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Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2009

1. What assessment he has made of the implications of the outcome of the general election in Israel for UK policy in the region; and if he will make a statement. (257913)

The composition of the next Israeli Government is not yet clear. However, at the earliest opportunity, the UK will engage with Israel’s new Government on the important task of reinvigorating a serious political dialogue aimed at establishing a lasting and just regional peace between Israel and its neighbours. Working with and supporting all parties in their efforts to reach that goal will remain a central tenet of the UK’s policy in the region.

With right-wing religious nationalists now vying for control of the Knesset, there appears to be little prospect of peace for the families and friends of the 1,300 Gazans killed and 5,500 injured by Israeli military operations before and during the recent general election campaign. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel can no longer be accepted by our Government or the international community as justification for the Israeli Government’s criminal actions in the slaughter and maiming of innocent Palestinian citizens?

I think that the prospects for peace probably seem very remote for a large number of people in the middle east, which is a reason for us to redouble our efforts to secure that peace. On the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, it is very important that we condemn all loss of innocent civilian life on any side. We should not get into the business of justifying one set of civilian losses because of another. A vital part of our work and, critically, the work of the new US Administration, is to try to build a durable peace that is in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that Israel is one of the most advanced countries in the world in tackling human trafficking? The number of convictions of traffickers is up and the amount of compensation paid to victims and the amount of legislation on the statute book are increasing. Will he take a lead from the Israeli Government and see that all embassies with which we have visa arrangements have leaflets explaining to people applying for visas that they should be aware of the dangers of human trafficking?

I was not aware of Israel’s record in that regard, and I shall certainly find out our own practice in that area. The work against human trafficking brings together all civilised people, and if there is anything that we have to learn from the Israeli approach, we will certainly do so.

I have just come back from Gaza, where I saw whole business districts, villages, hospitals and schools that had been systematically razed to the ground by a Government of the centre left, as we are now told to call them. The prospects for progress on peace and other matters being made by a Government of the far right seem unlikely without pressure from this Government and their international partners. What does my right hon. Friend believe those pressures should be?

The picture that my hon. Friend paints of the situation in Gaza was confirmed to me by Senator Kerry, whom I met on Sunday and who had also recently been in Gaza. He painted a picture of extreme devastation right across Gaza. As I said, there is not yet a Government in Israel, but the most significant thing is that in the latter part of last year, we were talking in the House about the importance of the new US Administration engaging on middle east issues from day one, which has indeed happened.

I will be in Sharm el Sheikh on Monday with Secretary Clinton at the donors conference, talking about not just the narrow issues of humanitarian aid and reconstruction but the wider political issues that are raised. I will be in Cairo later today, where I will certainly take up those wider political issues. Those are the key points that need to be on the table for any Government who emerge in Israel.

Will the Secretary of State and Mrs. Clinton, when they are together next week, make it quietly but firmly plain to those who aspire to power in Israel, first, that indiscriminate slaughter is not an acceptable instrument of policy and, secondly, that a two-state solution is the only viable solution to middle eastern problems?

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of restating a commitment to a two-state solution. It is fair to say that it is an indicator of how dangerous the situation is that the mere repetition of that commitment is in itself important. At this time, it is very important to keep on the table the commitment to a two-state solution, especially by the United States, given that the division between Gaza and the west bank currently threatens the very heart of the idea of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) made the point that a Government of the centre left could not find a road to peace, and it seems likely that we will have a Government of the right in Israel shortly. The Foreign Secretary has made it plain that he, along with the international community, wishes to redouble his efforts to try to get a settlement and agreement in the region. How optimistic is he, given the clear political obstacles that the composition of the new Government presents?

The situation on the ground means that anyone who claims to be optimistic at the moment is not engaging with the facts. It is not an optimistic, but a dangerous moment. The dangers mean that not only European countries and the United States, but—critically—countries throughout the Arab world, as well as Israel, have to peer into the abyss of the idea of a two-state solution disappearing. That is dangerous for Israel and for the whole Arab world. It is one reason for my putting such stress in the past six months on the Arab peace initiative, which offers not only a two-state solution, but the prospect of 23 states—Israel and 22 states of the Arab League—normalising relations with each other on the back of the creation of a Palestinian state. That regional approach is essential at this time.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel is entitled to insist that the Palestinians and the wider Arab world accept her right to exist? Does he also accept that, when Israeli political leaders talk about refusing to countenance a Palestinian state or make promises about expanding illegal settlements, that undercuts the position of every Arab leader who is genuinely committed to peace?

Yes, it is important—I hope that it is noted—that, in all parties in the House, there is an absolute commitment to the centrality of Israel at the foundation of a stable middle east and to the fact that Israel, never mind the Palestinians, will have safety and justice with the creation of a Palestinian state. It is significant that, across the United Kingdom political spectrum, every party is committed to the goal of a safe Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state in a region that benefits from that co-existence. I think that the cross-party commitment to using all Britain’s assets to further that goal is widely welcomed, and it is something that I carry with me as I travel in the region.