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Middle East

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 31 October 2006

9. What recent assessment she has made of prospects for peace in the middle east; and if she will make a statement. (98357)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited the region from 9 to 11 September and met key leaders. We welcomed the commitment by Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to meet without conditions. The Government remain fully engaged and continue to call on the Palestinians and Israelis to make progress on the road map, to which both President Abbas and the Israeli Government remain committed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the important building blocks of any durable peace is that the democratic rights of all people in the region are respected and upheld? In that context, is he aware that the Inter-Parliamentary Union, at its 115th assembly, expressed its deep concern at the continuing detention of more than 30 elected Palestinian parliamentarians? Has he made representations to the Israeli Government about their being either released or charged, and what has been the Israeli Government’s response?

My hon. Friend is right. This does not help the peace process in any way whatsoever, nor does it set a good example of how a democracy should be treated. We might not agree with the Hamas Government—we certainly disagree with them about many things—but those parliamentarians have been elected by the Palestinian people and they should be released. At the European General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting of 17 to 18 July, we continued to support the EU position that those parliamentarians should be released forthwith.

Do the Government believe that there is any prospect of Hezbollah disarming if the Shebaa Farms area is not surrendered by Israel to the United Nations or directly to Lebanon?

Shebaa Farms must be a central feature of the post-conflict discussions that take place between all parties in the region. The hon. Gentleman, who is extremely interested in this subject, knows as well as I do that there is also a dispute as to who Shebaa Farms belongs to. Is it Syrian? Is it Lebanese? Is it to be regarded and negotiated on as part of the Golan heights package? It is a difficult one. It is clear to me from the discussions that I had in Beirut in the middle of the bombardment in July that Shebaa Farms is a central issue that must be addressed if we are serious about getting a permanent peaceful settlement in Lebanon.

Does my hon. Friend consider Iran’s repeated threat to wipe Israel off the map as a serious threat to the renewal of the peace process given Iran’s continuing support for terrorism and its policy of acquiring nuclear weapons?

It is difficult to understand why Iran makes these threats. It is interesting that when I speak with the Iranian ambassador, he tries to tell me that it is a rhetorical device that I should not take any more seriously than I take anything else that is said. I do not think that that is what international diplomacy can afford to be about these days, especially not from a country that is hell-bent, as far as I can read it, on developing a nuclear bomb. President Ahmadinejad has difficulties enough at home in trying to meet the election pledge that got him elected after that cooked-up election with a list of candidates personally picked by a kind of fascist theocracy. Instead of threatening another sovereign state, he ought to be concentrating on trying to tap the enormous potential in Iran—great natural resources, a huge population, and a great culture—to make that country wealthier in line with his election promises.

Does the Minister agree that in any two-state solution there can be no stable Palestinian state without the exclusively democratic participation of Hamas, and no secure peaceful Israel without an agreed and permanent ceasefire from Hezbollah? In that regard, what discussions are the Government having, if not with the Government of Iran, at least with the Government of Syria?

Certainly, we must step up our discussions with all the parties in the area, which will unquestionably include the Syrians. We are beginning to understand that there is a way out. The war in the Lebanon was horrendous and a lesson to us all. It could easily have spilled over into other areas. We must intensify all the negotiations, which must be region-wide, to reach an all-middle east settlement. I hope that not only the nations named by the right hon. and learned Gentleman but the states of the Gulf become more involved in determining that middle east peace process. If that happens, we can begin to make progress.

I am sure that you will be concerned to know, Mr. Speaker, that among the 35 Members of Parliament properly elected by the Palestinian people who are in jail in Israel is the Deputy Speaker of the Palestinian legislative council. There can be no excuse for keeping those people in prison. Will my hon. Friend make every attempt to get them either released forthwith or properly charged with a criminal offence?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I know that she has done a great deal of work to try to bring that about. I hope that she continues that work, as there are few Members who have such a reputation in the middle east, as well as in the House. We rely very much on her analysis of such extremely difficult situations. This, however, is a relatively simple question. Those imprisoned are important parliamentarians, with whom we may not agree—we may be vociferously opposed to what they stand for—but who have nevertheless been elected by the Palestinian people and must be able to speak on their behalf.