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Israel and Palestine

Volume 727: debated on Monday 9 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to encourage a settlement between Israel and Palestine.

As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in Cairo on 2 May, we renew our calls for both sides to commit to peace talks, leading to a Palestinian state that exists in peace and security alongside Israel. We want to see a resumption of negotiations based on clear parameters supported by the international community: 1967 borders with equivalent land swaps, appropriate security arrangements, Jerusalem as the capital of both states and a just solution for refugees.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the widespread support that there has been for the Prime Minister’s recent positive approach to the agreement between Fatah and Hamas. What is the Government’s view on the Israeli Government’s threat to withhold $105 million-worth of tax and customs revenues from the Palestinian Authority in case it should proceed with this agreement with Hamas?

We think that that is the wrong approach. On the contrary, Israel and the two parties that are now coming together in some reconciliation should now take the opportunities offered to carry the whole peace process forward. It should be recognised that, unfortunately, Hamas’s commitment to non-violence has not yet taken place—it has not yet committed to the quartet principles and we would like to see it be a more effective partner for peace—but on the whole we see these trends as the right ones and we think that the Israeli withholding of revenues is the wrong approach.

While I support a genuine rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians—most of the Palestinians, not all of them—is it possible to broker a real deal as long as Hamas pledges to destroy Israel? Is it realistically negotiable?

The noble Lord is right that that is the obstacle. As I have just said in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, we think that when Hamas is ready to be a genuine partner for peace and is committed to the quartet principles, we can go forward. Clearly, though, at the moment it is not and that is undoubtedly an obstacle, as the noble Lord acutely recognises.

My Lords, given that we all know that a settlement between Israel and Palestine can be based only on a two-state solution, and given that the present pattern of Israeli settlements makes the second state—that is, the Palestinian state—completely unviable, is it not the case that no such solution could ever realistically be achieved without a withdrawal of at least some, if not all, of the current pattern of Israeli settlements?

My noble friend is right that the settlements issue is also at the heart of this, and there are major difficulties ahead. In discussions on the two-state prospect, there have been some ideas of the settlements existing within Palestinian jurisdiction while, as my noble friend has said, other ideas include some withdrawal. These matters have all been examined in immense detail as part of the move forward, but first there has to be some movement in recognising that we now have opportunities for the peace process to develop in the right direction, rather than the attitude that we hear in some quarters at present that, “Nothing can be done for the moment because we don’t know where anyone stands, we don’t know where Egypt stands and we don’t know where the Fatah/Hamas agreement really stands”. That is a negative attitude. We must overcome that and move forward on all these fronts, including the settlements.

My Lords, was it not a great mistake to impose completely unacceptable preconditions on Hamas? Has the noble Lord noted that polls recently showed that 52 per cent of Israelis welcomed engagement with Hamas?

I hear what the noble Lord says, but our position remains that we are not prepared to talk to Hamas until it renounces violence, recognises Israel and adheres to the quartet principles. That is and will remain our view. If Hamas changes its attitude and moves forward, and if the partnership with al-Fatah comes to a positive conclusion, we will be prepared to review the situation, but at the moment that is our position.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent withdrawal of residency permits from any Palestinians is a grave violation of basic human rights, and diminishes the capacity of many faith and community leaders to contribute to a peace settlement? In the case of Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, it also further alienates the small Christian community in the Holy Land.

Yes, these are further concerns. I was about to say irritants but they are more than irritants; they are the sort of worries that we raise again and again with the authorities concerned and with the Israeli Government. We will do so in the future as well.

My Lords, many people will be pleased—if that is the right word—to hear that the Government are not prepared to deal with a terrorist organisation until it renounces its determination to drive Israel into the sea. Does the Minister agree with me that the first stage in getting the understanding that the Government are looking for is for the people who are lobbing missiles into Israel, almost on a daily basis, to be brought to book?

That is clearly one of the necessary cessations that must occur. However, one must take a balanced approach and recognise that it goes hand in hand with an acceleration of the easing of the supply of provisions into Gaza, where conditions have been horrific. These things all move together. If one concentrates on just one transgression on one side, progress is inevitably halted. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right that one of the essential conditions is for one of the key parties concerned—Hamas—to desist, or to persuade minorities that it may control to desist, from shooting rockets into Israeli towns, wounding and damaging completely innocent people.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that power is given to the extremist wing of Hamas by the relentless Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and that without a cessation of that at least there is no chance that the moderate majority within Hamas will be able to bring about the conditions that he mentions? At the same time, will he urge the Israeli Government to observe the results of the forthcoming Palestinian elections and not scupper them, as they did in 2006 by kidnapping 26 Hamas MPs?

Balanced handling of settlements and the Jerusalem problem is at the centre of the whole situation. Urging the Israeli Government to proceed in a way that will not scupper—in my noble friend’s words—any progress is something that we do in our constant dialogue with the Israeli authorities. We will certainly continue along those lines.