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Palestine: Unity Government

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will now recognise the new Palestinian unity Government.

My Lords, we welcome Palestinian President Abbas’s continued efforts at intra-Palestinian reconciliation, which have led to the agreement on forming a national unity Government. That is a positive step. We will judge the Government by their platform and actions, and respond accordingly. As we have made clear, we have always been willing to work with a Government based on the quartet principles. Now is the time for all members of the NUG to demonstrate a commitment to peace and support President Abbas in taking forward the peace process with Israel.

My Lords, I am glad to hear the Minister accept that President Mahmoud Abbas, having formed a unity Government under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and with the commendable assistance of the Saudi Arabian Government, deserves all the support and encouragement he can get from the quartet, including individual members of the European Union and Her Majesty’s Government. Has the Minister noted the views of Ephraim Halevy, a former head of the Israeli intelligence service, who is reported to have urged that instead of regarding Hamas as a problem, we should now strive to make it part of the solution?

On 17 March, the Foreign Secretary said that the peace process would move forward only through constructive dialogue. Does the Minister not agree that now is the time for the whole quartet to deal with all members of the Palestinian unity Government without preconditions, and for dialogue between both the Palestinian and Israeli Governments to start again? An editorial in the Financial Times this morning said,

“there is now a chance to end the conflict between Arabs and Israelis”.

Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, I think everybody is looking for the opportunity to see the dialogue go forward and I understand that there are varied opinions about what the right trigger moment and conditions are. In common with the EU at present and with the quartet, we have said that this new Palestinian Government can very easily take the appropriate steps. I hope they will, as I believe it would lead to fast negotiations. Those steps are the renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and obligations including the road map. Although these are not conditions, the release of Corporal Shalit would make a fundamental difference, as indeed would help in the release of Mr Johnston, the BBC reporter.

My Lords, the United States Government on Northern Ireland pushed the British Government very hard to talk to Sinn Fein/IRA long before it had given up terrorism or recognised the political settlement in Northern Ireland. As regards Israel-Palestine, American pressure is entirely in the opposite direction. Can we be reassured that the British Government are being robust in following an intelligent approach to encouraging terrorist groups to move toward political engagement rather than recognising the odd dynamics of American domestic politics?

My Lords, with great respect, I do not think that is a reasonable characterisation of the position. The United States has plainly got a different position at the moment from the Government of Israel. It is not a markedly different one but it is different to the extent that the Israelis are plainly upset about it. Everybody is trying to see whether this new national unity Government have the potential for the negotiations that are so wholeheartedly desired by this House. We may be a little way short of knowing the answer to that, but this is an occasion where rhetoric is probably a good deal less helpful than measured response.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that a senior American official met the Palestinian Minister of Finance yesterday, the Minister being a member of Fatah, not of Hamas? Does he regard that as a useful way forward?

My Lords, the Palestinian Finance Minister comes from a party which is happily called the Third Way. I make no further comment but just observe that to be the case. He has undertaken an immediate review of finances and I believe the discussions are now likely to move on a basis where people understand the financial requirements and what may be envisaged for the future.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that some aspects of the preconditions imposed by the US and the EU for dealing with the Government of the Palestinian Authority when that Government was formed by Hamas alone are beginning to look both outdated and unreasonable and could look even more so if the Palestinian Authority as a party to the Arab summit meeting this weekend endorses the Saudi 2002 peace offer? Does he not also think that some consideration should be given, if a weakened Israeli Government remain unwilling to enter peace talks with the President of the Palestinian Authority, to the possibility of a first phase of talks in an indirect format with some body or bodies shuttling between the two sides in an effort to identify common ground?

My Lords, my understanding is that the Israeli Prime Minister and the President of the Palestinian Authority are not only willing to talk but are finding opportunities to do so. I believe that we may, as I said a few moments ago, be a little way short of being certain about how this Government will perform, but I hope that we will all look at this with the utmost sympathy, looking for the opportunities in a way which does not use the language of preconditions. But we need the right mood music. The Israelis must also feel that they will be talking to people who do not desire their elimination.

My Lords, is not the prudent approach to congratulate King Abdullah not only on his initiative when he was not king in respect of the 2002 Arab peace initiative but also on the Mecca agreement? However, we must also recognise that the new Palestinian Government have to show by results what their real policy is. It would be wholly premature, at this early stage, to move to recognition when we do not know, for example, what their policy is on the Israel renunciation of violence or the other criteria of the quartet.

My Lords, I have tried to emphasise the importance, from the point of view of the EU and the quartet, of those understandings being made explicit. However, the Saudi Arabians have done the world a great favour in taking the steps which have helped bring these two parts of the Palestinian people together so that there is the prospect of a discussion.