HL Deb 10 January 2005 vol 668 cc1-4

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they plan to hold with the Israeli Government concerning the Palestinian elections.

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

My Lords, as your Lordships know, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary urged the Israelis to co-operate as fully as possible in facilitating the Palestinian presidential elections. In the event, the election took place in a positive atmosphere, with relative freedom of movement. We still await the official observers reports about what happened on the ground. Her Majesty's Government congratulate Mahmoud Abbas on his election, and look forward to welcoming the Palestinian leadership to London in early March and working with them and the Israelis in moving closer to a settlement of the Middle East conflict.

Lord Dykes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and wish the Government well in those processes here. Is she confident that the Israeli Government will now overcome their natural but excessive obsession with security only, at the expense of other things, and at long last enter into fundamental talks for a lasting peace and a full Palestinian state?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, what the noble Lord describes as a natural obsession with security is bound still to be very much at the heart of the way in which Israel conducts itself. After all, the first duty of any government is to ensure the security of their people. I hope that that is not seen as an impediment to moving forward in a peaceful process. The election has been clear-cut on the basis of a good turnout and a big majority. The Palestinian people have spoken about who they want to lead them. My colleagues and I hope that there will now be a coming together of the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships in trying to find a mutual way forward.

Lord Clinton-DavisBaroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Israeli Government have been informedindeed, consultedabout the meeting that we propose to hold in early March. That meeting will demonstrate political support for the work of the new Palestinian leadership. As I think I have remarked to your Lordships before, it has never been envisaged as a peace conference, but as a meeting that will focus on helping the new Palestinian leadership to build up Palestinian infrastructure and develop the institutions that will underpin a future Palestinian state.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, in so far as the March meeting will concern itself with security, the Israelis share responsibility for protecting and improving security in the occupied territories and should call an immediate halt to targeted assassinations and the continued destruction of Palestinian innocent lives and property? Does she also accept that the best way to achieve security in the occupied territories is to move rapidly towards a negotiated settlement and for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course we will talk about security at the March meeting, but it is not exclusively about security. It is about building up Palestinian institutions in general and there will be much else to talk about. We very much want the Israeli Government to cease the targeted assassinations and the destruction of property. As the noble Lord will know—we have pointed it out in the past—although Israel has legitimate security concerns, it must act on the basis of proportionality. It is important to remember that Mr Sharon's plans to withdraw from Gaza and the northern settlements on the West Bank are a very important building block in moving towards a closer position on the possibility of negotiations in future.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords—

Baroness Northover

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to the withdrawal from Gaza—

Noble Lords


Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind that, although one is not in any way comparing like with like, important parallels can be drawn between the way in which successive British governments have handled problems in Northern Ireland and the situation in the Middle East? Although successive Prime Ministers here have had a sustained preoccupation with security—still existing to this day—and a willingness to investigate any defects in our own performance in that respect, it has not prevented that succession of Prime Ministers from tackling both sides of the question with tenacity of the kind for which one is entitled to hope in the Middle East.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that it is always difficult to compare one international conflict with another, because one always succeeds in offending someone in so doing. However, I agree that the issue is one of trying to break a cycle of violence and retaliation. At some point in a cycle of violence, one side has to have the courage not to retaliate and to move to discussion and negotiation. We have a real window of opportunity, not only with the Palestinian elections but with Mr Sharon's plans to withdraw from Gaza and—if I may say so—with the fact that there is now a US Government looking to the longer term on that foreign policy objective.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, I apologise for not giving way sooner to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. The noble Baroness referred to Gaza. Would it not be a welcome gesture of good will by the Israelis who are leaving Gaza if they did not demolish the houses that they left behind and did not then settle in the West Bank?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do understand what prompted the noble Baroness's suggestion. I have discussed this matter with Israeli Ministers. Perhaps I may try to describe what they have said to me. The problem is that the Israelis do not believe that they will be able to persuade the settlers to leave Gaza peacefully if their houses are then taken over by Palestinians. The noble Baroness and I may find it extraordinary that good housing should be demolished, but that is the reasoning behind the suggestion that those houses might be demolished. As far as I know, there is no suggestion that any other infrastructure would be demolished—but individual houses are a sensitive issue.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that disengagement from Gaza, if it is to be a positive step in the peace process, needs to be followed by economic developments that are positive for the Palestinians in Gaza? In that context, will she discuss with all concerned the useful, thorough and considered report by Labour Friends of Israel on the ways forward for promoting exactly that type of economic development?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, my noble friend makes an enormously important point. The fact is that the people in Gaza are even worse off than the generality of Palestinians in terms of the poverty in which they live. We hope that at the London conference, meeting or seminar—call it what you will— we will be able to discuss a way forward on some of these economic issues. I assure my noble friend that the Government are already actively engaged with senior business figures here in the United Kingdom—we hope to extend that further afield—regarding precisely the type of areas that Labour Friends of Israel has pinpointed and to move forward on that basis.

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