With permission, I will make a statement on the Palestinian resolution to be moved at the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow. The resolution calls for the upgrading of the Palestinian UN status from observer to non-member observer state. I wish to inform the House of the discussions the Government have had about this with the Palestinian leadership, and of how we intend to proceed.
Achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of our top international priorities. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and with a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees. That is the only way to secure a sustainable end to the conflict, and it has wide support in this House and across the world.
There has been a dangerous impasse in the peace process over the last two years. The pace of settlement building has increased, rocket attacks on Israel have increased, frustration and insecurity have deepened on both sides, and the parties have not been able to agree a return to talks. The crisis in Gaza and tragic loss of Palestinian and Israeli life shows why the region and the world cannot afford this vacuum in the peace process.
I pay tribute today to Egypt, the United States and the UN Secretary-General for their role in bringing about a ceasefire in Gaza, and we now need to build on it to bring about a lasting peace, including an end to the smuggling of weapons and the opening up of Gaza for trade as well as for aid.
I set out in the House last week our belief that the United States should launch a new initiative urgently to revive the middle east peace process. If progress on negotiations is not made next year, the two-state solution could become impossible to achieve. Yesterday, I said to Secretary Clinton that such an effort led by the US would need to be more intense than anything seen since the Oslo peace accords, and it should backed by a more active role for European nations as well.
Given the overriding need for both Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations as soon as possible, we asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to move a resolution at the UN General Assembly for the time being. Our view was that it would be better to give the US Administration the opportunity to set out a new initiative. We pointed out that a UN resolution would be depicted by some as a move away from bilateral negotiations with Israel. We were also concerned about the considerable financial risks to the Palestinian Authority at a time when their situation is already precarious, if a vote led to a strong backlash from Israel and within the US political system.
Nevertheless, President Abbas has decided to press ahead—a decision we must respect. No one should be in any doubt that he is a courageous man of peace. Our central objective remains that of ensuring a rapid return to credible negotiations in order to secure a two-state solution. This is the guiding principle that will determine the way in which we will vote on any resolution at any time.
The frustration felt by many ordinary Palestinians about the lack of progress in the peace process is wholly understandable. Illegal settlement activity in the west bank, which we condemn, threatens the very viability of the peace process, and after many decades the Palestinians still do not have the state they aspire to. That is why we have consistently asked Israel to make a more decisive offer to Palestinians than in the recent past, and have also called on Palestinians not to set preconditions for negotiations.
We want to see a Palestinian state and look forward to the day when its people can enjoy the same rights and dignity as those of any other nation. For us to support a resolution at the UN, it is important that the risks to the peace process are addressed, so that the chances of negotiations beginning after it are enhanced rather than diminished.
I spoke to President Abbas on Monday and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke to him yesterday. We explained that, while there is no question of the United Kingdom voting against the resolution, in order to vote for it we would need certain assurances or amendments. The first is that the Palestinian Authority should indicate a clear commitment to return immediately to negotiations—without preconditions. This is the essential answer to the charge that by moving the resolution, the Palestinians are taking a path away from negotiations. Given the great difficulty in restarting negotiations in recent years and the risk that some will see this resolution as a step that is inconsistent with such negotiations, this commitment is indispensable to us.
The second assurance relates to membership of other specialised UN agencies and action in the International Criminal Court. Our country is a strong supporter, across all parties, of international justice and the International Criminal Court. We would ultimately like to see a Palestinian state represented throughout all the organs of the United Nations. However, we judge that if the Palestinians were to build on this resolution by pursuing ICC jurisdiction over the occupied territories at this stage, it could make a return to negotiations impossible. This is extremely important, given that we see 2013 as a crucial year—for the reasons I have described—for the middle east peace process.
We have also said to President Abbas that we would like to see language in the resolution that does not prejudge any deliberations by the UN Security Council, and for it to be clear that the resolution does not apply retrospectively. We believe these changes would not be difficult to make; that if they were made either in the text of the resolution or in accompanying statements as appropriate, they would win wider support for the resolution without any prejudice to final status issues; and that they would increase the prospects for negotiations moving ahead.
Up until the time of the vote itself, we will remain open to voting in favour of the resolution if we see public assurances by the Palestinians on these points. However, in the absence of these assurances, the United Kingdom would abstain on the vote. That would be consistent with our strong support for the principle of Palestinian statehood, but also with our concern that the resolution could set the peace process back.
We call again on the Palestinian Authority to make every possible amendment to win the widest possible support and to give the strongest possible assurances. We call on Israel to be ready to enter negotiations, and to agree a two-state solution before it is too late. Whatever happens at the General Assembly, we call on Israel to avoid reacting in a way that would damage the peace process or Israel’s international standing. We would not support a strong reaction that undermined the peace process by sidelining President Abbas, or risked the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. We also look to the US, with our strong and active support, to do all that it can in the coming weeks and months to restart this process.
The only way in which the Palestinian people can be given the state that they need and deserve, and the Israeli people can be given the security and peace to which they are entitled, is through a negotiated two-state solution. That requires—now—Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations, Israel to stop illegal settlement building, Palestinian factions to be reconciled with each other, and the international community —led by the United States and supported by European nations—to make the necessary huge effort to revive the peace process.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for early sight of his statement, and welcome his decision to come to the House to debate this matter today.
Only last week, the Foreign Secretary admitted in the House that
“Time is running out for the two-state solution.”
I agree with his assessment. Belief in the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution is today haemorrhaging, and haemorrhaging badly, across the region. The Foreign Secretary is an eloquent man, but I struggle to reconcile his statement of today with his analysis of last week. Exactly eight days ago, he told the House:
“There is a perfectly respectable and legitimate case for saying that it would be right to pass such a motion because this has gone on for so long and because Palestinian frustrations are so intense, for understandable reasons. I believe, however, that the balance of judgment comes down on the side of saying that to do so would be more likely to retard efforts to restart the peace process than to advance them”.
Following his statement today, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he has, in fact, changed his mind?
Let me now address the criteria that the Foreign Secretary tells us that he will use to determine how the United Kingdom votes. First, let me turn to the issue of the International Criminal Court. It is a matter of record that, as the Foreign Secretary repeated today, our country is a strong supporter of international justice and of the ICC. It is also a matter of record that Israel is not a party to the ICC treaty, and does not accept its jurisdiction within its own boundaries. Given that, as recently as two weeks ago, the British Government were urging Israel to adhere to international law, will the Foreign Secretary explain why the UK Government now apparently wish to exempt it from possible actions in the ICC for any future breaches of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?
The second criterion that the Foreign Secretary mentioned was a return to negotiations without preconditions. Only eight days ago, he told the House:
“Owing to unacceptable settlement building on the west bank and in east Jerusalem, we are not far from a two-state solution becoming impossible and unviable.”
So why, just eight days later, is he apparently suggesting that Israel’s refusal to suspend the expansion of illegal settlements—changing the very facts on the ground as the basis of the negotiations, even as future talks get under way—is a reasonable position for the Israelis to adopt? Is it not the truth that, for all today’s sonorous words from the Foreign Secretary, he let the cat out of the bag eight days ago when he explained his own thinking on the issue? He stated then that
“because of the possible reaction of the US Congress and the possibility of Israel withholding tax revenues, the position of the Palestinian Authority could be made worse by the passage of such a resolution.”—[Official Report, 20 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 450.]
Let me ask the Foreign Secretary this. Does he really believe that threats issued by a Republican-controlled Congress to punish the Palestinians for taking this diplomatic step are a reasonable basis on which to determine British policy? Does he really believe that Israel’s threat to withhold tax and customs revenues that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, which legally belong to the Palestinians, are a reasonable basis on which to determine British policy on this vote? When will the Foreign Secretary understand that statehood for the Palestinians is not a gift to be given, but a right to be acknowledged?
I warn the Foreign Secretary that if the United Kingdom abstains tomorrow, it will not be a measure of our growing influence; it will be a confirmation of our growing irrelevance to meaningful engagement in the search for peace. Across Europe, countries such as France and Spain have already made it clear that they will join what I believe will be an overwhelming majority of the 193 members of the UN General Assembly in voting for enhanced observer status for the Palestinians. That vote can, and must, send a powerful signal to the Palestinians that diplomatic efforts and the path of politics, not the path of rockets and violence, offer the route to a negotiated two-state solution.
Let us be honest: in recent days Hamas-run Gaza has, in the midst of conflict with Israel, welcomed the secretary-general of the Arab League, the Prime Minister of Egypt and the Foreign Ministers of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In his statement today, the Foreign Secretary rightly lauded President Abbas as a “courageous man of peace”. If, as the Government assert, they genuinely want to support moderate Palestinians and efforts to engage in meaningful negotiations, what signal would an abstention tomorrow send about whether violence or politics secures legitimacy and results?
Just eight days ago the Foreign Secretary sought to explain his position by telling the House that recognition at the UN could “risk paralysing the process”. He spoke again of the process today, but when will he understand: there is no process; there is only paralysis? Indeed, can the Foreign Secretary explain what process he was referring to today? In the last two years, there have been continued illegal settlement-building and continued rocket attacks. There has been fear, anxiety and continuing conflict. There has been continued occupation. There has been continued blockade. But there have been no meaningful negotiations. That is why, for more than a year, Labour has been clear that recognition at the UN for the Palestinians is one of the steps required to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. Abstention tomorrow would be an abdication of Britain’s responsibilities.
Let me appeal to the Foreign Secretary as a historian, by referring to a figure from history whom he and his party rightly revere. The phrase “to govern is to decide” is attributed to Winston Churchill. I urge the Foreign Secretary, even at this late hour, not to dither, but to decide to vote for enhanced recognition for the Palestinians tomorrow at the United Nations.
Although there are clearly some differences between us, the shadow Foreign Secretary expressed common ground when he said that time is running out. The analysis of all of us in all parties on both sides of the House starts from that point, although we draw some different tactical conclusions from it. Indeed, my statement, and our attitude, is based on a sentiment the right hon. Gentleman expressed: we support the right to a Palestinian state. I supported that very strongly in my statement. I have not, however, changed my mind about anything. The right hon. Gentleman was looking too hard for changes between what I said last week and this week because, so far as I am aware, I said the same things about the risks to the peace process, the risks in the US Congress and the risks in Israel.
The right hon. Gentleman asked: is there a process? One of the main points I have been stressing is the need to revive—to restart—that process. There have been many attempts to do that over the past year, and, in particular, the Kingdom of Jordan has played a very constructive role. There are many obstacles to achieving that, however, including Israeli settlement building—which I think is condemned across the House—but another obstacle has been an unwillingness by Palestinians to remove all preconditions for negotiations. It is important to have the commitment from Palestinians to return to negotiations without preconditions, which is why that is one of the criteria we have set. We need both sides to do that, and to be ready to do so whatever happens at the General Assembly. We would welcome that—and, of course, we would particularly welcome it if it could be made clear before the vote. It would be the single most crucial factor that would enable us to vote for the resolution. We will still welcome it if the Palestinians can say that after the vote.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the International Criminal Court. We are certainly not arguing that Israel should be exempt from the ICC, but it is important to remember that, given the urgency on which we all agree, our overriding objective is for negotiations to resume and to succeed. The right hon. Gentleman appealed to me as a historian, and the lesson of history in respect of negotiations is that we have to have enough common ground to bring the two sides together, and that it is important to avoid doing things, certainly in the short term, that make it harder to bring the two sides together. That is the reason for that criterion. So these are sensible criteria for us to have put forward. The right hon. Gentleman expressed his support for voting for the Palestinian resolution even before seeing the resolution. I have waited to see the resolution and then looked at how it can be improved and how we can react to it in a way that maximises the chances of successful negotiations.
It is very important for the Opposition to ask themselves this: if we succeeded and the Palestinians did give the assurances I have asked for, would the chances of negotiations taking place and succeeding be improved? Yes, they undoubtedly would if the Palestinians made those commitments. If they do not give those commitments and we abstain, will the United Kingdom still be in a position, with the Palestinians, with the Israelis, and with the United States, to advance whatever we can make of the peace process? Yes, we will. Therefore, what I have expressed is the optimum position for the United Kingdom and the best for the middle east peace process.
This is not about just agreeing with a resolution because we sympathise, as we do, with the position of the Palestinians; we are a country, not a newspaper or a pressure group. We have to use our vote with all considerations and the ultimate objective in mind. It does not help the Palestinians to help them celebrate for one day while at the same time failing to address the wider needs of the peace process. That is the reason for our position. Whatever happens with this resolution and in the vote tomorrow, the United Kingdom will continue to be at the forefront of working for peace, stability and security in the middle east.
I agree with what my right hon. Friend has said about the urgent need for talks. I also agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has said that for the Palestinians
“there is no path to statehood except through talks with Israel.”
Both territory and security for Israel must be addressed in the course of that. Will the Foreign Secretary give us some indication of the precise nature of the assurances he has sought from the Palestinians about membership of the International Criminal Court and the other international bodies? Have any assurances so far been offered from the other side and the Palestinians?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. The assurances are those I have described in the statement. On the recourse to the ICC, at this stage, in the occupied territories because of the impact on the ability to bring about a negotiated settlement, we are not talking about that. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), we are certainly not advocating some permanent exemption. We have not received any assurances on those points, which is one of the reasons why we continue to seek them and why, as things stand, we cannot vote for the resolution. We will continue to seek them over the coming 24 hours.
Will the Foreign Secretary please understand that this complex conditionality of which he speaks is too clever by half and that what it will most achieve is to undermine Britain’s influence, both with the Israelis and in the Arab world, and at the same, and more crucially, to undermine the position of the man he has praised, President Abbas? What has happened in the past three weeks is that Hamas has seen its power and influence enhanced and that the message has gone out, not least from Israel, “If you send enough rockets over the border, you can get to negotiations”, while one condition after another is imposed on the peace-seeking Palestinians. This approach, I am afraid, is not going to help.
I do not agree with that, although the right hon. Gentleman has a lot of experience in these matters. I can tell him that in all the conversations that we have had with Palestinian negotiators, and that the Deputy Prime Minister and I have had with President Abbas in the past few days, our relations have been excellent. That deep friendship will continue. The financial and political support that this country gives, with very strong cross-party support, to the Palestinian Authority, which is among the foremost in the world, is understood well by the Palestinian Authority and will, of course, continue. That is very clear, and so I do not believe that anything we have said or done is in any way undermining of President Abbas. It is also important for us to maintain our close relations with all the other countries involved in the peace process. So I do not accept the premise of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument.
May I say to my right hon. Friend that I certainly understand the fiendish difficulties of this matter, but I profoundly disagree with what he says? Whatever this resolution says, these conditions are unnecessary, one-sided and grossly unfair. What further steps does he plan to take to help and encourage the Palestinians to proceed with these vital peace talks, without which the middle east will continue to sink into an abyss?
Clearly my right hon. Friend and I have a different view on this point, as is very apparent to the House, but we will go on arguing for the same things. Although the concentration at the moment is, understandably, on tomorrow’s vote, what is very important is what happens on Friday. Whatever the result of the vote and however individual nations vote, we must discourage any steps by any parties involved, including Israel, that would be damaging to the peace process and negotiations. We will continue to urge the Palestinians to do the things that I have described—in particular, to enter into negotiations without preconditions. As he knows, I have been very, very critical of Israel on settlement building and on not making a big enough, generous, decisive enough offer to the Palestinians, but we also have to be critical of Palestinians at times, when opportunities are not taken. They have failed on several occasions to take the opportunity of negotiations, because too many preconditions have been set, and we have to be frank about that. So I will encourage them in that direction.
Does the Foreign Secretary think it would be reasonable for this country or the international community to make Israel’s continued full membership of the United Nations dependent on meeting conditions laid down by him or by the international community? If he thinks that would be unreasonable, as I do, why does he apply different standards to the Palestinians? Does he not realise that the position he has articulated today will again be seen as a classic double standard on the part of the United Kingdom? Why will he not join the more than 100 Members of this House who have signed an early-day motion calling for recognition? Why will he not join France, Spain, the majority of the United Nations General Assembly and the more than 1.5 million people who, in an online poll, supported upgrading the Palestinian recognition? Is it not time to drop the double standards?
What we want is, as I have explained, a successful negotiation. We deal with the hand that history has dealt to us all. Decisions about Israel’s membership of the United Nations were taken long ago, but decisions about Palestinian membership were not, so now we have to try to resolve that. We want to see Palestine in the United Nations, at the United Nations and in all the organs of the United Nations. However, I stress the point the Prime Minister made at Prime Minister’s questions in answer to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn): this will come about only as a result of a successful negotiation with Israel. If that is true, and I have not heard anyone argue that it is not, everything we do should be consistent with promoting, facilitating and bringing to a success such negotiations. That is our guiding principle; it is an overriding principle set against all the other factors that, understandably, people raise.
May I applaud the Foreign Secretary for bringing Britain closer to a yes vote in support of Palestinian aspirations than any previous British Government have done, but say that Liberal Democrat Members, too, would have preferred a British yes vote with no preconditions? In anticipation of the General Assembly as a whole voting yes, will he tell us what representations he has made to the Governments of Israel and the United States to discourage either of them from giving a punitive response to this peaceful diplomatic initiative?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, and he will be pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister has been so much involved in our efforts over the past few days. Of course, we have made such representations, doing so directly in Israel and in the United States. I referred to the conversations that I had with Secretary Clinton yesterday, which of course covered this subject. We will make urgent such representations if the resolution is passed by a large majority, as is expected, on Thursday night. So those representations will be strong and continuous.
For two years, the Palestinians have refused to go back to the negotiating table. What will convince the Foreign Secretary that enhanced status for the Palestinians at the UN will encourage them to go back to the negotiations in which they have refused to take part for the past two years?
This is the other side of the argument. I have pointed out that as well as our criticism of Israel, which has been very strong, I am also critical of Palestinians for sometimes, including over the last year, setting preconditions for going back into negotiations that meant that such negotiations did not take place. I believe in their wish to enter into and conclude such negotiations, so I do not go as far the other way as the hon. Lady. Since those negotiations are the only way to bring about a settlement of the issue for Israelis and Palestinians, we must promote them, however difficult they are.
My right hon. Friend has correctly told the House that time for a two-state solution is running out. He has also told the House that that is the only thing that can guarantee statehood for the Palestinians and peace for Israel. How long have we got?
I think that we do not have very long and that is why urgency has been expressed across the House. The pace of settlement building is steadily reducing the time available for a two-state solution, as has the sheer time that has been exhausted over so many years of trying to bring it about. Although I would not count the time in months, we do not have many years. We might have only one or two years to bring this about, hence the urgency of restarting negotiations.
So the right hon. Gentleman offers President Abbas all support short of actual support. May I warn him, just as I warned Yitzhak Rabin when he was Prime Minister of Israel? I said to him personally in conversation that if he failed to give validity to Fatah, all that would be left would be Hamas. Mr Rabin shook hands with Arafat on the White House lawn; the right hon. Gentleman sits on his hands.
I do not think that that is what the Palestinians would think after all the discussions we have had with them over the past few days. Of course, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that point. Support takes many forms and our strong support for the Palestinian Authority as well as the huge financial and other support we give are maintained and much appreciated by the leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Of course there are disagreements about our vote tomorrow, but I hope that no one in the House will pretend that we do not have good relations with and support for people, particularly those of a moderate persuasion, in the Palestinian Authority. There is no doubt that we have such relations and that they continue.
The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to seek those assurances and I give him credit for that. I think he said that he wanted to see public assurances by the Palestinians. Will they be in writing and will he ensure that they are not time limited?
They could take many forms, of course, and I have made that point to the Palestinians. What we are seeking could be in the resolution, which can be amended at a very late stage—even right up to the vote tomorrow—it could be in the speech we expect President Abbas to deliver in New York tomorrow, or it could be in writing and published. Such assurances could take many forms and there is still time to give them.
In the House in October, the Foreign Secretary described the Palestinian application as a “divisive symbolic” gesture. In the absence of the assurances or amendments he seeks, does he stand by that statement? Will he update the House on the progress that has been made in getting Hamas to renounce its commitment to the absolute annihilation of the state of Israel?
Sadly, no one has made that progress with Hamas yet. Indeed, it is vital for Hamas to recognise previous agreements, forswear violence and recognise the right of Israel to exist. It is good that talks are taking place under Egyptian auspices on Gaza and that those talks include how to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza as well as how to open it up. It is important and good that those talks are taking place. As I said in the statement, we asked the Palestinians not to proceed with the resolution at this time because our fear is that although it could be symbolic, which is why many people want to support it, the fact that it could be divisive in the peace process is a danger. The assurances we have sought would make it more than symbolic and would mitigate any divisive effect. That is the logic of what we are doing.
Following the answer my right hon. Friend gave to our hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), what will happen if the two-state solution fails? Will the Palestinians for ever remain an occupied people? Will they for ever remain stateless? Will they for ever remain in a situation where more and more of their land is being taken by illegal settlements?
The outlook is very bleak if a two-state solution fails, but the outlook is bleak for Israel, too. That is the message in our constant conversation with Israeli leaders: unless they conclude a two-state solution within the kind of time frame that I have been talking about, they are faced with one-state solutions, which pose many profound challenges for Israel and the nature of its society. That is why it is so important for both sides that this is addressed and such challenges would be so difficult that I do not want to speculate about what they would lead to at this time.
A yes vote would mark an historic and very welcome shift in British Government policy. I congratulate the Foreign Secretary for edging towards that position and my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary for encouraging him to do so, although I regret the conditions. The Americans, as ever, are critical. How hopeful was the Foreign Secretary after his discussion yesterday with Mrs Clinton?
After my discussions with Secretary Clinton yesterday, I think there is a good understanding of the strength of view across the world, including in countries such as ours as well as in other European countries, and of the urgency of the matter. It is very important for that understanding to be shared across the American system. I have worked closely with Secretary Clinton over the past two and a half years, but she intends to depart office as Secretary of State in the coming weeks. This will be the No. 1 item we discuss with the incoming Secretary of State of the United States; indeed, I have already discussed it with some of the people who might become Secretary of State. It has been prominent among our discussions with President Obama, and the Prime Minister and I have both put the point strongly to the President. The understanding is there in the United States but we now need to help them translate it into real action.
I pay a great tribute to the Secretary of State for not only ensuring that this is a UK Government foreign policy priority but trying to ensuring that it becomes a second-term American Administration foreign policy priority. On the difficult issue he has addressed of the ICC jurisdiction, I understand exactly what he is trying to do. Is it his hope not that the ICC should not have a jurisdiction but that if the Palestinians and Israelis come to the table for peace talks, the question of the ICC can be parked for a time so that the attempt to get a peace deal is not skewered by sending the question to courts that would take much longer to resolve it?
My right hon. Friend is right, of course, about the second-term priorities. Given the urgency of the situation and given that from January the Israeli elections will have taken place and the United States will be at the beginning of a second-term Administration, if we are not going to address and resolve the problem then, when on earth will we ever do so? We see this question as very important for the re-elected US Administration. He is also right about the ICC and that is what we are saying. We are saying not that anyone should be exempt from the ICC for the long-term future, but that since a negotiation must succeed everybody has to accept some things that are temporary or unpleasant. We had our own experience of that—many hon. Members have much experience of it—in the Northern Ireland peace process. We had to do things we were very reluctant to do but that were necessary to bring about a settlement. That is true in the middle east, too.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary set out the very powerful case that support for the resolution could act not as a block to peace but as a bridge. Earlier this year, I met President Abbas and I was convinced that he was a man of courage who wanted to get back to negotiations. How has the Foreign Secretary weighed the importance of empowering President Abbas to kick-start the negotiations against the assurances he has set out, which although they are important are a very high bar? That balance is key if we are to make progress for both Israel and Palestine.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is the judgment—how to weigh those things. We want the Palestinian Authority to succeed, and we believe that President Abbas is the best interlocutor that Israel will have to bring about peace. We also believe, however, that the other factors that I have described are essential for that to work. Our way of weighing those two factors in the balance is to try to combine them in a successful resolution.
I make again the point that I made in response to the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South: if these assurances were received, and we could vote for the resolution, and it was passed with a large majority, would the chances of negotiation beginning again and succeeding be greater than they are today? The answer is undeniably yes, and that is the logic of our position.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. When I was in Israel and the Palestinian territories, I did not detect any appetite for overreacting to the passing of the resolution. What has he heard that has changed his mind?
As my hon. Friend can imagine, we have discussed this with the United States and Israel in detail, and there are people who do not in any way hold extreme views on these things who are concerned about possible reactions and about—we certainly hope that there will not be—any sudden, dramatic, adverse reaction to the passing of the resolution. They are concerned that the result might be stagnation and that it could make it more difficult for the United States to do the sort of thing that we have all called for in the House today. That is why we have asked for additional assurances.
The Palestinian people deserve the support of the British people and the British Government. Why does the Foreign Secretary ask the Palestinian people not to set conditions, only to set conditions on his support for the Palestinians at the United Nations?
We are simply trying to frame the resolution and what goes with it in the right way to remove preconditions. An obstacle to negotiations in the past year, as I explained, has been preconditions on the Palestinian side. We want to get rid of that obstacle and secure a commitment to return to negotiations without preconditions. I do not see any problem with that condition.
I understand that the Foreign Secretary had a conversation with President Abbas about the resolution. In that conversation, at any point did President Abbas indicate that his priority was to return to peace talks without preconditions? If he did not, does the Foreign Secretary agree that this is just a distraction?
We have had many conversations with President Abbas on this subject, and we have discussed many times over the past two and a half years how to get back into negotiations. At one stage, for a brief period, that happened at the end of the 10-month settlement freeze. I have no doubt of President Abbas’s sincerity in wanting to bring about successful negotiations, but he did not respond to my request by saying that he would say publicly that there would be no preconditions. We will continue to encourage him to do so, but we should not draw any adverse conclusions about President Abbas on that either. We simply have to keep encouraging him in that direction.
How Britain votes at the United Nations will surely be a test of how genuine our commitment is to the Palestinian cause. Arising from previous questions, does the Foreign Secretary accept that the choice is really for Israel, leaving aside the resolution at the UN, on whether it accepts a viable and independent Palestinian state—the Palestinian people are certainly not going to disappear any more than Israelis are—or a one-state solution with safeguards for both communities? That may not be the best choice for Israel, but the choice lies with Israel.
Well, I will go so far with the hon. Gentleman: absolutely, of course that is an important test for Israel, which is why it needs to enter negotiations in the right spirit and with the right generosity. However, the Palestinians need to play their part. Any such negotiation requires both parties to conclude it successfully, and they must be prepared to make the necessary compromises. There are important tests for both sides, and our vote in the UN General Assembly should be determined by our determination to see them make a success of those negotiations, rather than to demonstrate that the Palestinian cause is more important than Israeli security, or the other way round. The test for us is supporting negotiation.
We have heard today the consequences for the Palestinians if they place any preconditions on entering peace talks, but what consequences does the Foreign Secretary see for the next Israeli Government, both political and economic, if they fail to end the illegal settlement activity that he said threatens the viability of any peace process?
As I mentioned, there will be serious and accumulating consequences for Israel of failing to bring about a two-state solution. Settlement building is a major contributor. It is the single biggest factor in removing the time and opportunity to create such a two-state solution. So, yes, Israel will face greater problems in future. As for other measures—my hon. Friend is seeking diplomatic penalties and so on for Israel in future—that arises when we turn our minds to how the United States should restart the peace process, and how European nations can support that. We will want to do so in a very active way, but I do not want to speculate about what measures we could take at this point.
The Foreign Secretary must be aware of the misery of refugees living for 60 years in the camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria; of the people of Gaza, imprisoned effectively by the Israeli blockade; and of the west bank under occupation. Why has he made a statement that effectively says that the diplomatic objectives of the US and Israel are holding a veto over our vote at the UN tomorrow? Will he not put himself on the side of history, rather than talking about the hand of history, and vote for the unconditional recognition of Palestine?
I do not think that I was talking about the hand of history. That was a Tony Blair phrase—I have not adopted it. The lesson of history—I shall return to that point—is that we need a negotiation to succeed. The hon. Gentleman asked why the opinions of Israel and the United States matter so much. It is because we will only alleviate these problems and help decisively the people to whose plight he rightly drew attention with a negotiated settlement with Israel. Of course, one has to allow for opinion in Israel as well, and the nation with the closest relationships with Israel and the biggest leverage over its foreign policy decisions is the United States. That is why we must have due regard for its opinions. That is the practical and diplomatic approach that foreign policy must allow for. As I said, we are exercising the vote of a country and exercising our foreign policy, not making gestures.
In 1947, His Majesty’s Government abstained on the admission of a Jewish national homeland into the United Nations. Sixty-five years later, it looks as though we will do the same again. Now, we are a constant friend of Israel, and in recognition of the fact that the resolution will be passed tomorrow whatever we do, should Her Majesty’s Government not change gear and work over the next few years with both Israelis and moderate Palestinians to bring about the real game-changing event in the middle east—Israeli sponsorship of eventual full Palestinian admission to the United Nations, with both states living in peace behind secure borders?
Yes, my hon. Friend puts it very well. This has moved rapidly to the top of the list of international priorities, and this is the time to do so. Given that, as we discussed, it is the beginning of a second term in Washington and the Israeli election campaign concludes in January, it is an important moment to try to achieve exactly what he describes.
May I ask the Foreign Secretary to show a little less neck to the Palestinians and a little more backbone to the Israelis? He referred to the Northern Ireland peace process. One of the lessons of that is that when give and take is not happening between the parties immediately involved, responsible external weight can be used to establish necessary givens, even against the shrill opposition of key elements at the time. Has he no fear that an abstention tomorrow will only undermine President Abbas and underwrite an Israeli veto in terms that will be seen to underwrite the very Israeli violations that he himself has condemned?
No, I do not think so. I gave the reasons earlier why I do not think that undermines President Abbas at all. Indeed, in his phone call last night with the Deputy Prime Minister, President Abbas was clear about the strong and continuing friendship between us, irrespective of the vote tomorrow. I defer to Northern Ireland Members on some of the lessons of the peace process, but here that requires external parties to say, “Above all, you are going to have to be pushed back into negotiations.” That means pressure on both sides. This is an example of us exerting that pressure on both sides, so the hon. Gentleman should welcome that.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank my right hon. Friend for his reasoned statement and particularly for the work of the Minister with responsibility for the middle east. Inevitably, Hamas will see tomorrow’s vote as a victory for its missile attacks on Israel. The Palestinian Authority say that recognition will help bolster the moderate Palestinians. If the Palestinian state is voted for and Hamas is strengthened and resumes its missile attacks on Israel, what actions will the Government take?
My hon. Friend paints a range of unwelcome events that could come about, and he knows many of the things that we do to discourage those things, including rocket attacks on Israel. Of course we will continue to advocate the revival of the peace process. Of course we stand by the security and legitimacy of Israel, as he knows, but we also want Israel to do what is necessary for the peace process to succeed and Palestinians to enter negotiations with them, so we will do our utmost to guard against the outcomes that he fears.
The Secretary of State said that he had spoken to Mahmoud Abbas. I would be interested to know which Israelis he spoke to before putting together this miserable little offer that continues to treat the Palestinians as second-class citizens, if citizens at all. What, apart from the fact that Israel wants it, should lead the Palestinians to fetter their access to the Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and what in particular should make them enter negotiations for their own land when the colonisation of that land continues?
The hon. Gentleman can make that case and it is very powerfully felt among Palestinians, but I remind the House again that their plight will be alleviated only if there is a successful negotiation between both parties—between Israel and the Palestinians—so it would not be wise to disregard all Israeli concerns. Those concerns have to be met as well. Israel has to know that it can reliably live in peace and security, just as Palestinians need to know that they can live in a viable sovereign state. So it is very important to understand both sides of the argument, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s question was a very good example of that.
A two-state solution demands, in my view, bilateral talks, not unilateral grandstanding. As such, does my right hon. Friend have any views on the numerous peace initiatives of the Israeli Government over the past three years, all of which have been rebuffed by the Palestinian Authority?
It does require bilateral talks; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is, as I indicated a few moments ago, fault on both sides when it comes to efforts to have negotiations over the past few years. Israel has been, on the whole, readier to enter into negotiations, but Israel has not made the decisive offer, or the more decisive offer than anything seen in recent years, that I have called for. The Palestinians have not always been ready to enter into negotiations at all. Both those things will have to change if we are to see a successful peace process.
The Foreign Secretary said that he was worried about a backlash from Israel and others. Given the blockades, the illegal settlements, the wall, the destruction of Palestinian farms, the arrests, the imprisonment, the decades of ignoring UN resolutions, the refugee camps, the abject poverty and the rest, how much worse does he think it can get for the Palestinians?
Unfortunately, the position could get worse. The Palestinian Authority is in a precarious financial position, although the United Kingdom, under Governments of all parties, has a very strong record in that regard, and we will maintain that strong record. But it is a difficult position. Given the nature of the west bank, the proximity of Israel and the obviously very difficult relations with Israel, yes, things could get worse. There are ways in which they could get even worse, so the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to all the factors to which he drew attention, but we still need the parties to be able to restart negotiations, taking into account the concerns of both sides.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s thoughtful and considered statement, which I know will be closely examined by many in my constituency. Will this country continue to pursue a two-state solution with every effort, if for no other reason than that we have an historical and moral responsibility to assist in ending that conflict?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We will do that. I have referred many times today and on previous occasions to the vital importance of this issue over the coming months and to its urgency. That will be fully reflected in the way that we conduct our foreign policy over the coming weeks and months.
May I first express the regret of my right hon. and hon. Friends who sit on this Bench in respect of the conditions set out by the Foreign Secretary? May I ask him a genuine question? What assessment has he made of any change for good or ill in the stance of the Israeli Government with the forthcoming election and with the departure of Ehud Barak?
This is a matter for the Israeli people. I will not intervene in their politics. We have always had close and good relations with Mr Barak. Indeed, he is one of the Israeli leaders I speak to most frequently, so in that sense we will regret his departure. But it is up to the Israelis who they choose to lead them in their elections in January. Whoever that is, we will make the case powerfully to them about the urgency of the issue and about the importance of it being in their own long-term strategic interests to tackle it decisively over the coming year. So we will not be shy of doing that, just as we are not shy of saying to Palestinians what we need from them.
I welcome the news that the UK will not oppose or veto greater recognition for Palestine. The House should support all those on both sides who strive for peace and lay aside violence. Although I hope that the Secretary of State’s conditions can be satisfied, does he agree that enhanced recognition would mark a step towards the sovereign Palestine and secure Israel that we all want to see and increase the accountability of Palestinian organisations to the UN?
Whether that would mark a step towards that depends on what happens next. As I mentioned earlier, it is important that Palestinians can celebrate success not just for one day at the United Nations, but that then there is a sequence of events that they can celebrate and that will give them hope for the future. That is what we are trying to provide in the assurances that we have asked for, to maximise the chances of further progress being made after a vote at the UN tomorrow, rather than the peace process going backwards. So we can answer my hon. Friend’s question fully only when we see what happens next.
The Foreign Secretary told us about the conditions that he put to the Palestinian Authority. What I am interested in is what he said to the Israeli Government about their threat to withhold the taxes that they owe the Palestinians. What is he doing to prevent that threat from being carried out?
We have said what I said about that towards the end my statement—that we would not support any such action by Israel. Of course we are concerned. Among our concerns is that something like that could happen, but we are very clear, and we have been very clear with Israel already, that we hope that the Israeli Government will not take any such steps and that they will not react in an adverse way to the passing of the resolution. As I have explained in answer to other questions, we will apply our persuasion and pressure to Israel, just as we do to Palestinians.
Is this not all about the messages that we are sending out? The Foreign Secretary speaks in complimentary terms about President Abbas but urges him not to move his resolution because of the possible financial and political consequences for Palestinians. If the resolution is not moved, will that not simply show that bullying and threats work and send out completely the wrong message to all Israelis and Palestinians who seek a peaceful resolution to the divisions that they face?
I have some differences with my hon. Friend on that, because I do not think that this is just about messages; it is about how we get these two parties, who have not had a successful negotiation for a long time, back together and negotiating. It is actually quite a practical question. It is not just the business of loud hailers; it is the business of painstaking negotiations. Our actions should therefore be guided by what maximises their chances. That is the guiding principle of our policy.
I am sorry to say that the Foreign Secretary’s statement undermines the UK’s credibility as an honest and fair player in what remains of the peace process. It is clear that there is overwhelming global support for the resolution. Indeed, there is overwhelming public support for it in the UK. He said that President Abbas is a courageous man, but is the Foreign Secretary?
I do not agree that this undermines our credibility in any way. On the contrary, I think that we will be in a strong position, after all the discussions that we have had with the Palestinians, the Israelis and the United States in recent days, to do our utmost to move the peace process forward with those countries and parties over the coming weeks. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that his prediction is not borne out by events.
We have heard a lot this afternoon about preconditions. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House which preconditions he regards as most unreasonable, and does he not regard Israeli settlement activity as a different type of precondition?
We condemn settlement activity on occupied land, but we differed with the Palestinians over the past year when they would not re-enter negotiations without a halt to such activity. Of course one can understand the rationale behind them not doing so, but the result, since that is a precondition, is that such activity goes on but no negotiations take place. It would be better to get stuck into negotiations, even while settlement activity continues. That is the sort of precondition that I am talking about.
Does the Foreign Secretary feel comfortable with the fact that what he is effectively suggesting is that a nation’s status at the UN should depend on its willingness to give up access to recognised mechanisms for implementing international law? How does that look consistent or fair?
Because we want a negotiation to succeed. I do not think that any right hon. or hon. Member has successfully contradicted what I have said several times. Across the House, we all recognise that this conflict will be resolved and peace will come to the middle east only if there is a successful negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I have heard no one offer any alternative. There is much desire to express opinions, make gestures and so on, but no one has contradicted that. If that is the case and a successful negotiation is required, that requires us to encourage both parties into that negotiation and for each side to do what will allow it to be successful. That is the simple logic.
In his statement, the Foreign Secretary paid tribute to Egypt and its role in obtaining a ceasefire. Does he agree that Egypt has a role to play in reopening the peace negotiations and bringing some normality to that troubled region?
Yes, absolutely. There is a major opportunity for the new Egypt to do that. Last week, I called the Egyptian Foreign Minister to congratulate him on the efforts Egypt has made, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), called again last night to urge the Egyptians on with their efforts on further negotiations about Gaza, in trying to open up Gaza but prevent the smuggling of weapons. If that can be achieved, Egypt will be in a strong position to continue its efforts on broader issues.
No hon. Member doubts the Foreign Secretary’s integrity or honesty or the diligent way that his team has tried to bring about peace in the middle east with his usual good humour, but is he not concerned that we are on the wrong side of the argument? We should be on the side of the right, not the might. Opposition Members have referred to a major poll conducted by YouGov, showing that 76% of respondents were in favour of recognising the Palestinian state and only 6% were against it. Is it not rather perverse that he is saying that Palestinians should not place preconditions on negotiations when that is precisely what we are doing? I am afraid that we are putting ourselves on the wrong side of the argument.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for stating his arguments in such a measured way. I think that Members on both sides of the House are on the side of a successful settlement of the middle east peace process and a two-state solution. Our only disagreement is about how to encourage that. Our view is that when faced with such a vote at the UN we should use it in a way that maximises the chances of negotiations by removing preconditions. I know that there are strong feelings about that, as has been illustrated across the House. He will understand that we cannot determine our foreign policy week by week according to opinion polls. If we did, he might not agree with the conclusions that would be reached on many issues.
Given our country’s distinct history in the region and the legacy that was left behind, does the Foreign Secretary agree that Britain has a unique responsibility to take a stand, show international leadership and courage and generate some hope for both the Palestinians and the Israelis who want peace? Surely, the resolution would be one way to signal our role in showing that leadership. I ask him to think again before tomorrow.
The hon. Lady is right about the history. We have a unique responsibility, although of course we do not have power in exactly the same way that we did in the 1940s, but we have it in many new and different forms. We have a great responsibility as a member of the UN Security Council to assist in these matters. The problem with her question was apparent when she referred to giving hope to Palestinians and to Israelis. That is an important point. It is important that we give hope to people on both sides of the divide, and that is what I am seeking to do.
It would be churlish not to recognise that the Foreign Secretary has shifted his position to an extent, but I am sorry to say that I feel that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said, this manoeuvre is too clever by half. Given that countries around the world are shifting their position—I am thinking of France and Spain—is the right hon. Gentleman not worried that we risk losing influence on these matters? Given our history and standing in the region, would voting in favour of the resolution tomorrow not send a signal to both sides that only a political solution is viable?
No, I think that our influence will be important whatever happens in the vote and, indeed, however we vote. As a member of the Security Council and given the good relations that we have with the Palestinian Authority and Israel and our special relationship with the United States, our influence will continue to be very important. That absolutely will be maintained. We will be using that influence from the moment after the vote is conducted to try to ensure that negotiations begin again.
The thing that would most give those people hope and confidence that there is the future that they rightly desire would be to see their leadership sitting down with the Israeli leadership, both making the necessary concessions and talking about how they can help each other to achieve the goal of a settlement based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital of both states and with a settlement for refugees. That would really give them hope, as it would have done at the time of the Oslo peace accords, so everything that we do should be calculated to encourage that, and that is what has dictated our policy.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his considered statement to the House. When the latest peace agreement was reached, Palestinian authorities stood by and allowed seven Palestinians to be killed after allegations were made that they had given information to Israel. One of them was under close arrest in a prison in Palestine at the time and so could have given no information whatsoever. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is obvious that Palestine has not moved away from Hamas terrorism and brutality and that he must stand firm and not agree to the enhanced recognition for Palestine at this time for those very reasons?
That is the other side of the argument that we have heard. Certainly, Hamas is an organisation that has committed serious abuses of human rights. In response to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), I referred to what Hamas needs to do and how it needs to change. The hon. Gentleman has given a further illustration of the need for that.