HL Deb 25 June 2002 vol 636 cc1201-4

3.8 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice; namely, to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the latest developments in the Middle East peace process?

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government welcome President Bush's statement which calls for a final settlement within three years— including, two states living side-by-side in peace and security"— and sets out what both parties have to do to achieve this goal. He said that there must be "an end to terror", and that, Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Territories must stop". He went on to say: Israelis and Palestinians must address the core issues … This means that Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement negotiated between the parties, based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognised borders. We must also resolve questions concerning Jerusalem, and the plight and future of Palestinian refugees". Although there are some uncomfortable messages for the Palestinian Authority, Her Majesty's Government are glad that President Arafat has welcomed the speech. We strongly support the call for reforms to the Palestinian Authority and for new elections. These will be an opportunity for the Palestinian people to decide who will lead them towards a final and peaceful settlement. Her Majesty's Government will do all we can to assist in the process outlined.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to the noble Baroness for that reply. Does she accept that we, like the Government, welcome the US positive engagement in the Middle East crisis; and, indeed, express the hope that they will persist as it will be an arduous and long process? Does the noble Baroness agree that it would be right to see President Bush's speech more as a set of principles than as a detailed blueprint? Does she also agree that it rightly reflects a good part of the Crown Prince Abdullah plan for two states living in harmony—and, we hope, constructively—side by side and for a balance of obligations to be fulfilled by both sides; that is, a reformed Palestinian Authority with a new leadership in due course, rejecting terror, matched by the end of occupation coming about in stages and a reduction, indeed, the end, of what President Bush calls "settlement activity"? I am not sure what that really means.

Does the noble Baroness agree that everything really depends on the precise nature and sequence of those obligations and on what the frontiers of the new transitional, or eventually permanent, state will be? Does she accept that the details in the full text of the speech are much more enlightening in terms of describing the heavy obligations on Israel than the newspaper reports which were carried in most newspapers this morning? Given that there really will be no advance until there is an end of suicide bombing and probably no end of suicide bombing until there are moves to end the Israeli occupation, how does the noble Baroness feel that the British Government can help take all this forward?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I very much welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said on the positive engagement of the United States. I agree with him that the speech that we have seen bears a strong resemblance to many of the points put forward earlier this year by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in the plans that he suggested might be a possible way forward. Copies of President Bush's speech have been put in the Library of the House. I agree with the noble Lord that it makes interesting reading. It is very much a set of principles rather than details. It is worth noting that the President has said that he has asked Secretary of State Powell to work intensively with Middle Eastern and international leaders to realise the vision of a Palestinian state, focusing them on a comprehensive plan to support Palestinian reform and institution building. He has charged his Secretary of State with taking that issue forward.

The United Kingdom will do whatever it can to help in that process. The speech itself does not mention a conference, but we understand that the United States still believes that a conference would be helpful and that it would want to engage at ministerial level with Palestinians and Israelis and, of course, with members of the quartet as well. The United Kingdom will hold itself ready to help with preparing for and monitoring of any elections which might take place.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, if we all welcome this clear statement that there is to be a two state solution to the problem, we also recognise that the Palestinians have to have a state on the West Bank and that does require a rather clearer statement about the ultimate withdrawal from the settlements than is contained at the moment within President Bush's speech. The Government must make it clear that the very peculiar alliance of Christian fundamentalists and Jewish fundamentalists who feel that the whole of the land of Israel should now be part of a single state, with the implication that Palestinians should be forced to cross the Jordan, should be opposed and that a two-state solution has to have clear borders between two states sharing the land west of the Jordan.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, made it clear that there is to be a two-state solution. The President of the United States is an enormously influential and powerful man, but it is not for him to decide that. It will, of course, be a matter for the people of the region—the Palestinians and the Israelis—who must understand (as I am sure we hope that they all do) that the way forward on this issue is not through the appalling violence that we have seen in recent weeks but through a negotiated settlement. It is very much to be hoped that they see the wisdom not only in what is being put forward today by the President, but also, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, in the way that it reflects so much of what has been put forward by Crown Prince Abdullah. It is up to both sides to take the matter forward.

The noble Lord went into details about where the individual borders of the states might run. That would be a matter for negotiations. But the President of the United States has made it clear that he thinks that the Israeli forces need to withdraw to the positions that they held prior to 28th September 2000, which refers hack to the Mitchell committee, and says that the Israeli settlement activity has to stop. Those are the tenets from which he is beginning. We very much hope that this opportunity will be seized by both sides to find a peaceful solution to their very longstanding problems.

Lord Grenfell

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister care to tell the House whether or not Her Majesty's Government agree with President Bush when he implicitly calls for the removal of Mr Arafat as leader of the Palestinian Authority? As the Palestinian Authority has already stated that it wishes to hold elections in the Palestinian area, does my noble friend agree that it would be far better if Israel were to try to help create the conditions in which fair elections could be held there so that the Palestinian people could decide for themselves who they wished to have as their leader?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, let us be clear what the President of the United States actually said. He said: Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror". The noble Lord has said that he draws some implications from that. I agree with him that it is up to the Palestinian people to choose their leaders. We look forward to the democratic elections which, as the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, quite rightly pointed out, President Arafat has already said should be the way forward. It will require action by both the Palestinians and the Israelis to make those elections happen. Of course, they will enjoy the support of the international community both in helping them to prepare for those elections and in the monitoring that will take place around those elections. That is an important point, but it involves both the Israelis and the Palestinians seeking to make the elections fair and open.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that President Bush commented on the need for a different leadership because he shares the views of many of those of us who seek peace in the Middle East that the present Palestinian leadership would create a terrorist state in waiting?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the reasons for President Bush saying what he did are a matter for him. Her Majesty's Government have made it very clear that we expect President Arafat and the Palestinian leadership to do everything that they can to combat terror, which has been such an appalling facet of what has happened in the Middle East. I can do no more than repeat what I said; namely, that it is the firm view of Her Majesty's Government that this is a matter for the Palestinian people. Until the elections are held, President Arafat is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority and the representative of the only organisation with which Israel can negotiate at the moment.