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Israel and Palestine: Talks

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 1 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they next expect to table proposals at the Middle East quartet group for a resumption of direct talks between Palestine and Israel.

My Lords, at the quartet meeting on 21 February, United States Secretary Rice discussed her trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas on 19 February. At that meeting, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas agreed to meet again. The quartet has said that it hopes the dialogue will continue in the framework of a renewed political process, with the aim of defining more clearly the political horizon and launching meaningful negotiations. We fully support that approach.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The quartet is often accused of bias, with preconditions imposed on the Palestinian Government but not on Mr Olmert, who understandably presses for full official recognition. Should the UK and the EU not persuade Israel to take some goodwill confidence-building steps now, meeting its nearly 40 year-old international legal obligations with reductions in checkpoints, occupation forces, apartheid entry roads and illegal settlements to help secure direct talks in the near future?

My Lords, the quartet’s requirement that there should be recognition of the state of Israel and a peaceful process is an entirely legitimate one, but it is quite clear from the quartet’s views that Israel understands that it, too, needs to make serious progress. Some of the issues are of the kind that the noble Lord has just described. It must halt its settlement activities and the construction of the barrier on Palestinian land because those practices are also contrary to international law. There is unquestionably a balance of obligations on both sides.

My Lords, following the recent contact between the Prime Minister and Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert, there were suggestions in the press that the British Government might now be reconsidering their attitude towards contact with the democratically elected members of the Palestinian Authority. Will the Minister please confirm the British Government’s current policy and, following on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, say whether we still require Hamas to declare a renunciation of violence? If so, what we are doing to persuade the Israeli Government themselves to renounce violence which has created Palestinian fatalities in the last two weeks?

My Lords, we have been absolutely clear that the Israelis are bound by international law to behave in a proportionate way as they defend themselves from attack. They are also under attack and that is not to be forgotten. The Prime Minister has made it very clear that if it is possible for the new coalition Government to deal with the quartet on the basis of genuinely meaningful requirements for the negotiations to have any prospect of success, we will deal with all the parties in that joint process. That is, I believe, a step which is well within scope now for anybody who believes that the peaceful route is the route out of the impasse.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that one of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq talked about the important role of religious leaders in bringing about cross-community peace and reconciliation. He will also recall the important role played by the Maronite Church leaders in the Lebanon. Will he therefore comment on the prospects for peace in Israel-Palestine of the continuing exodus of Christians from that region, particularly Christian professionals? Will he also say how both government policy and the policy of the quartet are addressing this worrying trend and its implications for the peace process?

My Lords, in the whole of the peace process it has been well understood that a number of parties—religious leaders are among the forefront of those parties—play a significant role. There is no question that the energies of those parties need to be engaged. I do not know what will persuade people of any religious community not to leave an area if they feel under threat, but if we can get this peace process moving more directly and rapidly, and can engage religious leaders in that process, perhaps confidence will grow that staying is a real option.

My Lords, will the Minister go further on the outcome of the Mecca agreement, which was brokered by the Saudi Arabians? Has the new Administration, which includes Al Fatah and Hamas, been put in place? Is it in a position to speak for the Palestine Authority as a whole? What role are the Russians playing? Are they still part of the quartet because they seem to be pursuing a bilateral relationship with Hamas outside the quartet process?

My Lords, there may well be some discussions between quartet members, including Russia and Hamas, but I think that everyone has pledged themselves as matters stand to the quartet process. We have welcomed Saudi Arabia’s efforts to broker the agreement between Hamas and Al Fatah, and we welcome the extent to which that is producing intra-Palestinian reconciliation. The work on constructing a government is well under way. A number of ministries are now designated and some are still to be decided, but I believe the progress is now substantial.

My Lords, do the Government accept that the situation in Palestine is now increasingly unstable? I have received on the web today an analysis of the Palestinian economic and social crisis from the excellent Crown Centre for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University—not a particularly pro-Palestinian centre. It emphasises just how rapidly social and economic positions in the Occupied Territories are deteriorating, and calls on the quartet to reopen debate on the assistance provided and the border controls. They are leading to such rapid deterioration in conditions in the Palestinian territories that I fear violence will break out again.

My Lords, I share the fear that unless there is serious economic progress it is very likely to be a more and more disrupted region. There are obligations on all parts. On our part, aid is still going in substantial quantities from the United Kingdom to the president of the Palestinian entity. We believe that there is an obligation to stimulate economic activity on the part of Israel. I was looking at information on Rafah and Karni, the two key crossings. They are routinely shelled by Palestinian terrorists, which is how they are kept closed on a regular basis. To come back to the fundamental point; everyone has to step back from those things if there is to be real progress. We will do our level best to ensure that we are even-handed in achieving that result.