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Middle East and North Africa

Volume 566: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the UK’s response to events in the middle east and north Africa. Members on both sides will be concerned about the situation in Egypt. Our embassy in Cairo is offering assistance to British nationals, and we advise against all non-essential travel to Egypt outside the Red sea resorts.

I made it clear last week that the United Kingdom does not support military intervention in democratic politics, although we recognise that many Egyptians welcomed the action that was taken. I have been in close contact with the acting Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, and I have emphasised the importance of an urgent return to democratic processes and expressed our deep concern at the deaths of more than 50 protesters.

The Egyptian authorities have announced an interim Prime Minister, Hazen Beblawi, and a timetable for new elections. The process should be inclusive, open to all parties, and lead to free and fair elections. That should therefore mean the release of political leaders and journalists, agreement on a new constitution and the checks and balances of a democratic system, and urgent steps to reform Egypt’s economy.

Two years ago the Egyptian people demanded a real democratic voice, and jobs not corruption in the economy. So far their leaders have failed to deliver that. However, the hunger and aspiration for a better Egypt are as strong and urgent as ever. It is vital for their own country and the region that all sides rise above self-interest and work towards an open, democratic and reforming Egypt.

There is no alternative to the long, painstaking work of making a success of transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. That is why, for example, I announced in a written statement to the House yesterday that the UK will train 2,000 Libyan armed forces personnel in basic infantry skills. That is part of a broader effort with the US, Italy and France, agreed at the G8, to help the Libyan Government disarm and integrate militias and improve security.

Democratic change is a process, not an event, and those countries will see setbacks as well as successes. However, we should not lose faith in the people of the region, the vast majority of whom seek prosperity and dignity for their countries. We must therefore provide patient, long-term support to Governments and civil society in the region, as we are doing through the Deauville partnership that we are promoting during our G8 presidency, and the UK-Arab partnership initiative that supports women’s participation, electoral reform, economic development, and the building of democratic institutions. Achieving lasting positive change will be the work of a generation.

That goes hand in hand with our support for the middle east peace process, and I pay tribute to Secretary Kerry for tirelessly preparing the ground for a return to negotiations. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and I have visited Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent weeks, to urge them to enter negotiations. We are ready to work with the EU and Arab nations and offer practical support, and I call on Israelis and Palestinians to show the necessary courage. This may be the last opportunity to achieve a two-state solution. That also requires progress on Gaza because the status quo there is not sustainable. All sides need to implement the ceasefire agreement, which includes a permanent end to rocket attacks and an easing of Israeli restrictions.

We will make every effort to persuade Iran to negotiate an end to the crisis over its nuclear programme. We look to a new Government in Iran to give a comprehensive response to the proposal by E3 plus 3 for a confidence-building measure, and to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency. We will respond in good faith to positive action by Iran. We are ready to improve our relations on a step-by-step basis, but no one should doubt our resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation.

The middle east is vital to our national interests and security. It would be a major strategic error for our country or our allies to turn away from the region. That includes the conflict in Syria, where the death toll is mounting, extremism and sectarianism are growing and the risk of the total collapse of the country is ever-present. The Assad regime has ramped up its military assault using air strikes, Scud missiles and artillery. As many as 13,000 Syrian civilians have been killed since my last statement to the House on 20 May, and UN figures for the total number of deaths will soon exceed 100,000 people. There are 4.25 million internally displaced people inside Syria, and 1.7 million refugees are placing an immense strain on the stability and economies of neighbouring countries. By the end of the year, 10 million people could be in need of assistance—almost half the population of Syria.

We judge that Iran is providing personnel, equipment, weapons and financial assistance to the Assad regime, which is also being supported by thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. We call on Syria to allow the UN unfettered access to investigate incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria. Those responsible for any attacks should be held to account. We have passed evidence of the use of sarin in Syria to the UN, and we were concerned to see new, unconfirmed reports over the weekend of chemical attacks in Homs.

Faced with the growing and protracted crisis, to which there is no end in sight, we have three objectives: to promote a political solution in Syria, to help save lives and to protect the national security of the United Kingdom. First, a political transition in Syria remains the best hope of ending the violence. I attended meetings of the core group of the Friends of Syria in Amman on 22 May and Doha on 22 June. We agreed to increase practical support to the opposition and to channel that support through the National Coalition. We all want a political solution, but that will not be possible if legitimate opposition can be obliterated.

On 17 June the G8, including Russia, re-affirmed support for a second conference in Geneva, leading to the creation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers in Syria. Since May, the National Coalition has expanded its membership significantly, to include other opposition groups and the moderate armed opposition. It has pledged to increase the provision of services in opposition-held areas and to build up local governance structures. On Saturday the National Coalition elected a new president, Ahmed al-Jarba, and we will work with him to help the Syrian opposition promote its vision of a free, democratic and pluralistic Syria that defends the rights of all Syrians. The regime offensive of recent weeks has made it even harder to bring a Geneva conference together, but we will continue our diplomacy with the US, Russia, Arab nations and the UN to bring about a conference while preparing for the risk that the conflict worsens.

So, secondly, we are working to save lives. We have already provided more than £12 million in non-lethal assistance to the National Coalition, local councils and civil society. We have provided armoured vehicles, body armour, generators, communications equipment and other non-lethal equipment, as well as training for human rights activists to document human rights violations. We will provide a further £20 million, which we have already announced, in non-lethal assistance in the coming months, including communications support and training for the National Coalition. We are exploring the possibility of helping to establish civilian policing structures in opposition-held areas, and the supply of protective equipment against the use of chemical and biological weapons. This week we will again deploy UK experts to Syria’s borders to train health professionals and human rights defenders to document evidence of rape and sexual violence.

As I explained to the House in March, we are providing technical assistance for the protection of civilians. That includes advice and training on how to maintain security in areas no longer controlled by the regime, on co-ordination between civilian and military councils, on how to protect civilians and minimise the risks to them and on how to maintain security during a transition. On the question of any future lethal support—arming the opposition or intervening militarily ourselves—the Government’s position has not changed. No decision has been made, and any decision would be put to the House on a substantive motion.

We have doubled the United Kingdom’s humanitarian assistance for Syria and its neighbours to £348 million over the next two years. That includes £50 million for Syrian refugees and host communities in Jordan, and £50 million for Lebanon, which the International Development Secretary announced on Monday while in the region. I condemn yesterday’s bomb attack in Beirut and call on all Lebanese parties to work together to resist any efforts by extremists and terrorists to undermine Lebanon’s hard-won peace.

The longer the Syria conflict continues, the more important it becomes to provide stabilisation and development support where we are able to do so, as well as urgent humanitarian assistance. The UK will continue to lead efforts to improve the effectiveness of the international humanitarian response. Last week, the International Development Secretary hosted a meeting with like-minded states and the heads of key agencies, and she will also host a separate event to plan international support to Syrian after a transition.

Thirdly and finally, we are determined to protect UK national security against risks posed by groups in Syria that are affiliated or aligned to al-Qaeda, including the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda in Iraq, and that are taking advantage of ungoverned space created by the conflict. We judge that more than 100 UK-linked individuals of concern have now travelled to Syria, and some individuals returning to the UK could pose a long-term terrorist threat.

The most important step in tackling the threat of terrorism is to end the conflict and secure a transition to a new, legitimate government in Syria. However, extremists should be in no doubt of the action that we are prepared to take to protect our national security. Our intelligence agencies and police are working to identify and disrupt potential threats, and the police have the power to examine and detain individuals at the UK border to investigate any concerns of involvement in terrorism. UK nationals of concern seeking to travel from the UK can have their passports refused or withdrawn, and foreign nationals resident in the UK can have their leave to remain revoked if they are deemed non-conducive to the public good.

International diplomacy has failed so far to resolve the crisis in Syria. The UK will continue to play a leading role in promoting a political solution, even though we may have to persist over many months; in saving lives, on which we can be proud of the contribution our country makes; and in safeguarding our national security at all times. We will continue to help countries in the middle east and north Africa make a success of their transitions, while keeping faith with their peoples, protecting the UK’s interests and trying to widen international peace and security.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it.

I come first to events in Egypt. Although the events of the past two weeks have been a major setback for democracy, they need not represent an irreversible trend. The role of the military in any democracy must be both clearly defined and subject to Executive oversight, so the priority must now be a return to civilian rule through a credible transition process that results in swift, fair and free elections. I welcome the recent statement by interim president Mansour setting a deadline for new elections to be held before February 2014. However, recent reports suggest that not all parties have accepted that process, and there have been recent statements from the Muslim Brotherhood apparently refusing to take part. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is vital that the transition process from interim to full civilian government must be inclusive and representative if it is to be seen to be legitimate?

Recent reports of the arrest and imprisonment of political activists, representatives and journalists in Egypt are deeply concerning, including reports today about Egypt’s prosecutor’s office issuing warrants for a number of people affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Will the Foreign Secretary make clear the British Government’s position on political prisoners in Egypt?

Egypt’s long-term future will be secured not simply by an end to violence but also by the start of economic recovery. The Foreign Secretary spoke of the Deauville partnership. How much of the $38 billion originally intended from that fund, as cited in his answer to me in October 2011, has now been allocated? If he cannot give the figure this afternoon, will he place a note in the Library setting out the allocation figures?

I turn to the ongoing crisis in Syria. I welcome, of course, the confirmation of the uplift in the UK’s commitment to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis, but the situation is none the less deteriorating. Only this morning, the Intelligence and Security Committee published a report that expresses “serious concern” about al-Qaeda elements gaining access to the “vast stockpiles” of chemical weapons within Syria. It is therefore a matter of real regret that the recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland, hosted by the United Kingdom, failed to deliver the breakthrough that we all wanted to see in relation to Syria. We all hoped that a firm date would be set for the start of Geneva 2, but even that was missing from the final communiqué. Will the Foreign Secretary set out a little more specifically what he judges the prospects to be for Geneva 2 being convened in the weeks and months ahead? I welcome his commitment that the Prime Minister intends to recall Parliament and call for a vote on a substantive motion if any decision is taken by the Government to send lethal military equipment to the Syrian opposition.

May I ask the Foreign Secretary about Jordan? It seemed a curious omission from his statement. Jordan has been a long-standing ally of the United Kingdom. I am aware that humanitarian support is being provided to Za’atari and other camps in Jordan. May I press him on what consideration the Government are giving to what other practical assistance and support can be provided to Jordan, beyond humanitarian support? The country is feeling the strain, given the extraordinary generosity it has shown during the crisis.

On the middle east peace process, we welcome the recent efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring parties together and reinvigorate the stalled talks. On departing from Israel last week, after the last of his five visits to the region alone this year, Secretary Kerry spoke of important, though not irreversible, progress that has already been made. We welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement of support for this process, but will he set out what specific steps the British Government are taking to ensure that negotiations are urgently begun as part of Secretary Kerry’s efforts?

These negotiations take place at a time of great upheaval and uncertainty in the wider region. We welcome the election of President Rohani, but there are key steps he must now be prepared to take if the ongoing nuclear crisis is to be resolved. I echo the sentiments expressed by the Foreign Secretary: a nuclear-armed Iran is not simply a threat to Israel, but a risk to all nations. The Government will have our support in pushing the E5 plus 1 talks that have regrettably so far not yielded sufficient progress.

In conclusion, the Foreign Secretary’s statement comes at a time of almost unprecedented uncertainty across the middle east and north Africa. This transformative time of upheaval, revolution and conflict poses fundamental questions not just for the Foreign Secretary, but for policy makers across the region. That should therefore add to the urgency of efforts being made to try to resolve the ongoing and apparently intractable conflicts that have for too long defined the history of the region.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. On most if not all these subjects, there is strong agreement across the Floor of the House.

I absolutely agree with the way in which the right hon. Gentleman put the Opposition’s attitude on Egypt. What has happened may be a setback for democracy, but it need not be an irreversible trend. That is absolutely right. He is right to point out that some parties in Egypt have not agreed to the timetable of parliamentary and presidential elections set out by the new president in the constitutional declaration. In fact, worryingly, most of them have not agreed, including the National Salvation Front, which was one of the prime movers behind last week’s events. There were widespread objections to the details of the announcement. As he said, this cannot be resolved in any other way than an inclusive legitimate process inside Egypt. We therefore call on all parties to do that.

It would be a terrible mistake for the authorities in Egypt to act in a way that drives the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other legitimate party, out of democratic politics. That mistake must be avoided at all costs. It would also be a mistake, however, for the Muslim Brotherhood to now refuse, under all circumstances, to take part in democratic politics in the months and years ahead. All nations who hold dear the stability and future of Egypt, as we do, have to encourage people, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the new authorities, to resolve these differences and counsel against making those mistakes. Part of that is about releasing prisoners. I agree about that and I made that point to the acting Foreign Minister of Egypt. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, pursued the point with the Egyptian ambassador just this morning. Prisoners should be released unless criminal charges are to be laid. The holding of prisoners for political purposes after these events does not help the process.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Deauville partnership. I am happy to provide to him, or to the Library, more details. The $38 billion was not a fund, but the total financing from all global institutions available to the countries of the region if and when they pursue economic policies that give them access to it. One of the problems of the outgoing Government in Egypt was that they did not agree an IMF programme, and therefore did not win international financial support. The part of the Deauville partnership that involves funds that can be given away is much smaller. We have been determined, during our presidency of the G8, to make a tangible difference, and this year the Deauville partnership transition fund has started to deliver practical support. Projects of more than $100 million have been approved, and these principally support the development of small and medium-sized enterprises. This is the part that is a fund, but potential international financing is vastly greater, if the right economic reforms are undertaken.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on Iran. Again, I think there is strong agreement across the House and support for a further round of E3 plus 3 negotiations with its new Government. There is also strong agreement on the middle east peace process. I have set out in the House previously that we have to be ready, in the UK and in other European countries, once negotiations get going, to offer incentives or even disincentives at times during the negotiations for Israelis and Palestinians to try to make them a success, working with the United States. First, we have to get the negotiations going. We have been urging Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take the opportunity to work with John Kerry, stressing that there is no alternative. No one other than the United States has the necessary authority to bring Israel to the necessary agreements, to enter negotiations and make a success of them. Working with John Kerry is essential, and we await further announcements in the coming weeks.

On Syria and a date for Geneva, there is no date at the moment. After the G8, a trilateral meeting was held between the US, Russia and the UN in Geneva on 25 June, which again did not produce a date. The fundamental problem is that while the regime is engaged in military offences, as it is now in Homs, it does not have an incentive to come to meaningful negotiations, and neither is the opposition in a frame of mind to come to negotiations. Those military offences are making it harder for either party to come to Geneva.

Jordan was not an omission from my statement—I referred to our humanitarian assistance. I have also referred in the past to the other assistance we are giving Jordan. We have sent military equipment to help the Jordanian armed forces operate on the border, collecting refugees and bringing them to refugee camps. We have £1.5 million going to Jordan through our Arab Partnership fund to support civil society. We are in regular contact with Jordan. I spoke to the Jordanian Foreign Minister earlier this week, in particular to thank him for Jordan’s assistance with the recent mutual legal assistance treaty. I also made it clear to him that we are happy to give further assistance from the UK, if the Jordanians ask for it.

On Egypt, may I acquaint my right hon. Friend with the news that when I arrived as a national serviceman in the charming town of Suez 64 years ago, its townspeople were busy rioting against the Wafd party. Sixty-four years from now, I have little doubt that the Egyptian people will still be rioting, so may I make the constructive suggestion to the Foreign Secretary that there is little he can do to help, except by not sending in British troops to restore order?

I can assure my right hon. Friend that I have no plans to send in British troops to restore order. Only once since the second world war have we sent British troops into Egypt. I recall that he was once an election assistant to Anthony Eden.

It does indeed bear out the wisdom of experience.

We will not be sending in troops. We must stress that the vast majority of what we are calling for can only be brought about by Egyptians—we must not pretend anything else—but what we and other countries say does matter; how we are prepared to help in the future matters. We have to make those things clear to the Egyptians, even though it certainly does not involve the deployment of British troops.

It is clear that the Foreign Secretary is familiar with the right hon. Gentleman’s CV in 1955, as well as, I am sure, with his activities 64 years ago.

Contrary to the distinguished, but dismal prognosis of the Father of the House, would the Secretary of State accept that across Africa remarkable progress has been made in recent decades to produce democracies? One thing that will set that back is if the west appears to be equivocal about the results of elections when it does not approve of those who are elected. This was a military coup, and we will gain nothing—indeed, we will undermine our influence—if we do not accept that. If we do not accept it, we will simply feed those extremists on the Islamic side who believe that we regard democracy as an optional extra only when those elected are people of whom we approve.

I have a lot of sympathy with those points. Half of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are now in Africa. There is economic success, and many democracies are becoming established, which is to be welcomed and respected. That is why I was clear last Wednesday night that the United Kingdom does not support military interventions in democratic politics. We should always be prepared to state that clearly, I think, and to state what I just said in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary: that the Muslim Brotherhood must not be driven out of democratic politics in Egypt, or any other country. I think that across the House we can uphold those things very strongly.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. The faltering peace process remains the best hope for the people of Syria. If, as he says, Iran is implicated in that conflict, is it not now essential to reach out to the new regime of Dr Rouhani and involve Iran in the Syrian peace process, including Geneva 2? Doing otherwise is beginning to look unhelpfully dogmatic.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of Iran, given the scale of its intervention in Syria. The extent to which it can be involved in a peace process will be heavily up to Iran, however; it has not, hitherto, expressed support for the outcome of last year’s Geneva conference and the creation of a transitional Government with full executive authority. Without agreeing with that, it is very hard to see how a success can be made of participation in negotiations over the coming months. Of course, however, those negotiations have to be conducted in circumstances that will produce the maximum success, and a judgment about how Iran can be involved must be guided by that objective.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment that any decision either to arm the opposition or to intervene militarily will be put to the House on a substantive motion, but does he intend that to happen not, as with Libya, after the decision has been activated, but before?

That is clearly the intention of what I said, although I do not think it right to compare this situation with Libya or ever to give a 100% guarantee. After all, in Libya we acted very urgently to save lives; armoured columns were advancing on Benghazi. We could not have taken that action with France had we had to wait however many hours to call the House together. It is not possible to give 100% guarantees, but on a question such as the supply of arms to someone else in world, it is possible to anticipate that and therefore to debate it in advance.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although, as the former Foreign Secretary said, the prognosis in Egypt is gloomy, it was always going to take generations to fix the difficult social and political situation there? Does he also agree that, contrary to what the Father of the House said, this country has a major role to play in assisting many countries in the middle east with governance, improving opportunities and aspirations for their people and perhaps training young people so that they can get what everyone all over the world wants, which is jobs and some security?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have a big role to play, and the European Union, using its collective economic weight, potentially has a big role to play as well. As I said earlier, although we must never pretend that these matters can be sorted out by anybody other than Egyptians, we must not understate what we can do to assist. After all, British companies are the biggest investors in Egypt, and there are myriad family, business and personal connections between the people of Egypt and the people of the United Kingdom. We must not understate our influence, therefore; what we do can help, and what we say matters.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), the Foreign Secretary and President Obama all expressed regret at the military intervention in Egypt, but the special envoy for the Quartet on the middle east suggested that it was inevitable, that they had no alternative. I realise that the Foreign Secretary has been very busy, but has he had an opportunity to discuss those remarks with the special envoy?

The special envoy, the former Prime Minister from the hon. Lady’s party, does not have to clear with the Foreign Secretary of the day everything he says. I am not sure he would ever have cleared it with the Foreign Secretary of his own Government—perhaps the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) can tell us—and he certainly does not clear it with the Foreign Secretary of the next Government, who are opposing parties to his. That would be hoping for too much. I put things differently from him, as she noted—

So did the right hon. Gentleman, and so did several others from time to time.

We have to acknowledge that there was enormous dissatisfaction in Egypt with the record of the Government and therefore that what happened last week was very popular in Egypt. Nevertheless, we should be clear, as we discussed a few moments ago, that we cannot support military interventions in democratic processes.

The lesson emerging from the middle east is that leaders who introduce reform are grudgingly winning the respect of their people, and no one is trying harder on this than the King of Jordan, who is busting a gut to stay ahead of the curve. Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that he is doing everything he can to help the King introduce the constitutional monarchy that he is proposing, and does he agree that, ironically and unexpectedly, monarchs are emerging as beacons of stability in the region?

My hon. Friend makes a good point: it has turned out that monarchs enjoy greater legitimacy with their populations than many alternative Heads of State, which is always a thing to remember—it is perhaps the lesson of our history in the United Kingdom as well. We are seeing very sincere, very substantial reform programmes put forward by the King of Jordan, and also overseen by the King of Morocco. We discuss these things regularly with His Majesty the King of Jordan; I discussed them with him when he was in the UK a couple of weeks ago. We are always ready to assist with the advice, expertise and assistance I have described. There is no cap on the amount of advice, expertise or assistance we can give, if requested.

Like many others, I am really worried that the message is going out to the moderate Muslim world that the west is standing by and watching the military overthrow of a democratically elected Government. The Foreign Secretary’s colleague in Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, has said:

“It is unacceptable for a government, which has come to power through democratic elections, to be toppled through illicit means and even more, a military coup.”

The Foreign Secretary knows that language matters in these circumstances. Will he join his Turkish colleague in recognising that this has been a military coup, and use that language?

I have already done that in some of the interviews that I have given and made it clear. I have also discussed the issue in detail with my colleague, Ahmet Davutoglu, who is extremely concerned about it. I simply add the rider that we also have to understand that it was a popular intervention or coup—however we want to describe it. That does not mean that that is the right way to proceed, but it does mean that we have to think about and give good counsel on how the various parties work together in Egypt now. Whatever happens and whatever the opinion in the rest of the world, what has happened is not going to be reversed by military intervention, so however great our disapproval, we now have to encourage all concerned in Egypt into democratic processes—a constitution agreed by consensus, protecting human rights, making the economic progress that the country desperately needs.

May I warmly welcome the assurance that the Foreign Secretary has given that no lethal support will be supplied to the Syrian opposition without a prior vote in Parliament, as I welcome a similar assurance previously given by the Leader of the House, of which I was not aware until recently? However, may I remind the Foreign Secretary that, by coincidence, tomorrow we have a debate led by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on that very subject? May we therefore presume that if the House divides tomorrow, Ministers will be voting for the motion, rather than just sitting on their hands?

My hon. Friend may find that most Ministers are elsewhere tomorrow, so I am unable to say what most of them will do, but the Government have made their position clear, and the House is able to make its position clear as well. The Government having already done so, we do not see the need to vote for—or, in this case, against—a motion of that kind.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the continual, covert and creeping redefinition of borders by the Israelis, whereby, for example, one family are allowed to live in their house because the house is defined as being in the west bank, but not to use the balcony because it is defined as being in Jerusalem, while another family are allowed to live in their house, but not to use the toilet because the toilet is defined as being not in the west bank but in Jerusalem? Does he agree that this continual, tyrannical oppression, which makes people’s daily lives an utter misery, is not conducive to any kind of peace negotiations that will result in freedom for the Palestinians and a secure Israel?

It is the advance of settlements on occupied land that makes the return to negotiations in the middle east peace process so urgent. Those settlements are illegal, as well as creating many anomalies, including the kind that the right hon. Gentleman describes. On my recent visit to the west bank, I visited families whose homes had been demolished. I went to see the E1 area, which is of enormous importance in determining whether a viable, contiguous Palestinian state can be created. I think our views in this House on this issue are well expressed, and that is how we have also expressed them at the United Nations Security Council, which underlines the urgency of getting both parties into negotiations.

What hopes does my right hon. Friend have that the Syrian opposition, especially the al-Nusra Front, can achieve its aim of providing a “free, democratic and pluralistic” Syria that defends the rights of all Syrians after the demise of the Assad regime?

We cannot look to the al-Nusra Front to provide a free, democratic or pluralistic Syria. There are extremist forces, but they are not the majority of people who are fighting for the opposition and certainly not of the people who simply want to see peace, dignity and prosperity for their country and a change of Government in Damascus. I think my hon. Friend should be able to trust the sincerity of the National Coalition, now with its expanded membership and new leadership, which includes many secular figures and minorities from across Syria. I have found in all my meetings with them that their commitment to a democratic, non-sectarian Syria is credible and sincere.

As a secular, western politician, my instinctive sympathies were obviously with the people in Tahrir square, both in 2011 and recently. However, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is all the more important that we reject the strictures of those who say that Islamic politics is one dimensional, that the Muslim Brotherhood are the same as jihadis and that there are not even divisions in the Muslim Brotherhood? I support him in saying that if we say to Islamists who have turned to democracy that there is no place for them on that road, we commit a very serious error.

I agree with that absolutely, and it was well put by the hon. Gentleman. That will be important not only in Egypt, but in Libya, Tunisia and many other countries as well. It is important to have a sophisticated enough understanding to see that there are many, many different shades of opinion. We should be clear enough in our principles to welcome participation in democratic procedures and to uphold those over time, so I agree with him.

Britain has always condemned ethnic cleansing, wherever it takes place around the world. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore condemn the Israeli Parliament for its vote to evict 40,000 Bedouin from their ancestral homelands?

We do not agree with decisions about removals of Bedouin people. Indeed, on my recent visit to the occupied territories, I also visited a Bedouin encampment—to illustrate this point—and I met some of the Bedouin. Their original land was in the Negev desert; they have since moved into areas of the west bank. We want to see those people—this is one of the reasons we want to see the middle east peace process taken forward—have their own clear rights and their own places where they can live. [Interruption.] I am not going to add further language to what the Government have said at this delicate time in bringing the peace negotiations about, but I think my hon. Friend can see very clearly where we stand.

The Foreign Secretary was right to express his concerns about the involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict and elsewhere across the middle east. However, given that investigations in Bulgaria and Cyprus have uncovered evidence of Hezbollah activity in Europe, what conversations is he having with his EU counterparts about the proscription of Hezbollah in the European Union?

I have been having a lot of conversations about that. There have been some differences of view around the EU, but I think we have made some progress on it. There will be further discussions this month—we are coming up to a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in 12 days’ time. I cannot say that the issue will be resolved then, but there will be further discussions in or around that meeting. I will continue to advocate the designation of the military wing of Hezbollah. There has to be a clear consequence and a clear price exacted by European countries for terrorist acts on European soil.

On Syria, the Secretary of State will be aware of paragraph 87 of the G8 communiqué, which made it quite clear that all the countries were committed to supporting a UN mission to Syria to see whether chemical weapons had been used. How far away are we from having that mission in Syria? Has Russia, having been party to that communiqué, made a representation to the Syrian authorities to allow that mission to go ahead? Finally, when there is a mission and a finding, does the Foreign Secretary understand whether Russia, having been party to the process, will accept the findings of that report and any further action to be proposed by the United Nations?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We continue to press for the United Nations mission to have access to all the necessary places in Syria, in order to make the evaluation about the alleged use of chemical weapons. As we have said, we have certainly seen substantial evidence of their use by the regime. The Assad regime has not given permission for access to the relevant places, so at the moment that mission is stalled. Yes, we have discussed that, and my hon. Friend is right to say that important language was used at the G8 on this matter. We have been discussing with Russia and others on the United Nations Security Council how to proceed on this, and we will continue to ask for Russia’s help to ensure that there can be access to the relevant places.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, in a region in turmoil, the biggest single threat to world peace is Iran’s potential development of a nuclear weapon? It is widely accepted that Iran has enriched uranium beyond the 3.5% necessary for civilian nuclear use. What knowledge does he have that Iran could be developing a plan B involving plutonium at its Arak nuclear facility, the heavy water section of which has been off limits to inspectors for the past 18 months?

My hon. Friend is also right to raise this matter. Great concern has been expressed, including by the International Atomic Energy Authority, about the heavy water plant at Arak. That is one of the aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme to which the IAEA wants greater access. The President-elect, Mr Rouhani, has said that he is committed to transparency in Iran’s nuclear programme. One way to demonstrate that would be to be transparent about this issue; otherwise, the world will become increasingly alarmed in exactly the way that my hon. Friend has described.

The sooner Egypt is able to restore stability and democracy, the sooner it will be able to exert a positive influence in the middle east. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that, while we disapprove of the military intervention, now is not the time for the UK or any other nation to withdraw aid and support, as the Egyptians try to resolve their difficulties?

That is right; we will not withdraw from the Arab Partnership work that we are doing with Egypt and other countries, for example. However, reforming the Egyptian economy, reinforcing the rule of law, tackling corruption and making it more attractive for international companies to invest in Egypt, as well as agreeing a programme with the IMF, would allow a great deal more assistance to flow to Egypt. Egypt has had financial support from Qatar, and has now apparently been offered financial support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but if it is to build a sustainable economy and get more assistance from the rest of the world, it needs to put its own economic house in order.