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EU: Gaza and the West Bank

Volume 704: debated on Monday 13 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government whether they will hold discussions with the European Union presidency and Commission to seek new initiatives to assist with the crisis in Gaza and the West Bank.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, with the whole world preoccupied with what I would still call the western world’s financial turmoil and crisis—although it has spread elsewhere as well—and with the whole world watching the campaign in the United States ahead of the 4 November elections, it would be understandable if this subject had gone off people’s radar screens recently.

However, when I originally planned this debate for around about this time of the year—that is, towards the last quarter of 2008, when the Palestinian state was supposed to have been created by what were anticipated to be fruitful negotiations—I had no idea, because anticipating the future is always impossible, that there would have been such little interest in the subject now. That is not to criticise people, but merely to state the reality that it has left the radar screen for the moment. I therefore welcome the opportunity afforded by this brief debate to bring it back on the radar as one of the most important remaining subjects for geopolitical resolution not only in the Middle East but the entire world. It has bedevilled many Governments and Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, with his authority as a former UN official of great distinction and skill, knows a lot about this subject. He, like others, must anticipate that, somehow and somewhere, we will be able to make progress from now on.

I make a few brief points tonight, in my Question for a short debate, in the hope that the Minister will give some answers. It has been a long time; when we had our first exchanges at the beginning of January, I well remember the Minister’s very forthright answer, when he said that of course a completely genuine, wholehearted sovereign Palestinian state must be created out of these negotiations—nothing less will do. Then we had the terrible tragedies of violence in March, with more than 100 civilians in Palestine killed from Israeli Government incursions. Those mercifully and happily dropped off after that, because even the most hard-line Israeli Minister realised that it was a real dead end to pursue that kind of policy. Ever since then there has been quiet and silence, with hardly any references to the subject, although there has been plenty of speculative material in the Israeli press. There has been very little in the United States press or the election campaign about the subject and there has been very little in this country at all.

There was an Independent editorial in March, which, sadly with justification, said towards the end:

“Far from helping to bring about the end of the Middle East’s most intractable dispute, Mr Bush deserves to go down in history as a US president who has worsened it immeasurably by wholly abandoning even the pretence that the US should act as an impartial referee in the Arab-Israeli dispute”.

Without wishing to criticise Barack Obama at all, it was characteristic of a leading American politician and a candidate for the American elections that he went to Israel for 24 hours on a visit—rightly, and I was delighted to see that—but spent only one hour visiting Palestine, which is supposed to be a side-by-side sovereign state in literally a few weeks.

That slippage is causing great concern among many people, as I am sure the Minister will concede. This House and Parliament need answers from the Government about what is happening. I have rightly criticised President Bush; many people are disappointed with how he has reacted in sending Condoleezza Rice on endless missions, which seem to have no concrete result or progress. I admit that there will be many behind-the-scenes negotiations and talks and, therefore, a lot that cannot necessarily be revealed; that would be encouraging if the Minister could at least allude to some of the progress being made. But I have my doubts about that. I speak as a friend of Israel of many years standing, and a more candid friend now because I think that Israel faces the need for greater urgency to ensure that these negotiations are at long last fruitful.

We have the frustrating delays of there being only a provisional, putative Prime Minister designate as head of the Kadima party after the withdrawal of the former Prime Minister Olmert. Despite his very optimistic noises in June and July when they thought they were getting close to achieving a deal, ever since then there has been a deafening silence.

I quote, too, from a Financial Times leading article from the end of March. It has always been a normative, standard friend of Israel, as we all are. We were all delighted—or I was personally—with the 60th anniversary this year of the celebration of the Israeli state. The FT is a moderate newspaper by any standards, but it said that,

“next week, the Arab League will re-present its spurned 2002 peace offer: Israel returns all occupied Arab land, including … east Jerusalem … in return for full peace … Israel and its friends should know that only war will come from continuing to spurn peace”.

Given the new, possible provisional Administration that may arise from the coalition-building that is going on in Israel, that may appear unfair, but that is what a lot of people pessimistically now feel about the situation.

I have a quote from Prime Minister Olmert from the end of September—this is a very striking statement, because very little had been said over that period, although we assume that there is a continuing format of more or less fortnightly negotiations going on, with senior figures in the outgoing Administration. There is a rather shaky tableau at the moment, and perhaps the Minister could give us more of a reply about the ongoing framework of these talks. Tzipi Livni herself referred to her regular meetings with the equivalent of the Palestinian Foreign Minister. We need to know more about that. At any right, on 30 September, Prime Minister Olmert said:

“I am saying what no previous Israeli leader has ever said. We should withdraw from almost all of the territories”.

Presumably he would have to say “almost” for Israeli public opinion.

In those exchanges earlier in the year, I asked the Minister whether he agreed—apparently he did—that more than 65 per cent of the Israeli public said that there must be talks, even with Hamas. We know that there has been the Hamas Hudna truce period suggestion, which was proposed for two years and which is still in place. The Israelis sought to ignore it originally but seem perhaps to have changed their minds about it. Coming up to date, last week the Israeli military commander of the occupied West Bank complained bitterly about the violence inflicted by extremist Israeli settlers on unarmed Palestinian residents, saying that it was getting worse and worse. There are other signs, too, of a very worrying situation, with the settlements apparently continuing to grow on the basis of a spurious formula by the Israeli authorities that there can be expansion of existing territorial footprint areas and not necessarily a brand new area. We all know how those things can be circumvented and manipulated to avoid the UN sanctions that might come if they do not respond to what the UN and the whole world community want.

The EU has been very disappointing in its portion of the quartet. We expected far more from it. The situation in Gaza is really desperate; it is estimated officially that well over 50 per cent of the population will be suffering directly from incipient and long-lasting malnutrition unless the territories return to normal. We pay tribute to all the NGOs, including Amnesty International, that have discussed that matter, as well as the settlements. It cannot continue to be the largest open-air prison in the world.

It is surely now time for Israel to show generosity, as it has so much and the Palestinians have so little. Mahmoud Abbas has shown great patience in prolonging these negotiations, without any help or encouragement from the Americans. Surely those who are true friends of Israel see where the dead end is developing for that country, although it so brilliantly celebrated 60 years of existence in the summer. What if the Palestinians said that they would give up their struggle for a separate Palestinian state? President Bush originally promised it at the end of 2005 and it is already three years later. People are saying that maybe it will go into 2009 now, as the talks are difficult, and so on. But this cannot go on. The British Government should not condone or be a party to that going on, unnecessarily and unfairly. If the Palestinians renounced their objective of a separate sovereign Palestinian state with all that entailed and said that there should be one territory, whatever the structure might be—one state—the Israelis would have lost their own separate Zionist state. How blind and narrow-minded is that?

I end by quoting from another person, whose words were reported on 28 September in a Sunday newspaper in Paris. He said:

“This is not really a classic political conflict between two countries or peoples. The causes are above all human. For this is the story of two peoples equally and profoundly convinced—in a different historical perspective—of their right to live on the same tiny piece of middle eastern land … It is thus necessary for both peoples to agree that both have this right. Then you follow up with all the practical points, the first one being should this be two states with two peoples or one combined state with two people … But the solution cannot just be done by the politicians. The whole of civil society must be involved. Why should this not include musicians?”.

I quote Daniel Barenboim, of course. If this is not done, the Palestinians cannot be left in limbo without a state of their own. The UN would have to respond and persuade the Americans to avoid yet another of the 32 vetoes that they have made so far since 1968 to stop this process going ahead.

I ask the Minister in all sincerity to give us a positive, tangible and realistic answer today about what is really happening with these negotiations and give us hope for a conclusion of this business, even if it is not at the end of the year then pretty close to it, once the American elections have been returned.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House appreciates the consistent way in which the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, keeps this issue before us—an issue that is so important not only for the people of the area but for international security as a whole. I declare an interest as a former director of Oxfam and as a member of the Friends of Oxfam, an organisation deeply involved in the area.

To those on the ground, the peace process still seems to be a virtual rather than substantial process. It has yet to deliver for ordinary Palestinians and Israelis. Certainly, there has been progress on reforming Palestinian institutions, but that will prove largely meaningless if the core issues are not addressed. There are now 630 movement restrictions in place as against 561 in November 2007. Indeed, Peace Now, the Israeli NGO, reports that tenders for 1,761 settlement buildings have been issued since Annapolis; a 38-fold increase on the previous year. It is all in danger of becoming a tragic charade, which has urgently to stop if peace is to be achieved.

Despite the very welcome reduction in violence by the Israeli Government and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza following the June truce, the lives of Gazans have hardly improved. Yes, increasing supplies of goods have been allowed into Gaza and Israel has allowed in more fuel, but draconian restrictions continue to remain in place for the movement of people and goods. No exports are leaving Gaza. According to the World Bank, that means that 98 per cent of all industrial operations remain closed. Some 80 per cent of the population are still dependent on aid to survive.

Diplomats from many Governments tell aid agencies and others that Gaza will not be open until Gilad Shalit is released. They explain that the politics are too difficult because of a growing split between Hamas and Fatah and they ask what Israel will do in any case if reconciliation is achieved. Frankly, that is not good enough; it amounts to condoning or de facto legitimising collective punishment. Urgent steps must be taken to open the Kami crossing, especially for exports, and stalled UN humanitarian programmes must be allowed to resume. Most of all, the international community must actively support Palestinian reconciliation and publicly support a national unity government if it is announced.

Of course I recognise that the UK has been very active, particularly around the quartet meeting last May, endeavouring to bring an end to the blockade of Gaza. But the Prime Minister did not mention Gaza in his speech to the Knesset during the summer; nor, on the same day that the quartet met on 26 September, did the Foreign Secretary in his speech to the Security Council. It would be helpful if my noble friend, whom I greatly respect, could tell the House what specific and effective steps the UK is demonstrably taking together with our European international partners to bring an end to the blockade.

My Lords, I too, welcome the fact that we have another debate on this issue. I must confess that I began to worry when I saw in the Motion put down by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, reference to “new initiatives”. One thing that we do not need is a new initiative. We want the existing initiatives to make progress. That is what we should focus on. We should also remember that difficult though it is to achieve, it is clear what the objective ought to be two viable states—a Jewish state and an Arab state—living side-by-side in peace. That is the objective to which we wish to see progress going.

I was concerned towards the end of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, when he seemed to drift off towards a one-state solution, which is not a solution. It would be a disaster. Any attempt to encourage that would be wrong. If we are going to get a two-state solution, we need to have two viable parties negotiating—one on behalf of Israel and one on behalf of Palestine. At the end of the day, it will have to be done by them. Obviously, help and encouragement will be provided by the European Union and the United States and they are clearly doing that already, but there is no substitute for those two parties engaging. As I see it, the problem is the division that exists within the Palestinians between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

I welcome the fact that a truce was brokered by the Egyptians and that has led to a reduction in violence in and around Gaza, but some worrying signs are there. Reference was made to humanitarian assistance and the potential for humanitarian problems in Gaza, but I noticed that, recently, Israelis checking a truck carrying humanitarian aid about to go through the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza found two tonnes of dual-purpose fertiliser, probably intended for the creation of explosives and explosive devices for the rockets that have come from that area in the past and to some extent continue to come from that there.

I am also concerned about reports that we heard on our own media this morning. A report on the “Today” programme said:

“Militant groups in Gaza are re-arming, training and preparing for a possible renewal of violence”.

If it turns out that the Hamas truce is tactical, that would be the greatest disservice that could be rendered to the people of Palestine. Although I appreciate the concern of the two noble Lords who have already spoken, I think that they are looking in the wrong direction to some extent. What we need is persuasion on Hamas to change and to facilitate genuine negotiations. The practical issues that have been mentioned so far are all capable of resolution. What we do not have are people who are committed to getting an agreement and speaking for the Palestinians. The potential exists for a solution. A solution along the lines that this House would welcome is one that the majority of Israelis now want—although not all. The majority of Israelis now want an arrangement that this House can be content with, but what we do not have is a viable party on the other side.

My Lords, I first express my disgust that this House spent three and a half hours discussing one amendment to the Counter-Terrorism Bill and yet we have one dinner hour only to discuss a problem that lies at the very roots of terrorism itself.

A recent report from the UN rapporteur on human rights said that settlement expansion, the wall, checkpoints and military areas have rendered 40 per cent of the West Bank inaccessible or unusable for Palestinians. Forty per cent of their original meagre share of Palestine is now useless. Nothing changes there except for the worst. The appalling humanitarian situation in Gaza is well known to noble Lords and I will not detail it, but only today I had a report from the UK branch of the Welfare Association of which I am a board member showing how aid is becoming less and less effective because of the lack of availability of goods and water. Everything is difficult to obtain, costs go up and projects are rendered near impossible. The UK Government protest but do nothing. The EU and the United Nations do likewise. Why? My efforts to find out why have got me into big trouble with the lobby of Israel’s supporters and I am sure I will again many times, but I take heart in the truly courageous activities of Jewish groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Peace Now. I hope that the House will join me in paying tribute to Irene Bruegel, the founder of Jews for Justice who died recently. She was an inspiration to fair-minded Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Peace Now activist Professor Zeev Sternhell was recently injured in a pipe bomb attack on his home by militant settlers, yet continues to campaign for a fair, two-state solution based on 1967 borders. Israel now has her own home-grown terrorists who are active against the Palestinians around the settlements but also against anyone in Israel who dares to support a two-state solution, like the activists in Peace Now.

I will use my remaining time to ask some direct questions of the Minister. What is Tony Blair doing exactly? Is there any progress to report? When will Hamas be brought into talks? If the answer is the usual, “When they agree to the principles set by the quartet”, why does the same not apply to Israel? What action are we taking to freeze settlement expansion, which Israel has promised? Why has the European Union extended the EU-Israel agreement when Israel has not fulfilled the legal obligations originally imposed? Finally, does the Minister agree that Israel must realise that long-term peace requires her to abandon the Zionist’s dream of a greater Israel and make peace with the Palestinians before it is too late?

My Lords, land is at the heart of the intractable dispute to which the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, has referred. I therefore address my remarks simply to the issue of Israeli settlement policy in Arab-occupied territory post-1967. This is steadily undermining any prospect for longer-term peace. We all know that the Balfour declaration led to the creation of a Jewish homeland, but we also know that the declaration said that,

“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Ever since, particularly since the Second World War, there has been a steady erosion of those rights.

We know from the United Nations Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in occupied Palestine that there are now 500,000 settlers in this area and 250,000 of them live illegally in eastern Jerusalem. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, said, 40 per cent of the West Bank is now made inaccessible and unusable for residential, agricultural, commercial and municipal development. The settlements began in this area in the 1970s, and have grown relentlessly ever since. We have a kind of fragmented Palestine—a kind of Middle Eastern Bantustan—which, ominously, was welcomed, according to a report in the Financial Times last week, by the leader of the Likud party, Mr Netanyahu.

Being deprived of land and homeland breeds despair and, in turn, violence, making the long-term peace settlement even more difficult to achieve. We all know that this policy contravenes international law. Article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring,

“parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.

It contravenes numerous Security Council resolutions and endless appeals from the European Union and the international community; indeed, the road-map process in 2003 demanded a cessation of settlements. Above all, the Americans give something like $3 billion a year, yet fail to stop this settlement policy. James Baker, the Secretary of State in the early 1990s, said:

“I don’t think that there is any bigger obstacle to peace than the settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an enhanced pace”.

I am a great believer in the wonderful aspects of the Jewish faith that its people offer to the world. I greatly admire the inspiring leadership of the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks. In a lecture last week, he pointed out that Jews believe that what we possess, we hold in trust for future generations. The people of Israel must ask themselves how that admirable belief can be reconciled with taking other people’s land.

In the past few years we have seen a deplorable increase in anti-Semitism which I utterly condemn, as will everyone in this Chamber. Racism is despicable, but Israelis must be careful not to give an excuse to racists to foment anti-Semitism by their land settlement policy in Arab-occupied territory. I hope that the Minister will say what the Government and the European Union are doing about this.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and agree with him that there must be movement on—indeed a freezing of—settlement activity. I also note, however, that he directed all his criticisms at Israel. To be fair, there must surely be movement on the other side as well.

I remind your Lordships that European Sub-Committee C produced a report in July 2007 on the European Union’s role in the Middle East peace process, and concluded that the EU must now play,

“a more active and imaginative role in the search for peace in the Middle East”.

So what role can be commended to the Minister? First, that the EU is by far the largest provider of aid to the Palestinians must surely give leverage. We should therefore continue and enhance our humanitarian aid. We should encourage President Abbas to work closely with Arab colleagues. Indeed, one of the positive features of the past few years, from 2002, has been greater engagement of Arab countries in the region, encouraging them to promote an internal reconciliation process that would allow the creation of a technocratic Government, probably under Salam Fayyad, in the Palestinian territories and an agreed date for elections for the Palestinian presidency and the PLC.

There should be an attempt to give a widening mandate to President Abbas to negotiate with Israel on the basis of the quartet resolution. There should be preparation for the opening of border crossings between Gaza and Egypt, seeking to negotiate an international oversight and monitoring mission at the crossings, underwritten by Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Of course, the European Union is already very involved, but this should allow controlled movement of goods and people, and the co-ordination of the three main parties on anti-terrorism and anti-arms smuggling activity. We should build on progress in expanding the PA’s security capacities. I note that former Prime Minister Blair was in Jenin. Jenin is a model of that activity, which also occurs in Nablus and the Hebron area.

Finally, the EU should support an economic package, including economically driven security arrangements, financial support, economic infrastructure and private business support, all in preparation for the conference to be hosted in London in December of this year. Time permits only those headings, but that is quite a massive agenda in itself. The stakes are high. I am convinced that the EU can play a most positive role, and hope that some of these suggestions can be furthered by my noble friend.

My Lords, I shall only make three points in this necessarily short but timely debate. First, it must surely be a high priority for the European Union to ensure that the incoming US Administration really throw their weight behind the negotiation of a comprehensive package to bring a durable peace to Israel and its Arab neighbours. Too often in the past, new US Presidents have simply put the Middle East peace process into the “too difficult” tray, or have sent their Secretary of State off on a half-hearted quest for peace, only to withdraw their support at the first whiff of opposition in Congress.

This time, the negative implications of continuing tension and conflict over Palestine for all the other US foreign policy objectives in the Middle East region—for the stability of Iraq and the Lebanon, for the handling of Iran and the fight against terrorism—must be even clearer than they have been for the past several years. So the European Union could be pushing against a less firmly closed door than in the past, but push it surely must, and I hope that the Minister will assure us that it will.

Secondly, I urge that the European Union pursues a genuinely inclusive approach to the negotiating process, not allowing itself yet again to be held captive to a set of rigid preconditions for involvement on the Arab side, as has been the case in recent years. Of course, it is right to insist that acts of violence against Israel by Hamas must cease, but there is now a de facto ceasefire in Gaza. Of course, actual negotiations must be contained within the framework of the Arab peace plan and not simply go back to square one. Of course, Hamas must in the end be prepared to sit at the negotiating table with Israel and to respect its right to security, but these requirements should no longer be a barrier even to talking to Hamas and seeking to draw it into a serious negotiating process.

Thirdly, the EU could play a much more prominent and proactive role in any eventual settlement arrangements that are agreed. After all, no third party stands to gain more from a Middle East peace settlement than the European Union, and none stands to lose more from the continuation of the present stasis. Hitherto, the European Union has been a generous donor to the Palestinians and has backed a number of imaginative, if somewhat marginal, schemes to underpin the peace process, but has left all the running on the main issues to be made by the US. Is it not time for the European Union to indicate the role it could play in any post-settlement security arrangements for the region? Is it not also time for the EU to sketch out the sort of deeper and wider relationship it would wish to develop with Israel in such circumstances? Is it not essential that the EU pulls together all the disparate elements of its policies towards the Middle East peace process, and those of its member states, into a concerted and coherent effort, and not just sit around waiting for the Lisbon treaty to come into force?

I know that the points I have raised are not easy or simple ones to handle, but the present opportunity for the European Union to turn over a new leaf in its involvement in the peace process will not last for long. It would be good to hear from the Minister that we do not intend to let it slip, as we have so often done in the past.

My Lords, just over three months have passed since our previous similar debate—three months of relentless occupation and three more months of despair for the Palestinian people. So far this year 436 Palestinians have been killed directly in the conflict, mostly by the Israeli Defense Forces, but some by settlers. This compares with 29 Israelis killed in the same period. The stark difference between these two figures shows clearly the balance of force used, even if the figures are looking a little better at present.

This year so far the number of checkpoints and closures has increased by 12 per cent. We heard other figures earlier. Many Palestinian homes have been destroyed while more Israeli settlements have been built in the Occupied Territories—the noble Lord, Lord Luce, gave us figures in that regard—contrary to international agreements and international law, deliberately making the peace process more difficult, as he eloquently said. It is no wonder that Palestinians lose faith in the ability of their leaders to deliver a peaceful life.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, I read Mr Olmert’s remarks given in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth a week or so ago, in which he said clearly that Israel should agree to return most of the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem. As others have said, it is a pity that he did not say that before he resigned, but at least it shows realism about what is necessary for peace. We all know the outlines of a peace agreement with two viable states, but what is happening to the peace process? That is what we are asking the Minister to bring us up to date on. What has Tony Blair been able to achieve in his very difficult mission in Palestine? We await to hear that with interest.

Like the Psalmist, we all,

“pray for the peace of Jersusalem”,

but oppression will not achieve it. Negotiation and agreement can and, I believe, will.

My Lords, with diplomatic friends I visited Jerusalem, Gaza and Nablus last July. Nablus was, and I believe still is, almost sealed off by Israeli forces, with access on foot through a humiliating checkpoint. Gaza remains an open-air prison, with restricted access from the north and almost no movement to or from Egypt through the Rafah crossing. Gaza still has no air or sea port. The successful ceasefire has allowed a small increase in supplies by land of fuel and other essentials. No exports are moving out of Gaza, hence the massive unemployment, dependence on food aid and almost certain malnourishment among children. Because the local water supplies are polluted by salt, kidney diseases are common. In spite of all those problems, some normal life continues; we visited a joyful graduation ceremony at the university.

Since last summer, it has been obvious that the Gaza ceasefire should be extended to the whole of the West Bank. Alas, that has barely been discussed. Will the Government devote some effort and energy to that matter? Will they try harder to secure the release from detention in Israel of some 40 Palestinian parliamentarians and others who are still held without charge?

Our Government and the quartet’s special representative have set out to improve the economic situation of Palestinians. That has proved an impossible task while Gaza remains blockaded and the West Bank is divided by Israeli checkpoints, which have increased in number since the Annapolis conference.

When will the Government give a full account of their policy towards Israel and Palestine? They cannot claim that it has been in any way successful. Fifteen years of negotiations by the PLO and then the PA have not ended a military occupation that has lasted for 41 years. Increasing colonisation of the West Bank has inevitably led to despair and violence, as Prime Minister Olmert recently recognised. How much has this country spent since the Oslo agreements to shore up a disastrous status quo? The total world amount of aid and relief to Palestinians has been put at $9 billion.

Why has Hamas been demonised, when it contains some of the most well educated, honest and consistent politicians in the Arab world? Why were we so cool about the Arab League initiative? Why did we not welcome the Palestinian Government of national unity? Why are we still relying on the largely unreformed Fatah party, which is now internally split? Her Majesty’s Government have a great deal to explain.

My Lords, we are debating tonight a very sad and complex problem. I have always believed that the big mistake that Israel made historically was when, having won the major wars in the past, it was not more magnanimous in giving away territory, taking the long view and seeking a settlement. We are all paying the price today, including Israel. That failure has led to increasing bitterness over the years, the increasing militancy of settlers and the increasing militancy of Hamas.

In the very frank interview that has been referred to by my noble friend Lord Dykes and the noble Lord, Lord Cope, Ehud Olmert, the recently retired Israeli Prime Minister, not only said that they should give away more territory; he said:

“I read the words spoken by our retired generals, and I say, how is it possible that they have not learned anything and have not forgotten anything … With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop. All these things are worthless”.

One only wishes, as has been said, that he had said those things when he was Prime Minister.

Yesterday I talked to my cousin in Israel, who emigrated 25 years ago. He is a headmaster in a boarding school of 250 pupils. He is very aware but is not politically active. He sees Hamas as a very cynical enemy. The feeling in Israel is that Israel completely pulled out from Gaza but that was answered only by rockets. The public in Israel are dismayed by corrupt politicians, and there is a mood of pessimism. They believe that they have no one to negotiate with, the PLO being a spent force. My cousin accepts that, ultimately, Israel will have to make major territorial concessions, and he is also particularly worried about the increasing right-wing trend among youth.

Today we have bitterness and mistrust, not only between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, not only, sadly, between Jewish and Arab communities in Israel, but between the PLO and Hamas; that is a nightmare situation for anyone attempting to negotiate a lasting settlement, whether from Europe or elsewhere.

In a few months there will be new Administrations in America and in Israel. Thankfully, Tzipi Livni is seen as an honest politician, but she will have an extremely difficult task in putting a coalition together and then trying to negotiate a lasting settlement. We can only pray that she and the Palestinian leaders reach an accommodation. It cannot come a moment too soon for many Israelis, who live in fear, and most Palestinians, who live in misery.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating this debate. We should not simply return to this topic only when a fresh horror from the Middle East is reported on the news. We cannot forget the security fears of the Israelis, and the division of Palestinians is ongoing.

Your Lordships debated this subject on 2 July, as my noble friend Lord Cope said, when the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, assured the House that,

“the Middle East peace process continues to be a high priority for this Government”.—[Official Report, 2/7/08; col. 319.]

Can the Minister tell the House what more has been done by the Government since then?

It is nearly a year since the Annapolis conference. The EU, as one of the quartet, backed the conference and the joint declaration issued at its conclusion. How has the EU contributed to realising those aspirations, which were set out with much hope in the declaration? As a major donor to the Palestinian territories, the EU should be at the forefront of efforts to alleviate the desperate situation in which many Palestinians find themselves. All of us here realise that security and prosperity are vital to finding a lasting peace. As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asked, what has the European Union been doing in these areas?

We hope to hear that the Government and the EU, of which France holds the presidency, are actively involved in diplomacy with other states which have an interest or an influence in the region. Now that the Palestinian leadership is split and weakened, it is important that others can be prevailed upon to contribute in a positive manner and not to exacerbate the splits. The Arab world should be encouraged to act in the best interests of the Palestinians, not in a way that plays to the gallery at home. We watch with interest the reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah.

Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas had committed themselves to fortnightly meetings. Will these continue in the light of Mr Olmert’s resignation? Indeed, what contact have the Government had with Israel’s Prime Minister-designate, Tzipi Livni? The fragile peace process is very precious. I hope that the Government are doing everything possible to nurture it.

This debate has highlighted faults on both sides of this difficult ongoing problem. We heard of a fresh horror on the “Today” programme this morning, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Trimble. It contained the most chilling interview with an 18 year-old girl—a proud potential suicide bomber who was willing to kill innocent women and children. What would the Government’s response have been if she had been targeting the UK?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating this debate. I reassure him and other noble Lords that the Middle East peace process continues to be a high priority for the Government. I know that it is a topic of great interest to this House. The UK remains committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and is working closely with its EU partners to offer all possible support to the Annapolis process. The EU has a critical role to play in this. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said that the Government had a lot to answer for. I am not sure that I accept that, but I certainly accept that we have been asked a lot of questions tonight, and I will do my best to answer as many of them as I can.

The situation for the Palestinians and the ongoing peace negotiations continue to pose tremendous difficulties. It remains as important as ever that we progress on both if we are to build a better future for Palestinians inside a viable Palestinian state. The UK and the EU will, therefore, continue to play a leading role in the international community in supporting the peace process.

Although I accept the impatience of many noble Lords who have spoken about the fact that Annapolis is almost a year old, it is worth reminding ourselves that a year ago, before Annapolis, there were no negotiations. Seven years had been lost without real talks. The conference changed that. Talks began and both sides restated their commitment to their road map obligations. The conference was also a signal of renewed international commitment to the peace process. It was encouraging for a particularly strong Arab attendance. Our own Foreign Secretary and the EU attended to lend our support.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, that the EU political association agreement is intended as a technical agreement; it is not meant to carry a political message. Indeed, in announcing it, the importance of the political situation as regards Palestinians was specifically marked out and the agreement was in no way intended to prejudice progress on that.

The EU remains committed to ensuring that there is progress in the negotiations. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have visited the region and they speak often with the key players. Similarly at the EU level, the Middle East peace process is frequently discussed at Foreign Ministers’ meetings, most recently at the September informal meeting. The EU special representative, Marc Otte, spends a great deal of time in the region, and Javier Solana for the Council and Benita Ferrero-Waldner for the Commission are also deeply engaged.

The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, asked about the progress of discussions between the parties, referring to the fact that there was an original commitment for fortnightly meetings. I think it is correct to say that the last meeting between Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas occurred in the middle of September. Since then, Mrs Livni has met the chief Palestinian negotiators. While the change of government in Israel has inevitably slowed down the momentum of meetings, it is very clear that both sides are making every effort to keep the momentum of these talks moving.

Throughout, we on the outside have been consistent in our message: we support the Annapolis process and, as part of this, expect all parties to fulfil their road map obligations. Of course, the talks have moved more slowly than the optimists hoped, but they have not collapsed as the pessimists predicted, so we will continue to build on the progress made.

Part of supporting the talks is tackling actions which undermine confidence. The most striking example of that is Israeli settlement construction—a policy which serves to break down trust and make a final deal even harder. Settlement building, whether in east Jerusalem or the West Bank, is illegal and contrary to Israeli commitments, and we have made it clear that it must stop. Even since Annapolis, according to Peace Now, the number of tenders for construction in the settlements has increased by more than 500 per cent. In public and private, we, as the UK and the EU, have made clear our opposition to this.

Another key plank of our support for the peace process is building Palestinian institutions that can govern effectively. In December last year, the international community pledged an extraordinary $7.7 billion at the Paris donor conference in support of the Palestinians based on the Palestinian Authority’s Reform and Development Plan. This plan, designed by Prime Minister Fayyad, offers a route to substantial reform of Palestinian institutions so that the Palestinian Authority can deliver essential services to Palestinians more effectively. The UK committed £243 million in support over three years, linked to political progress, which amounted to a substantial increase in the Government’s assistance. The European Commission pledged more than $1 billion over the next three years, making it the single biggest donor to the Palestinian people.

We all know that the security sector is particularly important. Israel has legitimate security concerns but it is better for all if these can be met by Palestinians policing Palestinians. Our European partners have been very involved in this. On 24 June, Germany hosted a conference in Berlin to galvanise international support in this area. We announced that we would support it and have set money aside for security sector reform, including improving civil justice and public prosecution.

The EU has a leading role in training the Palestinian civil police and the UK has been a long-standing contributor to that civil police training mission. We currently provide three police officers to the mission and have allocated £1.2 million of our funding to support Palestinian policing needs this year.

We also support the US effort to reform the Palestinian national security forces, led by its security co-ordinator, General Dayton. There is obviously a long way to go, but as we are seeing in Jenin particularly, which has been the focus of our efforts, we are trying to bring together security and economic development, including co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. We think that it is showing some positive results, which we hope may prove a broader model for co-operation between both Israeli and Palestinian security forces, and that this more integrated approach will deal with economic development as well as security issues.

Is not the sad reality that these are exactly the same things as the Minister was outlining last January? Nothing has gone forward. There is no progress. He must give us more exciting answers than he is giving tonight.

I understand the noble Lord’s impatience, but every example that I have recently given are events that occurred in June this year. I confess that progress is slow, but it is not the case that nothing has happened since January.

I was asked by a number of noble Lords what Tony Blair has been up to. Again, there is progress to report. His last visit was just a week ago, on 7 October. He continues to push forward with his confidence-building measures. The noble Lord is correct to express frustration that it is more of the same, if you like, but in a situation where there is no broad breakthrough on a peace agreement, perhaps incremental progress is the best we can hope for. Since January—I take the noble Lord’s point—the UK has been a key partner in the Palestine investment conference, an initiative supported strongly by Mr Blair which was held in Bethlehem in May. We have worked since then with the World Bank to try to get access to investment for Palestinian companies. In the light of that, and looking forward, on 15 December we will be holding an investment conference here in London to encourage investment and build UK-Palestinian business relations.

I was asked why the Government did not more specifically mention Gaza in several recent overseas speeches. Last week in the other place, the Foreign Secretary said:

“There remains an urgent imperative to improve the access for humanitarian supplies, commercial goods and people”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/10/08; col. 122.]

Of course it needs to be about more than just humanitarian supplies. A hand-to-mouth existence will not lift Gazans out of poverty. Without crossings open for people and commercial goods, Gaza cannot lift itself out of economic decline. Israel must allow more in and more out, and we and our EU colleagues will continue to press Israel to do so.

The ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas—another new development in recent months—is welcome. We commend Egypt for its work on the ceasefire. It is good news that it has held so far. But this cessation of violence is only one step. In that regard, the retention of Gilad Shalit in captivity does not allow that to be built on, but neither does the retention of Palestinian parliamentarians in jail without trial.

This has been a year of incremental progress; I plead guilty to the charge of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, on that score. There is certainly no reason for great optimism at this stage. However, we remain absolutely committed to this peace process, which remains a core objective of Britain’s foreign policy. We view ourselves and the EU as having particular responsibilities in the coming months as the United States goes through a change of Administration, with the inevitable loss of attention and focus that that can often mean on foreign policy issues. We will try to make sure that the momentum of peace-making continues through the arrival of a new Government in Israel and that all sides are left in no doubt that only a just peace can end the terrible tragedy of the Middle East.