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Middle East and North Africa

Volume 535: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2011

Order. I appeal to Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so that the House can listen attentively to the statement from the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Secretary is nodding vigorously in response to my proposition.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The House will welcome an update on events in the middle east, including the middle east peace process and Iran’s nuclear programme.

Let me begin by updating the House on the situation in Libya. The national transitional council declared Libya’s liberation on 23 October after the fall of Sirte and the death of Colonel Gaddafi, starting the country’s transition to democracy as set out in the council’s constitutional declaration. A new interim Libyan Prime Minister, Mr al-Kib, has been appointed, and we expect other Ministers to be appointed soon. The forming of a new Government is due to be followed within eight months by elections to a new National Congress.

These are historic achievements. NATO operations came to an end on Monday 31 October, following the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 2016 on 27 October. The whole House will join me in paying tribute to our armed forces, whose contribution has saved many lives and helped to make the transition in Libya possible.

I visited Libya on 17 October to reopen our embassy and to hold talks with the Libyan authorities. We are providing communications and logistics support for Libya’s new police force and deploying a British policing adviser. We are also supporting attempts to locate missing anti-aircraft weapons and to clear mines in Misrata, and giving advice on destroying stocks of chemical weapons. We are encouraging the Libyan authorities in their efforts to reintegrate former fighters, bring together Libya’s security forces and provide employment opportunities. It is also important that the remaining International Criminal Court indictees, Saif al-Islam and Abdullah al-Senussi, be brought to justice before a court of law. We urge Libya’s neighbours to arrest and surrender any indictee on their territory.

We are determined to address legacy issues from the Gaddafi regime, including the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, the Lockerbie bombing and support for IRA terrorism. The Prime Minister discussed that with Prime Minister al-Kib on 5 November, and we welcome the new Libyan authorities’ willingness to work with us to try to close this chapter of tragic events.

While progress is made in Libya, in Syria the situation is deteriorating. More than 3,500 people have been killed since March according to the UN. On 2 November, the Arab League brokered an agreement with President Assad, which we welcomed. That plan required the Syrian Government to implement an immediate ceasefire and end all violence; to withdraw their military from all Syrian cities and towns; to release all prisoners and detainees; to provide access for Arab League committees and international media; and to begin comprehensive engagement with the opposition. Implementation was to take place within two weeks.

Apart from token measures, the Syrian Government have failed to implement the plan. Instead, the repression has escalated and at least 60 more people have died. The Arab League is due to meet this weekend to review the situation. We urge it to respond swiftly and decisively with diplomatic pressure to enforce the agreement, with the support of the international community. To us, these developments confirm that President Assad must step aside and allow others to take forward the political transition that the country desperately needs.

We will work to intensify pressure on Assad and his regime. On 14 October we reinforced EU measures to include sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria, the largest in the country. These sanctions, including the embargo on imports of oil from Syria into the EU, are already restricting sources of finance to the regime. We are working with our European partners on a further round of sanctions to be applied soon if the Syrian Government do not take immediate action to end the violence.

Turning to Iran, today the International Atomic Energy Agency will deliver its report on military aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme. The report lays out clearly and objectively the evidence that the agency has uncovered of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons technology. The board of governors of the IAEA will convene later this month to consider these grave findings. The assertions of recent years by Iran that its nuclear programme is wholly for peaceful purposes are completely discredited by the report. Iran is ramping up its production of uranium enrichment to levels for which it has no plausible civilian use, but which could easily and quickly be converted into weapons-grade material. The uncovering of the recent plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States also shows Iran’s apparent willingness to sponsor terrorism outside its borders.

Iran needs to change direction. We want a negotiated solution and have extended the hand of reconciliation to Iran time and time again. We are prepared to have further talks, but only if Iran is prepared to engage in serious negotiations about its nuclear programme without preconditions. If not, we must continue to increase the pressure, and we are considering with our partners a range of additional measures to that effect. Iran’s actions not only run counter to the positive change that we are seeing elsewhere in the region; they may threaten to undermine it, bringing about a nuclear arms race in the middle east or the risk of conflict.

The events in the Arab spring and mounting concern over Iran’s nuclear programme do not detract from the urgent need to make progress on the middle east peace process. I repeat our calls for negotiations on a two-state solution without delay and without preconditions, based on the timetable set out in the Quartet statement of 23 September. In our view, the parameters for a Palestinian state are those affirmed by the European Union as a whole: borders based on 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps; a just, fair and realistic solution for refugees; and agreement on Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.

Israel’s announcement last week that it would accelerate the construction of 2,000 settlement housing units was wrong and deeply counter-productive. That was the eighth announcement of settlement expansion in six months. We also condemn the decision to withhold tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, which was provocative and against Israel’s own interests, as it has direct implications for the Palestinian Authority’s ability to maintain effective security in the west bank. We call on Israel to revoke both those decisions. We are also concerned about the situation in Gaza and the constant risk of an escalation in violence. We believe the Israeli restrictions harm ordinary Palestinians, inhibit economic development, and strengthen rather than weaken Hamas. It will be both right and directly in Israel’s interest if it permits increased imports of building materials for UN projects and for the private sector in Gaza; allows legitimate exports to traditional markets in the west bank and Israel; and reduces restrictions on civilian movement between Gaza and the west bank.

On Friday, the admissions committee of the Security Council will conclude its consideration of the Palestinian application and produce a report summarising Council members’ views on whether Palestine meets the criteria for membership under the United Nations charter. As that could now soon be followed by a vote in the UN Security Council, it is appropriate to inform the House of the Government’s intentions.

The United Kingdom judges that the Palestinian Authority largely fulfils criteria for UN membership, including statehood, as far as the reality of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories allows, but its ability to function effectively as a state would be impeded by that situation. A negotiated end to the occupation is the best way to allow Palestinian aspirations to be met in reality and on the ground. We will not vote against the application because of the progress the Palestinian leadership have made towards meeting the criteria, but nor can we vote for it while our primary objective remains a return to negotiations through the Quartet process and the success of those negotiations.

For those reasons, in common with France and in consultation with our European partners, the United Kingdom will abstain on any vote on full Palestinian membership of the UN. We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help to bring about peace. The United Kingdom will continue to be one of the principal supporters of Palestinian state-building efforts, assisting the Palestinians to tackle poverty, build institutions and boost their economy. If their application to the UN Security Council fails, the Palestinian leadership have indicated that they may take the issue to a vote at the UN General Assembly, where different voting procedures and different considerations apply. We and the other countries of the European Union will continue to emphasise that any proposition put to the General Assembly must make a return to negotiations more likely.

For Israel, the only means of averting unilateral applications to the UN is a return to negotiations. A demonstration of political will and leadership is needed from both sides to break the current impasse. This includes the Israeli Government being prepared to make a more decisive offer than any they have been willing to make in the past.

The middle east peace process cannot be viewed in isolation from the rest of the region. In each country there is a huge opportunity for peaceful change, the advancement of human rights and economic development. The decisions they take now will affect their future security and prosperity, and we urge all of them to take the path of reform.

That was my message on my visit to north Africa last month, when I also travelled to Morocco and Algeria, and to Mauritania, making the first visit by any British Minister to that country. I welcome the fact that during my visit the Government of Mauritania announced that they will reopen an embassy in London. In all these countries I discussed political reform and declared our willingness to support projects through our Arab partnership initiative. That is already providing £6.6 million this year to projects that promote freedom of speech and political participation, support the rule of law, tackle corruption and help small business and entrepreneurs. Across the region we are working with the BBC and the British Council to develop new programmes to strengthen public debate, drawing on our country’s long tradition and expertise in these areas.

Tunisia has set an example of what can be achieved peacefully. Its elections on 23 October were the first free elections of the Arab spring and the first in that country’s history. This is a remarkable achievement. We look to those who have been elected to the constituent assembly to work together in forming a Government.

In Egypt, we welcome the decision of the high election commission to allow international NGOs to monitor its parliamentary elections on 28 November. On his visit to Egypt last month, the Deputy Prime Minister emphasised the need for a clear road map to democracy, and announced UK Arab partnership support to assist the democratic process and economic reform.

In Bahrain, we await the report of the independent commission of inquiry into the unrest in February and March, which has been deferred until 23 November. This report is a major opportunity and important test for the Bahraini Government to show they take their human rights obligations seriously and will adhere to international standards. We stand ready to help them implement recommendations from the report. In the meantime, we continue to encourage the authorities to address allegations of human rights abuses that are reportedly still occurring and remain of great concern.

In Yemen, finally, the political impasse is deepening insecurity and poverty. On 21 October, we helped to secure Security Council resolution 2014, which was adopted unanimously and signals clearly to President Saleh that the only way to meet the aspirations of the Yemeni people is to begin a transition on the basis of the Gulf Co-operation Council’s initiative. We will continue to work with others to support a peaceful and orderly transition in Yemen.

Each country in the region has to find its own way, and we will work with Governments who strive to bring about greater political and economic freedom in their countries. The Government will work with international partners to maintain peace and security, promote democratic development and uphold the interests of the United Kingdom.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, although the fact that it has been made today, reducing Opposition time, is a matter of regret.

This is the first statement we have had on foreign and Commonwealth affairs since NATO’s Operation Unified Protector ended, after seven months of operations at sea and in the air. I am sure the whole House wants to pay tribute to the armed forces of all nations involved, and in particular to commend the professionalism of the British service personnel who have been involved in protecting the Libyan civilian population.

While we are dealing with matters related to armed conflicts in north Africa and elsewhere, could the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether reports today are true that the British Government intend to support efforts to change the position agreed in the 2008 convention on cluster munitions and permit the use of certain cluster munitions bombs produced after 1980? He will, I hope, take this opportunity of his response to agree with me that the achievement of the previous Government, taking a lead in reaching international agreement to prohibit the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions, was significant and should not now be reneged upon. I also welcome the steps, set out by the Foreign Secretary, that are being taken by the Government in Libya—and indeed Tunisia and Egypt—to translate popular uprising into stable democratic government.

In his last statement, the Foreign Secretary promised

“to increase the pressure on the regime”—[Official Report, 13 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 496.]

in Syria. Last Wednesday, he issued a statement saying that he commends

“the Arab League’s efforts in pursuing this initiative to stop the violence in Syria”.

Of course the diplomatic involvement of Syria’s neighbours in ending the violence would be welcome, but in his statement today he acknowledged that the situation in Syria has in fact deteriorated, with the UN stating that the death toll now exceeds 3,500. Sixty people have been reported killed since the Arab League began its involvement, many in the city of Homs. Can the Foreign Secretary therefore give his assessment of the realistic prospects for the Arab League’s process, given this continuing pattern of violence? Can he also set out more specifically in his response what steps the British Government are urging on the Arab League when it meets this weekend?

Let me turn to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report, which we are given to understand indicates that Iran has carried out tests

“relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device”.

The Foreign Secretary should be assured that he therefore has our full support in making clear to the Iranians their obligations under international law, our shared opposition to Iran developing a nuclear weapon—a step that would not only threaten Israel and Iran’s immediate neighbours but the security of the whole region—and the need for Iran, as he put it, to change direction.

In the last statement to the House, the Foreign Secretary said,

“We are working on further sanctions”—[Official Report, 13 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 502.]

on Iran. Given that the case for further diplomatic measures will be strengthened by this latest IAEA report, can he now tell the House what progress has been made in developing those further sanctions? Can he also give his assessment of the implications of this news for proliferation across the region, given that none of us wants to see a nuclear arms race in such a volatile part of the world? Finally, can he give his assessment of what prospects there are for further action at the United Nations level, given the stated positions of both China and Russia?

I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has given a more substantive update on the situation in Bahrain in today’s statement than was given in his previous statement. In our last exchange on the issue, the Foreign Secretary accepted that

“national dialogue has not yet been successful in bringing everybody together in Bahrain.”

Given his statement today that human rights abuses are still being reported, can the Foreign Secretary give his assessment of whether the prospects for national dialogue have improved?

In his last statement the Foreign Secretary also said:

“We attach great importance to the publication”

of the report of the independent commission of inquiry into human rights abuses. At that time he said he expected the report on 30 October, but that has now been pushed back to 23 November. Can he explain why? Will he commit today to setting out the British Government’s reaction in a written or oral statement to the House when that report is finally published?

Let me turn to the issue of Israel and Palestine. The need for progress on this conflict has, if anything, become more urgent in light of the recent changes in the region, which have only increased the Palestinians’ desire for statehood and have shaken some of the core assumptions that have underpinned Israel’s security in past decades. What is the Foreign Office’s best assessment of the likely impact of the announcement by the Israeli Government of 2,000 more settlement units and threats to withhold Palestinian tax revenues, which the Foreign Secretary condemned, on the Quartet’s attempts to facilitate a return to talks? Will he also join me in condemning the latest rocket attacks on the people of Israel?

The House is aware that, as the Opposition, we set out our position on the issue of Palestinian recognition on 20 September, and that in a letter to the Foreign Secretary on that date I said that the case made by the Palestinians for recognition at the United Nations as a state was strong. I said that the British Government should be willing to support the recognition of Palestinian statehood as part of continuing steps to achieve a comprehensive two-state solution, but I also said at the time that there remains a heavy onus on the British Government and other members of the international community to work to ensure that any change in the level of Palestinian recognition is followed by meaningful negotiations between the parties.

The Foreign Secretary rightly stated that the goal of all diplomatic efforts should be a two-state solution brought about by negotiations. On 13 October, he told the House:

“Our words are all directed towards trying to bring about the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. How we act in the Security Council or on any motion that may come before the UN General Assembly will be determined by how we can bring about a resumption of negotiations.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 497-502.]

Yet today the Foreign Secretary has been unable to explain his decision in reference to negotiations that have resumed. That is because no meaningful negotiations are taking place. After his statement today, many Members in all parts of the House will still be struggling to see how a decision to abstain is likely to help bring about resumed negotiations.

Given the absence of any meaningful negotiations between the parties at present, a point which I am sure the Foreign Secretary will not dispute, can he tell the House how his position of having no position is likely to advance the peace process? This decision announced by the Government today represents a further acceptance of and accommodation to a wider pattern of failure—failure to achieve meaningful negotiations, failure to meet the aspirations of the Palestinians and, indeed, the Israeli people, and continued failure by the international community to find a way through the present impasse.

Given the Government’s decision announced today, what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the likely consequences of the Palestinians’ bid for statehood being rejected in the Security Council? How will the Government cast their vote when the issue comes before the United Nations General Assembly? The House deserves a clear answer on this question. I hope in his response the Foreign Secretary will be able to offer a clearer sense of what he now regards as the realistic path forward to a negotiated two-state solution, which I sense the whole House is united in continuing to support.

I am grateful, as ever, to the right hon. Gentleman. He asked about a report on a different subject, cluster munitions, but I will deal with it quickly. There is an Adjournment debate about this tomorrow, I think, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will deal with and set out the position in more detail. We certainly do not want to weaken what has been agreed in the past, so it is important not to believe everything written in newspapers on this subject, as on so many subjects.

On the questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked about Syria, yes, I think it is absolutely right for us to commend the efforts of the Arab League, without being able to have a huge amount of optimism about whether they will be successful. It is very good that the Arab League is engaged with the issue in a united way, and that pressure from within the region among the Arab states is being applied to the Assad regime. As in so many of these situations, that is far more likely to succeed than any pressure from western nations.

It is right to commend that pressure, but as I indicated in describing the events of the past week, matters have not improved since the putative deal with the Arab League was done, so it is important now for the Arab League to reinforce the pressure that it is applying to the Assad regime. There is a range of measures that the Arab League can take, from suspending Syria from the Arab League to much more concerted diplomatic pressure. It would be quite a major step for the Arab League to go beyond that, given its customary practices, but it is for the Arab League to consider. We will not try to lay down what it should do. We will continue to intensify our own pressure. We have already agreed in the EU sanctions on 56 individuals and 19 entities—importantly, as I say, on the Commercial Bank of Syria as well. That pressure will continue to increase on what is a completely deplorable and unacceptable situation in Syria.

On Iran, I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for much of what I said about Iran. He asked what the report meant for proliferation in the region. It is bad news about proliferation in the region. The principal problem with Iran’s nuclear programme is that it threatens to drive a coach and horses through the non-proliferation treaty. Iran is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. It makes it much more likely that other states in the region will develop their own nuclear weapons programmes. Then the world’s most unstable region will be in possession of the world’s most destructive weapons. We have to take this situation with the greatest seriousness. Further action at the United Nations is difficult, given the positions of Russia and China, but I think it will be important for all the Security Council members to study the IAEA report and the forthcoming outcome of the board of governors meeting, and there will be a strong case for further discussions at the United Nations.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what further pressure we are considering. We have already introduced unprecedented UN and European Union sanctions on Iran. We are working to ensure their robust implementation to close loopholes and to discourage trade with Iran. We are in discussions about increasing this pressure, and we are also considering further unilateral measures, should Iran fail to comply with its responsibilities. Although I cannot go into precise detail now on the sanctions that we are considering, we are looking at additional measures against the Iranian financial sector and the oil and gas sector, and the designation of further entities and individuals involved with its nuclear programme.

On Bahrain, an assessment of whether the national dialogue will lead to success is, again, difficult to give. Some honest efforts have been made to reinforce and carry out that dialogue, but they have certainly not yet produced general agreement in Bahrain on the way forward. The right hon. Gentleman asked me to explain why the report of the commission of inquiry had been delayed. That is a matter for the Bahraini Government rather than for me to explain, but I hope it signals—[Interruption.] Well, one can take it as good news or bad news. I hope it signals that this is going to be a serious report when it is published on 23 November. Certainly, the composition of the inquiry suggests that its members will want to produce a very serious report. That is why we should attach great importance to it. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether, when the report is published, we would give the Government’s reaction in a statement of whatever kind, including a written statement. We will certainly do that.

On the middle east peace process, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether actions are helping, including the settlement announcements. Clearly, they are not helping; nor are the rocket attacks on Israel, which he rightly pointed to. He pointed out that his position—and it is our position as well—is that any change in the status of Palestine at the United Nations must be accompanied by or followed by a return to meaningful negotiations. I think that there is common ground on that across the House, but it is how to act on that basis that gives rise to differences on how we should vote at the UN Security Council.

We consider there to be no substitute for negotiations under the Quartet process, which we obviously want to get going. We believe that it is vital for Israel and the Palestinians to embrace the opportunity to take the Quartet process forward, but we also believe that voting for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations at this moment would reduce the incentives for the Palestinians and the willingness of Israelis to find a negotiated solution. I fully respect a different point of view, but that is our judgment on the matter and that of most, if not all, European Governments in and outside the European Union.

A further factor in our decision is the fact that there has been a serious European effort to bring about a resumption of negotiations by supporting the Quartet. That effort will continue. I do not expect any of our European partners to vote at the Security Council for Palestinian membership. A serious divergence in our voting behaviour at the Security Council at this point would disrupt and complicate European efforts to revive and support negotiations.

Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If I am to accommodate a reasonable number of them within the very heavy time pressures we face, extreme brevity from Back and Front Benches alike is vital. The way can be led by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr Richard Ottaway.

The Foreign Secretary has confirmed that the IAEA will be publishing a critical report on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Does he agree that we must ensure that the choice does not come down to a military strike against Iran on the one hand, or a nuclear Iran on the other? Even though the Russians do not want to get involved, will he mobilise the international community to bring back the toughest sanctions possible before we are caught between a rock and a hard place?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the urgency of the situation. I hope no one in the world wants to be confronted with the choice he refers to. That is why our dual-track approach is so important; we are prepared to negotiate with Iran through the E3 plus 3, but at the same time we can increase the peaceful and legitimate pressure. It is a peaceful pressure, but it is an increasingly strong economic pressure through the sanctions we are applying. That is designed very much to avert the terrible choice to which he refers.

I commend the Foreign Secretary for making his announcement on Palestinian statehood to the House first and wish that more Cabinet Ministers would do the same. Is it not clear from what he said about the expansion of illegal settlements, the fact that President Obama, as we have heard, has to deal with Mr Netanyahu every day and the fact that still nothing is happening that an abstention at the United Nations would simply be an abdication of responsibility and achieve nothing?

As I said, I think that will be the position of many of our partners and many members of the Security Council, based on our best judgment of what is likely to bring about a return to negotiations. The shadow Foreign Secretary rightly said that such meaningful negotiations are not taking place at the moment, but the best chance for a viable, durable Palestinian state living in peace with Israel is for such negotiations to be resumed and to succeed. It is certainly our judgment at the moment that a positive vote at the UN Security Council would not help to bring about a return to negotiations. I entirely respect a legitimate alternative view, but that is our judgment and that of the French Government and many of our colleagues.

I fully support everything my right hon. Friend said about Syria, Libya, Iran and Bahrain, but I hope that he will forgive me for registering my profound disappointment that the United Kingdom will abstain in Friday’s vote in support of Palestinian membership of the United Nations. Does he understand that many on both sides of the House, and indeed in the country, believe that such a decision is wrong in principle, is ultimately against British interests and will reduce our influence in the region?

Clearly I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend on that point. British interests are in a negotiated settlement; we have no higher interest than that in the middle east peace process. We want to see successful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians leading to a two-state solution. We have to act in a way that is consistent with that and supports it. There are differences of opinion on how best to do that, but our judgment is that it can best be done by acting in this way. It is also the general judgment of our European partners. He is a strong enthusiast of Britain acting with our European partners, but we would be going in the opposite direction if we were to vote differently. I am often asked to ensure that we work closely with our European partners, but when such a situation arises people want me to go in a different direction.

I endorse entirely the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). Will the Foreign Secretary please think again about this? His argument seems entirely tactical, yet there is absolutely no evidence that holding back from a decision to vote for this, which I think he would otherwise support, will encourage Israel to come to the table. Surely the whole weight of the argument is that Israel will come to the table only if the international community is firm with it.

I did not notice under the previous Government a dramatic recognition of Palestine or support for its membership of the United Nations—[Interruption.] It seems the right hon. Gentleman is still learning as he goes along. He is right that the judgment is largely tactical. Our tactical judgment is that this is the best way to proceed at this moment in the peace process when we are faced with this particular situation. We strongly support the successful creation of a viable Palestinian state. As I pointed out in my statement, under successive Governments the UK has been one of the biggest supporters of that in so many ways, including financially, and the judgment takes nothing away from that, but we believe that we have to maximise the incentives for Palestinians to re-enter negotiations without setting many preconditions and the willingness of Israelis to find a negotiated solution, however frustrated many of us may be with them, and we believe that that is best served by voting in the way I have described.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN and the EU have all assessed the performance of the Palestinian Authority and reported that they are ready for statehood and that, therefore, the consequences of an abstention at the Security Council on 11 November will be severe? Our partners in the middle east look on amazed while we support the right to self-determination in every other country in the region but deny the Palestinians the same right. I strongly urge him to order a reconsideration of the matter and exercise a positive vote at the Security Council.

As my right hon. Friend well appreciates, Palestinians are in a different situation. We strongly support their right to a state and a two-state solution in the middle east, but all concerned must concede that such a state can come into meaningful existence only as a result of successful negotiations with Israel. That is where we must direct our efforts. It is not right at this time to vote for a resolution that is not linked to negotiations. That would give the impression that there is a better way of proceeding than returning to negotiations. At this moment there is no better way.

I support the Foreign Secretary’s view that only direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will solve the conflict. Does he consider that in the current situation the Palestinians are refusing to go back to the negotiating table because they regard the unilateral declaration as an alternative to negotiations in which they would have to recognise Israel?

The hon. Lady’s point is related to the one I am making, which is that we should not encourage the idea that at this moment there is a substitute for negotiations that will bring about a Palestinian state, because realistically there is not. That is why we have taken this position. I think the Palestinians should be ready to re-enter negotiations without setting additional preconditions, but I also think that Israel has to enter negotiations with a readiness to make a much more decisive and—if I may describe it like this—generous offer to the Palestinians than it has been prepared to make for many years. Both things are necessary to bring about a successful negotiation.

Is it not the case that the UN process is a distraction from the biggest obstacle to what we all want to see, which is an independent Palestine living alongside a secure state of Israel? That biggest obstacle is the unchecked nuclear ambition of Iran. It is simply inconceivable that the Israeli people will accept another state becoming a base for Iranian proxies in the way that south Lebanon and Syria have been until we sort out the problem of Iran.

It is certainly true that the behaviour of Iran makes peace in the middle east a much more difficult goal to attain. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. However, I would say—and I do say—to Israeli leaders that the conduct of Iran makes it all the more important for them to settle their differences with the Palestinians and seek to arrive at a two-state solution. That is a very important aspect of the argument as well.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is little chance of a united international, and therefore effective and peaceful, response to the Iranian nuclear weaponisation programme unless other regional players take a lead in those international forums? Is there any chance—has he seen any sign—of their preparedness to do so?

There is a lot in what the right hon. Gentleman says. It is very important that strong international concern is expressed beyond western nations and United Nations Security Council members. He will know that there is immense anxiety in the Arab world about, for instance, the behaviour and intentions of Iran. We do look to those countries to take a stronger public position in the coming months than the positions they have been prepared to take in recent years.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Netanyahu has in the past couple of days announced a dismantling of illegal settlements? That could mean more settlers being removed than since the evacuation of Gaza, which led to increased terrorism. Does he agree that it is difficult to support a Palestinian state when part of it is still controlled by terrorists funded by Iran?

I am aware of announcements made by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Nevertheless, I say to my hon. Friend that the overall effect of Israeli settlement announcements is very negative, is the wrong judgment and does not help the peace process. We should be absolutely clear about that. I readily agree with him on his second point. Clearly, the situation in Gaza—the continued intransigence of Hamas—certainly does not help the peace process or help to persuade Israelis that a partner for peace is available to them.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Palestine’s bid for membership of the United Nations is a lawful one and that it asks no more than the recognition that Israel has demanded as non-negotiable for itself and which was granted by the United Nations 63 years ago? When lawful acts like this and the recent UNESCO decision to admit Palestine to membership are met with reprisals through accelerated settlement building, financial boycotts and attempts in the Israeli Parliament and on the streets of Jerusalem to gag Jewish Israeli groups that dare to speak out for peace and human rights, how is it credible for the UK to sit on its hands and abstain? The time has come to make up our minds.

There are two points to respond to. It is certainly entirely wrong to respond to votes such as the one that took place in UNESCO with reprisals of any kind—with announcements of new settlement construction and the withholding of tax revenues. That aggravates and escalates a difficult situation and does not help Israel any more than it helps Palestinians.

The hon. Gentleman said that we are sitting on our hands. The important point is that, across all the European nations involved in these matters, we are absolutely not sitting on our hands. We are trying to get negotiations going again through the Quartet, the work of Baroness Ashton—the EU High Representative—and all the representations that the United Kingdom, France and Germany make. We are all highly active in that regard. However, at this moment in the very difficult fortunes of the peace process, it is consistent with that approach for us to act in the way I have described.

Will my right hon. Friend re-evaluate the travel ban in parts of Kenya, particularly in Malindi, which is an important tourist resort where thousands of African workers have no work and are likely to be—or could be—recruited by terrorists? Many local people believe it is now safe.

My geography may be at fault, but I do not think it is. The Foreign Secretary is a wise man and he will judiciously and briefly deal with the matter.

My hon. Friend is stretching north Africa down in a southern and eastward direction. He has written to me on the subject, so I will be responding to him in any case.

As it is clearly a waste of time asking the right hon. Gentleman to reverse his deplorable decision on Palestinian membership of the United Nations, may I ask him to endorse the French President’s character reference of the Israeli Prime Minister?

It would not be in the interests of the United Kingdom for the Foreign Secretary, whoever that may be, to endorse any such remarks. We do not get into endorsing leaked conversations.

The Foreign Secretary is more patient than I am in waiting for the Israeli Government to return to meaningful negotiations with the Palestinian authority. When will his patience, like mine, have run out?

Well, it will not last for ever. I do not think the Israeli Government regard me—or the position of the United Kingdom—as patient on this subject because we have spoken to them extremely frankly about what they need to do. Nevertheless, however frustrated we are, we all have to recognise that the resumption of negotiations is the only way to bring about the Palestinian state that we seek. We have to act in a way that is in accordance with that, which is why we have taken the decision we have.

The Iranian regime is dreadful. Its tyranny is notorious and we all condemn it—at least I hope we all do. Does the Foreign Secretary accept, however, that any military attack on that regime would be counter-productive and have devastating consequences in the region? Will he give a commitment now that under no circumstances will this country be involved directly or indirectly in any such attack?

It is always right to warn against all the unknowable consequences in any situation of military action but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, our concentration is on efforts to negotiate with Iran and apply peaceful pressure to it. We are not calling for or advocating military action, but we have also always made it clear under successive Governments—this remains our position—that no option has been taken off the table.

Two matters are now clear beyond peradventure in relation to Iran. First, that Iran is in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons; secondly, that the existing sanctions regime has not worked at all in seeking to deter it from that course. Russia and China stand in the way of the further sanctions that my right hon. Friend has indicated it would be the Government’s intention to seek, but we have friends in the middle east who can exercise their own pressure on both Russia and China. Will he give an undertaking that that is precisely what the Government will seek to do with those friends in the middle east?

Yes. As I emphasised to the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the former Secretary of State for Defence, it is very important that the pressure does not just come from western nations. It is very important that there is increased pressure and attention on the matter throughout the middle east, and we will certainly be seeking to encourage that.

May I welcome what the Foreign Secretary said about addressing legacy issues arising from the Gaddafi regime, particularly his explicit reference to IRA terrorism? I look forward to continuing to work with him and his team in the Foreign Office on that issue. On Israel, has he any evidence to suggest that recognition of a Palestinian state would encourage Hamas and those like them, including Iran, to stop their support for the annihilation of Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people?

I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman says about the legacy issues. Of course, we will continue to work with him and others on these subjects. We have no evidence that what he describes would be the result. That underlines, of course, the importance of a negotiated solution. Passing motions in the United Nations will not resolve the issue, but a successful negotiation between Israel and Palestine would do so.

The Foreign Secretary’s statement seemed to focus very much on the actions of Israel rather than on the actions of the Palestinian Authority, which continues to threaten the state of Israel and not to do enough about terrorist attacks on Israel. However, may I urge him to look again at whether we abstain? Surely we should be voting against this unilateral and provocative act that will do nothing to bring anybody to the negotiating table.

We will not vote against it, for the reasons I gave in my statement. I disagree with my hon. Friend a little on this. In recent years, under President Abbas, the Palestinian Authority has done a very good job of building up many of the attributes of statehood. In particular, the work of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has been excellent in this regard. We must not lose sight of that. On the other hand, of course, there is Gaza and the behaviour of Hamas; the Palestinian Authority is not in control of that situation, so I can meet my hon. Friend halfway on that. The Palestinians have done a good job of building up many of the attributes of a state, and that is why we could not countenance voting against this resolution.

But surely the Foreign Secretary must understand that an abstention in these circumstances is equivalent to a no vote. Does he understand the despair that this will cause, and does he not accept that this will encourage Hamas and undermine President Abbas, who, as he said, has done so much to try to forward the peace process?

No, I do not agree with that. President Abbas has always understood that such an application would not succeed in the United Nations Security Council. After all, it is the position of the United States that it would, if necessary, veto such a resolution. There is no Palestinian expectation that this application would succeed in the Security Council. What is important is what comes after this discussion. Of course, we want to see the resumption of negotiations in the Quartet. If that does not work, I think that the Palestinians will return relatively quickly to the United Nations General Assembly, where, as I said, different considerations will apply because the terms of any resolution there have yet to be framed. We will do our utmost to ensure that any such resolution helps the return to negotiations.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the conflict is a political one that can be resolved only at the negotiating table, and that the talks should resume as soon as possible without any preconditions? May I therefore urge him, as have other Government Members, to reconsider and vote no against any application?

My hon. Friend is right that it is a political problem that requires a political solution. There is no legal solution that can be imposed in this respect; a successful political process is required. I agree with him about that. However, for the reasons I gave earlier about the very good work that has taken place in the Palestinian Authority in moving itself towards statehood, we would be unable to vote against its application for membership of the United Nations.

Many people listening to the statement will be very surprised that the Foreign Secretary devoted so much more time to criticising Israel than to criticising Iran’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons, which threaten the stability of the entire region and could trigger a regional arms race and threaten Israel’s very existence. In addition, he did not have a single word to say about terrorist attacks on Israel sponsored by Iran. What conversations has he had with his international counterparts about an increased sanctions regime and any other measures designed to bring Iran to its senses?

I have set all that out already, so I do not want to repeat myself. I covered a very wide range of subjects in the statement. I do not think our concern about each subject should be measured by the number of words on it. The middle east peace process is a particularly complex matter that therefore requires a good, detailed explanation. I think that what I have said about Iran is very clear, and I set out in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary how we are proceeding on additional measures.

The Foreign Secretary was right to say that Tunisia has set an example of what can be achieved peacefully, and its first free elections are a remarkable achievement. He will recall that the events that triggered the downfall of the undemocratic Government in Tunisia were caused primarily by economic hardship. What can the UK and its allies do to ensure that there is an economic recovery in north Africa to underpin the positive political progress we have seen?

There is an enormous opportunity to create much stronger economic and trading links between the whole of Europe and the countries of north Africa. It is part of the excitement and the vision that is now possible in the Arab spring that we can envisage Tunisia, Libya and, we hope, Egypt opening up economically, provided that we open up to them. It is now vital that we implement the European neighbourhood policy agreed in May, including better market access into Europe for products, including agricultural products, from north Africa to begin that process of much stronger links between our countries.

One hundred and seven hon. Members from across this House have signed a motion in support of Palestinian statehood at the UN. Surely at a time when the negotiations have virtually stalled, one way of kick-starting them is to get a positive vote for the Palestinians at the UN. If, as it is said, they are one vote short of achieving that, it would be an absolute disgrace for this country to sit on the fence.

The difference of judgment is on whether voting for the application in the current situation at the UN Security Council would help a return to negotiations. Our view, and the view of the Government of France and many other Governments, is that it would not do so—that such a vote, if we all voted in that way, would reduce the incentives for Palestinians, and the willingness of Israelis, to engage successfully in negotiations. We differ only on that point. I entirely respect the legitimate view that we should vote in favour, for all the reasons the right hon. Lady and others have put, but our overall judgment is that a return to negotiations is best served by the course I have set out.

This year, although on separate occasions, my right hon. Friend and I were the first British MPs to visit Mauritania since its independence in 1960, when the Father of the House visited. This shows the previous Government’s lack of engagement with Francophone north Africa. I very much hope that as a result of my right hon. Friend’s visit we will give due consideration to establishing an embassy in Nouakchott and issuing a speedy invite for the President of Mauritania to come and meet the Prime Minister.

My hon. Friend blazed a trail by being the first British MP to go to Mauritania in a very long time. I can assure him that people there are still talking about his visit, and they will be for a long time to come. I strongly welcome the work that he has undertaken. We now have one diplomat based in Nouakchott, and of course we may want to expand that presence in future. I do not want to go any further than that at the moment.

The Foreign Secretary rightly drew attention to our need to have dialogue with the Arab League, and possibly Turkey, about Iran and Syria. Does he accept that while we do not buy friendship with those we work with, nevertheless the decision announced today about the vote on Palestine will not be well understood by our friends in the Arab world?

I think the situation in the Security Council is quite well understood in the Arab world. As I pointed out to one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, there has been no serious expectation that a bid to the Security Council could be successful; given the position of the United States, it is not possible for it to be successful. What matters, therefore, is what happens next. It is very well understood in the Arab world that we have been increasing the pressure on Israel and increasing our condemnation of actions such as the settlement activity undertaken by Israel, and that we are doing our utmost to restart negotiations.

I strongly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s support for enhanced but peaceful pressure on Iran. Will he confirm that our preferred approach for more aggressive intervention in other states by anyone is that there should be a strong legal and humanitarian justification, regional support and, if possible, explicit sanction by the United Nations?

My hon. Friend is quoting me back at myself in what I have said about the strengths of our intervention in Libya. I have said that any necessary intervention is greatly strengthened by such things and that they are, and remain, criteria for us. Clearly, we are not advocating military action; we are advocating an increase in peaceful, legitimate pressure, as well as the continued offer of negotiations.

Will the Foreign Secretary call on the Turkish Government to end their criminalisation of legitimate democratic Kurdish organisations and, in particular, will he condemn the arrest of the Assembly Member, Büsra Ersanli, the veteran writer and publisher, Ragip Zarakolu, and many others on clearly politically inspired charges?

We do raise human rights cases with Turkey and I will certainly consider the cases that the hon. Gentleman has described. We will have many detailed discussions with Turkey because of the state visit of the President of Turkey in two weeks’ time. I will look at those cases ahead of that visit.

Russia and China are involved in the current framework of United Nations sanctions, which is approved by the UN Security Council, including by Russia and China. It is important that we do not have the impression that those countries are not concerned about this subject or that they have not been helpful on many occasions. It is true that we would go further, however. In the light of the IAEA report we will certainly want to focus minds on this subject, including in Moscow and Beijing, so there will be further discussions with both countries.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that all women doctors should be released from Bahraini prisons, that all our parliamentary colleagues in Bahrain should be able to resume their functions, and that all Ministers who sanctioned torture a few months ago should be placed on trial? We do not need to wait for a whitewash report before he can say yes on all three points.

We want human rights to be fully respected in Bahrain. It is wrong of the right hon. Gentleman to say in advance of the report that it is a whitewash. We will be able to see whether it is or not and to form our own judgment. It is wrong of him to form his judgment before its publication. It is best to respond to such things after their publication. In the meantime, we will of course continue to advocate to the Bahraini Government that they should have the maximum respect for the human rights of their citizens, just as we would expect in this country.

Iran’s continued nuclear weapons programme and the rising tensions in Israel constitute a terrifying tinderbox in the middle east. The military rhetoric from some quarters in the United States is very worrying. How is the Foreign Secretary using our improving bilateral relationships with Brazil, India and other emerging economies to increase the economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran?

We always raise this issue with the emerging powers of the world. The position of such countries is generally not as favourable to sanctions, including on Iran, as our position and the general European and American position. Again, I hope that the detail of the IAEA report will increase the focus on the behaviour of Iran in countries such as Brazil and India.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that some countries believe that Britain and France should not have seats at the Security Council, but that there should be a European Union seat instead. Is he saying that when there is no consensus in the European Union and when Germany objects, we will in future abstain in the Security Council?

No, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will never agree to an EU seat at the United Nations Security Council. It is important that British and French permanent membership is continued. Of course, there are many occasions on which we vote in different directions. However, on the middle east peace process, the EU has worked together to pursue a determined initiative in a united way, working with Cathy Ashton, so there is a premium on European unity being maintained on this issue.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we are rapidly approaching a tipping point with Iran and that a peaceful solution is looking more unlikely in relation to its nuclear programme?

We are entering a more dangerous phase—let me put it that way. When the IAEA report is officially published, everybody will be able to see what it says. Of course, the longer Iran pursues a nuclear weapons programme without responding adequately to calls for negotiation from the rest of us, the greater the risk of a conflict will be.

The importance of involving women in post-conflict situations is well known. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what support that the Government are providing to countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia is going specifically towards ensuring that women are fully involved in the development of democracy?

Certainly some of our Arab Partnership fund is going towards that. In Egypt, for instance, we are helping to fund training for women to participate in the forthcoming elections. We also raise this issue more broadly with the new leaders in the region. When I visited Tripoli last month, I raised with Chairman Jalil of the national transitional council the importance of ensuring the wider involvement of women in society and politics in Libya. It will certainly help that country’s post-conflict reconstruction and progress if it does that.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but the statement has run for just over an hour and we must move on, given the pressures of time.