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Palestine: UN General Assembly

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they propose to respond to any bid by the Palestinians for Palestinian statehood at the forthcoming United Nations General Assembly.

My Lords, we have been clear that a Palestinian state is a legitimate goal and the best way of achieving this is through a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinian action at the UN looks increasingly likely. We are working with partners to build a consensus on a way forward that recognises the progress the Palestinians have made in their state-building efforts, that meets Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and that avoids confrontation in the UN. Whatever action is taken in New York it is important that this increases the prospects for a return to negotiations. This is our goal and it is President Abbas’s goal as well. We have reserved our position on outright recognition and will take a decision nearer the time if needed.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that giving Palestine statehood does not in itself—and would not in itself—preclude future negotiations with the Israeli Government? Given that there is widespread acceptance of the concept of a two-state solution, with shared capitals in Jerusalem, is not recognition of a Palestinian state entirely logical? I also ask the Minister whether he accepts that whatever decision our European, American or quartet colleagues take on this matter, Britain—the governing power of Palestine until the time of partition in 1948—has a particular moral duty to support the revival of a recognised state for the Palestinians living in peace and security with the state of Israel.

I hope your Lordships will allow me to add a very short, sad but highly topical postscript to this Question. Some of you may have read in the Times this morning an obituary of the wife of the Palestinian ambassador in London, to whom I offer my condolences. That obituary states that Mrs Hassassian, who was a permanent arguer for Palestinian rights, was not allowed to open a Palestinian stall at the international diplomatic fair in Kensington a few years ago because Palestine was not a country. I hope that nonsenses of that sort are now in the past.

I am grateful to the noble Lord and, of course, I share and we must all share in the condolences which he touches upon. As to his earlier questions and propositions, I agree with most of them. However, the question hangs in the air, and I hope it will be resolved, as to whether action at the United Nations will enable that move to statehood to take place. That is what we all want and that is what must proceed. We hope that action at the UN will open up a better pathway to negotiation, but if it was the opposite and it led to confrontation—if more business there closed down negotiation—then it clearly would not be such a good thing. We just have to wait and see what the texts are, how the matter is going to be approached—whether through the General Assembly or the UN Security Council—and then we will take our decision.

My Lords, while the recognition of statehood might alter the negotiating parameters and the Minister has affirmed the importance of negotiations towards achieving a final settlement, will he also affirm the important role in any ongoing negotiations of the wider Palestinian diaspora, including those who have the recognised status of refugees? Will he say what the Government are doing to ensure that the rights of such refugees are not compromised or taken away by any recognition of statehood, including their legitimate right to be heard in international fora such as the UN?

These are very important issues. Clearly, they would have to be included in any advance towards statehood, which we want to see, which in turn depends upon a successful negotiation, which in turn depends upon the agreements that have so far eluded us between Israel and Palestine. The question of how this UN development fits into that pattern is an open one at present. But I fully agree with the right reverend Prelate that this is an important aspect.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if such a bid by Palestinians is made to the upcoming General Assembly, they should be asked if they accept the United Nations General Assembly resolution—I mean “General Assembly”; it was not a Security Council resolution—of 1948 which set up the state of Israel?

I am not so sure about the exact content of that but certain conditions, which are parallel and relevant to that and may be embodied in that resolution, would go with any proposition before the General Assembly. Two-thirds of the General Assembly would then have to vote on it. It might also be qualified by the requirement that Palestine would take the role of observer-state membership rather than full membership. That is a possibility. I can give the general assurance that, certainly, conditions would be attached.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, in deciding the UK’s position at the General Assembly, we would do well to bear two things in mind? One is the formulation of our relationship with the United States, which the Foreign Secretary has described as an essential relationship rather than a special relationship, denoting a degree of independence on our position on this matter from the US. The second point is our relationship with our European partners. Does my noble friend accept that where our European partners such as Germany may wish for historic reasons to abstain, we have a special responsibility, as the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, has pointed out, to do the right thing by the Palestinian state? Will he therefore assure the House that he will keep an extremely open mind on the position we take on both those fronts?

The short answer is yes. Obviously we listen to the views of the United States but my noble friend will remember that, in a recent debate on settlements, we did not find it necessary to be on the side of the US. In fact, we voted on the other side. We are perfectly capable of asserting our independence and our interests as a nation, and as a contributor to Middle East peace, by ourselves. As far as the European Union is concerned, I am afraid that there is some difference of view between the members and it is hard to get a united European Union view, although, by working over the next week, it would be a good thing if we could do so.