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Israel and Palestine: President Obama

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2009


Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their reaction to the comments by President Obama on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Luce, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the United Kingdom welcomes President Obama’s early engagement and determination to work towards resolving the Israel-Palestine issue. We fully support President Obama’s emphasis on the need to end all settlement activity, the need for Palestinians to renounce violence, the importance of a two-state solution and the importance of stimulating the Palestinian economy.

My Lords, I am glad that the implication of the Minister’s reply is that the Government indeed welcome President Obama’s recent speech in Egypt, which opens a rare opportunity for progress on the two-state solution. While President Obama fully supports Israel’s right to a secure future, long-term peace and security are still jeopardised by the continued presence of some 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Does the Minister accept that the statement in the speech, that

“the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”

is the nearest that any President of the United States since President George Bush senior has come to acknowledging that all Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian occupied territory is illegal and must stop immediately, and that that statement is to be warmly welcomed?

My Lords, the noble Lord is very knowledgeable about these issues. I am therefore happy to concur with him that the UK Government welcome the position adopted by the President of the United States in his quite recent speech in Egypt. I would go a little further; the President also indicated that he regarded any extension to the settlements on any grounds as being unacceptable.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that one of the most telling points about President Obama’s intervention is that he has made it in the first six months of his first term, rather than leaving it to the tail end of a presidency, thereby demonstrating his determination to make this a key part of American policy? Can my noble friend also tell us how the United Kingdom will not only support President Obama with words but actively engage in that initiative?

My Lords, the contribution that the President of the United States makes is of very great importance but, as my noble friend has indicated, the United Kingdom has its role to play. She will also appreciate, as does the whole House, that the present situation is fraught with danger. There are difficulties over the existence of the ceasefire following the three-week intervention a few months ago, and the situation is very challenging. But what the President of the United States has done is given hope to the whole world that constructive action will be taken to resolve one of the most dangerous issues that still obtains.

My Lords, did not the President also say in his remarkable speech in Cairo, which we too greatly welcome and find extremely encouraging, that a good deal of truth-telling is now necessary? Is not the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, correct to focus on whether truth-telling is going to be required on the question of the settlements that have spread out over what in the future will be the separate state of Palestine? This is not just a question of a further extension of settlements, but of how to handle the existing ones that lie on what will be Palestinian land. Will we support the President when it comes to telling Israeli settlers that while they will not necessarily have to move, they will have to live under Palestinian law if there is to be a two-state solution?

My Lords, of course I welcome the fact that the Official Opposition agree with the Government that President Obama’s speech was important, constructive and offers hope for resolution of the difficulties in that part of the world. As the noble Lord said, not only does the truth need to be told, but realities have to be faced. The noble Lord is all too well aware, as is the whole House, that the present Administration in Israel is dependent on parties which are committed not just to maintenance of the settlements, but to their extension. The President of the United States is far too sophisticated a statesman not to recognise the challenges that still lie ahead.

My Lords, in his speech, President Obama also talked about a regional approach to this. We need to bring in the Arab League and Israel’s other neighbours if we are to get a secure, long-term settlement—not just a Palestinian state, but Israel living in peace and having good economic relations with her neighbours across the Middle East. Should that not include the new Lebanese Government along with the Governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan in any negotiations towards a long-term solution?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that the speech was made in Egypt and that Egypt played a significant part in the immediate settlement of the most recent clashes. However, the noble Lord is right to say that we need to bring together the regional forces in a constructive approach towards peace, because it is certainly the case that some of them have been destructive in that regard by encouraging aspects of violence. The solution requires participation on the level indicated, but we can take some encouragement from the fact that recent work has involved countries with close connections with the area.