HL Deb 10 February 2005 vol 669 cc902-5

11.20 a.m.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the announcements that followed the Middle East summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on 8 February.

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

My Lords, the announcement of a ceasefire following Tuesday's meeting between Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas in Sharm el-Sheikh is excellent news. I pay tribute to Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas for their courage in seizing this opportunity not only to improve the security situation but also to commit themselves to the road map. While no one should underestimate the difficulties ahead, this is an important step. We hope that the London meeting on 1 March will build on the forward momentum.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that characteristically helpful and informative reply. Does she agree that as regards the Middle East as a region we have to be careful with our optimism, and that that optimism should be tempered with caution because experience in the past has shown that hopes for peace have been dashed by the actions of ruthless terrorist groups? Does she further agree that we should greet the Sharm-el-Sheikh discussions as offering the best opportunity for a negotiated settlement in the Middle East and that Her Majesty's Government should take positive action to assist the parties to resolve the matters of conflict?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, while acknowledging that this is an excellent step very much in the right direction, we have to temper that with realism about the amount of ground and the difficulties that still lie ahead. It has taken enormous courage on the side of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to go forward together as they did at Sharm el-Sheikh. Like my noble friend, I have no illusions that there will be many enemies of this process who will want to do everything they can to disrupt it. Certainly we have now got the best chance for peace that we are likely to see for a number of years. For our part, the United Kingdom Government have a responsibility, with our partners in the quartet, to do what we can to help the process. Of course, the London meeting with the Palestinians is an important part of what we are trying to do.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh is clearly very welcome and one hopes that it is a real breakthrough. As regards the London conference to which the Minister has just referred, can she confirm whether President Abbas will be willing to attend given that the Israelis will not be there? Does she agree, as she has certainly indicated, that a return to the road map is the way forward? Does the quartet now have any plans to redraw its timetable?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have had a number of meetings with Palestinians here in London over the past few days—most recently at the beginning of this week with Salem Fayed, who is taking a leading role on this issue. President Abbas will decide in the light of the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh—as I am sure your Lordships are aware, other important meetings are going on in the Palestinian Authority areas today—who should attend the London meeting. As soon as we have any definitive news, it will be made available. We have received a very positive response from a number of countries and delegations to come to London.

The question of the road map is now open to be pursued. It is a quite different question and should not be confused with the London meeting, which was never designed as a peace conference. But, given that both sides have now recommitted themselves to the road map, like the noble Baroness I hope that we will see some real movement forward on that.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that she will do everything in her power and Her Majesty's Government will do all they can to support Abu Mazen in his efforts to dismantle the terror groups and preserve the ceasefire, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, in his determination to dismantle settlements and relocate the settlers within Israel?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can give an unequivocal assurance to my noble friend Lord Janner that we will do everything we can to support both sides in that endeavour. At Sharm el-Sheikh this week, the Palestinians undertook to do everything they can to stop the attacks against Israelis everywhere. I indicated that there were meetings going on today with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who have said that they were unwilling to make such a commitment before they saw President Abbas today. For their side, the Israelis have talked about stopping all military activities against the Palestinians, prisoner release and their commitment to the road map—which, your Lordships will recall, states that in phase one there should be a freezing of all settlement activity.

I do not want to go further than where we are at the moment. We have an opportunity to find a way forward on this seemingly intractable difficulty. It is the best opportunity that we have had for a long time. Indeed, it is the best opportunity that we are likely to have for a number of years to come.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Sharm el-Sheikh outcome is very welcome indeed—as long it is not undermined—particularly as it was achieved without the outside powers breathing down the participants' necks? That is a real gain and is very encouraging. Would it not be right to now see whether Israel could be invited to be included in the London meeting on 1 March as the new Palestine state will depend very heavily on Israel's support? Without that support, it will be very difficult to make it viable.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he said about the outcome of Sharm el-Sheikh. I am very glad that his assessment is so like my own. I agree with him, too, that it is very important that it was, very obviously, a meeting between two leaders who were themselves committed without necessarily having the supporting cast there. I took that as a positive indication.

Israeli participation in London would change the whole nature of the meeting that we have in mind and which has been carefully negotiated and set up between the parties. I assure the noble Lord that the Israelis have been consulted on the way in which the meeting is being put together and on the substance of the meeting. But if the Israelis were to be participants in that meeting it would justify some of the speculation about us trying to undertake some kind of peace conference. That is not what this is about. It is about trying to help the Palestinians with the process of moving towards statehood and finding those institutions of statehood—socially, economically, politically and, of course, in security terms—which will be so vital.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, what kind of support can Her Majesty's Government give to President Abbas and his government in rebuilding the institutions to which she has just referred?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have been working very hard on these issues for well over a year now. We have worked hard on the question of the institutions around security. But I want to stress that this is not only a question of security as it affects the borders and the abutting of the state of Israel: it is also the all-important question of internal security within a future state of Palestine. It is a question of law and order. It is all very well calling on the Palestinians to improve their security, but they need the capacity to do so. In order to have that capacity, they must have support, and that is what we have been giving over the past year or so.

We will also be engaged in a follow-up in the political and economic areas. We want to see some agreement coming out of the London meeting for a pledging conference later this year. We also want to ensure that there is agreement to hold a private sector business event to identify investment opportunities in Gaza and the West Bank.

There are three major areas—political reform, the economic programme and security reforms—and I can assure your Lordships that Her Majesty's Government are working very hard on all three levels.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, this has been an historic agreement, welcomed by Members all around the House and by the countries involved. As everyone knows, Hamas announced within a few minutes of the agreement being made that it would not be bound by it. What advice can the Government give to try to help both sides to deal with this in a mature way so that it does not cause anything to break down?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Baroness has raised what is probably the most important question here. Let us be clear: Hamas is meeting today with Abu Mazen—President Abbas—who is also meeting with Hezbollah. Hamas has not ruled out participating in a ceasefire altogether; it said that it would not be bound by it until it had had the opportunity to discuss it with the new Palestinian president. So let us hope that it reaches the right decision today. We must always keep at the back of our minds the possibility that the enemies of this process—and they will be numerous, on both sides—will at some point try to perpetrate a terrorist outrage in order to provoke a response. That is the history of recent years. I have said to our colleagues in the Middle East that we have to think about how that sort of crisis is handled. It is enormously important, in this period of relative quiet, to think through what should be done if that sort of horror comes to pass and the ways in which people will respond. I think that there is an opportunity to do some forward planning on the matter.