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Israel and Palestine: Quartet

Volume 702: debated on Monday 16 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is the current policy of the quartet with regard to Israel and Palestine; and whether it has evolved since the Annapolis conference.

My Lords, despite many challenges, the Annapolis process continues to offer the best opportunity to achieve a sustainable, two-state solution. The quartet’s policy remains to support the process, including the ongoing dialogue between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert and wider negotiations between their teams. As the quartet noted in its statement following its 2 May meeting in London, there has been progress. However, it is evident that much remains to be done.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Surely current policy should evolve from past failures. Does he agree that, for years past, the rest of the world has been paying the economic and social costs of Israeli occupation and colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza? To mention just one factor, the budget of UNWRA for the current two years is more than $1 billion. Should not these matters that are so vital to world peace now be urgently reviewed?

My Lords, the noble Lord is of course correct that the cost of the Middle East conflict has been huge, not only to those immediately involved—Israel and its Palestinian neighbours—but to the broader donor community. We therefore all wish to see a resolution. The British Government have been quick to promise that, in the context of such a resolution, we would be generous supporters of peace and reconstruction within a two-state solution. This has been a long-standing and intractable problem, but I repeat that the Annapolis process and the quartet’s support for it offer a better path to peace than any other currently available.

My Lords, the US Secretary of State yesterday attacked the Israeli Government for continuing to expand settlements, particularly around Jerusalem. Is this the declared policy of the quartet? Will the quartet make known to the Israeli Government its concerted views about the unhelpfulness of this continued settlement expansion?

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, the quartet has always been opposed to illegal Israeli settlement and has recognised that it is an obstacle to peace. It is not for me to say whether the quartet would adopt the specific terms used by one of its members yesterday, but opposition to settlements has been a continuous part of quartet policy.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it would be helpful not to be one-eyed and selective in our approach and to recognise that, when Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, it was rewarded with a rain of rockets on its territory? Given the facts of the Annapolis initiative, when Condoleezza Rice said that there would be a solution by the end of the year, whereas Mahmoud Abbas has been highly dubious and downbeat of late, where do Her Majesty’s Government stand in the spectrum? Is there any serious prospect of a solution by the end of the year?

My Lords, Secretary Rice is the leader of the realist school of American foreign policy. Therefore, if she is optimistic, that gives us all some cause for hope. Obviously there are huge hills to climb between now and the end of the year, but I would put myself in the diplomatic camp known as “eternally optimistic”.

My Lords, the settlement situation that has been referred to is deplorable, particularly as part of Annapolis was that illegal settlement should be halted. That there should be building in the disputed areas of Jerusalem is miserable and I hope that we have made representations about it. However, perhaps I may turn to a slightly more hopeful aspect of Annapolis: the dealings between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights and a move towards a more reasonable Syrian position generally on both that and Lebanon. Will the noble Lord tell us a little more about that? What contributions are the British making towards that more hopeful development?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made a visit to the region, although, unfortunately, as I told the House last week, he had to come back before the Israel leg of it. However, the visit allowed him to focus on these wider issues of Lebanon and Syria. He was there to show that we support progress for peace on both those fronts.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the great problems with the continuation of the settlements and the line of the security wall is that the possible other independent state—the Palestinian state—is becoming increasingly economically unviable and, indeed, agriculturally unviable given the position of the aquifer? Can he give us any assurance that, in the Annapolis talks and their sequels, serious consideration is being given to how one can retain economic viability in this second independent state?

My Lords, we are not privy to all the internal discussions in the Annapolis process, which is a closely held one, but the economic viability of a Palestinian state is a core concern; it is particularly the preoccupation of Tony Blair in his role. I think that everybody agrees that the wall is not a long-term solution or part of a secure, safe and mutually recognised two-state solution.

My Lords, does the Minister recollect that, within the past fortnight, the head of state of a neighbouring Muslim country said that Israel will soon die and as a geographical entity will be expunged? Do not those words reflect the true jeopardy in which Israel still lives, 61 years after being formed as a sovereign state?

My Lords, the noble Lord is of course correct to remind us all that not everybody by any means in the Middle East yet even accepts the right of the state of Israel to exist. That is why it is such a closely held principle of the quartet that recognition of the right of Israel to exist is an absolute predeterminant and necessary condition for peace.

My Lords, particularly following on that last question, maybe it is as well to remember that it was the current King of Saudi Arabia, when Crown Prince, who espoused the two-state solution very early on in this process. Can my noble friend tell us what direct economic and political support this process is receiving from Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan?

My Lords, rather than giving the noble Baroness an incomplete answer, I shall write to her with details.