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Middle East

Volume 554: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2012

14. What his latest assessment is of the prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. (131113)

We welcome the agreed ceasefire following the crisis in Gaza. The recent violence only highlights the urgent need for the United States, supported by the UK and other partners, to launch a new initiative to push the peace process forward in 2013 to achieve a two-state solution.

Like many MPs, I am sure, I have been overwhelmed by messages from constituents asking me to express their horror and despair at the violence and the casualties in Gaza. What reassurances can the Foreign Secretary offer them regarding the security of civilians in Gaza, and does he agree that there cannot be a two-state solution without secure and viable borders for both states?

Yes, absolutely. The way forward is what we discussed a few moments ago: to make a success of the second stage of the ceasefire negotiations. Egypt did a very good job, supported by the UN Secretary-General and the United States, in bringing about the ceasefire. Now it is important to conclude the second stage, which will bring—we hope—improved access and an end to the smuggling of weapons. The hon. Lady is right to say that secure borders are necessary for Israel, as, too, is having a viable, sovereign state of Palestine. That is what we want for Palestinians.

The Foreign Secretary told the House earlier that the additional settlement building in the E1 area of East Jerusalem announced last week would clearly be unlawful. What prospect is there of prevailing on Israel to comply instead with the requirements of international law?

That is the point that the world is stressing to Israel—that those settlements are illegal, that they are on occupied land and, in particular, that the unfreezing of development in what is known as the E1 block threatens the prospect of a future Palestinian state being able to operate on contiguous land. This point is being made strongly, not only by us and our European partners but by the US and the whole Arab world. I hope that despite the election campaign in Israel—election campaigns affect the politics of any country—it will listen carefully to those points.

I welcome those comments from the Foreign Secretary, but we have been here before, and he must grow weary of repeating to the Israeli Government his condemnation of illegal settlement activity. Given the importance of Europe as a market for Israeli goods and services, which European Ministers shy away from putting economic muscle behind our protestations, and can he assure the House that he is not one of them?

I do not think there is enthusiasm around the European Union for that. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) talked earlier about economic sanctions in Europe against Israel, but I do not believe there would be anywhere near a consensus on that, nor is it our approach. We continue to try to bring both sides back into negotiations. Nevertheless, if there is no reversal of the decision that has been announced, we will want to consider what further steps European countries can take and I will discuss that with my counterparts in other EU nations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that peace talks would bring added security to Israel and Gaza? What steps does he intend to take to get the parties to the table again? Indeed, what steps would need to be taken to introduce a sanctions regime, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames)?

On the latter point, my reaction is the one I have already given. On the steps that are necessary to resume negotiations, of course this will require all sides to draw back from steps that make entering into negotiations more difficult. We have seen a sequence over the last week that has taken us further away from negotiations, rather than closer to them. This will require the decisive involvement of the United States. Indeed, I have said to Secretary Clinton that it will require from the United States the greatest efforts since the Oslo peace accords—a level of that intensity—to carry forward and restart the negotiation process.

Further to the Foreign Secretary’s earlier reply, now that Iranian-manufactured weapons have been fired from Gaza and have landed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, what urgent action is he taking to stop the transportation of such weapons and how concerned is he about Iran’s role in fomenting conflict in the region?

I am very concerned about Iran’s role, as I think I have said before in the House. Indeed, there is substantial evidence of Iranian involvement and Iranian weapons being supplied, including those fired against Israel. The hon. Lady is quite right about that. Of course, the solution to that is ending the smuggling of weapons in Gaza from wherever they come—from Iran or anywhere else. It is now possible to reach such an agreement, with good will and further effort after the ceasefire agreement on all sides, so our main effort will be supporting that diplomatic initiative.

Is not one of the most offensive features of recent days the fact that the exercise of a legal right by the Palestinians at the United Nations has been met by illegal retaliation by the Israeli Government? Does my right hon. Friend accept that such illegal action serves only to undermine the authority of Mahmoud Abbas—and indeed of the Palestinian National Authority, which he leads—and in addition encourages those Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, who wrongly believe that violence is justified?

The announcement of additional housing units and the unfreezing of development in the E1 block undermines Israel’s reputation, as I said earlier, but it also undermines the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to bring about a two-state solution and could therefore embolden more extreme elements. These are among the reasons why it is an unwise policy and why we will look to Israel to reverse it.

The Foreign Secretary has told us of the representations that he and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), have made to the Israeli Government. Will he tell us something of Israel’s response to those representations? What assessment has he made of the growing legal opinion internationally that anyone who trades with an illegal entity is themselves complicit in an illegal act?

Clearly the Israeli Government have not yet changed or reversed their decision. Ambassadors in these situations take back the representations of the host Government, which the Israeli ambassador committed himself to do at the meeting with the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire. We will continue to make such representations, as will so many other countries, but Sunday’s cabinet did not reverse the decision that was announced on Friday, so we will need to continue with this work.

The answer on trade and sanctions is really the one I gave earlier. Arms exports are covered by our consolidated criteria—we look at those strictly—but it is highly unlikely that wider economic measures in any direction will contribute to peace in the middle east.

I cannot fault the comprehensiveness of the right hon. Gentleman’s reply. We are genuinely grateful; he is trying to help the House.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a retrograde step to break off diplomatic relations with Israel, especially given that successive Israeli Governments have said that they would withdraw from most of the west bank under a properly negotiated treaty?

We hope of course that that will happen in due course. Diplomacy is what is needed most of all in this situation, so I do not think that we would contemplate breaking off diplomatic relations with any of those involved, but we are going to have to ramp up our diplomatic efforts in various ways. I am not going to rule out any diplomatic options over the coming weeks.