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Middle East

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 1 May 2007

7. What recent discussions she has had with her counterparts in those countries with an interest in the middle east peace process. (134737)

I am in regular contact with my EU, US, Israeli, Palestinian and Arab counterparts, as well as with other international partners, to discuss ways to move the peace process forward. I most recently discussed that with my EU counterparts at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 23 April.

On this 10-year milestone of the Government’s election, what does the Foreign Secretary believe has been the most successful contribution that Britain has made to achieving lasting peace in the middle east, and what has been the least successful?

I am not sure that it is very fruitful to assess Britain’s contribution in that way. Over the past 10 years, all my predecessors in this post, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, have made a most determined effort to do everything possible to move the middle east peace process forward and to identify the potential of the road map. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister displayed the same determination in respect of the Northern Ireland peace process. At present, there is an opportunity to move the road map process forward, with regular meetings taking place between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. That opportunity could slip away, but many people from all parts of the world are determined to try to work together to get a good result.

Now that an independent judicial inquiry has exposed the reckless culpability of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—his popularity rating is now 2 per cent.—in bringing about an invasion of Lebanon that killed 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis without achieving any of its objectives, what action is being taken by my right hon. Friend and her road map and other partners to require the Israeli Government to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions that that Government have violated consistently?

My right hon. Friend is referring to the interim report of the Winograd committee, which is, of course, a matter for the Israeli Government. Of course I recognise that a series of international resolutions have made various calls on different participants in the middle east. The Government are determined to do everything we can to support the peace process and move it forward, as in the end that could provide the answers to many of the questions that my right hon. Friend has raised.

Will the Foreign Secretary utterly condemn those who have been holding the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston for the past 50 days? Will she join me in sending a message of sympathy to his family, colleagues and friends at this very difficult time? She will know that the whole House will support her in any effort that she makes to secure his release, but can she give us any additional information this afternoon—for example, about who might be holding Mr. Johnston? What discussions has our high commissioner in Jerusalem had with President Abbas about this matter?

First, I am sure that the whole House will want to express its sympathy and concern for Alan Johnston and his family. He has been most cruelly treated, despite his long-standing friendship with, and support for, the people of Palestine. We are certainly doing all we can to work with his employers, the BBC, and with his family and other interested parties to try to be effective in obtaining his release.

There is little I can say to the hon. Gentleman about the situation. There are people who, it is thought, are likely to be holding Mr. Johnston, although they deny it. Every effort is being made at every level. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East raised the matter when he chaired the Security Council recently, and the hon. Gentleman may know that the Prime Minister of the Government of national unity, Prime Minister Haniya, said only yesterday that he and his colleagues are also working quietly, but actively, to try to release Alan Johnston. Everyone is doing everything they can and we will continue to do so. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that sometimes such things are better conducted more in private than in public.

One of the continuing obstacles to the middle east peace process is the presence of illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Notwithstanding the limited withdrawals from Gaza not long ago, the evidence is that the rate of increase of settlements on the west bank is growing; in fact, some settlers removed from Gaza are taking on new settlements in the west bank. What are the Government doing to increase pressure on Israel to stop the growth of illegal settlements in the occupied territories, which is now clearly undermining the peace process?

I am not aware of evidence that suggests that the pace of settlement expansion has increased, but we absolutely share my hon. Friend’s view in opposing any extension of settlements. We believe that they should be halted and that any construction barrier beyond the green line should also be halted. Both are contrary to international law and run the risk, whatever anyone’s intention, of creating so-called “facts on the ground”, which could impede the peace process. That, too, is something we deplore, as we have made very plain and will continue to do so.