otherwise,
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the message is that democracy does not work, and it is like saying to the Palestinians, "Your leaders get arrested and taken away, and therefore you have no representation." The anger at that in Gaza and the west bank is very serious indeed.

Mr Lewis: We need to take each case on its merit, and look at whether any of those individuals committed criminal offences. If not, those people should of course be released immediately, as a confidence-building measure towards progress in the peace process.

My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has welcomed the current proximity talks. As Foreign Secretary, he played a prominent role in supporting the efforts of President Obama, Secretary Clinton and George Mitchell to kick-start meaningful negotiations. However, the Opposition want to see direct negotiations begin without further delay. The success of such negotiations will be more likely if strong US leadership is supported by an enhanced role for the Quartet and a core group of Arab League states to provide political support to President Abbas.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that Hamas, with its view that eliminating the state of Israel is a religious imperative, is a real obstacle to peace?

Mr Lewis: I agree with my hon. Friend in the sense that as long as that remains Hamas's position, it is inconceivable that it will be drawn into any credible peace process. The criteria that the Quartet has laid down-recognition of Israel, a denunciation of violence and a respect for previous agreements-are clear. Of course, there is engagement with Hamas through, for example, the Arab League and Egypt, so there is an opportunity for countries and institutions to have discussions with it. However, the international community is clear about the criteria that need to apply for Hamas to join the political process.

As I said, we want to see direct negotiations begin as a matter of urgency. It is important that no preconditions should be imposed by either side in advance. However, it is also true that confidence-building measures would help to create a level of trust that, frankly, is currently in very short supply. I want to identify what those measures should be-they are not preconditions but ways to create the right environment for the rebuilding of some relationship of trust and mutual respect. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has consistently made clear, Israel should freeze all settlement expansion. Not only are settlements illegal but their expansion changes the facts on the ground, jeopardising the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state as well as provoking anger and mistrust. We should galvanise international support for Prime Minister Fayyad's 2-year economic plan towards Palestinian statehood. I am proud that in government we pledged £210 million in aid, and I hope that over the three-year period that commitment will be maintained by the new Government.

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