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Israel and Palestine: Negotiations

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 2 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government what support they are giving to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in their peace negotiations.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to open this debate. This is a very opportune moment for us to consider what roles the UK might play in the ever changing and confusing set of events being played out in the Middle East. I am sorry that the many noble Lords who have kindly put their names down to speak will have only two minutes, so I hope they will not waste too much time thanking me.

They say a week is a long time in politics; even a day seems a long time in the Middle East. On the one hand, we have cause for optimism in the discussions between Syria and Israel, brokered by Turkey; between Hamas and Israel, initiated by Egypt; between Hezbollah and Israel, brokered by Germany; and those between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas—a bewildering series of simultaneous initiatives. On the other hand, we have Hamas continuing to arm itself and maintaining its rhetoric of death and destruction for Israel; Syria and Iran increasing their hold on Lebanon through support of Hezbollah with thousand upon thousand of increasingly sophisticated rockets; Israel maintaining a severe grip on the West Bank; and Iran spouting destruction for Israel, while building its nuclear capability. Even today we have the terrible news of a lone Palestinian running amok in Jerusalem with a bulldozer and killing several Israelis who were going about their business.

All those have a bearing on how we consider the talks between Israel and the Palestinians and I will comment, rather briefly I am afraid, on some of them. First, the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, brokered by Egypt, did not happen overnight. It must have taken many months of secret negotiation, but it is clear that this is a ceasefire and not a peace agreement. Many, in Israel at least, are quite unconvinced that it will last while Hamas remains committed to Israel's destruction. But let us be thankful for small mercies: the residents of Sderot can begin to emerge from their cellars as there is a lull in the perpetual rain of rockets to which they have been subjected for the past couple of years, and the civilians of Gaza can breathe more easily as Israel refrains from responding. Of course, this may be seen simply as a lull or as the beginning of a beginning of a process. Certainly, when Israel withdrew from Gaza it was not to start a war but to start a peace.

Is there anything that the UK Government can usefully do to help Egypt in this endeavour? I ask the Minister whether we can offer support and perhaps technical assistance for the efforts to prevent the smuggling of arms from Egypt into Gaza and for the release of Corporal Shalit. Can we also take advantage of the extremely valuable role Egypt can play in the negotiations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority? Palestinian unity would make it rather simpler for them and the Israelis to negotiate. Then there is Hezbollah; even there, indirect discussions brokered by Germany have seen some softening, with prisoner exchanges for Israeli soldiers—we still do not know if they are alive or dead—and even the Shebaa farms appear to be on the agenda.

However, the most significant talks of all are those sponsored by Turkey between Syria and Israel. Syria holds the key and vital opportunities must not be allowed to slip there: we in the UK can play an important role. Syria is closely allied with Iran in many ways, but while Iran is ideologically and theologically driven to destroy Israel, Syria is rather more pragmatic. President Assad is under pressure to improve the parlous economic difficulties his country faces. Neither his own position nor that of his minority ruling Alawi sect is entirely secure. He would gain considerable clout internally if he were to regain the Golan Heights. That is on the table, but would come at a price: a peace treaty with Israel, the cessation of support for terrorist groups in Lebanon and Gaza and a reduction in ties with Iran—a set of tall orders indeed.

The Golan alone is unlikely to be enough for Syria to accept Israel’s terms, yet Israel by itself has little else it could offer. That is where the international community must come in. We should consider what incentives we can provide and what aid, trade and legitimacy we can offer in an effort to bring it back to a pro-western stance. Here, we should begin by trying to persuade the USA to drop its resistance to discussions with Syria. Heavens, if Israel, which has most to fear, can talk to Syria, surely the US can.

The potential dividends are large. An agreement with Syria would see a reduction of its support for Hezbollah and allow Lebanon a little more breathing space. That would, in turn, make relations between Israel and Lebanon, which have not been historic enemies, much more normal. Hamas in Gaza would receive less military support and its leadership in Damascus would be removed—there is already talk of that, incidentally—which would, in turn, encourage Hamas to engage more constructively with the Palestinian Authority and hence with Israel. Here, we should again enlist the support of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Their voices are rather more likely to be listened to and their aims, in this at least, coincide with our own. What discussions are the Government having with the USA to persuade them to take an interest, and with the other Middle East countries in taking this forward?

On the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, their two leaders, both very weak domestically, have been meeting frequently. Perhaps much more significantly, their negotiating teams have been deeply engaged in closely guarded discussions for months. Both sides have much to gain from a successful outcome, but both will have to make sacrifices, which have captured the attentions of those at extreme ends of the political spectrum on both sides. They will have to be faced and dealt with. Meanwhile, the details are, no doubt, being worked on: water supplies, roads and routes, security measures and so on. Yet it is already clear what overall shape the likely outcome will have.

It is likely to include Israel’s withdrawal from over 96 per cent of the West Bank and the dismantling of all but two of the settlement towns heavily embedded in the Jerusalem suburbs, with some geographic compensation elsewhere—the only settlements, incidentally, where some Israeli building is allowed in the West Bank—and the handing over of east Jerusalem to the PA. All those have already been mooted by Mr Olmert; in return, the Palestinians will have to ensure the security of the West Bank and temper their desire for the right of return of the three generations of Palestinians from pre-1948 Palestine, a demand which would see the end of Israel as Israel.

Neither side gets all it wants, and there is resistance, but one feasible way through that depends on the fact that 70 per cent of Israelis and a similar proportion of Palestinians seem strongly in favour of a two-state solution. Certainly, that is clear if the 650,000 members of the organisation One Voice, in equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians, are anything to go by. If the plan was announced and followed by the dissolution of parliaments on both sides and elections called on the basis of that plan, I suspect that it would be strongly supported. Of course, Hamas as well as the right in Israel would go wild, but the vote will be against them by a population sick and tired of war and killing, and they are likely to be isolated. Iran would be incensed, but there is nothing new there.

Some would say that this is an unrealistic and wildly optimistic view of one possible outcome, but here in the UK we need to strain every muscle to support whatever agreement is reached. We should resist the temptation to offer criticism of one or other party—usually Israel, I am afraid. That has absolutely no impact and makes us even easier to ignore. Instead of futile and counterproductive activities, such as the academic boycotts sponsored by the University and College Union, we should seek avenues for increased collaboration between the UK and the Middle East, especially at a time when leaders in the region are talking ever more to each other.

What support are the Government giving to Egypt in the mediation between Hamas and Israel? What influence are we bringing to bear on the US and the quartet to induce Syria into an agreement with Israel, and what pressure are we putting on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to play a much more active role in promoting the peace process? Finally, what support will my noble friend give to Israel and the Palestinians as they come to announce the results of their discussion and can he expand, in particular, on the aid so desperately needed by the Palestinians, which hangs so tantalizingly on a successful outcome?

My Lords, we must all necessarily speak in shorthand this evening. My wife’s family has lived in the east part of Jerusalem for well over a century, so for the past 40 years I have been visiting the area and have been in touch with friends there of all religions. The United Nations records that, to the end of May this year, 397 Palestinians have been killed as a direct result of the conflict. In the same period, 24 Israelis have been killed. Now, it is important to us all that terrorists do not get their way by force but, equally, Israel cannot get peace by such force and repression alone. That breeds defiance and extremism, as does crushing the economy of both the West Bank and Gaza by the wall and by checkpoints and controls.

The two-state solution is Israel’s best hope for real peace, as well as Palestine’s. Only agreement can bring real peace and only talking to everyone concerned can bring agreement. The outline of a solution is well known, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, has just indicated. I hope that the Government will give every support that they possibly can to the talks and to any agreement thereby reached.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, on securing this debate. I am horrified, once again, by events in Jerusalem today and send my sincere condolences to the people involved. I was horrified, too, by the treatment of Mohammed Omer, a prize-winning journalist, who had briefed parliamentarians here this week before attempting to go home to Gaza, only to be beaten unconscious at the Allenby Bridge while an official from the Dutch embassy, who had facilitated his visit, was waiting for him. I am horrified by the rockets from Gaza terrorising Israelis, by the suicide bombers, by the helicopter gunships on their deadly missions, the monstrous security wall, the checkpoints and the permit systems. I am horrified by and do not condone any of those things, but I can understand why they have happened.

I do not condone or understand the relentless expansion of the settlements on Palestinian land in defiance of the Geneva Conventions. I do not condone, but have tried to understand, the failure of the international community—despite strong words of criticism—to take action against Israel. I am beginning to understand the power of the Israel lobby, active here as well as in the USA, with AIPAC, the Friends of Israel and the Board of Deputies. They take vindictive actions against people who oppose and criticise the lobby, getting them removed from positions that they hold and preventing them from speaking—even on unrelated subjects in my case. I understand their methods. I have many examples. They make constant accusations of anti-Semitism when no such sentiment exists to silence Israel’s critics. If Israel is not persuaded to obey UN resolutions, and especially to start dismantling the settlements in the West Bank, anti-Semitism will again stalk Europe. Israel will never have peace and the world will never be free of terrorism unless this problem is resolved first. Attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq—and Iran next—are not the answer. They have created more terrorism. The answer is a peaceful and just settlement for Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel holds most of the cards.

My Lords, I have three brief questions to put to the Minister. First, will he confirm HMG’s continuing support for the quartet's search for a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem and can he assure the House that HMG will not allow the French initiative for a Mediterranean union—admirable though that may be—to divert attention from this absolute priority?

Secondly, will he confirm HMG's support for the indirect dialogue between the Israelis and the Syrians taking place in Istanbul? On a recent visit to Syria, I detected some doubt among Syrian officials and Ministers about whether HMG, or indeed the United States Government, were fully in support of this very brave initiative on both sides. It would be good to have a strong statement of support from the Minister.

Thirdly—and I hesitate to add a critical note to my intervention in a debate which I know is intended to be helpful to both sides, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for his speech—will the Minister confirm that we continue to press the Israeli Government to end and, indeed, reverse all settlement expansion in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, as agreed in the quartet’s road map and can he report any success from these approaches?

My Lords, I unreservedly thank my noble friend Lord Turnberg for this debate and for the balanced and constructive way in which he introduced it. We all have a responsibility to support those brave people who have made the present negotiations possible. In talking about that, we must talk not least about the courageous people in Israel, in the armed services for example, who have resolutely opposed extremism by Israel in its policies.

I shall make two observations. First, peace building is a complex and long-term process. Extreme patience—if that is not a contradiction in terms—is necessary. It means being inclusive and involving everybody who can possibly be involved in the process among the immediate parties and people in the region. It is not a matter of limiting talks to the people with whom it is easier to talk. It is a matter of bringing into the talks the people with whom it is difficult to talk. That is why the Hamas dimension is so important and why it is so naive to suppose that there is a homogenous position within it rather than pluralism, which we should be building on.

Secondly, we must give people a stake in wanting peace to continue. That means that the terrible economic and social suffering that is the truth of Gaza and the West Bank at the moment has to be overcome. There is a direct link between the economic and social priorities and the priorities of the political dimension.

It is time that we all got back to understanding why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles of international law are so important. If any situation demonstrated that we must think of people primarily as people, not as one ethnic group or another, it is the Middle East.

My Lords, the prospects for peace would be enormously enhanced if Hamas could bring itself to recognise Israel. In its short lifetime, Israel has faced Arab armies and cries of “Kill the Jews”. More rockets have fallen on its towns and villages than descended on London in World War 2. Israel is never going to capitulate to that or to the shrill screams of the Iranian president. More Jews—over 800,000—were obliged to leave Arab lands and settle in Israel than Palestinians left beleaguered Israel. Of course, Israel has made grievous mistakes: the increase in settlements and the innocent Arabs killed or maimed—although they were deliberately rendered vulnerable by Hamas. The invasion of the Lebanon is yet another example of ineptitude. Faced by potential extinction, tragedies occur.

The struggle between Israel and Hamas has been exported. In many of our universities, Jewish students have been savagely attacked simply because they are Jews. Dialogue has been replaced by violence. However, there are rays of hope. Let us hope that the ceasefire between Israelis and Arabs can become more durable and that the talks with Abbas can be worth while. An Israeli body preaches that Jewish and Arab landowners can live in peace. Some 77 per cent of Arabs want to continue to live in Israel; 66 per cent of Israeli Jews want Arab children to be taught in Jewish schools; and 69 per cent of them support a two-state solution. There are tremendous hurdles in the way of peace, but there is still a viable way ahead.

My Lords, in contributing to this important and well balanced debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, I am aware that I need to be brief, so I have restricted myself to asking only two questions of Her Majesty's Government. First, have they urged moderate Arabs not simply to sit on the fence but to influence the Palestinian Authority by supporting it financially and encouraging it to involve itself seriously in dialogue? Secondly, do Her Majesty's Government think that today’s horrific incident in Jerusalem will encourage Israelis to find work for and to intermingle with the Palestinians? That is something that they need to do, but these awful attacks must stop.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for introducing this important debate, especially at this crucial and delicate time during negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Annapolis process is vital as an opportunity that must be grasped fully, as the consequences of failure could be dire.

On recent visits to Israel and the West Bank, and I have made many of them, I have met leaders on both sides. They all seem to believe that 2008 is a make-or-break year, so Her Majesty’s Government must continue to play whatever part it is possible for them and us to play in a positive process. I welcome the financial support pledged by our Government at the donors’ conference for Palestinian economic development in Paris last December in support of a two-state solution. It is now vital that Her Majesty's Government and the wider international community help to sustain that momentum towards a lasting solution. I am sure that Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas agree. They meet twice a month and their negotiating teams come together regularly to discuss final-status issues. We must support, help and accelerate those negotiations. The alternative to talking is a return to the terrible violence that ended the peace process at Camp David in 2000, which we saw today and a little of which we perhaps heard a moment or two ago.

The truce with Hamas is welcome and especially necessary for the people of Sderot and Gaza. But Hamas must remain outside the mainstream peace talks while it fails to recognise Israel and its right to exist and to fulfil the quartet’s other guiding principles. Every effort must continue speedily to recognise the goal of an Israel that is free from daily threats of terror, with secure borders, alongside a viable and fully functioning Palestinian state. That is what the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Palestinians crave and deserve and I hope that it will soon become a reality.

My Lords, the best single form of support that Her Majesty’s Government can provide would be to bring Fatah and Hamas together. They may not immediately be able to form a national unity Government, but they could have a joint or a co-ordinated team to negotiate with Israel. That would greatly improve the chances of acceptance of any agreement among all Palestinians.

The West has, alas, done much to divide the Palestinian side. It should support the Saudis and others who have worked to bring about a brief Government of national unity. The West should put its weight behind the Arab League peace initiative, which was first proposed in 2003. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, that the West and Her Majesty’s Government should back up the efforts of Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Germany in mediating distinct aspects of the limping peace process. Finally, we, and the European Union, should ensure that our money support is spent in the most constructive ways possible, which has not always occurred in past years.

My Lords, one of the most odious aspects of the Middle East conflict is the continuous demonisation of one side by the other. Both Israelis and Palestinians are guilty, which is why so many of us, including OneVoice, are doing all that we can to bring young people of both communities together. There is a piece of graffiti that horribly and poignantly highlights this demonisation. I have seen it on the West Bank and I see it throughout Europe. It is the sign of the Star of David, followed by an equals sign, followed by a swastika. Its message is clear: by a perversity of logic, it is deemed that Israel, which was created by the victims of the Nazis, has become the new Nazi state.

The same mindset equally demonises Israel as being an apartheid state. Apartheid in South Africa was the legalised removal of most rights from all non-white people. That is not Israel. Indeed, the opposite is true. Within its borders, Israel has an Arab minority of more than 1 million citizens, who comprise 20 per cent of the population. All Israeli Arabs and Druze have full voting rights. Eleven Arabs are vocal Members of the Knesset; the Minister without portfolio is an Arab; so, too, is the Deputy Speaker. An Arab holds a seat on the Supreme Court. It is odd—is it not?—that in Britain, where we have more than 2 million Muslims, very few hold such high offices of state. But in Israel they do. Arabs can attend any university in Israel. They comprise 20 per cent of the student population at the University of Haifa. Israeli Arabs can eat at any restaurant they choose, go to any cinema they want or fall in love with any person they like and marry whomever they choose. Does that sound like an apartheid state? I do not think so.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for introducing this debate. I am a proud Zionist, who is filled with even more pride at Israel’s celebration of its 60th birthday. Israel is a vibrant society. It is completely democratic and desires peace more than anything else. If only its neighbours wanted peace, and believed in the sanctity of life and in democracy, then peace could be achieved. I welcome the Government’s efforts to achieve this objective, but Iran casts a giant shadow over the entire civilised world. It would help enormously if it would stop supplying arms and know-how to Hezbollah and Hamas. We cannot expect democracy to happen overnight in the area, but we should encourage it as far as we can.

We must not believe that some things are possible when they are not. Self-delusion is a terrible thing. So I must say loud and clear that the Palestinian refugee problem is the problem of the Arab states and not of Israel. We must remember that Israel took in nearly 1 million Jews who were kicked out of Arab countries. Israel believes that the refugees belong to the neighbouring countries and not to Israel. The problem of Jerusalem remains. Israel believes that it is the eternal capital of Israel and anyone who visits knows that all religions can practise their faith without impediment.

These few comments come as a result of my being in Israel on a regular basis and being aware of many conversations with the public and the politicians. I hope that the Government, through the Minister, will work hard to achieve the goal of peace and I wish him and all interested parties much success.

My Lords, first, I must apologise to the Lord Speaker for my mobile phone going off. I did not even know that I had it in my pocket. I declare an interest as a long-standing member of Labour Friends of Israel and president of the Trade Union Friends of Israel. I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Turnberg not just for securing the debate but for the balanced overview that he gave, which has saved a lot of noble Lords from having to repeat some of his pleas and hopes for the various talks that are going on.

Mention has been made of OneVoice. I wonder whether the Minister is aware that these brave and courageous young people have collected 650,000 signatures from Israeli and Palestinian youth. They want the authorities to accept the need to get an understanding and to make the parallel state a reality; they want politicians to stop talking and to get on with creating a better future. Besides the 650,000 signatures, OneVoice has created 1,230 young leaders who are,

“prepared to educate and mobilise all sectors of their societies behind its goals”.

As it said in a recent publication,

“this is just the beginning”.

Last week, I met some Palestinian doctors and teachers who were very concerned about the problems that they are facing in trying to teach deaf and dumb children in Jenin. The Jenin Charitable Society came here at the invitation of the Montessori education group and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, arranged for some of us to meet its representatives. Time is not available to go through what they drew to my attention, but I undertake to give the Minister a note of that meeting, so that he can address issues such as the confiscation of computers.

My time is up. For those who criticise Israel, I have one statistic: not as many bombs fell on this city—some of us were living here at the time—in all the weeks of the Second World War as rain on Israel in one week now.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, to whom we are indebted for this debate, I welcome the recent meetings between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert and I very much hope that they will bring the two sides closer together. Perhaps the recent ceasefire brokered by Egypt, which came into effect two weeks ago, is of more immediate importance, because there is now a pressing need to ease the blockade on Gaza as soon as possible to alleviate the dreadful humanitarian suffering there, with people being denied medicines and fuel.

Does the Minister agree that no party should take provocative actions that could break the ceasefire and that this should include the need to cease all settlement building in the West Bank, particularly in Jerusalem? I fully recognise that that is a two-edged sword, but I understand that Libya is to raise this issue at the UN Security Council in an attempt to seek a resolution on the subject. But the UK, the US and France are opposing the text. Will the Government propose an alternative text to the resolution so that at least the issue might be highlighted again in the context of the ceasefire?

If the two-state solution that many people want to see is to be achieved, it is incumbent on both sides to make meaningful concessions. I believe that there cannot be lasting progress without a halt to the settlement building, which recently, and quite remarkably, even President Bush has criticised in strong terms.

Last week in another place, the Foreign Secretary stated that there has not been a Middle East peace process for seven years. There is one now. It is precious and we need to ensure that we make some progress. I very much hope that the Government will play their part in bringing about that progress.

My Lords, it seems to me that this debate is about the humiliation of the Palestinians by Israel and the response of the Israelis to terror and threats to their existence. I, too, am concerned that neither side seems to know how to stop before this leads to war, perhaps even nuclear war. That is the political situation that we hear and read about; that is what the negotiations, detailed by my noble friend Lord Turnberg, are all about.

However, there is another way. Away from the leadership, there is a lot of activity designed to encourage peace. My noble friends Lord Mitchell and Lord Clarke have mentioned the OneVoice youth movement, which brings young Israelis and Palestinians together to challenge their leaders. Physicians for Human Rights brings world-class medical attention to Israelis and Palestinians alike. My noble friend Lord Turnberg himself is active in arranging exchanges of Israeli and Palestinian medical students. Schools are being run with equal numbers of Israeli and Palestinian children. There are cultural and sports activities, as well as business activities and technology projects run from this country, designed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Inter-faith activities are also designed to bring them together.

Hardly a day goes by without our learning of some new activity or development of an existing activity to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. So my question to the Minister is this: what do the Government think about all this activity? Does it simply contribute to a feelgood factor, particularly among the organisers? Or do the Government think that eventually a critical mass might be reached that will overcome the leaders’ preoccupation with terror and humiliation and force peace from the bottom up?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, who secured this debate, started us off with a thoughtful and wise speech, thereby encouraging the considerable interests in your Lordships’ House to respond in a reflective way. We owe him a debt for that. The number of noble Lords who wished to participate and the passion with which they did so show the interest that there is in this place and the concern not only for Israelis and Palestinians but for the wider impact on the whole region and, indeed, the wider world.

In the short time available to me, there are a few specific issues that I wish to raise with the Minister. The first was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. He pointed out effectively that while you can have a political process among those who broadly agree on principle, a peace process must in essence involve those who have the most profound, deep and even violently expressed disagreements. Therefore, any process that is not inclusive and does not bring to the talks those who are responsible for at least some of the violence cannot truly, in the end, be a peace process.

Of course, there has to be a recognition that military solutions of any kind will not resolve the problem. That is why, interestingly, in speaking with some Iraqi parliamentarians recently, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Mr Martin McGuinness, made it clear that they would end up talking with each other. The only question was whether it would be in one year, five years or 10 years. He said that it was his experience that there was no military solution either for the British Government or for the IRA. I take the same view, with regard not just to Iraq but to the region that we are discussing tonight. In the end, those involved will talk with one another. The question is: how many lives will be lost and how much more destruction will take place before then?

The issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, is relevant. There was a time when the impression was given that Her Majesty’s Government were supportive of all talks; then it seemed that we would not accept and would exclude Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Have the Government moved? Are they really committed to these kinds of engagements? It is possible to show support by explaining the painful process that Her Majesty’s Government went through as they found a need, in the end, to engage with the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries. They said that they would never engage with them but, for the cause of peace, they had to. That, perhaps, would be a real measure of support to Israelis and Palestinians in their profoundly difficult task.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, on securing this debate. I also congratulate the many noble Lords who took part and managed to keep within the time limit in a quite remarkable way. That is worthy of note.

There was a considerable advantage in having a time limit, which the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice—whose contribution I enjoyed—might recognise. I refer to the term “whataboutery”. We used it in Northern Ireland about people who wanted to get into a debate about who did what to whom, when, who was right and who was wrong. There is no doubt that there is even more whataboutery available to people who wish to get involved with regard to the Middle East than even we experienced. I congratulate noble Lords on having a degree of restraint with regard to whataboutery tonight.

The key point that noble Lords came back to again and again was that there is a talks process in existence. A number of people were pessimistic about the talks process when it began; it seemed a forlorn hope. But, as noble Lords said, there have been significant developments. We have seen a ceasefire from Hamas, brokered by Egypt, and there are contacts taking place with Syria, facilitated by Turkey. It is significant to see two of the major powers in the region, in terms of size, population and power, involved positively. It is a pity that the third comparable power, Iran, is not involved and is not making a positive contribution. It could make a positive contribution.

I do not want to get involved in a discussion about the contacts, the distinction between contacts and talks and the question of whether people are being included or excluded. The key question is whether people are in a position to make a contribution, whether they are in the same ballpark, whether they will engage in serious discussions or whether discussions with them would send the wrong signals. That is a different issue entirely.

I had the pleasure of being at a conference in Jordan recently. It enjoyed wide participation and a good range of contributions. What stuck in my mind was a sentence from Shimon Peres, who addressed the conference. He of course said that he would not discuss the talks, except to say that in all practical matters they were close to agreement, but that the emotional matters had become heavier and more difficult. That is worth reflecting on; one could see practical matters being resolved. That view coincides with what many people have thought—that a deal is there to be made if people are able to make it, but what holds them back is that it would involve huge emotional shifts. For the Palestinians, it would mean the acceptance of a Jewish state; for the Israelis, it would mean the division of the state and the division of the city to which they are so strongly attached. Those are of equal weight.

I hope that the Israelis and Palestinians will be able to overcome those emotional problems. I hope that the wider Arab community will support the Palestinians. I know that there is plenty of support in some elements within Israel for what is to be done and I hope that Her Majesty's Government are supportive of this. I fear that the problem, spelt out for us by noble Lord, Lord Bew, in the previous short debate on this subject, is the hatred that exists. That reinforces the emotional problems and difficulties. We all hope that they will be overcome and we look forward to hearing from the Minister what Her Majesty’s Government are able to contribute to the process.

My Lords, I join those who have thanked my noble friend Lord Turnberg for tabling this Question. I assure everybody in the House that the Middle East peace process continues to be a high priority for this Government as well as a topic of great interest to this House. The UK remains committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, was going to suggest that we apply a two-minute rule to peacemaking in the Middle East because it would perhaps have produced a result in Ireland, too. I look forward to the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Trimble, proposing as a lesson from Northern Ireland time limits on peacemaking, because we have, after all, been working at a Middle East solution for a very long time and recognise that huge obstacles remain to be overcome. However, recent events have also shown that progress can sometimes be made quickly where there is the political will.

Listening to the contributions this evening, I was struck by the need for all of us to be realistic about the role of Her Majesty's Government. We have a role which comes from our history and knowledge of the region, from our diplomatic energy and from the values that we apply. It comes, too, from the interest taken in this House as well as in another place and by so many Britons whatever their political persuasion. Nevertheless, despite deep yearning on all sides for peace in the Middle East, we must recognise that we are not a front-line player, but a supporter of the quartet and the friends of peace on both sides of this dispute. We can play a role in providing diplomatic support and suggestions as to creative means for moving issues forward; we can, as is being seen in Gaza, help generate and stimulate private sector activity; we can support security sector reform. However, we are dependent on our ability to work with the quartet, with our EU partners and with other friends and allies.

That is one reason why we were encouraged by the Annapolis conference. Not only did it see substantial political movement from both sides but it recreated a framework where people of good will could press to move things forward. We saw President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert commit to fortnightly meetings. We saw them both restate their commitment to the road-map obligations, which means improving Palestinian security but also a freeze on Israeli settlements. The US undertook to monitor this process as the country best placed with both sides to play that role. All parties agreed to seek to conclude negotiations by the end of 2008. The conference was a signal of renewed international commitment to the peace process. It was remarkable for a particularly strong Arab attendance. I say in response to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that the moderate Arabs were there in force.

We are deeply committed to supporting these peace negotiations. The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have been engaged. Both have spoken regularly to the key actors involved. The Foreign Secretary visited the region on 8 and 9 June, which was his second visit this year. Both he and the Prime Minister have been very clear in their message: we support the Annapolis process and expect all parties to fulfil their road-map obligations as part of it. I therefore repeat for the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and others that this means Israel must freeze all settlement activities and that the Palestinians must work hard to improve their security sector.

London has supported that in every way in which it is able. We were the stage for discussions on the political process. On 2 May, the Government hosted the ad hoc liaison committee meeting of major donors to the Palestinian Authority. The quartet also met on the same occasion, as did the Arab quartet. The Foreign Secretary met key figures involved in the process, offering our support.

One area in which we can make a particularly significant contribution is support for the Palestinian economy, because if there is to be a two-state solution, we must have a viable Palestinian economic as well as political state. Economic and social development in the Occupied Territories remains a cornerstone of the Government’s approach. We have committed to helping the Palestinian Authority through very difficult economic times. We continue to do all we can to support Prime Minister Fayyad’s Government, who have the necessary experience to implement difficult and far-reaching reforms that will create the viable Palestinian state that is necessary if peace is to be sustainable. In December last year, the international community pledged, as noble Lords know, a remarkable $7.7 billion at the Paris donor conference in support of Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan. The UK has committed £243 million in support of the Palestinian Authority over three years, linked to political progress, which represents a substantial increase in the Government’s assistance.

While we recognise that the private sector is stunted by the Israeli occupation, we felt that more could be done. There must be a viable private sector. Investors need to be drawn in early if we are to create the right climate for the private sector that will underpin the Palestinian state. Therefore, in May, the UK co-sponsored with the United States the Palestinian Investment Conference, held in Bethlehem. The Prime Minister spoke at a curtain-raiser earlier in the month with Tony Blair and Prime Minister Fayyad. Investment agreements worth £70 million were initialled. That saw more than 500 Arab businessmen and 100 Gaza businessmen enter Bethlehem, which sends an extraordinary signal.

The third crucial element to progress between the Israelis and Palestinians is Palestinian security. One of the key obligations set out in the road map, Palestinian security, is vital. The UK has long been at the forefront of supporting reform of the Palestinian security sector. In June, Germany hosted an important conference in Berlin to galvanise support in this area. The UK announced that it will spend £2.7 million in 2008 on security sector reform and has set aside more for the next three years to improve civil justice and public prosecution.

The EU also has a role in training the Palestinian civil police. The UK has been a long-standing contributor to the European police mission in the Occupied Territories. We provide three officers to the mission and have allocated £1.2 million of our funding to support Palestinian policing needs in 2008. We also support the US co-ordinator, General Dayton, in his effort to reform the Palestinian national security forces. The Palestinians are serious about security reform, which is absolutely critical to achieving peace. We will continue to provide all the support that we can for the will of the Palestinians to progress in this area.

The Foreign Secretary has been consistently clear that we should not forget about Gaza. Progress there is fundamental to easing the suffering both in Gaza itself and in southern Israel. I pay tribute not just to the One Voice youth movement but to all other civil society groups which try to find ways of building peace between the two communities. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, that far from their being just noise and things to make us all feel good, they build to a critical mass and a tipping point towards peace.

I turn to the improvements which have been referred to this evening. The products of old fashioned diplomacy matter, too. In this respect, the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas is a very welcome development. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Aboul Gheit, and I saw him yesterday in Sharm el-Sheikh. We both commended him on Egypt’s painstaking work to conclude this agreement. It is good news that the ceasefire has held so far, and it is vital that all sides do their utmost to keep to their commitments because, as was said, while it is just a ceasefire, a ceasefire precedes the building of trust and hence broader peace. Hamas and other militant groups must stop firing rockets into Israel, and Israel must work to reopen the crossings into Gaza. Equally, this agreement must be only a first step. When any Palestinian returning home is the subject of the kind of beating to which the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, referred earlier, we must condemn it. I ask her for details of that incident, so that we can look further into it.

The ceasefire presents an important opportunity to fully reopen the crossings between Gaza and Israel. That is crucial to addressing the dire humanitarian situation inside the country. We will press for industrial diesel and everything else to be let in as quickly as possible.

I shall say a word on the Israel-Syria talks, a subject raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and others. Peace between Israel and Syria would obviously have the potential to transform the broader Middle East peacemaking process. Therefore, let me be unequivocal in saying that we welcome the current peace talks between Syria and Israel, and commend Turkey for its mediation efforts. We see these talks as an important step forward and a way of building confidence in the region. Ultimately, Syria and the Golan Heights must be part of a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. This is why it also made sense for Syria to attend the Annapolis peace conference.

However, as has been said tonight, we equally recognise that a peace deal between Israel and Syria is not easily reached. We have made it clear to Syria on a number of occasions that a fundamental shift in its regional behaviour is required if part of the international community is to reach out to it more broadly. That means that Syria should move to normalise relations with Lebanon, including exchanging embassies and demarcating borders. It means that Syria should cease its support for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as for Hezbollah, which continues with Syria’s acquiescence to transfer arms through Syrian territory to Lebanon. Perhaps most importantly for the UK’s own security, Syria should tackle al-Qaeda head-on.

What has happened in recent weeks on the Syrian front and on the Israel-Hamas front show that when there is ingenuity of diplomacy and commitment by both sides, progress can be made. Therefore I too, in commending the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, again for introducing the debate, am proud that we can all take stock of the situation better than when we last addressed it in this House.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for behaving so perfectly during that debate. I beg to move that the House do now adjourn until 8.35 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.33 to 8.35 pm.]