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Middle East

Volume 554: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2012

My priority for the middle east is to support peace and stability by urging the United States, with the strong and active support of the EU, to take a decisive lead in pushing the peace process forward; ending the violence in Syria; securing a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question; and supporting democratic transitions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his commitment to those matters. Those of us who for the whole of our adult lives have been supporters of the state of Israel and of a state for Palestine were pleased by the decision of the United Nations last week, but dismayed by the response of the Israeli Government, who suggested that settlements should be built to the east of Jerusalem, effectively separating the two parts of the west bank. What does the Foreign Secretary think is the best way of getting the message through to the Israeli Government that that is neither the way to win friends nor the way to win peace?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in everything that he has just said. We summoned the Israeli ambassador to the Foreign Office yesterday to hear exactly that message from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has responsibility for the middle east. If implemented, the plans that were announced on Friday would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that would make the two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital almost inconceivable, or certainly very difficult to implement. Much as we had misgivings, for some of the same reasons, about pressing for a resolution at the United Nations, we think that that was the wrong way for Israel to react. That message is coming loud and clear from all around Europe and the United States.

Summoning the Israeli ambassador for a stage-managed dressing down will achieve nothing and nor, quite frankly, will the isolation of Israel at the United Nations. Should Ministers not be redoubling their efforts to get Palestinians and Israelis who are prepared to talk to each other and who want to see peace to work together, because that is the only way we will achieve any progress towards a stable, two-state solution with a secure and safe Israel living peacefully alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state?

I agree with the main point of the hon. Gentleman’s question, although I assure him that nothing that the my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does is stage-managed. He imparted very clearly indeed the message that I think the whole House would agree with. The main point of the hon. Gentleman’s question is what I have expressed in all our discussions in the House over the past two weeks. Despite all the events of the past week, we have to achieve a return to negotiations and we particularly need the United States to play its necessary role in that. That is the only way in which we will secure a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one urgent priority must be for his Department to do whatever it can to help to end the indiscriminate carnage of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians by their own regime? May I commend him for persuading his European colleagues that reviews of the current arms embargo must be held every three months and not every year, and will he give urgent consideration to persuading his European colleagues—and, indeed, the Government—at least to allow air defence equipment to be made available to those trying to protect civilian communities throughout Syria?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. He is right: last week the Government persuaded colleagues in the European Union that rather than roll over all sanctions on Syria for 12 months, including the arms embargo, we should do so for three months to allow ourselves flexibility to respond to a changing situation. As he knows, I do not follow him all the way in saying that we should supply air defence equipment, although opposition groups in Syria are clearly acquiring a variety of anti-aircraft weapons. The Government will be intensifying further not only our humanitarian assistance but our diplomatic efforts—including with Russia—to try to find a way forward on Syria.

Is not the building of additional illegal settlements, in addition to settlements that already house 500,000 people, a blatant breach of international law, together with the theft by the Israeli Government of huge sums of tax revenues belonging to the Palestinians? When will we take action such as economic sanctions or an arms embargo against this rogue state that is committing criminal acts?

The settlements are illegal and on occupied land, and the latest announcement undermines Israel’s international reputation and creates doubts about its stated commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians. The Government have, of course, strongly advised Israel to reverse that decision. I spoke to the Israeli Foreign and Defence Ministers over the weekend, in addition to what the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has done. We must remember, however, the point made by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin): only successful negotiation will resolve this issue, and that will require the willing participation of Israel as well as the Palestinians.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with our European partners following the General Assembly vote and Israel’s extremely regrettable response, bearing in mind the fact that the European Union is Israel’s most important trading and economic partner?

I am working closely with the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, with whom I spoke over the weekend. That was why the UK and France together summoned the Israeli ambassadors yesterday, and other EU partners then did the same. I have also been talking to the French and German Foreign Ministers about how we can more actively support a US initiative in the area over the coming month, with European states contributing to incentives and disincentives for both sides to return to negotiations.

The Foreign Secretary has shared with the House a number of calls that he has made to Ministers over recent days on the middle east. Given the announcement by the Israeli Government about further expansion of settlements, which we have already discussed, and the summoning of the Israeli ambassador to King Charles street yesterday, will the Foreign Secretary explain how abstaining in last week’s vote at the United Nations enhanced the UK’s influence with either Israel or the Palestinians?

The United Kingdom is in exactly the same position as before regarding influence with the Palestinians and Israel. We have frank but warm relations with the Palestinians and, of course, we are always able to speak to the Israelis. Countries that voted no or yes or abstained were all in the same position over the weekend in disapproving of the Israeli decision and placing pressure on Israel to reverse it. I do not believe that the different ways in which we voted in the General Assembly made any difference to that.

Let me ask a practical question. In the light of the decision by the Israeli Government to withhold £75 million of Palestinian customs duties, what conversations have Ministers had in recent days with international partners on how to sustain a functioning Palestinian authority? In the immediate term, that would ensure the continuing operation of Palestinian security forces on the west bank, but in the medium term it holds out the prospect of credible negotiating partners for the Israelis.

Of course we are in discussions with other countries on this matter. We must assess exactly what the financial implications are. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are already a major donor to the Palestinian Authority and the fourth biggest donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The immediate action has been that the consul general in Jerusalem and a Department for International Development team have visited Gaza to assess the situation there, but we must see how we can further assist if there is a deepening financial crisis in the Palestinian Authority.