Skip to main content

Palestine and the United Nations

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 15 September 2011

Order. May I appeal to colleagues who are almost unaccountably not staying for the urgent question to leave quietly so we can hear Sir Gerald?

Always a treat, Mr Speaker.

I should like to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement stating the intentions of Her Majesty’s Government with regard to the application next week of the Palestinian Government at the United Nations.

First, Mr Speaker, may I apologise to you and the House for the absence of the Foreign Secretary this morning. I think it is well known that he and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are on a visit to Libya and I am sure that the whole House will wish them both well as they make that journey and return safely.

With permission, I will make a statement in answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the Government’s intentions with regard to the application next week of the Palestinian Government at the United Nations. The Palestinian leadership has yet to submit any application to the United Nations. If and when an application is received, we will make a decision about how to respond. Without knowing the content of any such application, it would be premature to speculate on what the Government’s response might be.

This year marks the 20th year of the middle east peace process—20 years since the Madrid conference was launched. For the Palestinians and Israelis, not much has changed in nearly two decades since the Oslo accords were signed. The Israelis continue to face threats from violent extremists and the Palestinians still have no state. The UK has long been clear that peace in the middle east, enabling a resolution of the long-running dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, has enormous importance for global and regional security. The goal of the international community should be to ensure that this is the last year of process and the beginning of a lasting agreement between the parties. Events in the wider middle east region call for a redoubling of international efforts to support peace, stability and democracy. Nowhere is that need more pressing than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The world can no longer claim that change in the middle east will come slowly and incrementally, or allow the middle east peace process to limp along indefinitely, as it has done. If the peace process becomes a casualty of regional change, it will feed instability and violence, not democracy and human development. While the Arab spring goes much broader than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this dispute deeply affects the politics of the broader region. The fluid dynamics resulting from the Arab spring make the prize of stability that would result from any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians even more significant.

There is no alternative to negotiations to address the fundamental issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a solution cannot be imposed from outside. The parties need to redouble their efforts to break the impasse and resume negotiations on a two-state solution before the window to such a solution closes. Bold leadership is needed from all sides. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can afford to let the opportunity for peace slip further from their grasp. The two-state solution is the only way of realising the Palestinian aspirations for a state of their own and the long-term security that the Israelis deserve.

The Prime Minister made our position on United Nations’ recognition of a Palestinian state very clear during the visit of President Obama in May. He agreed with the President that a Palestinian state was a legitimate goal, but that the best way of achieving that was through a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. So, our focus remains on continuing to push hard for a return to negotiations on the basis agreed by the Prime Minister and President Obama. The United Kingdom Government want to see borders based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, security for Israel, and the right for Palestinians to govern themselves in a sovereign and contiguous state. We see Jerusalem as a shared city which will be the capital of both countries and we also, of course, accept that there needs to be an agreed and just solution for Palestinian refugees.

However, Palestinian action at the UN this month now looks increasingly likely. As I have said, we do not yet know the form that such action might take. We are working closely with partners to build consensus on a way forward that recognises the progress the Palestinians have made on their state-building efforts, that meets Israel’s legitimate security concerns and that avoids confrontation in the UN.

Whatever action is taken in New York, it is important that this increases the prospects for a return to negotiations. It is important to remember that action in the UN is not an end in itself. September is not the “closing date” for resolution of this conflict. What happens next is vital, which is why our goal remains to ensure that steps taken now pave the way for significant, conclusive talks. It is vital that any action in the UN does nothing to endanger the prospect of talks. It is emphatically in our national interest to see an independent, democratic Palestinian state living in peace with Israel, not at some ever-receding point in the future, but within a limited, practical time frame—not a part-deal on temporary borders that gives no promise for the future, but an agreement on all final status issues that will signal an end to all claims. I would like to assure hon. Members that the British Government will not cease in their efforts to support the parties in finding a long-term, sustainable solution to this conflict that will make this vision a reality.

Order. I am grateful to the Minister, although his reply was on the long side. We need exchanges to be pithy, because I want to accommodate colleagues who wish to question the Minister.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be totally inconsistent to support freedom for the people of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, but not actively to support, through this country’s UN votes, comparable independence for the people of Palestine, who have been waiting 64 years for UN decisions to be fulfilled and implemented? Will he understand that a Palestinian success will transform the situation in the middle east, but that if the Palestinians go to the UN Security Council and, if needs be, the General Assembly and fail, the Israelis will regard it as a triumph and it will be the end of the 20-year peace process? Will the Government stand up and put their hand up for the Palestinian people at the UN?

The Government have always been clear about their recognition of a Palestinian state at the conclusion of a process of negotiation between the parties in which mutual security has been guaranteed. We see no reason to move from that position, because anything else would threaten the compromise and security position that we all want to achieve. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the importance of success in New York and what it would mean. We agree entirely. It would be a disaster if in New York one side proclaimed triumph and the other reacted to a disaster. We are working hard with all partners to try to ensure that, whatever comes out of the UN, it is in the spirit of both sides feeling that something has been gained and that we have a situation moving towards those negotiations that need to succeed. We are all well aware of how success or disaster could be viewed and what the consequences could be. It is very important that at this stage we work as hard as possible for a resolution that will mean that both sides will be able to recognise that they have gained something and that we all have an opportunity and real hope for the near future.

Does my hon. Friend understand the profound sense of disappointment that there is in the House—and will be outside—at the nature of his remarks? Britain’s influence and reputation will inevitably be substantially diminished unless we show a positive approach to this issue. The Minister did not really answer the contradiction posed by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). How is it that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary can be in the middle east, doing everything in their power to support the principle of self-determination, while the British Government, so close to the question being asked in New York, are unable even to take a position on the Palestinian application? Does he understand that the most telling criticism of British policy in the middle east has always been that of double standards? Is this not just an illustration of that?

If my right hon. and learned Friend would like to tell me the final terms of the resolution that will be presented to the UN, we might be in a position to answer the question. However, as I indicated, our position on recognition of Palestine as a state is assured as a result of the processes that have been gone through and the negotiations that are vital between both sides. As I mentioned in my statement, what happens next week is not an event, but part of that process. Palestinian statehood will not be secured by a resolution, whatever anyone thinks or whatever is passed at the UN. It will be secured by the mutual recognition of both sides, which comes through the negotiation process that both sides have been committed to. Our position remains that we are determined to ensure that whatever happens at the UN next week—and he genuinely should not prejudge anyone’s position in this on any side—it is good for the future and not damaging to the negotiation process.

I refer the House to my relevant entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) for tabling an urgent question on this important issue. Surely it would have been better for the Government to have come to the House this week with an oral statement covering this issue and the developments elsewhere in the region, including Syria.

Labour has long supported the establishment of two states living side by side in peace and recognised by all their neighbours. There is widespread frustration and disappointment at the failure to make any progress in recent years. We seek an immediate return to meaningful negotiation between the parties, based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, resulting in a Palestinian state living in peace and security with Israel.

The Palestinians’ path to independent statehood will require recognition at the United Nations, and Labour supports that goal. We will judge any move made at the United Nations next week—such as the potential upgrading to observer status of the Palestinian delegation—on the basis of the contribution that it can make to securing meaningful negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and achieving a comprehensive agreement. Contrary to what the Minister has said today, however, we believe that the options before the international community are now clear. This morning, President Abbas, who has seized the attention of the world on this issue, has said that the Palestinians will pursue statehood in the absence of genuine alternatives.

Will the Minister set out the Government’s position for the House today—the last opportunity before the House rises for the recess—and tell us how the United Kingdom will vote on the following three very real scenarios? First, how would we vote in the UN Security Council on full recognition? Secondly, what would be our position in a vote in the UN General Assembly advocating full recognition? Thirdly, how would we vote in the General Assembly on enhanced observer status for the Palestinians?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what was, at the beginning of his remarks, a clear statement of a position that is virtually identical to that of the Government. That is to say, he and his party will make a judgment on any option that is put forward next week on the basis of the contribution that it can make to an ultimate settlement. We will do exactly the same. I am sure that he will respect my position when I tell him that I cannot answer his hypothetical questions, because every nuance in every comment adds to the general pot that is now being discussed. There are times when these issues have to be put privately, before a public position can be taken.

Over the past few weeks, we have heard many statements from representatives on all sides, indicating that a vote might be taken in the United Nations Security Council or that it might not, that it might be taken in the General Assembly or that it might not, or that this might depend on a Quartet statement. All those issues are still live and current, and although I quite understand the House’s desire to know the negotiating position, it would be genuinely unfair of hon. Members to press me on that at this stage. My answer would have to be the same. I understand entirely where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, and we take comfort from understanding, from his first remarks, that he and his party recognise the position that we are in. We want to ensure that nothing that is put forward and agreed next week will damage the prospect of peace between the parties, which we believe will come from a negotiated settlement and, we hope, as soon as possible.

Order. So far, this matter has absorbed 13 minutes, and the vast majority of Back Benchers are still waiting to speak. What is required from Back Bench and Front Bench alike is brevity.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s firm commitment to a two-state solution, but I put it to him that what has changed over the past 20 years has been the building of a wall through part of the west bank and a programme of settlement building that is very close to closing the door to a two-state solution. May I urge him to take very seriously the Palestinian bid for statehood while, understandably, calling for some conditions?

The obstacles and difficulties that my hon. Friend refers to are precisely the reason that this opportunity should be taken before the door to a two-state solution closes.

Does the Minister agree that although a negotiated settlement for two states—Israel and Palestine—can bring peace and security to the two peoples, a resolution that cannot deal with the critical detail of borders, Jerusalem and refugees may simply raise false expectations, leading to frustration and violence, thereby impeding the essential and urgent path of negotiations?

The hon. Lady accurately characterises the difficulties and nuances in this situation. It may not be all about a resolution; it may be about a resolution with a Quartet statement dealing with parameters. All that is up for discussion. She is acutely aware of the subsidiary issues that would go alongside any resolution and which are being much discussed at present.

I commend the calm and balanced approach set out by my hon. Friend—so unlike the wild and irresponsible statements by others on both sides of this House, whose long years have clearly not brought them wisdom. What matters—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw.”] No, I will not withdraw it; I believe it and I am happy to restate it for anyone who cares to hear it again. What matters in this situation is actual changes on the ground, in the feelings, thoughts and fears of Israeli people and Palestinian people. What does not matter is posturing in the House of Commons or the United Nations General Assembly by politicians trying to associate themselves with a cause and taking up a brave position, but not thinking about the people whose interests should be at the heart of it.

I am grateful for the wisdom and advice of colleagues on all sides and at all different stages in their parliamentary careers. I welcome it from those who, like me, have been around for a while and from those who are new here. My hon. Friend gets to the heart of it when he says that there are dangers and risks that come from people taking established positions at a very early stage, when the truth, as we all know, is that negotiations proceed on a parallel track, sometimes in private and sometimes leading to a different outcome. We all need to keep our counsel calm and wise over the weekend, and I am absolutely certain that those most closely involved in negotiations would entirely fulfil my hon. Friend’s requirements.

That last intervention from the Conservative Back Benches could have been more appropriate in the Israeli Parliament. Is the Minister aware that if there is a vote at the United Nations, what we do will be seen as how far Britain is genuinely committed to the Palestinian cause and to the creation of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state alongside Israel? Time and again British Governments have said, like today, that they are in favour of a Palestinian state, but so far there has been little action to bring that about.

It is because we are well aware of the implications of the United Kingdom vote on any resolution that we are being so careful and working so hard to ensure that a resolution is not couched in terms such that it either leaves one side completely dissatisfied and adds to the frustration or indefinitely extends the chance of reaching a settlement to deal with the frustrations that the hon. Gentleman very properly articulates.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that when Netanyahu visited the United States in May 2011 he said that he wanted to negotiate with the Palestinians and that Israel would not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state? However, does he not also agree that it is difficult to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority when its main partner is Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel or renounce terrorism and continues to fire missiles on Israeli towns?

Our position on Hamas is well known and we have no contact with it. However, as we know, there are difficulties on all sides, and each side has reasons why it has not wanted to proceed to negotiations or why it might rebuff others. Equally, each side knows that if it really wants a settlement, it is in its power to try to overcome those difficulties, seek confidence and assurances from each other and move on. What is different now—this may come through next week—is the urgency of the situation, as conveyed by the whole international community. We need to make progress and that requires all sides to be prepared to take the steps to help that happen, difficult though they may be.

For many decades the Palestinian people have sought justice, peace and recognition. The vote in the UN is the culmination of a very good campaign that has been supported by a wide range of Palestinian opinion. Does the Minister recognise that not to support it—to vote against it—will put the whole cause back a long way and reduce the chances of any kind of long-term peace and settlement in the whole region? He must be more positive than he has been so far today.

I am positive about our wanting a situation next week that leads to proper negotiations to see the settlement of the dispute, because of the frustrations that the hon. Gentleman articulates. I cannot be more positive about that than I have been, but there is no resolution yet and I would take issue with the sense that this is the culmination of a campaign. My sense is that the United Nations procedure next week is an important event, but there will be a day after and facts on the ground will not be different the day after. What the UN has to lead to is something that makes the situation on the ground capable of the solution and compromise through negotiations that we need. That will be to the benefit of both the Palestinians and the Israelis alike.

Does my hon. Friend accept that we need to ensure that among the various roads to peace there are at least some without roadblocks on them?

The hon. Gentleman raises, in his own way, a practical issue that affects the occupied territories. It is much discussed in this House and, as we are aware, something that a settlement between the two parties will ultimately sweep away, so that we have a viable west bank and Gaza continuing the economic progress that we have seen in recent years, as supported by the United Kingdom. However, those issues have to be dealt with by the parties themselves in the negotiations that we all wish to see.

Polling consistently shows that over 60% of both Israeli and Palestinian communities support a two-state solution. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that everything is done to support the peoples of both countries in their aims and aspirations?

Am I right in recalling that in 1948 the United Nations voted for a hasty two-state solution before agreement had been reached between the parties and that the result was an immediate outbreak of hostilities between them?

There are many interpretations of what happened at the UN in 1948, but my hon. Friend is right to suggest that a resolution at the United Nations by itself does not secure the peace between peoples unless it is soundly based on proper recognition, respect and confidence between the two. That is what we earnestly wish to see from the negotiations, which we hope will restart shortly and which we are pressing for as part of our approach to this weekend.

The sense of urgency that the Minister talks about seems to be almost entirely absent from the Government’s position. On the contrary, in his response to the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) he talked about mutual recognition. Does that not give the game away? Is this not actually about giving the Israeli Government a veto over when a Palestinian state is recognised?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement and the words that he used. Personally, I strongly believe that there need to be negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and that at the end of that process the state of Palestine should be recognised. May I therefore urge him to join the United States in the Security Council in vetoing the premature creation of a Palestinian state and also in the General Assembly in voting against such a proposal, but to make it clear that at the end of negotiations, when matters are satisfactorily resolved, we would universally recognise the Palestinian state?

My hon. Friend tempts me again to take a position on a hypothetical situation. Let me say again that I cannot go into that until we see a resolution. I stick to the position that I have taken, which is the belief that the United Kingdom must ensure that whatever is tabled next week and whatever gets through the United Nations leads to a proper approach to negotiations in which both sides can feel confident of some movement.

Can I ask the Minister a simple question? I have heard all the problems that he has outlined and the finessing of those on our Benches, but does he agree with those who say that if there is recognition, it would be a barrier to progress? Would it not be better for two nations to recognise each other and continue to negotiate a settlement than for one to reject, acting as a colonial nation, and for the other to be an imprisoned nation?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. The barriers to progress are many, and they are very much about trust and confidence as well as the legacy of negotiations in the past. A situation where one side proclaims victory and the other feels defeat will not help anyone, no matter what the subject matter might be. Let us therefore try to work towards a situation next week where a resolution will not bring that about, which is what many parties are seeking to achieve.

I welcome the Minister’s cautious approach on this issue. As said by other hon. Members, there is no way that a unilateral declaration of statehood can make up for negotiations. There is a risk of the issue becoming a battering ram for those who seek the delegitimisation of Israel, so will he give us an assurance that the British Government will take no part in anything that seeks to do that?

I can assure my hon. Friend that neither this Government nor the previous one had any truck with the delegitimisation of Israel, and they both took many steps to reject those who tried to project such an image—and that will continue. Ultimately, the relationships between the rest of the world and Israel and, indeed, the rest of the world and the Palestinians will be much affected by the way in which they can work together to get the agreement that we all seek. We will do everything in our power to encourage that.

Following the recent terror attacks on southern Israel and the storming of the Israeli embassy in Egypt, does the Minister agree that what Israel needs now is partners and peace on the ground rather than being isolated at the UN?

The hon. Gentleman makes a sharp point. The situation in the middle east has changed, not only over months but over weeks. It increases the sense of urgency with which this Government are approaching these next few days and our determination to say to both parties that, in the midst of such instability and concern, what an extraordinary event it would be to go away from the United Nations with something that the international community was confident would lead to progress and in respect of which both sides could accept that they had gained something and would therefore want to respond to the international situation of concern and the need for urgency. That is what we would like to seek.

As someone who supports the creation of a Palestinian state, does the Minister agree with me that if there is to be enhanced or full representation for Palestine at the UN, those representatives need to be able to speak with authority for the majority of decent Palestinians as opposed to an extremist minority?

I am sure that the ultimate representation of Palestinians at the UN, which is clearly a matter for the Palestinian Authority, will be decided by what President Abbas said when he announced the relationship with Hamas, stating that it had to live up to the principles of a democratic future state of Palestine, with recognition of previous agreements, recognition of the state of Israel, and an end to violence.

The Minister continually refuses to give an indication of the approach that the Government will take next week because the negotiations are ongoing. The negotiations, however, are not ones from which the British Government are an absent partner; they are actively involved in those negotiations, so it is fair to ask what attitude the British Government are taking towards them. Will the Minister at least say how the Government would vote on the three particular scenarios put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)?

I give a straight answer to a straight question. No, I will not respond to those scenarios, for the reasons I gave. I was asked about our approach, but I hope I have made our approach, as well as our determination, very clear. The detail is not there because the detail of a resolution is not before us. Of course it has been widely discussed, and although we are not an active party to the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, we have a huge interest. I hope I have conveyed the approach and the intention of the United Kingdom.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a gesture to make sure that whatever is put forward to the United Nations next week has some credibility, returning Gilad Shalit to his family this week would be a step forward?

This Government have long campaigned for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit. I take my hon. Friend’s point: we are all aware that gestures and things could be done that would be highly damaging to the process as a result of what might happen next week, yet extraordinary gestures could be made that would mark a real difference and a step forward. One such gesture would certainly be the release of Gilad Shalit, but that is not, of course, within the control of the Palestinian Authority.

The Minister talks about not handing anyone victory or defeat, but does he recognise that, if the vote were taken and the Palestinians were defeated at the United Nations, this would simply hand an absolute victory to those in Tel Aviv who would recognise that there was no pressure to make any progress whatever?

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great experience on these matters, but I have to say that those in the respective foreign affairs departments looking at the issue would recognise that there is significant pressure from the United Kingdom on all. Again, I cannot be tempted to commit to a particular position on a vote that is not yet clear.

In June, I visited the west bank and east Jerusalem and saw the consequences of the state of Israel’s policies of apartheid and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people. Bearing in mind that Israel does not honour United Nations resolutions, is it not time that Britain, Europe and the rest of the world treated Israel in the way we treated apartheid South Africa?

The consequences of the failure to resolve this long-running matter have many different shades on all sides. That is why it is essential to see it resolved and why we feel a sense of urgency to do so.

First, can the Minister confirm that Britain is not going to participate in the UN so-called Durban III conference? Secondly, will there be a common EU position on the question of recognition of Palestinian independence?

Two good questions. First, yes, I can confirm that there will be no UK participation at Durban III. Secondly, the more effectively EU partners can work together, the better, and we are much in contact with each other at this time.

Does the Minister agree that the real judgment should be for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly on mutual recognition, security guarantees, an end to violence and incitement, settlements, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and other day-to-day trade issues, and that any intended UN declaration, including on observer status, simply evades all those issues?

As my hon. Friend has made clear and as I mentioned in the course of my remarks, many subsidiary issues—hugely important ones—are being considered at the same time as any potential resolution. Of course, he makes the point that much of this is wrapped up together, so taking one position out of all those and believing it to be definitive is highly unlikely. That is why we continue to press for both sides to be in negotiations on all the issues that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Order. I am grateful to the Minister. I have done my best to accommodate the level of interest of colleagues and I apologise to those whom I have not been able to accommodate. If the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray)would stop wringing her hands and listen to the explanation, she might leave better informed. There is a business statement to come and two very heavily subscribed debates are to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Ordinarily, I try to get everybody in; I cannot today. I hope that it is understood.