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Middle East

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 14 September 2010

1. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in the middle east; and if he will make a statement. (14846)

The launch of direct talks is an important and welcome step in the search for lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians. The parties have been meeting again today in Sharm el Sheikh. We look to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to show the perseverance, commitment and courage needed in the weeks and months ahead to achieve a two-state solution.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his response. On the day on which the peace talks resume in Sharm el Sheikh, will he tell the House whether he shares my view that the settlements remain a major barrier to peace in the region?

The issue of settlements will come to the fore very rapidly again, because the immediate challenge is the expiry of the settlement moratorium at the end of this month, on 30 September. The road map makes it clear that Israel should freeze all settlement construction, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts built since 2001. Our view is that all settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories is illegal and an obstacle to peace.

But if the Israelis defy President Obama and the Quartet by resuming settlement building on 26 September, is there not a serious danger that that would scupper the current peace talks and make future talks more difficult? Would there not also be a danger, because of the population growth among the Palestinians, of eventually ending Israel as the Jewish state that it proclaims itself to be? Given that the Jewish day of atonement comes before 26 September, will the Foreign Secretary urge the Israeli Government to observe their own religion and repent at this stage?

The right hon. Gentleman’s question encapsulates why it is in Israel’s long-term interests to seek agreement on a two-state solution. He is quite right to say that there is a danger to the talks, and therefore to any subsequent talks, and it is vital that all the parties involved are able to get through the end of September with the talks alive. We therefore look to the Government of Israel to take all the steps necessary to renew the settlement moratorium; we have made that quite clear to them. If they were able to do that, it would no doubt contribute enormously to the talks being able to proceed further.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the recent statement by the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States that the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran would constitute such a threat to the security of all the states of the middle east that all options—including, if necessary, military options—must be considered if it became necessary to prevent such a situation from arising?

I have always argued that all options should be kept on the table, and that the option of military action should not be withdrawn from the table. I have also always stressed that we are not calling for that or advocating it. We do not want to relieve any of the pressure that is currently on Iran, but I must emphasise that I am not advocating military action.

I am sure that we will all be relieved by what the Foreign Secretary has just said at the end of that response. I think it would merit at least an oral statement if he were going to advocate military action.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether it is true that Mr Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister, proposed to lead a delegation of European Foreign Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, to Israel and the occupied territories in the first half of September, but that the Israeli Government would not co-operate with such a visit?

No, it is not true. Mr Frattini proposed a visit by EU Foreign Ministers at the very beginning of September, but it turned out that it clashed with the direct talks that were starting on the other side of the Atlantic. The proposed trip was therefore abandoned. There has been no proposal for a trip by the EU Foreign Ministers since then. Such a proposal has been reported in one or two newspapers, but I am afraid that it is not accurate.

I am glad to hear that from the Foreign Secretary because the Foreign Office was not able to explain it yesterday. Of course the Israeli Government have said that European Foreign Ministers are standing on the sidelines at the moment, so the question is why a delegation of European Foreign Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, is not heading out to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as soon as possible. Prime Minister Netanhayu said on Sunday that Israel would not extend the moratorium on settlement building and Mr Abbas has threatened to quit the talks if construction resumes. Is it not true that there is a real danger of having an absent Foreign Secretary and not an active Foreign Secretary when the people of the middle east most need an active one?

No. I know we have little soundbites before the Labour leadership election—we are bound to have them—but in a way this is too serious an issue for things like that. Neither EU Foreign Ministers nor the UK Government are in any way on the sidelines. We have played an important role—a supporting role—to the United States, which has shown such leadership on this issue, in getting these direct talks going. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was, I think, held to be instrumental in that through the telephone calls he undertook in the summer with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. I am in close touch with the talks through Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Mitchell; indeed, we are in constant touch with all involved. We play a strong supporting role, as do many other EU countries, in the continuation of these direct talks. As the right hon. Gentleman can see from the answers I have given, we are emphatic about what needs to be done next.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the biggest obstacles to peace in the middle east is the outrages committed by Hamas, which represents such a threat that we need to bolster the moderate ranks of the Palestinians to ensure that a proper two-state solution comes about? If he does agree, what action is the Foreign Office taking to ensure that the moderate elements of the Palestinian cause are promoted?

We give a great deal of support to those moderate Palestinians and my hon. Friend will be aware of the aid that goes in from here and from the rest of the European Union to help the Palestinian Authority. He is right about Hamas. The terrorist outrage of two weeks ago was specifically designed, in my view, to disrupt the start of these direct talks. Hamas does not want to see these talks succeed and that fact should redouble the determination of all involved to make sure that they do succeed.