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Middle East Peace Process

Volume 754: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2014


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat as a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the death of three Israeli teenagers and the effect on the Middle East peace process. The Statement is as follows.

“I visited Israel and the West Bank from 17 to 19 June, just after the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers. The whole House will share our sadness that last night the Israeli Government confirmed that they had recovered their bodies in the West Bank.

As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, this is an appalling act of terror. There is no reason, belief or cause that can justify the abduction and killing of innocent civilians. We send our deepest condolences to the families of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach.

We are in close contact with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. The urgent priority must be to hold those responsible to account, under the rule of law, and we stand ready to offer any help we can in that objective. The Home Secretary has been in Israel and the West Bank this week and has had discussions with political leaders on both sides.

I welcome President Abbas’s condemnation of the abduction. We are encouraging Israel and Palestinians to continue to work together in order to find the perpetrators. I saw evidence of that co-operation during my visit and it is vital it continues in the weeks ahead. It is vital that all parties avoid action that could escalate the situation further. All security operations must be handled with due care, restraint and the proportionate use of force.

It is too early to be clear about the full implications for the Middle East peace process. We will do our utmost with our allies and partners to keep open the prospects for a return to negotiations on a two-state solution, which is the only way to resolve this conflict once and for all”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the reply from another place. Every Member of your Lordships’ House will be saddened by this awful news. The suffering of the families will, of course, be unbearable and the nation of Israel and millions more around the world will be in mourning. I ask the noble Baroness three short questions. First, will she set out in a little more detail what contacts there have been with the Israeli and Palestinian Governments in the past 24 hours? Secondly, what assessment have our Government made of the impact these latest tensions are likely to have on the Palestinian unity Government and the Israeli Government’s policy towards them? Lastly, do the Government agree—I am sure that they do—with the United Nations Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman that both Israelis and Palestinians should exercise maximum restraint to prevent tensions escalating further?

I thank the Benches opposite for their support in these matters, as always. I can confirm that the Minister with responsibility for the Middle East, Hugh Robertson, spoke to Minister Livni earlier today. The Home Secretary has been there this week and contact was planned today for the Foreign Minister to speak to his opposite number and a potential Prime Ministers’ call as well. The Foreign Secretary met the Security Minister recently. As for the impact on the unity Government, noble Lords will be aware that the unity Government were formed last month and that Government, who do not include members of Hamas, made very clear their commitment to the quartet principles. I agree with United Nations Under-Secretary-General Feltman. It is important that both sides exercise maximum restraint in their response to this matter.

My Lords, we on these Benches deeply commiserate with the families and friends of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach. We join their families and the whole Israeli nation in feeling their loss and in sharing their unity at this time of great suffering. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked about contacts. I wonder whether, in those contacts, her colleague the Minister has discussed with both sides the importance of proportionality. Find the murderers, the perpetrators of this act, and bring them to justice, yes; but it is hugely important that the unity Government and the peace process should not be imperilled at this time of justifiable anger on the part of the Israelis. Will she take away the idea that, at the end of this, both nations will have to live together?

We have to accept that this kidnapping has consumed Israeli society over the past 18 days and therefore our thoughts are, of course, with the families and the friends of the young men who have lost their lives. However, it is important that all efforts should be directed at finding the perpetrators and nothing wider. That is the message that we are emphasising in our discussions.

My Lords, there can be no justification for kidnapping or murder, but can the noble Baroness assure the House that the European Union, as a member of the quartet, is urging the Israelis to avoid any retaliation, which will only increase the suffering, humiliation and deprivation of the populations of Gaza and the West Bank and can only reduce the already very slender chances of achieving a peace process?

The noble Lord makes an important point and he will be aware, as others are, that in the operation in response to the kidnapping of these teenagers, 400 Palestinians have been arrested, seven Palestinians have lost their lives and more than 1,000 homes have been searched. For that reason, we are making it clear that it is important that the response to this matter is specifically targeted and done in a way that avoids escalation.

Do the Government equally condemn the actions of the Israeli troops who recently killed two young Palestinian boys who were peacefully demonstrating in the West Bank of the Jordan?

My Lords, the Government equally condemn the deaths on the Palestinian side. We can probably say that the one thing that unites both sides is the way in which families grieve for their young ones. We must make it clear that there can be no hierarchy of victimhood in this dispute and that whichever side loses a child, it is equally condemnable.

My Lords, more than two weeks ago, when the three non-combatant young men were kidnapped, the result on the streets of Gaza City was celebrations and jubilation at the kidnapping and a call from Hamas for more kidnapping. Can the Minister tell me how we can try to stop this horrendous escalation of kidnapping, which is of no benefit to anybody in that area?

The Government are rightly concerned about some of the responses to these kidnappings. However, we have been quite heartened by President Abbas’s approach to this matter, including his speech in Riyadh 10 days ago, the full security co-operation of the technocratic Government—the Minister had an opportunity to see that for himself on his visit—and the statement last night. We can take great comfort from the fact that President Abbas has responded in a positive way and one that has de-escalated the situation.

On behalf of these Benches, we associate ourselves with the condolences to the families and the widespread grief on all sides. We welcome the statement by the unity Government but an inevitable reaction to grief, especially with the death of the young, is anger. Yet grief is something that is never handled by anger; it requires time for reflection, engagement and a deeper kind of approach to the issue at stake. Can the Minister assure us that, in our work to seek peace, we will do everything we can to mitigate the knee-jerk reaction of anger and invite people to think more deeply about the human content of grief and how to deal with it?

We will of course do that. The right reverend Prelate makes important points, but I think he would also say—and on a very personal basis, I acknowledge this as a mother—that it must be incredibly difficult to reach that second phase when you have just lost your children.

My Lords, the Minister is quite right to refer to this as an appalling act of terror. However, she has also pointed out on recent occasions that the window is closing on the viability of the Middle East peace process. I wonder whether the Minister could come back to the point of the Question, which is about the impact on the Middle East peace process, and what she and the Government see as the next positive step that might be taken in that process.

The noble Baroness is right. I have answered a number of questions on this over the past two years but there is no doubt that the events of the last two or three weeks have made it much harder to reopen negotiations and, indeed, to start some meaningful conversations. However, I go back to what I have said on many occasions at this Dispatch Box: the two-state solution is the only long-term solution that will bring a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable, flourishing Palestinian state.

Does the Minister agree that it is a tragedy for both peoples, whom it has been shown over the years support a peaceful two-state solution, that they have been let down by their leaderships being incapable of taking their countries to that point? In terms of the people concerned, the Minister mentioned the grief of parents, which is the same whether you are Israeli or Palestinian. Will she take this opportunity to pay tribute to the bereaved parents on both sides who have been active in the peace process?

I of course pay tribute to the bereaved parents on both sides, Palestinian and Israeli, who have lost their children. The natural order is for children to bury their parents, not for parents to bury their children.