HL Deb 21 October 2004 vol 665 cc919-21

Lord Wright of Richmond asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the prospects for the Palestinian road map and for a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, our concerns about the failure of both sides to implement phase 1 of the road map are compounded by the increased levels of violence in recent weeks, particularly relating to Gaza. Palestinian failure to deal with security and Israel's increased settlement activity must be addressed urgently. There is a need for both sides to demonstrate that they will honour the commitments that they made in signing up to the road map, which is currently the only credible route to the two-state solution supported by the international community.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but is she aware of an interview, published in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz on 8 October, with a senior adviser to Prime Minister Sharon in which he claimed that any withdrawal from the West Bank would be a purely token one; that the larger settlements in the West Bank will remain part of Israel indefinitely; that while 10,000 settlers may be evacuated from Gaza, the hold of 200,000 settlers on the West Bank will be strengthened; and that the whole political process—that is, the road map—has now been frozen? The adviser concluded that the whole package—that is, a Palestinian state—has been removed from Israel's agenda indefinitely with the blessing of President Bush and the ratification (I am not sure what this refers to) of both Houses of Congress.

How does the Minister reconcile those apparently authoritative but unsurprising statements with the view expressed by both President Bush and the Prime Minister in April this year that the proposed Israeli withdrawal from Gaza represented an opportunity to inject new life into the peace process in accordance with the road map? Is it not time for Europe to play a more active and positive role in the quartet?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have, indeed, read Mr Weissglas's interview and I have also seen Mr Sharon's remarks distancing himself from the views expressed. Mr Sharon's plenipotentiary said that the disengagement plan was not intended to freeze the political process with the Palestinians but to preserve the road map as the only political process.

I am aware of the degree of scepticism that has been excited by this exchange of views. Perhaps I may say that if Mr Weissglas's aim was to subvert the road map, I am certainly not going to help him by giving that view any credibility from this Dispatch Box. I shall stick with the Sharon version of Israel's policy position.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, although we do not all recognise Mr Sharon as a kindred spirit, he has shown great political courage in proposing and persisting with the disengagement plan, despite opposition in his own party, problems with the Knesset and a distinct lack of enthusiasm from Mr Arafat? Should we not strengthen his arm so far as we can and encourage him in well doing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it was because Her Majesty's Government took that view that the Prime Minister welcomed Mr Sharon's plan to withdraw all settlements from Gaza and the West Bank, and of course we hope that it will be a significant step towards the goals set out in the road map. But this move must be consistent with the two-state solution. It must involve not only security for Israel but a viable and contiguous state of Palestine, and it must not undermine the final status negotiations between the parties. Those are very important prerequisites in pursuing the disengagement plan.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how active the quartet is now being? This was a major initiative in which the Europeans—our Government included—played a large part. We now read far less about quartet initiatives. Is the quartet still active or is that, too, beginning to go into the ground?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the quartet met in New York on 22 September and reaffirmed the principles on which a two-state solution would be based, with the road map as the way of getting there. The quartet expressed disappointment in the failure of phase 1 of the road map. I had the opportunity to discuss the matter with Marc Otte, the EU representative, when I was in New York recently. But I am bound to say that it would be unrealistic to suggest that a tremendous amount of activity is taking place in the two weeks before the American election.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords—

Lord Sterling of Plaistow

My Lords—

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the British Government's position is still that the disengagement plan is not only wholly consistent with the road map for peace but is in fact an excellent—and, at present, unique—opportunity to try to break the logjam in which the peace process finds itself?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is a good opportunity but it needs very careful handling. The withdrawal from Gaza is clearly a very difficult problem, given that there are real security issues. The United Kingdom Government, with our friends in the Palestinian Authority, have put in an enormous amount of effort on questions of security. The Egyptians have also been very closely involved in the discussions on this matter. But I stress to my noble friend that the points I made a moment or two ago in answering the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, about the final status negotiations are also important.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, of course, we all want to see the Gaza withdrawal as the beginning of an improvement and not the end, as some have suggested. But what does the Minister think of the new proposal now being aired about the West Bank as a separate state? As it is already virtually bisected by Israeli settlements, the future there must be a Palestinian state but with a substantial Israeli minority—a rather different concept from simply the two-state solution for which we have all been hoping and which is clearly becoming more and more unrealistic.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. The Gaza withdrawal is important as a step in the road map process towards a two-state solution, but it must not be seen as an end in itself. That was the purport of the Weissglas piece to which the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, referred. However, I made two very strong points in answering the Liberal Democrat Benches: ultimately the state of Palestine must be viable and it must be contiguous. The point about contiguity is important. We wish to stick with that point and we want it to form part of the final status negotiations on the question of borders.

Lord Dykes

My Lords—

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords—

Lord Grocott

My Lords, we are into the ninth minute of just four Questions.

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