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Middle East

Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2007

We welcome both Saudi Arabia’s efforts to broker a national unity Government through negotiations with Hamas and Fatah in Mecca, and President Abbas’ efforts for intra-Palestinian reconciliation. We also welcome the trilateral meeting between Prime Minister Olmert, President Abbas and Secretary of State Rice. That and the Quartet meeting tomorrow illustrate momentum and the engagement of the international community.

Although any glimmer of progress is to be welcomed, do not Hamas-backed terrorists continue to hold Corporal Shalit captive after 240 days? Can the Secretary of State give any sense of international progress toward his release; and will she reconfirm that until there is acceptance of the Quartet’s basic principles—recognition of Israel, denunciation of terrorism and the acceptance of previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements—there can be no recognition of the new Palestinian Government?

There is continual discussion of the unfortunate case of Corporal Shalit, and constant pressure on those who hold him to release him and, indeed, the other two soldiers being held. From time to time, there are suggestions that release might be possible imminently, but it does not happen. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this issue is raised continually and in a variety of forums. Everyone in the international community certainly recognises the need for the Government in Palestine to work with, and to be based on, the principles enunciated by the Quartet. People are holding a watching brief to see whether that can be delivered.

Will my right hon. Friend indicate what she believes to be Iran’s role in the current attempts to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and does she take seriously the statement by the President of Iran that he wishes to wipe Israel off the map?

I do take that remark seriously, and anyone must. Whether it was intended literally or meant as a throwaway remark of some kind, it is utterly unacceptable from any quarter, still less from the president of a major country in the region. Iran does not appear to be playing a positive role in its general relationships in the region, and it is less involved in the ongoing negotiations than are—more positively—some other states in the region.

Following the question of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), what pressure is being put on Iran to achieve Corporal Shalit’s release? It is clear that Iran is implicated in that kidnapping.

There are many stories about who might be implicated in the different kidnappings, but it is clear to everyone concerned that it is extremely unhelpful to the prospect of restarting peace negotiations that those three Israeli soldiers continue to be detained. The process by which they were detained was undoubtedly intended to derail peace negotiations and it would be good for all concerned in the region—not least the people of Palestine, who have undergone great difficulties particularly of late—if the release were to take place soon.

Is not the reality of the situation that the international community has a choice about how it responds to the Mecca agreement? It can either see the movement that is there, and its potential for moving the peace process forward, or it can say that because pre-ordained forms of words have not been used, there is an excuse not to move the peace process forward. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if absolute and unequivocal recognition by each side of the other has to be the prerequisite for involvement in talks, the Oslo process could never have started if those conditions had been applied to Israel in 1993, because the Palestinians recognised Israel, but Israel did not recognise the Palestinians’ right to a state?

Where my hon. Friend is entirely right is that there is of course a choice before the international community and indeed all the players in the talks. That choice is straightforward, but difficult. It is straightforward in the sense that there is a possibility of progress towards negotiations along the path of peace and to establish a two-state solution, which in theory everybody wants. Alternatively, people can remain mired in the same bloodshed and dereliction that has gone on for so many years. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that there have been other occasions on which there have been discussions about a peace process and in the end those talks have not succeeded. We would be wise to concentrate on achieving momentum for moves forward rather than on who let everybody down the last time. Let us try to ensure that nobody lets anybody down this time.

The significant steps towards a national unity Government are very welcome, but everyone will agree that the three key principles of the Quartet must be adhered to. Following the question by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is important that the international community should show the Palestinian people that it recognises the progress that has been made? Surely this is the time for renewed efforts to sort out and extend the temporary international mechanism, so that we can deal with the growing poverty in the occupied territories, and for new efforts to persuade the Israelis to release the substantial sums of money that they have been holding back for the past year?

May I first say to the hon. Gentleman that yes, of course, it is important that there is adherence. We have used the phrase that any such Government should be based on the Quartet principles, and I think that everyone recognises the importance of that. He will know that, of late, this Government have put in extra resources—both bilaterally and into the temporary international mechanism—and are urging the European Union to continue to do so, because we recognise the need to continue to address the problems experienced by the Palestinian people. I can certainly assure him that there is extensive and continued engagement with all parties quite widely across the international community. I think that the House will know that there are meetings in the region today with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Quartet meets tomorrow in Berlin.

Although the Mecca accord is welcome, in that it appears to have averted a civil war in Gaza, does my right hon. Friend accept that it also appears that President Abbas was left with little choice other than to accept the terms of that agreement? I therefore welcome the comments that she has made indicating that she and our allies in the Quartet will maintain a strong line on the three principles. It cannot be right that a democratically elected Government maintain armed gangs in the streets of their own citadels.

I can only echo the last point made by my right hon. Friend, but I would also say to her that I think that it was inevitable and right that there was pressure at Mecca to reach agreement in order to avoid what was clearly the very real potential danger of civil war, which would have been utterly destructive of everyone’s hopes for peace. From that point of view, we should and do welcome—as the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) sought—the moves that have been made to stabilise the present situation, but there is still a great deal more that needs to be done.

May I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming the Mecca agreement? She referred a few moments ago to the meeting of the Quartet showing momentum and engagement with the peace process, but does she also believe that it will show unity and a united resolve? In particular, will it show a united resolve to continue to place Hamas Ministers under the maximum possible pressure to accept the principles of the Quartet and to show some credible movement in the direction of those principles before any normal business can be resumed?

Yes, I think that we can be reasonably confident, because there have been very constructive discussions by the Quartet. One thing that I should take the opportunity to stress to the House, and of which I know the right hon. Gentleman is aware, is that, although we now have the Mecca agreement and so the basis for the formation of a Government of national unity, there is an enormous amount that needs to be done before the actual formation of such a Government, let alone before we can begin to judge their actions. There are quite a large number of ministerial and other appointments to be made and there are whole set of procedures to be gone through in appointing the Government. So there is a great deal still to be done. That is why I referred to the need to keep up the momentum and the engagement. The House may also be aware that we anticipate that President Abbas will be in this country tomorrow and we hope to have an update from him.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any progress has to be underpinned by sound economic development policies and that the land ownership question is one of the biggest inhibitors to the peace process? Given the opportunity that she will have to meet Cabinet Ministers in the Israeli Government who are promoting the economic and financial benefits of Israel in this country, will she impress on them that, if they engage in meaningful, regional attempts to solve the land question, that could be the biggest boost to prosperity in the middle east?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point and he will be pleased to know that a feature of the discussions that I have had recently with Ministers in the Israeli Government and others is indeed economic development and the recognition that, in order to hold out hopes for the future, we should not just seek to move the peace process forward, but seek economic development and a co-operative process in that context, so that people in Palestine—and indeed in Israel, but particularly in Palestine—can feel that there is a real prospect of a better future for themselves and their children.