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Middle East Peace Process

Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2007

We were pleased that there was a meeting between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas on 23 December, which signalled their mutual determination to find a way forward and produced concrete agreements to release $100 million in Palestinian tax revenues and to ease restrictions on movement and access, but it is clear that major challenges remain. We are working with the United States and the European Union on how we can build on that opportunity.

I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming the moves to peace made by both Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, but is not one of the major challenges that remain—to use her words—the fact that Islamic Jihad has chosen to ignore the ceasefire of 26 November, since when it has fired approximately 60 missiles on civilian targets inside Israel? Israel has shown commendable restraint. Will our Government do what they can to bring to an end such rejectionist activities, and in particular put whatever pressure they can on the states that support Islamic Jihad, including Iran?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. We regret and deplore the attacks that continue, and continue to congratulate the Israeli Government and to encourage them to maintain their policy of restraint. It is of course a difficult and delicate time when such attacks are going on. It is yet another example of how many people do not wish a peace process to succeed in Israel and Palestine. I assure the hon. Gentleman that our Government will do everything that we can to support and encourage such moves to peace, including putting pressure on those who, as he rightly says, support such armed activities.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of reports that Hezbollah in Lebanon is rearming despite the presence of United Nations troops? What representations have been made on that?

Yes I am aware of those rumours. We continue to keep pressure on all involved to restrict such moves and to point out, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East did a few moments ago, that that is completely contrary to the United Nations resolution and that it will do nothing to help establish peace in the region.

The Minister for the Middle East has already acknowledged that one of the main keys to a settlement in the middle east is Syria. Is the Foreign Secretary aware of the fact that, as I learned on a recent visit to Damascus, a large number of senior Ministers in that Administration actively and genuinely support the Baker-Hamilton plan, and will she not emulate her German counterpart by going to Damascus to engage with those people to find a constructive way to reopen negotiations and dialogue with Israel?

As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East said a moment ago, we keep such issues under review. It was a deliberate decision on our part to send Sir Nigel Sheinwald, and it was also a deliberate decision not to go at ministerial level at that time. We keep the matter under review and will continue to do so.

Hearts and minds are as relevant in the middle east as elsewhere. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the gruesome and botched executions that occurred in Iraq yesterday will be strongly condemned in the region, as I hope they will be in this House and in the country at large? Do the Iraqi authorities not understand by now the effect of such action on people generally in the middle east?

My hon. Friend will know that the British Government strongly oppose the death penalty and continue to make representations where we see that it is being carried out. The events to which he referred only highlight one of the many reasons that I think lay behind the wise decision of this House to abolish capital punishment in this country.

Will the Foreign Secretary report briefly on the Prime Minister’s visit to the middle east before Christmas, and in particular on whether his visit to the United Arab Emirates was the beginning of the strategy that the Opposition have called for to elevate our cultural, political and economic ties with the countries of the Gulf? Is there not a very strong case for such a strategy, and is it not vital if we are to build stronger British influence in the middle east than we appear to have today?

We do continue to have strong influence in the middle east, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is important to maintain, improve and step up our contact with the Gulf states, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has assiduously been doing in recent months. Yes, it was a deliberate decision by the Prime Minister to undertake such steps. On the general issue of the principal outcome of the Prime Minister’s visit to Israel and Palestine, apart from confirming our support for and engagement in moves toward a peace process, the main thing that I would identify is the clear need, which was itself identified, to support and build capacity among President Abbas and his office and those who surround him and to seek to work with him. Steps to do so are under way.

What is the point of our Prime Minister continuing to pose as a peace envoy in the middle east? It is like asking King Herod to take charge of the Child Support Agency.

Fortunately, the Governments of the middle east do not share the hon. Gentleman’s warped view of the matter.