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Israel And Palestine: London Conference

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2005

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2.53 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking at the London conference to promote a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

My Lords, the focus of the London meeting was to help the Palestinian leadership to strengthen the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. The meeting is part of a longer-term process of international support for the Palestinians in helping both sides to return to the road map. The road map remains the international community's agreed path towards a lasting negotiated settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Like everyone else in this House, I welcome the Prime Minister's initiative in convening yesterday's London conference. But does she not agree that the best way to strengthen the Palestinian Authority is evidence of tangible progress towards the creation of a viable Palestinian state, free of Israeli occupation? What follow-up steps do the Government propose to take to realise that goal?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, for his words of encouragement and congratulations to the Prime Minister, who, I believe, achieved a very important staging post yesterday in the Middle East peace process. The noble Lord asks how we will tackle what he sees as the key problems still outstanding. I agree that there have been many obstacles, put forward on both sides, to progress. I certainly agree that settlement expansion and heavy-handed Israeli defence force action make progress more difficult. We continue to make those points to the Israeli Government and to urge them to honour the settlements freeze to which they committed themselves in the road map.

However, we must not talk this moment down. We have an opportunity now to move forward; several factors contribute to that: Israel's disengagement plan, demonstration by the Palestinian authorities that they are serious about reform, and President Bush's explicit commitment to use America's capital to achieve progress.

My Lords, we, too, welcome the meeting on the Palestinian Authority. However, does the noble Baroness agree that we now need a full-scale peace conference including both Israelis and Palestinians? The Foreign Secretary seemed to indicate support for that. When might we expect such a conference?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, will know, that international conference is very much part of the road map. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that getting back to the road map, of which yesterday's conference was a part—through capacity building for the Palestinian Authority—is very important. We all want that international conference, but before that we want to see a pledging conference from yesterday's meeting in London so that we can assist the Palestinian Authority even further.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Government on the initiative yesterday; it is much appreciated. Does the Minister agree with me that at this crucial time it is important to offer not criticism to either party but support and encouragement to both? At the end of the day it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who have to agree between them. Criticism of either is unlikely to be helpful in that process.

My Lords, I absolutely agree. I hope that the noble Lord sees in yesterday's London meeting the efforts by the international community to be even-handed with both sides in the Middle East peace process. I take this opportunity at the Dispatch Box to welcome, for instance, the disengagement plans put forward by Israel.

My Lords, one of the outcomes of yesterday's meeting, which seemed, I agree, very positive and useful, was that the American Lieutenant General Ward is to be appointed to co-ordinate the security structures of the new Palestinian state to defeat terrorism—without which, of course, no state could be formed. Will his remit also cover dealing with the Syrian Government, and indeed the Lebanese government when there is one again, because the evidence is that a great deal of the terror, both in the Palestinian area and in Israel, is constructed in those territories? They must be dealt with if there is to be security in Palestine.

My Lords, again, I thank noble Lords for their words of congratulation on yesterday's conference. Lieutenant General Ward's mandate covers forming a co-ordinating group to oversee the restructuring and retraining of the Palestinian security services. The noble Lord will know that at present the security services comprise about 13 different organisations. One of Lieutenant General Ward's main jobs will be to streamline that into two or three parts so that the security services in the Palestinian Authority can do an extremely good job and, therefore, fulfil their security-related obligations under phase I of the road map.

On Syria, I would simply say that the Government have concerns about recent allegations on Syria's involvement in activities in the region.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has described a major part of Lieutenant General Ward's role and function. Will she also comment on the need for very close security co-ordination as regards the withdrawal from Gaza?

Yes, my Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is absolutely right. Part of the conclusion of yesterday's meeting was a commitment to ensure that there would be, certainly from the Palestinian Authority's point of view, co-ordination with the Israeli Government during that period of disengagement from Gaza and the West Bank.