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Israel and Palestine

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 5 November 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they assess the impact of current prisoner releases on the progress of negotiations between Israel and Palestine for a comprehensive peace agreement.

My Lords, we warmly welcome the courageous decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Government to release 26 Palestinian prisoners. We pay tribute to the leadership of Secretary of State Kerry, Prime Minister Netanyahu and, of course, President Abbas for the progress made. We urge both sides to take further measures to build trust and avoid steps that undermine the prospects for peace, including Israel’s recent settlement announcements. Britain stands ready to support efforts to secure a lasting peace.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Will the Government do whatever is possible to help genuine confidence-building measures and to discourage provocation—for example, by preventing attacks and retaliations, and rhetorical and impossible land claims? Does he agree that a calm climate for the long-delayed final-status negotiations is urgently needed?

As the noble Lord rightly points out, there are unfortunately individuals on all sides of this conflict who seek to derail any attempts at peace. The Government stand with those who are looking to work towards peace between Israel and Palestine, and the UK consistently outlines steps in this regard and raises these issues. Indeed, my right honourable friend Hugh Robertson, the new Minister of State responsible for the region, is currently visiting the region and he will be raising this issue with all sides. Let me once again reiterate that we are calling upon both sides, because the violence we have seen by extremist settlers and the rocket attacks on Gaza are derailing a peace process which really needs to reach a conclusion.

My Lords, perhaps I may say straightaway that the Opposition are, of course, at one with Her Majesty’s Government in welcoming the renewed peace negotiations and remain committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution and a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state. In that context, will the Minister tell the House what judgment Her Majesty’s Government have come to on the role that the UK might play in the next important few months and what role the quartet might play in that same period?

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for his words. Of course, irrespective of the colour of its Administration, over the years the UK has been consistent in ensuring that we require a two-state solution, which, as he said, secures the borders of Israel in a secure way and ensures that the Palestinians have a viable state. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that there is no greater global priority for the UK than the search for peace in the Middle East. Let me assure the noble Lord that Britain is working intensively to support all parties in their efforts to achieve a negotiated end to this conflict, which has gone on for far too long.

While it is very welcome that 26 of the Palestinians internees have been released, there are still many thousands of Palestinians in prison. Does the Minister agree that further steps to release yet more prisoners and perhaps, equally importantly, a pause in the settlement policy, at least while the negotiations are continuing, would be very welcome steps towards the outcome we all want to see?

My noble friend raises two very important points. I reassure her and the whole House that the Government believe that any steps taken by both sides to encourage the peace process are welcome. I state once again that the UK Government retain their position that the settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are classified as illegal and do not help in the process for peace.

My Lords, surely the impact of this and other confidence-building measures by both sides can only be positive. This particular prisoner release was painful for Israel because of the nature of the offences committed by these Palestinians. On the best evidence available to the Government, do they think that the rather ambitious timetable set for negotiations is now realistic?

First, I agree with the noble Lord that it has been a painful process for the Government of Israel. Indeed, reports have suggested that up to 80% of the Israeli population were against such releases. As I have already said, it was a courageous decision on behalf of Prime Minister Netanyahu. On the second point, I think the timetable has been set. Secretary of State Kerry has been clear. We, and the whole international community, must work together to ensure that we reach successful conclusions to these talks by April next year.

Does the noble Lord agree that one of the greatest provocations between Israel and the Palestinians is the building on occupied land by the Israelis in direct contravention of the United Nations resolutions banning such building?

My Lords, as I have already said, the UK Government’s position is quite clear. These settlements on Palestinian land beyond the 1967 borders—be they in East Jerusalem or in the West Bank—are illegal.

In the light of the Minister’s remarks, it seems to me that there is a coalition now about these settlements which includes the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, me and the Government. If that is the case, perhaps he can express the view that seems to me to be crystal clear. We are not in a static situation as we prepare for the peace talks that have been longed for for many years as the Israeli Government are quite deliberately making the situation more difficult by the continual expansion of the settlements. Quite apart from that being in clear violation of international law, is it not also crystal clear that the longed-for, two-state solution, to which nearly everyone at least states themselves to be committed, becomes more and more difficult to achieve so long as that settlement activity continues?

My Lords, I can do little more than reiterate what Secretary Kerry and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary have said. Yes, the window of opportunity is fast closing. That point has been made by my noble friend Lady Warsi from this Dispatch Box as well. We are all working towards finding a two-state solution which guarantees the security of the State of Israel from rocket attacks but also guarantees a viable, economically independent Palestinian state. These peoples share a history but we have to look at the reality on the ground today, and we call upon both sides to recognise that they also share a future—one of peace and economic prosperity.