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Middle East

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2009

6. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in the middle east; and if he will make a statement. (282692)

The UK continues to support a two-state solution in the middle east. We urge the parties involved and the Arab world to continue to build on the Arab peace initiative as the best basis for establishing long-term regional peace. We urge Israel to implement a complete freeze on settlement construction in line with its roadmap commitments, and we call on all Palestinians to be prepared to engage in peaceful negotiations with Israel. Facilitating peace in the middle east will remain a top priority for this Government, alongside developing the institutions of a Palestinian state.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and may I offer you my belated congratulations? Will my right hon. Friend maintain a commitment to persuading the Israeli Government to accept the idea of a Palestinian state? Does he accept, however, that if that state is too bound in by conditions and a commitment to retain settlements it will be absolutely unacceptable to the Palestinian authorities and the international community?

I maintain that commitment very strongly. The Government’s position is very clear: a two-state solution must be based more or less on the 1967 borders, Jerusalem should be the capital of both Israel and Palestine, and there needs to be a fair settlement of the refugee questions. That is at the heart of securing any stability, never mind security or justice, for Palestinians—and, I argue, for Israelis too. That is why it will remain at the heart of our policy.

In the past, whatever we thought of the regime running Iran, the EU3 plus 3 countries recognised that it ruled by some form of consent. In the light of the recent elections, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the new president—or President Ahmadinejad—rules by consent? If not, how can we begin negotiations to solve problems to do with the middle east or the nuclear issue?

As I said earlier, there is no way that we are able to count the ballots, and we are not in a position to say whether President Ahmadinejad got 63 per cent. of the vote. Debate remains intense in Iran, and we are watching the process extremely carefully. We will have to address questions about the Government of Iran, and I understand that the inauguration of a new president is scheduled for 26 July. Over the coming three weeks, we will work intensively with our partners to ensure that there is a united international position in respect of dealings with the Iranian Government.

As soon as this Question Time is over, will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary contact his Israeli counterpart about the civilian ship, the Spirit of Humanity, aboard which is a constituent of mine? Its cargo of medical and humanitarian supplies was thoroughly inspected by the port authorities before it left Larnaca yesterday, but the vessel is now surrounded by Israeli warships in international waters. The Israeli forces have disabled the ship’s equipment, have threatened to fire on the ship and have now boarded it. Will he insist to the Israeli authorities that they desist immediately from these blatant violations of international law?

I shall certainly follow up my right hon. Friend’s question; he mentioned the issue to me on the way in to the Chamber. If the contact has not been made already, it will be made as soon as Question Time is over. It is obviously vital that all states respect international law, including the law of the sea. It is also important to say that we deplore the interference by the Israeli navy in the activities of Gazan fishermen, which has been brought to my attention on previous occasions. Resolution 1860 was clear about the basis of peaceful progress in respect of Gaza, and we are determined to uphold all of its aspects.

Can the Foreign Secretary indicate when he last discussed the middle east with President Barack Obama of the United States? He will agree that the United States probably stands a greater chance of exercising influence in the middle east than any other major power in the world. It is important that we create a stable government in both Palestine and Israel.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the United States has a pivotal role in promoting a peace process and a peace plan for the middle east. I think he will agree with me that the determination of the Obama Administration to engage on this issue from day one has been a welcome contrast to the rather belated interest in the middle east which has been shown by previous Administrations. Before 20 January, the European countries unanimously asked for that engagement, and since then the stance of the US Administration has been clear, principled and forceful. I welcome that wholeheartedly.

While I agree with my right hon. Friend that at last we have an American President who recognises the suffering and the plight of the Palestinian people, is it not unfortunate that this wretched Israeli Administration continue to build illegal settlements in defiance of international law? What action is going to be taken by the leading powers over what Israel is doing?

The position of the Government on settlements is clear—settlements are illegal under international law and a major blockage to peace in the middle east on the basis of a two-state solution. Reports are coming through that the Israeli Ministry Of Defence yesterday granted permission for 50 new housing units at the Adam settlement, which we completely deplore. This is the worst possible time for new settlements to be initiated or for construction to be started. We are at a vital moment as the new American Administration come to a decision about how they will prosecute their commitment to a two-state solution, and the call for a settlement freeze is clear and wholehearted.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it will be hard to build trust and peace in the middle east while hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza are still without sanitation, adequate medicine or the materials that they desperately need to begin reconstruction? What action are the British Government taking to find ways to allow supplies into Gaza in order to end what the International Committee of the Red Cross described a couple of days ago as an

“unending cycle of deprivation and despair”?

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman continues to draw attention to the Gaza issue, because so do we. The danger is that Gaza gets left behind in discussions of a peace plan or peace process. On Friday at the G8 meeting, I made a point of saying that the UK believed that we could not pursue a Gaza-last policy, that practical help in Gaza was essential—our £46 million of aid is just a part of that—and that adherence to the call of the UN Security Council resolution for an immediate opening of the crossings is in the interests of all right-minded people in thinking through how we can build any kind of solution or trust, to repeat the word that the hon. Gentleman used, in the middle east.

My right hon. Friend has been very clear about the Government’s position on Israeli settlements. President Obama, in his Cairo address, made it clear that Israeli settlements on the west bank have to stop. On 26 June, the G8 too was entirely clear that Israeli settlements on the west bank have to stop, but they are still carrying on, so perhaps the key question is: what can the international community do to ensure that Israel implements in practice its obligations under international agreements?

That is indeed a key question—or the key question. Defence Minister Barak is in Washington or New York today for talks with former Senator Mitchell. That is a key part of the engagement between the United States and Israel in preparation for further development of the American peace plan. We should see how those talks go, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that a settlement freeze is now universally recognised as absolutely key to progress.