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Israel and Palestine: Negotiations

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they expect negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel to resume.

My Lords, we are concerned about the escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel. The rocket attacks against Israel are terrorist acts seeking to undermine the peace process. The leaders of the Palestinian Authority need support in their search for peace. We are concerned about their decision to suspend negotiations with the Israeli Government, and hope that the talks will be swiftly resumed. Peace will be brought to the region only through the political process.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that the strongest condemnations of Israel in the past few days have often come from many worthy NGO and other groups in Israel itself, and that a recent poll in Israel showed that 65 per cent of respondents were in favour of opening talks with Hamas? Will the Government now please have an urgent discussion with their US partners to remind them solemnly that if they persist in vetoing every UN resolution, as that country has done over 30 times since 1967, Mr Olmert naturally has no need to obey international law and the Geneva conventions forbidding attacks on civilians, and the hapless Palestinians will never get the independent state that George Bush promised them four years ago?

My Lords, what really matters is that we should go on working closely with our international partners to support the US-led process that was initiated at Annapolis. The visit of Secretary of State Rice to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, which ends today, demonstrates continued US support. All our efforts must be to ensure that this is a year of progress.

Of course we are committed to Israel's security and its right to self-defence but we agree that measures taken in response to rockets must be in accordance with international law, minimising the suffering of innocent civilians and maximising the scope for political negotiations to be restarted.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the rockets that were fired at Israel were fired at civilians and that the attacks were on civilians? If there is to be peace in the area, negotiations towards a peaceful solution should be restarted as soon as possible, because they are the best way of ensuring the continuation of the state of Israel in peace and a sovereign Palestinian state alongside it. The 60 rockets that were fired last week were not good for that peaceful solution. Do Her Majesty's Government agree that the Government of Israel have been left with no choice but to act out of self-defence when there are such attacks, and that it is an intolerable situation that cannot last? Hamas must renounce violence if there is to be peace.

My Lords, we agree that the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, which have increased very much in number in the course of the last week with more powerful rockets than have been used before, are a matter of huge concern to the Israeli civilian population. We are committed to Israel's security and its right to self-defence. But, as I have already said, measures must be in accordance with international law. We want to get the parties back to the peace table as quickly as possible because only there can a peaceful future be decided.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that now is the time to reconsider with our European colleagues our policy of refusing to deal with Hamas? We should use those contacts and our contacts with the Israeli Government to persuade both sides to stop this deplorable round of retaliatory military action and to revive the proposal made by Hamas a long time ago for a truce, which was supported by the Arab summit in Mecca and rejected by the Israeli Government.

My Lords, the key to making progress is to support the US-led process. All our efforts are behind that. We will not do anything that might undermine that process. That includes, I am afraid, talking to Hamas unless there is some significant movement in relation to the three quartet principles. Those principles were not set unreasonably high. They are accepting non-violence, accepting recognition of Israel and accepting previous agreements and obligations. It is not asking a lot to agree to those principles. If Hamas accepted them, it should be brought into the process.

My Lords, at the time of the Annapolis conference some months ago, many of us urged that it was no use seeing it as a one-off conference which would then produce a peace development out of a hat: it had to be part of a sequence of conferences building to a greater understanding between Israel and Palestine. Are the British Government pursuing that line of thought? We try to be balanced in this House; I sometimes admire the way that people such as the noble Lord, Lord Janner, speak up against a hostile attitude and opinion all round, but we must be balanced. In this case, could the noble Lord, Lord Janner, and many others who admire Israel—as I do in many respects—please convey to the Israeli Government the doctrine of proportionate response rather than the idea that the only way to deal with an attack on Israel, which is utterly illegitimate, is a response so violent that it is out of all proportion, which leads to violence and misery all around?

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord’s point, but I think that his question is not really addressed to me. However, I agree with him—if this is what he was saying—that balance is absolutely necessary if we are to proceed with the peace process.

My Lords, while condemning the rocket attacks on Israel it is important that we also acknowledge the real ferocity of the Israeli response, which many people believe was disproportionate. The role of the Arab League in trying to persuade the parties to come back to the negotiating table is enormously important. Many admire the role that Jordan and Egypt have played in particular. What can my noble friend tell us about their attitudes?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot assist the House as regards the Arab League’s statements made since last week’s events began. However, we very much welcome its work to take forward the Arab peace initiative. Frankly, the history of the Middle East shows that without active engagement and support from Arab states the momentum for progress cannot be maintained. The international community has a key role to play in moving forward the peace process, and that is particularly true of the Arab League.