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Israel and Palestine: Paris Peace Conference

Volume 778: debated on Thursday 19 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why no United Kingdom minister attended the Israel–Palestine peace conference in Paris.

My Lords, the UK welcomes France’s efforts to promote peace. However, as the role of the US is so critical, we have repeatedly expressed reservations about holding a conference so close to the change of US Administration and without the attendance of the two main parties. We did not consider this the best way to make real progress. As a consequence, we decided to attend the conference as an observer, at senior official level.

Would the Minister agree that it is important to draw a clear distinction between support for the State of Israel and for the policies of the present Israeli Government? Given that the ministerial absence from this conference followed the crass repudiation of a speech by Senator John Kerry, who had done so much to support the peace efforts, will she confirm that it is still the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to recognise that settlements in the West Bank are illegal and, therefore, one of the obstacles to peace?

My Lords, this is about more than illegal settlements, although I have made it clear from this Dispatch Box that this Government view illegal settlements as an obstacle to peace. What I affirm, against the background of what the noble Lord has raised, is that the UK’s long-standing position on the Middle East peace process is clear: we continue to support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees.

My Lords, can I ask the Minister to speculate on what the attitude of the British Government would be if the French decided to hold a conference with 70 countries to discuss Northern Ireland but did not invite the British or Irish Governments?

My Lords, as I rather waspishly said, I think, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on Tuesday, I try not to speculate; I prefer to deal with what is. Indeed, in those 13 long, long years in opposition, I remember having my leg pulled very gently on the basis that I always wanted to know what works, and what works is having the two main parties involved in negotiations. Without the Israelis and the Palestinians coming to an agreement, there can be no lasting peace.

My Lords, I commend the Government for sticking with their support for the two-state solution, which is generally accepted as the best way forward. But I invite my noble friend to speculate: without the two states of Israel and Palestine at the discussion of the two-state solution, what exactly was the conference designed to achieve?

My Lords, I do pay tribute to the way in which France has, under various Administrations, genuinely sought to take forward international discussions on a potential peace settlement—this was one more effort by France to do so. But unless the main protagonists are there to come to an agreement, there can be no resolution. That is the nub of the discussion today.

My Lords, in the light of the Foreign Secretary’s off-the-cuff remarks, I am not at all surprised that the Government were reluctant to send him to France. However, the Minister has today and yesterday reiterated the Government’s support for the two-state solution. Will she reassure the House that, when the Prime Minister visits President-elect Trump—very soon, as we hear—the issue of support for the two-state solution will be high on the agenda?

Indeed, as I have set out today, our position on the two-state solution has not changed. I have again listed the component parts of a lasting settlement, which I know all Members of this House want to achieve—that is, a lasting solution to a very difficult position across the Middle East and one that could be respected by all. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has a wonderfully dramatic way of making a point. It certainly gets attention.

My Lords, the noble Baroness rightly often emphasises the importance of international law. UNOCHA states that there have been record numbers of demolitions of Palestinian properties in 2016. Will the noble Baroness comment on that?

My Lords, we continuously bring to the attention of the Government of Israel the fact that we believe that moves to extend illegal settlements, but also moves to carry out demolitions, can undermine the future of peace, even if those demolitions may be in green-line Israel. It is a very sensitive matter because green-line Israel is not the same as the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but, for me, it is a matter of respecting human rights.

Does my noble friend agree that any moves by Governments to move their embassies to Jerusalem would make the two-state solution even more difficult?

My Lords, we have no plans to move our embassy to Jerusalem. I hope that is in accord with my noble friend’s wishes.

My Lords, while respecting the Minister’s earnest endeavours and being grateful to her for those, does she agree that if the Government legitimately are more critical of the Netanyahu illegal settlement policies, that encourages, and gives support to, the millions of Israeli citizens who disapprove of those settlement policies?

My Lords, in continuing to voice our opposition to the building of illegal settlements, we also point to other aspects of the disputes that need to be resolved. However, this is set against a wider issue because this country firmly upholds international law. My right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have made it clear that, as global Britain going forward as we leave the European Union, we intend to maintain our position as a firm upholder of international law.