HL Deb 06 December 2004 vol 667 cc660-2

2.57 p.m.

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to make any changes to their foreign policy with regard to the Middle East.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the policy that lies at the heart of the Government's approach to the Middle East is a two-state solution; that is, Israel living in peace and security with its neighbours, and the establishment of a state of Palestine which is viable and contiguous. That policy will remain unchanged under this Government.

Lord Dykes

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Does she agree that the British Government have a major role to play? I wish her and other Ministers well in the resumed road map negotiations. Does she further agree that a key to that, with our special relationship, is that the Government should arrange frequent meetings with US officials to ensure absolutely that President Bush sticks to his long-expressed pledge and solemn promise to ensure a viable, fully fledged Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that we have an important role to play. I do not want to be accused of overplaying my own hand or that of the Government in that respect, but I think that it is an important role. Not only bilaterally, but through our partnership in Europe and our membership of the quartet, it is a role in which we will not be found wanting. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, when he was in Washington on 11 and 12 November, discussed those matters with the President of the United States, as did my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary when he was in Israel/Palestine on 24 and 25 November. I assure the noble Lord that officials of the United States of America are in no doubt where the British Government stand.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, while supporting the concept of a two-state solution, how can the Government, through the European Commission and the EU, influence extremist opinion on both sides of this delicate topic?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his birthday today. I agree with him that it is enormously important to try to influence extremist opinion on both sides. In eight years of dealing with such matters, I have always found that it is important to try not to take a particular side in public statements. The moment that one is put into the position of taking a particular side, no matter where sympathies may temporarily be engaged, one starts to lose the confidence of those on the other side of the argument.

Having said that, I must say that it is none the less clear where the Government stand on the two-state solution, and it is clear what our policies are on enormous questions such as, for example, suicide bombings, on the one hand, and targeted killings, on the other. One must be clear that certain actions taken by both sides are never acceptable. None the less, those actions should not impede one from having an understanding of the position of both sides.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the newspaper reports that Britain is planning a major Middle East conference in January or February are correct? Have the Government thought of putting forward a proposal to appoint a mediator—a substantial international figure—to begin to drive the process forward, in the new era of opportunity following Arafat's death, on the lines of the role played by Senator George Mitchell in Northern Ireland?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are considering an international meeting. I hesitate to use the words "international conference", because doing so might cause confusion with the conferences that are mentioned in phase 2 and phase 3 of the road map. They are conferences to bring the two sides together on the question of negotiations.

What is under consideration is a meeting that aims to support the Palestinians in their moves towards developing the institutions to prepare for statehood. That matter is still under discussion. No decisions were taken on whether there would be such a conference.

The noble Lord referred to a mediator. There is some discussion about that in relation to the United States. There is no specific question of a mediator in relation to the UK, although I am sure that my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary would not wish to rule out anything at this stage.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, what is the Minister's opinion of the view attributed to President Musharraf that the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is the key to the diminution of terror not only in the Middle East but elsewhere?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is certainly the key to unlock a great number of the world's problems not only in the Middle East but throughout the globe, as they spread under the influence of what is happening in the Middle East. I hesitate to follow a direct thought process from there to the question of terror, but there is no doubt that what is perceived by many as injustice in the Middle East is used to justify terror. That is clear.

I turn rather to the point made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place: I do not think that there is a more pressing political challenge facing the world today".—[Official Report, Commons, 17/11/04; col. 1346.] I think that many of us would be prepared to agree with that.

Lord Dykes

My Lords, the Minister referred to the possible international meeting in the new year to take the process further. Can she confirm that the Palestinian president who will by then have been elected will automatically be invited, regardless of the provenance of the successful candidate?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is referring to the fact that one of the people who has declared himself available is in prison, at present. There might well be some difficulty with inviting such a person to an international meeting or, at least, with their ability to accept such an invitation, were they to be elected.

We will have to see what the outcome of the Palestinian elections on 9 January is. We hope that whoever is elected will be a president of the Palestinian people who is committed to peace, and that, if there is a meeting on the subjects to which I referred in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, whoever is elected will be in a position to come to that meeting.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, would it not be more difficult for Al'Qaeda to recruit if the problem of Palestine were sorted out?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is a huge question. At a personal level, I am inclined to say, "Yes". At a personal level, I believe that it is true that terrorist organisations are able to use leverage on the issue in relation to the Middle East.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, has the Minister discussed with her colleague in the Department for International Development what contribution a greater emphasis on the education of girls and young women in the Middle East might make to long-term stability?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that question goes way beyond the question of Israel/Palestine. The Middle East goes way beyond the question of Israel/Palestine. I took it that that was the point that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, was raising in his initial Question, although it might have been broader than that.

The education of girls and young women throughout the Middle East is at the heart of the discussions that we are having through the Euro-Med organisation. I participated in those discussions last week in The Hague. It is also part of what is under discussion through the G8 initiative on Arab reform.