The middle east’s current state of ferment is not in the interest of its peoples. legitimate Governments in the region need to find a way of securing stability together, so that economic development can take place. We have not spoken a great deal about that since the

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right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire mentioned prosperity in the region, although that is important. He knows that I have travelled a great deal in the region, although not quite as much as he has. It is a region with a huge number of ambitious young people, who have great expectations and want to make progress in their lives, but all the political difficulty is preventing economic stability from being secured. Unless we can get a stable political situation, to enable economic progress to occur, those disappointed expectations will result in a much more dangerous situation. This is something that the Governments of the middle east must ultimately secure for themselves.

There are shafts of light. I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned Tunisia. We both mention it because it is an example of a difficult political situation that was addressed by politicians from different parties and traditions with different views, who went through difficult times—individuals, including politicians, were killed because of their views—but they reached an agreed constitution with so-called Islamist parties and parties from a secular tradition and are moving forward. The constitutional committee in Tunisia chaired by Mustapha Ben Jaafar has achieved a great deal and shows that progress can be made. I commend the work of the British Government, through the Arab Partnership, in supporting that. It is important that we use that as an example and give the Tunisian people all the support we can, so that we have an example of progress being made. Tunisia is where the Arab spring started. If there is to be real progress in the region, we need to hold on to that example.

Morocco has also taken positive steps, through initiatives for reform of its constitutional monarchy. It is to be hoped that Algeria—another hugely important country that we have not touched on today—following recent presidential elections, can find a way forward with Morocco to address their historical differences, so that both countries can progress economically. Two countries with a closed border between them cannot achieve progress in trade worldwide when they will not even trade with each other.

We need to try to build on areas of stability, because there are further threats within the region: in the Sahel, extending south into sub-Saharan Africa, where conditions in South Sudan, Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya—

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to stop the hon. Gentleman, but the Minister needs time to respond.

4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): It is a pleasure to work under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for his comments.

I am grateful to be able to respond to a wide-ranging, intelligent and informative debate. I join other hon. Members in paying an enormous tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who was a formidable Foreign Office Minister and did this Government, and indeed Parliament, proud in strengthening relationships in the middle east and North Africa. I am proud and honoured to follow

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in his footsteps, as well as those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson).

Dr Julian Lewis: Although I found myself in the opposite camp over arming the rebels in Syria, I say to my right hon. Friend who secured this debate that I was amazed at the courtesy and forbearance that he always showed, even though we were totally at loggerheads over the issue. I know that was not unique to me; that is the way he behaves with everybody.

Mr Ellwood: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention—and grateful that it was brief.

I have limited time to respond to what was an amazing debate. Hon. Members can imagine my delight, given the expertise of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, that on day two of my appointment I am called to reply to a three-hour debate on the middle east. He paid tribute to the expertise of the House, and I echo that. It has been reflected in today’s debate. I will not be able to cover the 21 countries under my brief, or the details. I have already made a commitment to myself—given the short amount of time and to give time for my right hon. Friend to respond—that I will write to Members in response to the details they brought up. There are, however, a couple of issues that I would like to get on the record.

The Government’s long-term commitment remains as supporting a more secure, prosperous region, with political stability based on open, inclusive political systems and economies, but as my right hon. Friend has outlined so articulately, countries in the region continue to face serious challenges. Over recent weeks, we have seen the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel, and the growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which I saw first hand on a visit to northern Iraq only a month ago.

The situation in Syria is particularly bleak, with tens of thousands of civilian deaths and more than 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Elsewhere, many countries that witnessed uprisings in 2011 continue to take steps towards reform, but their successes are fragile, as we have heard, and need continued support. Recent elections in Libya may be an important step in the country’s transition to a more democratic future, but serious security challenges remain. In Egypt, as has been mentioned, we continue to urge President al-Sisi to uphold fundamental freedoms and rights and to open up the political space.

We have seen progress in Yemen’s political transition, but instability and economic challenges threaten to undermine those efforts. On a more positive note, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire has articulated, Tunisia’s drive for an inclusive transition has produced marked progress on the development of political systems needed to bring long-term stability, although the economic situation remains critical.

In the limited time available, I turn to Gaza, which has been the focus of many Members’ attention. As the Foreign Secretary made clear to the House on 14 July, we remain deeply concerned by the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel. Israel has the right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks, but

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it is vital that Gaza’s civilian population is protected. The UK has three objectives: to secure a long-term ceasefire agreed by both sides, to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and to keep alive the prospects for future peace negotiations. The UK remains in close contact with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and continues to work with international partners, including the US, Egypt and Arab partners, to support those objectives.

I spoke to our embassy in Tel Aviv today and our consulate general in Jerusalem, which represents British interests in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Implementation of any ceasefire agreement must only be part of a wider effort to improve conditions in Gaza. Without that, we are likely to see further such cycles of violence. We continue to judge that a negotiated two-state solution is the only way to resolve the conflict once and for all. The UK will continue to do all it can to support and advance US efforts to that end. I am sad to report that there are unofficial reports that, while the temporary ceasefire has closed, rockets have been moving from both sides, which is not good news, if that is the case.

To conclude, the region is facing numerous serious challenges and change will continue to be led by the region, not external actors. The UK has an important role to play with the international community in supporting those working to tackle conflict and to build a more stable, prosperous middle east and north Africa, based on strengthened consent and popular participation.

To meet the challenges of this volatile and ever-changing part of the world, we have continued to develop our approach since the uprisings of 2011. Through our Arab Partnership reform—I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire has done, and we have seen £65 million put into that project this year—we are supporting those who are tackling conflict and implementing reform. We are striking a balance between addressing short-term insecurity and laying the foundations for long-term stability, based on open, inclusive political systems and economies. We must accept, however, that that is the work of a generation, and we should not be deterred by setbacks along the way because, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the success of the middle east and north Africa is not only in the interests of the region, but of the UK and the world.

Nadhim Zahawi: I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I want to talk about ISIS and Kurdistan. Has he begun to consider a scenario where Baghdad is no longer functional and whether we would then support the Kurds in their fight against ISIS? My other point is the one that I made on oil exports. We remain neutral on that, but other countries, such as Morocco, do not. Has he considered making representations to Morocco and other countries, asking them to remain neutral on that?

Mr Ellwood: I am grateful for that intervention. I heard those issues on my recent visit. They are placed on the record, and I will get back to my hon. Friend with some details on how that might be pursued.

Mr Slaughter: Will the Minister fulfil our obligation under international law by ending trade with illegal settlements? Will he investigate the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield

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(Richard Burden) on whether British arms that we supplied are being used in the current conflict by the Israelis? If they are, what will the Minister do about that?

Mr Ellwood: Again, that is one of the issues that I would have loved to touch on, had there been time. I made some notes on the case as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield was speaking, and if I may, I will come back on that. I have some detailed notes, and I would be delighted to respond.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire for bringing this important debate to the House. I hope that we will return to the issue. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, and I apologise that I cannot reply in detail now, but I will write to each of those who made a contribution today individually and respond to their questions.

4.26 pm

Alistair Burt: I thank all colleagues for taking part in the debate, which demonstrated how important it is to speak rather more about the middle east and north Africa in the House. I hope that we can do so in the future. I thank both Front Benchers, and my hon. Friend the Minister was right to pay tribute to his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), who did a great job. I thank the Minister for his response. I also thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas); we have been around the world a bit together over the past couple of years and it has always been a pleasure. I have enjoyed his company and the assiduity with which he approaches his role, and I pay tribute to that. It helps the whole House to know that almost every colleague who speaks on the subject is full of knowledge.

The Minister and Members will have found that I was right when I spoke about the experience and knowledge in this place, and I am grateful for the odd reference to things other than Gaza during the debate, not least

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Bahrain. Bahrain is one of those states that responded quite extraordinarily to the events of February 2011. It got things wrong at the beginning, but its independent report was unique in the context. Nevertheless, it has to continue with the process of reform. The United Kingdom is right not only to keep pressing on that, but to encourage opposition and Government there to come together.

I was also right to recognise at the beginning of the debate that there would be passion and grief associated with our respective views on Israel and Palestine. We have heard a very articulate representation of the differences between competing points of view. As I said in my opening remarks, we have heard all the historical stuff. We know all that. There are rights and wrongs on both sides—we get it. The question is how to move on from where we are. There is more than one disputed explanation of any agreed set of facts in the area.

We are united in the view that we cannot go on like this. The cycle of attack and reprisal is not delivering peace or security to either Israelis or Palestinians. We grieve for each and every life lost, particularly the children. We urge that those responsible move away from cataloguing the rights and wrongs and, this time, tie up a cessation of violence with the bold political steps that are needed. It will be for President Netanyahu and President Abbas to deliver the agreement to their people that we all want to see. If that cannot be done, sooner or later the situation will get still further out of control. As I have said to both on many occasions, each has to recognise that they are no longer each other’s worst enemy. There are things that are worse in the region. Sooner or later, something cataclysmic will happen and we will look back and regret that the opportunity that was there to secure an agreement and secure peace was not taken. The British Government must continue to work with all sides to do as much as we possibly can to secure the agreement that is absolutely necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

4.29 pm

Sitting adjourned.