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Middle East

Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2007

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the middle east peace process, following the Annapolis conference, which I attended yesterday at the US naval academy in Maryland.

For several years there has been neither peace nor a peace process in the middle east. Insecurity for Israelis and the suffering of Palestinians have fed off each other, deepening divides and fomenting mutual distrust. The conference represents a determined attempt by both sides, and by the United States, to break the cycle of violence and discord. Its significance comes as much from the attendance list as its immediate results; representation from nearly 50 countries showed the degree of concern about the current situation as well as the consensus for action.

As I pointed out in my contribution yesterday, in 1993 at the signing of the Oslo accords the late Prime Minister Rabin talked of an atmosphere of hope tinged with apprehension; today in the region there is an atmosphere of apprehension tinged with occasional hope. Yesterday represented one such ray of hope, but the context of extremism, terrorism and the dangers of nuclear proliferation provides a spur to action. All present understood that the Annapolis conference could be a success only if it was the start, not the end, of a new drive for peace based on the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.

There is now for the first time a clear and shared goal. To quote from the joint understanding read out at the beginning of the meeting by President Bush, it is

“to immediately launch good faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements.”

UN resolutions 242 and 338 provide the agreed foundation for progress.

There is also a timetable. Today, the parties will meet at the White House; a joint steering committee will meet continuously from 12 December; President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert will continue their bi-weekly meetings; there will be an international donors conference in Paris on 17 December; the Russian Foreign Minister has offered Moscow as the venue for a review conference by the end of the first quarter of 2008; and I offered London as the venue for a meeting after that. Crucially, there is an end date. All agreed that these negotiations should seek to conclude by the end of 2008.

There is also a follow-up: the parties have committed themselves to implementing their respective obligations under the road map and have agreed to a US, Palestinian and Israeli mechanism, led by the US, to follow this up. The US has committed itself to monitoring and judging the fulfilment of these conditions. That means an end to settlement construction, the removal of outposts constructed after March 2001 and renewed efforts on security in the occupied territories.

The rest of the international community will have a vital role to play. We know that peace and prosperity depend on each other. We need a massive upgrade in our collective effort. I am pleased to report that the UK is in the lead. First, we have committed up to $500 million to the Paris donor conference, the first country to do so. That will stand alongside European and American commitments. We look forward to working with Arab colleagues on an Arab economic initiative side by side with the important Arab peace initiative.

Secondly, our priority is to help to build effective national Palestinian security forces. We have been involved in that effort for several years now. We commit our people, resources and experience to making a difference on the ground. In Nablus, in Bethlehem and in Jericho—where I saw raw recruits for myself 10 days ago—the fight for security is the fight for legitimacy and hope for the Palestinian people. It is often unglamorous, it is always hard and it is absolutely necessary. President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad are committed to the task, and we will support them.

Thirdly, we need to support the parties as they strive for success. Prosperity driven by the private sector needs reform driven by the public sector. That is why the reform and development plan prepared by Prime Minister Fayyad is so important as a statement of intent—about clean government, about responsible budgeting, and about politics based on promises that are made to be kept. That will bear fruit only if Palestinians are given the freedom to work, to trade and to reap the benefits of commerce. The efforts of Tony Blair are vital in that regard, and the announcement last Monday of four projects, with Defence Minister Barak and Prime Minister Fayyad in support, is an important step forward.

Fourthly, we must not lose sight of Gaza, an integral part of a future Palestinian state. Continuing rocket fire into Israel by extremist groups within Gaza is a reminder of the dangers Israel faces. However, the deteriorating humanitarian situation is a real cause for concern. The UN Secretary-General spoke forcefully to that issue yesterday and we support his efforts to ensure that the interests of the civilian population are not forgotten.

Fifthly, our immediate focus must be on Israel and Palestine. But any peace must be comprehensive. The current situation in Lebanon vividly illustrates the need for a wider settlement. The prize is full normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world. I encouraged the Syrian Foreign Minister to attend the conference when I met him in New York in September, and the presence and speech of the Deputy Foreign Minister was a welcome sign of Syrian engagement.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons for people to be sceptical about the latest stage in the search for peace. Given the experience of the 16 years since the Madrid conference, we should indeed all be cautious. The road from Annapolis will be hard, but there is a real basis for engagement.

The unmatched injuries of the Jewish people and the stateless tragedy of the Palestinians make both sides fearful of compromise; but without compromise there is only fear. Thirty years ago, the late President Sadat said of his bid for peace:

“It is a chance that, if lost or wasted, the plotter against it will bear the curse of humanity and the curse of history.”

We all have a duty to do what we can to challenge the sceptics, to prove them wrong, and to help Palestinians and Israelis live out their common humanity.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and express strong support for his words and for what he and his counterparts did in Annapolis. The hope that he expressed that the conference will give new impetus to the hope for a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is shared across all parties in this country and, indeed, most of the world.

We welcome the fact that the conference reaffirmed the vision of a negotiated, two-state solution based on the road map. The priority now is, obviously, to build on what momentum has been created and to address some formidable obstacles that remain. Among the greatest threats to the negotiations must be the continued refusal of Hamas to recognise Israel and renounce violence, its rejection of the conference outcome and its complete unwillingness to prevent rocket attacks against Israel. What discussions did the Foreign Secretary have about those issues, and can he explain how Gaza, which he rightly describes as an integral part of the future Palestinian state, will be approached within the negotiations?

On Israel’s part, alongside the freeze on settlement activity to which the Foreign Secretary referred, does he agree that speedy progress on movement and access would make a considerable difference in improving the quality of life for Palestinians and demonstrating that the path of peace brings tangible benefits and the promise of a better life?

I have a few questions about the process going forward. The Foreign Secretary referred to a timetable for follow-up on the negotiations, including review conferences. However, little has yet been said about the timetable of the negotiations themselves, and even before Hamas came to power neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis had been able to adhere to the previous timetable. At what stage of the road map will those negotiations pick up the thread? How confident is the Foreign Secretary that a realistic timetable for negotiations will emerge, given the expressed intention of concluding a peace treaty by the end of next year?

Secondly, is the Foreign Secretary confident that there is the sustained commitment needed to push both sides towards the necessary compromises? Did he form the impression at Annapolis that President Bush and his Administration will invest the immense amount of time and political commitment necessary to move this initiative forward?

What specific role will the Quartet play in the coming months, given that the joint understanding refers only to an

“American, Palestinian and Israeli mechanism”

to monitor the implementation of the road map? Does the right hon. Gentleman also see a role for the so-called “Arab Quartet”, who have been crucial in marshalling Arab support for the peace process and proposing a basis for wider Arab-Israeli peace?

The joint understanding issued after Annapolis made no mention of the Syrian-Israeli track, although I understand that that was on the conference’s formal agenda. What is the Foreign Secretary’s understanding about when that track will be addressed? He referred to Lebanon, which once again is on a knife edge. What steps is Britain taking to try to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate, and that Lebanon does not spiral afresh into violence?

Finally, Iran is emerging as one of the primary causes of instability in the region. Does the Foreign Secretary share our concern that the nexus between Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas has the potential to derail the peace process? Is it not vital to intensify the peaceful and multilateral pressure on Iran, including effective financial sanctions across the EU?

Given how many tensions and potential conflicts that there now are in the middle east, is not working to resolve the difference between Israelis and Palestinians one of the highest possible priorities for the international community? Is it not the duty of us all—Governments, Oppositions and nations of every continent—to do our utmost to support that?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s approach to this matter, and I shall try to deal in detail with all the questions that he asked.

When I spoke yesterday at the Annapolis conference, I made the point that, although I was obviously speaking on behalf of the British Government, I believed that I was speaking on behalf of all shades of political opinion in the UK. I think that that had a resonance, and it has certainly been backed up by what the right hon. Gentleman has said today.

At the beginning of his response to my statement, the right hon. Gentleman said that there were formidable obstacles, and at the end he said that the middle east peace process must be one of the highest possible priorities. He is right on both counts.

Hamas took control of Gaza in June, and it is striking that since then there have been about 1,000 Qassam rocket and mortar shell attacks on Israel. That is a very serious security concern for the Israeli Government, but it should be a serious concern for us all. Equally, I spoke yesterday to the UN Secretary-General about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and I have also spoken about that to various members of the Israeli delegation. From my visit to the middle east last week, I know that there are ongoing discussions between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government about what is happening in Gaza. President Abbas is the elected leader of all Palestinian people and he was speaking in that role yesterday. That is why it is right that the responsibility for negotiations lies with him, as does the responsibility for deciding when and how to approach the issue of reconciliation among the Palestinian people.

Three or four months on from Hamas’s takeover, and not least in light of the killing two weeks ago of six innocent civilians who were demonstrating peacefully, it is my impression that Hamas’s rule in Gaza is doing nothing for its popularity among its own people. However, we should not underestimate the force of Hamas’s organisation in Gaza or the strength of its structures there, and it is for President Abbas to lead that process.

The right hon. Gentleman was right in what he said about movement and access. It makes sense to deal with the security of economic projects one by one. At present, there are some 530 checks on, and other interruptions to, the movement of Palestinian people in the west bank. One approach is to try to tick them off one by one, but another is to build economic growth and tackle each of the security impediments or checkpoints around those poles of economic activity. I think that that second approach lends itself to progress.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timetable for the negotiations. The first meeting on 12 December will be key to setting a forward plan, and I shall be happy to keep him and the House informed about that.

In respect of the US commitment, the deep freeze of the last six or seven years has been ended by the conference. The strong words of President Bush and Secretary of State Rice, formally and informally, suggest that they realise the depth of commitment that is needed.

I look forward to my hon. Friend’s turning his statement into a question.

There is recognition in the United States, and in the Arab world, that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is closing for a number of reasons. Unless the opportunity is seized now, the consequences will be very grave indeed, which is why there is not a moment to lose.

The Quartet will continue to have an important role, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to notice that the structures are being moulded to fit the new circumstances of the negotiations. The approach forged from the Quartet on to the road map required that phase 1 of the road map be completed before phase 3—the final status negotiations—started. One of the big changes at Annapolis is that that distinction has been ended and the parties will start the final status negotiations, but the Quartet has a continuing role, not least in the donors conference next week.

My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East will be in Lebanon in two weeks’ time, and we are all waiting day by day, even hour by hour, to see the next step forward, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that compromise is essential if Lebanon is to avoid descent into another bloody civil war.

Many players have the capacity to disrupt the process, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that discussions about financial and other sanctions against Iran are ongoing at ministerial and official level among the E3 plus 3 and across the European Union to make sure that we make it absolutely clear to Iran that it has a clear choice—full engagement with the international community, including access to civilian nuclear power, or confrontation and a nuclear arms race in the middle east. The latter is not an option that the rest of the world wants Iran to take and is something it is prepared to do everything in its power to prevent.

I, too, welcome the modest beginning of this new start. The Foreign Secretary referred several times to the situation in Gaza, and to the division of Gaza from the rest of the Palestinian Authority. What can the Quartet and our Government do to bring about the reconciliation of the Palestinian people and ensure that there is a viable two-state solution, with one Palestinian Authority governing both parts of the Palestinian territories for the benefit of the people of Gaza?

My hon. Friend may have noticed that on Monday the spokesman of the President of the United States said he was determined to support a two-state solution in the middle east, not a three-state solution. That certainly remains our view.

On what we can do to promote reconciliation, we have to recognise that President Abbas is the key player. One hundred and twenty-nine people—innocent Palestinians, many of them—were killed in the attempted coup in June. It is for President Abbas, as the elected leader of all the Palestinian people, to lead his people and seek the reconciliation of which my hon. Friend spoke. I am convinced that the moderate majority, in Gaza as well as the west bank, wants a clean, effective administration that can govern in the interests of all the people. That is the best way forward. The political horizon that has been established can give credibility to President Abbas, and that is the best way we can support him.

I, too, thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for coming to the House so soon after the conference concluded. All of us in the Chamber recognise that it was no small achievement to get everybody to Annapolis in the first place and to reach any kind of agreement as a result, so we do not want to downplay the importance of what has been achieved, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the brief reference in his statement to the crisis in Gaza was more than was managed in the official communiqué, and that without serious attention to the problems there no deal over the next 12 months will get anywhere? Does he agree that there is not enough in the agreement to offer any prospect of an end to the choking of Gaza’s economy, which exacerbates the humanitarian crisis? Does he accept that although we all demand that Hamas satisfy the Quartet principles, not least the end of the deadly missile fire into Israel, there must be diplomacy and engagement through neighbouring Arab countries to work towards fulfilment of those criteria, not simply continuing to offer the people of Gaza international sanctions and the threat of indefinite isolation?

The hon. Gentleman is right to distinguish between what was agreed yesterday and the process that has been set up. He is right that the cautious promise that comes out of yesterday’s meeting is about the process, and the shared goal, rather than what was agreed. The intention was not to produce a comprehensive blueprint; it was to produce a structure that could deliver a serious process that would enable us to reach the goal that we share.

In respect of Gaza—I have addressed this issue a couple of times already—there is a political leadership of all the Palestinian people. It is up to them to lead the process of reconciliation. I agree that we must be attentive to the economic, as well as the humanitarian, situation. There is hardly an economy left in Gaza. Some 60 or 70 per cent. of the people are completely dependent on UN aid. The situation with power supplies, which the Secretary of State for International Development and I addressed in our statement on 30 October, is a cause of deep concern.

It is relevant to look at the history of the period between 1988 and 1993. The Palestine Liberation Organisation went through the same debate that is going on in Gaza at the moment, about whether it was worth engaging in a peaceful process. After 1993, when the PLO decided to recognise Israel and to engage in peaceful and productive relations, we had the most intense period of peacemaking that had been seen since 1967. So, of course we must not turn our eyes away from the humanitarian situation, but equally we have to be clear about the real basis on which the humanitarian situation can be addressed.

When my right hon. Friend refers to an end to settlement construction, does that include huge settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim on the outskirts of Jerusalem? What is being done about an end to the building of the illegal wall and an end to the 500 checkpoints? When he talks about Gaza, will he remember that—as I was told at a UN conference in New York, which I participated in last week—80 per cent. of the inhabitants of Gaza subsist solely on UN funds? Does he accept that, however odious Hamas is, there will be no peace until Hamas is involved?

My right hon. Friend speaks with real experience and authority on this issue. I am grateful for his correction. I said that 60 or 70 per cent. of Gazans were dependent on UN aid; he said that it was 80 per cent. I understand the depth of his feeling on the matter. On his last point, I certainly believe that we can get a solution only if we engage the hearts and minds of the people who voted for Hamas in the election in June. It is vital that a new Palestinian state carries legitimacy and support from all the Palestinian people.

On borders, and the settlements, which I saw when I drove from Jerusalem to Jericho, there is a critical issue about the so-called E1 part of the settlement plan. It is clear that expansion there would deal a very deep blow to the prospects of a viable Palestinian state. I believe that the basis of a deal will be around the 1967 borders and will include land swaps to deal with small items around the edge. The deal will have to be on that basis; otherwise the Palestinian state is not going to be the viable entity that we all want to see. That raises profound questions for settlement activity and for the outposts that have been have constructed since March 2001, as I said in my statement. The announcements from the Government of Israel are an important step forward in that respect. There was the statement from Prime Minister Olmert that he was determined to fulfil all the obligations under the road map. However, it is important that that is followed through.

The concession by both the Israelis and the Palestinians at Annapolis that the United States, not themselves, would in future be the judge of the implementation of the road map on security and settlements could be a historic breakthrough. However, that will obviously depend on whether President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority can deliver the security requirements in Gaza, which at the moment he cannot. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore accept that the single most important contribution that the international community—and perhaps, in particular, the Arab states of the region—could make over the next few months would be to show unambiguous support for President Abbas and to put pressure on Hamas in order to deliver the ability for progress to be made?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman alights on a very significant point in the statement yesterday. It is a point that I think was still being discussed late into the day and night before the Annapolis conference. It is a significant position: the United States will be the honest broker in terms of road map commitments. He is right that there is a chicken-and-egg quality to the debate. Security is the basis for progress, but political progress can enhance the efforts towards security. I completely agree that the Arab states have a critical role to play. That is why the Arab peace initiative is important. I do not know, but my impression is that, in the year 2000, when the then President Arafat was trying to decide whether to support the plan that had been brokered by President Clinton, the lack of wholehearted support from the Arab world certainly weighed in his decision—let me put it no stronger than that. If the Arab world—the 22 states from the Arab League—is now determined to recognise that a two-state solution is the best bulwark against extremism, and getting that state and building it up is the best way forward, that would be a significant change. I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, in all my discussions with Arab partners, I am trying to emphasise not just the goal, but the political strategy that is needed to get there.

I accept entirely the genuine commitment of my right hon. Friend, but does he accept that, time and again in recent years, the Palestinians have been promised the sort of outline programme that he has described today, and yet there has been no real improvement in the lives of Palestinians, let alone a sovereign independent Palestinian state? If we were Palestinians and had suffered as they have suffered over the last nearly 60 years, would we really believe that what happened at a conference would make any difference?

I would go further than my hon. Friend: things have got worse for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian suffering and Israeli insecurity are two sides of the same coin. Things are worse now than they were seven years ago. If one looks back to 1967, one can see that the divides are deep and growing—not least because of the bloodshed that has happened since then. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had a chance to look at yesterday’s speech by Prime Minister Olmert, in which he graphically described the suffering of the Palestinians. That was a striking part of the discussions.

Do I understand the scepticism that people around the world will have about this process? Yes. Do I share the caution that is important in this process? Absolutely. The worst thing we can do is to say that one conference, and the agreement to a follow-up mechanism, is going to bring peace tomorrow. It is not. We have a long road ahead, and caution is the only way in which we can approach this. However, engagement is the only way in which we are going to make this work. Although our role is not as central as those of the main players—the decisions are going to have to be made by Israel and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority and the future Palestinian state—we can try to support the process, without illusions and certainly without making false promises to people who feel that they have been betrayed for too long.

On behalf of my party and the SNP, I commend the right hon. Gentleman for the work that he has been doing in the past few weeks and wish him well in this arduous process. To be credible, the Annapolis process will have to overcome two remaining taboos: first, that the Palestinians can deliver ongoing security to Israeli under conditions of occupation, and, secondly, that a divided Palestine can bring forth a sustainable peace. I welcome what Prime Minister Olmert said the other day about no further building, but does that mean no further settlements, or no further extension of the current 149 settlements? When will the 500 road blocks start to be removed from the west bank? I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his work thus far and I hope that he keeps up the pressure, because, despite the scepticism, there is a glimmer of hope, and we all hope it will come through.

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. On the 500 checkpoints, a shift in relation to the first 21 was announced by Defence Minister Barak last week. That was associated with the four economic projects that Tony Blair is taking forward.

In respect of the freeze on settlements, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out that one person’s freeze is another person’s continuation of the settlements that have already been given planning permission. There is considerable detailed work to be done. Given the great percentages—96 or 97 per cent.—that will decide on the future of a Palestinian state, the matter may seem small, but for the people concerned, it is a big thing whether they are on the Palestinian or Israeli side. That is exactly what the detailed negotiations will have to address.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his constructive efforts to try to bring justice to both Israelis and Palestinians. Does he feel confident that enough measures can be put in place to prevent a renewal of the terrorism that sabotaged previous attempts to find a negotiated two-state solution?

My hon. Friend has a distinguished record of highlighting such issues. The precise answer to her question of whether measures can be taken to provide security is yes; as to whether they will be taken, that is what we have to work towards. I am in no doubt about the commitment of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad to leading the development of a Palestinian security infrastructure in which people have confidence, but we are engaged in a race against time.

May I join in the welcome extended to the Foreign Secretary for his remarks today, including his remark that Hamas must face up to responsibility for the rocket attacks on Israel? Nothing should prevent humanitarian aid from going to those who need it in Gaza, but is it not absolutely clear that rocket attacks do absolutely nothing to assist the people there in their suffering? Is it not time that people stopped making excuses for Hamas, and that it faced up to its responsibilities?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the rocket attacks do nothing for the interests of the Palestinian people. In fact, they undermine those interests. It is urgent that the whole international community, including in the Arab world, does as much as possible to prevent that. The discussions that I had in Egypt last week about the smuggling through its crossings is obviously an important part of the solution.

Is the Foreign Secretary confident that the talks have shown sufficient respect for the democratic process in Palestine? Apparently, Hamas is not represented at the talks, and there have not been any direct representations from or to it. Whatever one thinks of Hamas, clearly it is a factor. It also has a large number of elected parliamentarians, many of whom are currently in prison in Israel. Is it acceptable for an occupying power—that is, Israel—to imprison a large number of elected parliamentarians and then pretend that it is undertaking negotiations to bring about peace? Is he confident that the parliamentarians will be released soon?

In respect of the arrested parliamentarians, I am happy to say that I agree with my hon. Friend that the situation is not acceptable. As I made clear in the House in July, we have serious concerns about the issue. The parliamentarians need to be either charged or released—and some of them have been. I will get the precise figures on what has happened to the 44 who were originally arrested. I do not have in my head the precise number who have been released or charged, but I will certainly write to my hon. Friend about the matter. On whether I am confident that President Abbas represents the aspirations of the Palestinian people, the answer is yes. On whether I recognise that there is deep division within the Palestinian community, the answer is yes. On whether it is the job of political leadership to overcome that division, the answer is also yes.

The Foreign Secretary spoke hopefully about the weakening of Hamas in Gaza, following the isolation of Hamas and the blockade of Gaza, and about conditions there. Is it not an irony that although there is a significant difference between Hamas and Salafist movements such as al-Qaeda, recent polls indicate that the ambition of 71 per cent. of Palestinian children in Gaza is to become a martyr, so we are in danger of driving people from supporting Hamas to supporting something a whole lot worse?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are grave dangers. One of the important points that I discussed with Israeli counterparts in the past 10 days is the fact that the alternative to President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad is a very dangerous one. That is why we need to make progress with the current Palestinian leadership. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the battle for the hearts and minds of young Palestinians—Palestine has a very young population, along with many other Muslim countries—is key. First, the way forward on the issue has got to be through addressing conditions on the ground. An immiseration strategy is no strategy for winning hearts and minds. That is why the humanitarian concerns are important. Secondly, the political horizon is important, too. There has to be a combination of change on the ground and a political horizon in which people can believe, with leaders who can deliver; that, in the end, is the way to win them back.

The Foreign Secretary has re-expressed the British Government’s view that all the settlements—not just those that Israel regards as illegal under its law—are an obstacle to peace, in that they preclude the two-state solution. Thus far, in its agreements with Israel, the European Union has always maintained its position on which parts of the territory are Israel, and which are not. Can the Foreign Secretary assure me that that line will be maintained until there is an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which may slightly alter the position?

I am happy to confirm that there is no change in our positions. The key is detailed negotiations between the parties. There are dangers in saying that it is up to the parties to take the issue forward on a bilateral basis, but in the end the compromises and the leadership will have to come from the leaders of Israel and the leaders of a future Palestinian state. As was pointed out by the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the role of the United States as an honest broker is a shift—it has never played that role before—and the facilitation, encouragement and drive that will have to come from the international community will have to be subtle and careful. Detailed discussions about settlements and land swaps, given the basic parameters that were set out in 2000-01, remain to be held.

If it was right in principle for successive Governments to talk directly to the political representatives of terrorist groups in order to achieve peace in Northern Ireland, why is it not right in principle for the international community to talk to the political representatives of Hamas?

There are many lessons from Northern Ireland that it is worth trying to apply around the world, not least as regards policing, but one distinction that the hon. Gentleman might want to think about when answering his own question is the distinction between the Provisional IRA and the Real IRA; that distinction emerged as an important part of the peace process in the past 10 years. The deep debate within the Palestine Liberation Organisation between 1988 and 1993 led it and its supporters to conclude that a peaceful process was the only way forward. Hamas has not yet made that move, so the hon. Gentleman should be careful about suggesting that there is an exact parallel between Northern Ireland and Palestine to support his case. However, I am happy to continue this discussion with him.

My right hon. Friend was correct to draw attention to the hundreds of rocket attacks from Gaza, including one on a primary school in Sderot on 11 September. Hamas also used a UN school as a launch pad in Beit Hanoun in October. Will he confirm that if Hamas is to be involved in the process, the three previous preconditions must stick, including the requirement that it ceases violence and terrorism against Israel?

Yes, but I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that we do not want to get into a position in which Hamas’s deliberations become a veto or a block on the political dialogue. An agreement hammered out by President Abbas and put to all the Palestinian people can trump the Hamas card, because in the end the Hamas argument is either, “No one will deliver a Palestinian state to you,” or “We’re the only people who can deliver a Palestinian state to you.” If President Abbas is able to do that, that is the best way to undercut Hamas.

The International Development Committee visited a soap factory in Ramallah piled high with simple olive oil soaps. It simply could not get those soaps out of the west bank because of the security checks and so on. No one should kid themselves that getting trade and jobs going in the west bank will not require someone with authority to broker a deal. Is that Tony Blair’s task? If so, that is very welcome, because if the United Nations Relief and Works Agency cannot deliver it, no one else will be able to do so. It will require someone with a capacity for mediation to kick-start the west bank economy.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It was notable that yesterday, the European commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, talked about the release of some cut flowers and dried fruits. Perhaps I can refer to her the question of the soap factory that the hon. Gentleman raised. The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has focused on new economic projects, but I am sure that he has included in his discussions existing economic projects that are blocked. I am certainly happy to draw to the attention of the relevant authorities the case that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The whole House will appreciate the Foreign Secretary’s cautious realism. May I ask him a specific question about the role of the Arab states? It is obvious that they have influence even on Hamas, and can be influential in making sure that Lebanon is contained, which would be helpful. How much did public opinion in those Arab states feature in those discussions because, in the end, it is important that Arab public opinion plays a role to make sure that Arab states have the freedom to act progressively and constructively?

My hon. Friend makes a very profound point. The position of Arab public opinion featured more in the informal discussions than in the formal ones. There is growing recognition of it in the leadership that Saudi Arabia has provided, for example, in the Arab peace initiative, and in the determination of the Egyptian Foreign Minister, who happened to be on the same overnight plane as me, so I had a chance to have a further discussion with him following my meeting with him last week. There is recognition of the fact that public opinion needs to know that the delivery of a Palestinian state is a viable prospect, because without that there is a threat to the stability of the whole region, which is extremely dangerous for all the countries concerned.

While I personally perceive the meeting between Prime Minister Olmert, President Abbas and President George W. Bush as tremendously encouraging, does the Foreign Secretary not agree that the major responsibility—security and Hamas are clearly critical, and that is President Abbas’s responsibility—is the decisions made by the Israelis, which will make or break any future peace agreement? The settlements, the wall and the Palestinians’ freedom to trade are critical to progress.

The hon. Gentleman is right that they are critical to progress, but it takes two to tango in this process. We will need many, many steps by both sides. He used the phrase “make or break”, and the frightening thing is that there are many things that could break this process. There are plenty of wreckers and plenty of difficult compromises that could wreck the process, so it is right to be cautious. However, there is symmetry to the issue: the Palestinians’ suffering and the Israelis’ insecurity are two sides of the same coin, and both need to be addressed.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a perceptive and balanced statement? I endorse what he said about President Abbas being the president of all Palestine, and that it is up to the Palestinians themselves to lead their own process of reconciliation. Does he agree, however, that the international community has a role in not making matters more difficult—something that I fear that we did after the election of Hamas in 2006 and up to the events of June 2007? Will he clarify the fact that the important freeze on settlements includes the E1 plan, which is of tremendous significance in the west bank?

On the latter point, I am sorry if what I said earlier sowed confusion rather than clarity. I am absolutely clear that the extension of settlements into the E1 area would set back the process of building a viable Palestinian state, and I will check the record to make sure that I have not suggested the opposite. My hon. Friend is right that the international community must not make things worse—I hope that we can aspire to do better than that—but we should probably save for another occasion a longer discussion of the history of how we got here. As for how we move forward, there is a process in place: it is the only game in town, and I suggest that is where we should focus our efforts.

The Foreign Secretary and other right hon. and hon. Members rightly raised the question of rockets, 1,100 of which have been fired in the past 12 months, resulting in more than 300 injuries and 15 deaths. Whatever we think about the security fence—in many ways, it is odious—it has served to protect many Israelis from suicide bombings, which have not taken place in Israel for many months. The Foreign Secretary alluded to the talks with Egypt on the smuggling of arms into Gaza. Will he amplify precisely what has been agreed, because smuggling is a major cause of destabilisation?

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot provide that amplification, because while we have had discussions, to suggest that they were negotiations would probably go beyond the United Kingdom’s remit. What I do know is that the countries of Egypt and Israel are in intensive discussions about the issue. It is not a new issue—smuggling has gone on for a long time—but I gained the impression that there was a real commitment on both sides to try to address it, because it is not in either side’s interest.

Hospital consultants in Gaza are regularly reduced to tears, because they are losing increasing numbers of patients, including extremely young children, whom they know they can save. There is a lack of equipment, as well as basic medicines, and intensive care cots of children are broken. The doctors accompany very sick patients to checkpoints only to watch them die there. Will my right hon. Friend therefore make a pledge to the House that he will do everything in his power to open safe passages for those sick patients either to the west bank or to Israeli hospitals, so that those lives can be saved?

My hon. Friend makes the important point that while the words “humanitarian tragedy” can seem antiseptic or clichéd, there is real life-and-death suffering. I am certainly happy to follow up any particular cases that he wishes to raise, but I can assure him that when we talk about humanitarian tragedy, whether with the UN or with any of the other bodies involved, we bring it down to the human scale, and that is what he has done.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any final settlement on a two-state solution can be realised only if Israel’s security is guaranteed? If he does, would he consider a new innovation and extend an invitation to Israel to become a member of NATO so that its future security is guaranteed?

It is shared ground on both sides of the House that the security of the state of Israel is half the bargain—the other half is a viable Palestinian state. When I was in Israel—this may disappoint the hon. Gentleman—I discussed the matter with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, and they were much more interested in joining the European Union than they were in NATO.

Earlier, my right hon. Friend made a distinction between those who vote for Hamas and Hamas itself. Does he accept that Hamas is as much a social movement as it is a political movement, and that in bringing about a reconciliation, while it is important that President Abbas plays a pivotal role, everyone else, including the Arab states, the EU and the UN has a role to play in bringing about reconciliation, otherwise we will end up with a three-state solution by default rather than the two-state solution that we would like?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am not sure about the term “social movement”, but it is certainly the case that Hamas provides an infrastructure of support that has been recognised by some of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Hamas has certainly fed off the sentiment that corruption in the Palestinian Authority is a real source of injury to the Palestinian people, and in that sense I very much agree with his comments.

On the question of settlements, does my right hon. Friend agree that Prime Minister Olmert needs to promise not just an end to the construction of new settlements and expansion outside the boundaries of existing settlements—I understand that that is all that he has promised so far—but a complete end to all construction within existing settlements and the release of areas for future settlements such as the E1 area that my right hon. Friend mentioned, if he wants the talks to succeed? It would not be fair to expect Palestinian politicians to negotiate while construction is still under way.

There are confidence-building measures to do with what happens to the settlements in the short term but, in the end, this is about the borders of a Palestinian state and the borders of Israel. We face the prospect that over the next year those issues can be addressed in detail, and that is the best way to get this sorted out once and for all.