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Middle East

14. Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): If he will make a statement on the middle east peace process. [62117]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): The search for peace in the middle east has suffered many setbacks in recent months. The speech yesterday by President Bush is therefore very welcome. In summary, he called for a final settlement within three years, including

He said that there must be an end to terror, and that

He went on to say:

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I recognise that there are some uncomfortable messages in that speech for the Palestinian Authority, but I am glad to note that President Arafat has welcomed the speech.

On President Arafat's position, we strongly support the call for reforms to the Palestinian Authority and for new elections, as they will be an opportunity for the Palestinian people to decide who will lead them towards a final and peaceful settlement.

The United Kingdom has long advocated the vision of two states—Israel and Palestine—living side by side in peace and security. We will do all that we can to assist the process now restarted by President Bush. In this new political environment, we look to the Palestinian leadership to act decisively to end the suicide bombings. We look to Israel to end the closure of the occupied territories and its incursions into area A. Both parties have a duty to take up President Bush's initiative—there is no other way forward.

Mr. Ross: I thank my right hon. Friend. I welcome the fact that President Arafat saw the speech last night as a serious effort by the American President to push forward the peace process. If that is to happen, does my right hon. Friend agree that President Arafat's speech in May, in which he called for early elections, should be supported? In that speech, he also said that he wanted the Palestinian judiciary and security system to be reformed, so in that sense he is ahead of the President of the United States of America in calling for that.

If there are to be free and fair elections, what role will the European Union and the United Kingdom play in them? In particular, will they help to create a climate in which those free and fair elections can take place? If there is to be such a climate, does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be one where the Israeli occupation forces are withdrawn from the Palestinian centres to allow those free and fair elections to take place?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for tabling the question and for his subsequent remarks. Yes, we welcomed the speech made by President Arafat in May, and we and the international community now look for its full implementation, so that there can be free and fair elections and a much more legitimate Palestinian Authority.

As for the action that Israel must take, President Bush was right to call for an end to occupation, but the precondition has to be an end to the terrible suicide bombings that have continued to disrupt and scar the whole of Israel and, in turn, politics in the occupied territories.

As for the advice and help that we can give, we in the United Kingdom stand ready, with our European partners, to give every assistance that we can to the Palestinian Authority, including with the organisation and monitoring of the elections.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): May I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming President Bush's speech not only as a helpful framework in which to take forward the peace process, but as confirmation of the much-needed American engagement in this troubled issue and troubled area?

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I agree with the right hon. Gentleman in endorsing President Bush's vision of two states living side by side in peace and security. I also strongly support the twin underlying principles: it is untenable for Israeli citizens to live in terror, and it is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and under occupation. The counterbalancing elements of comprehensive reform within the Palestinian Authority and the obligations on Israel to withdraw fully to the pre-28 September 2000 positions, and, later, to the 1967 boundaries, as well as to halt settlement activity within the occupied territories, are also welcome in view of the prominence that they are given.

How does the Foreign Secretary now see this framework being advanced—in what order, and within what time scale—and how can balance and fairness be maintained in the process? Does he agree that the basic elements for the resolution of the middle east problem are the removal of fear and the creation of hope and trust? Does not President Bush's statement set out the framework within which, with good will and commitment on both sides, those elements can be found and built on?

Mr. Straw: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, not least in his last remarks about the removal of fear and the creation of hope and trust. What we must do, in a position in which hope and trust has broken down on both sides and fear is the all-pervasive emotion, is ensure that, through a staged process, we can reach a situation in which both sides—6 million people in Israel, including 1 million Israeli Arabs, and 3.5 million in the occupied territories—can live in peace and security. That is the only way in which they can enjoy a life. There is no other alternative.

On the length of the process, President Bush set out a time scale of three years. He talked about the possible creation of a transitional state of Palestine, which is an attractive proposition in, as President Bush recognises, appropriate circumstances. In terms of the order in which matters must be dealt with, the first and overwhelming priority is to recognise that the continuation of repeated suicide bombings in Israel, with all the death, destruction and paralysis to normal politics that that secured, must come to an end. The very welcome words of President Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in condemning this suicide bombing must be followed by action.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agree that suicide bombers are the enemies of peace? Has he made representations to the United Nations in relation to permitting the Jenin refugee camp to be transformed in part into a terrorist base where young and older people were trained to kill the maximum number of Israeli citizens possible? Does he agree that it is necessary to stop glamorising terrorism and to face organised suicide bombings head-on if peace is to be given a chance?

Mr. Straw: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend; there is no glamour to terrorism whatever. It leads not only immediately to death but to a complete undermining of any kind of political process. We must return to the political process, which is why, notwithstanding the despair and fear felt both in Israel and the occupied territories, I greatly welcome the move by President Bush.

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On my hon. Friend's specific question, I have not raised the matter with the United Nations, but I am happy to consider doing so.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): May I apologise and seek to make amends for my earlier excesses? Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the United Nations Secretary-General that the issue of who should lead the Palestinian people is one that they, and only they, can decide? Is he disappointed by the absence of any reference in President Bush's speech to a middle east peace conference, which is one of the most cherished proposals of the moderate Arab states whose co-operation in a peace settlement will be essential for success?

Mr. Straw: As I said, as far as elections are concerned, they will be an opportunity for the Palestinian people to decide who will lead them towards a final and peaceful settlement. I am very grateful to President Arafat, however, for the constructive approach that he has shown in welcoming the speech. I am afraid that I do not share the right hon. and learned Gentleman's disappointment about the speech, which I believe is very welcome and very positive. It provides the best basis for a middle east peace process that we have seen since the intifada began in September 2000.

As for an international conference, the United Kingdom Government are in favour of such a conference provided that there is a guarantee in advance of it being successful. There would be nothing but setback for the peace process if we went into an international conference without a clear agenda and without a clear and satisfactory exit from that conference.

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North): I share the disappointment with the long-awaited statement from President Bush. However, may I ask what might be a hypothetical question? What will be the view of our Government and of the United States Administration if, in the elections in Palestine, President Arafat is likely to be re-elected? That is a real possibility.

Mr. Straw: Our view has never been in doubt. We deal as we find them with the leaders who are elected and, in the cases of dictatorial regimes, with those who are not elected. If President Arafat were re-elected in the Palestinian Authority, we would deal with him.

We welcome the speech by President Bush and the fact that it has clearly set time lines and, in particular, contains a clear commitment to a settlement based on United Nations resolutions 242 and 338, which is something that the whole House has called for for many years.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I wholly endorse my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary's measured response to the statement and agree with the Foreign Secretary that this long overdue speech provides the best way—indeed, the only way—forward to a peace process. Does the Foreign Secretary agree, however, that the situation in Jordan and Egypt remains difficult to say the least, and that there is very much an increasing

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imperative for the European Union collectively and for individual nations on their own account to press forward to ensure that the peace process moves ahead?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is right to say that there is anxiety in Jordan and Egypt about the continuing instability in the occupied territories and in Israel. However, as President Bush said, the very fact that, after years of antagonism, it was possible to conclude peace treaties between Jordan, Egypt and Israel shows what can be done even out of the despair and darkness of the kind that Israelis and Palestinians are now within. There is hope.

We continue to give every support that we can to President Mubarak and to King Abdullah of Jordan. I am glad that it is all-party support, and I commend the visit that the shadow Foreign Secretary and Front-Bench spokesperson made to the middle east recently. That included a visit to President Mubarak. We shall work with the parties concerned.

As to the intervention of the European Union, President Bush made clear references on more than one occasion to the United States Government working with the European Union, Arab states and with what has been called the "quartet"—the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and the Russian Federation—to act together to help to secure an international consensus. That is essential if there is to be an effective peace process.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is not the most effective way to undermine the terror groups responsible for suicide bombings to do precisely what they least want? We should start the peace process and bring about what should have been brought about years ago—a viable and independent Palestinian state that would have as much right to exist as the state of Israel. Will my right hon. Friend give the pledge today that he will do whatever he can on behalf of the British Government to see that such a state is brought about? The United States will obviously play the leading role in any such peace process.

Mr. Straw: I agree, and that is a lesson that we have learned from our experience. Effective and necessarily tough action against the immediate expression of terrorism and terrorist violence has to be taken alongside a political process. That is what we faced in Northern Ireland. I defer to no one in my hatred of terrorism nor in my full support for effective military and security action. However, such action needs to take place alongside a political process so that consent for terrorism among the people from whom it arises is correspondingly reduced. I therefore welcome a number of the messages in the text of President Bush's speech, including those to the Government and people of Israel to do what they must to help to create a "viable, credible Palestinian state."

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Does the Foreign Secretary agree with President Bush when he says that President Arafat is an impediment to peace and that peace will be successfully negotiated only under new Palestinian leadership?

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Mr. Straw: As I said, I greatly welcome the speech. Many people are disappointed with President Arafat's record, and those disappointments are shared by this Government, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear. We also made it clear, however, that we deal with the elected leadership of the Palestinian Authority. I have put my view on the record. I welcome the elections and have expressed the hope that they will be free and fair; otherwise they will not be legitimate. However, we shall deal with whoever is elected, as we have in the past.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South): What right has President Bush got to call for any elected leader to be deposed? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that is not the view of the British Government? Can he also correct what he said a few moments ago? Having looked carefully at President Bush's speech, I could not find a reference to the word "viable". He used the word "credible", but credible by whose means? Unless Arafat is allowed to rule and the Palestinian Authority can prove itself, what right have we to say that Arafat is not doing that correctly?

Mr. Straw: The word "viable" appears in the penultimate paragraph on page 2 of the speech. I shall let my hon. Friend have a copy.

President Bush did not call for President Arafat to be deposed. He made criticisms and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends, and Opposition Members, to read the text and not headlines because the text repays rereading.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's measured approach to free and fair elections in Palestine, but I agree with other hon. Members about the nature of what President Bush said. How can America expect to be treated as a neutral mediator when it calls for a democratically elected leader to be set aside?

Mr. Straw: The views of the American Administration on President Arafat are based on experience. There have been many disappointments with the Palestinian Authority. I have explained the position of Her Majesty's Government. I recently noted that President Arafat and the Palestinian Authority said that they would have accepted the terms on offer at Camp David and Taba. Had they done so, the history of the past two and half years would have been very different. It was a misjudgment, to put it delicately, for them not to have done so and not to have seized the moment to go for peace then.

We need a democratic, effective and well run Palestinian Authority. We have made it clear in the EU and the United Kingdom that we stand ready to help to rebuild the Palestinian Authority as well as to continue to provide increasing amounts of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is doing.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): While it is for the Palestinians to elect their own leadership, we should bear it in mind that the Peres Government wanted peace and

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were brought down by terrorism and that the Barak Government and his excellent peace proposals were also brought down by terrorism. Is not President Bush effectively recognising the reality of the politics of the middle east when he says that the Palestinians ought to elect a leadership not tainted by terrorism which is capable of reforming Palestinian institutions if the Israelis—never mind our Government—are to have confidence in the partner put forward by the Palestinians to negotiate a peace treaty with them?

Mr. Straw: The whole region stands at a crossroads. I say in particular that the Palestinian community has had a terrible time. I will discuss that matter later this afternoon with Mr. Nabil Sha'ath, the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Palestinian Authority. Who is chosen as a representative is a matter for the Palestinians, not for us. We need a Palestinian Authority that does what it says it will do. It must clearly control its security apparatus, which has to be unambiguously opposed to terrorism. Its single job must be the maintenance of law and order and the bearing down on terrorism within the area of the occupied territories and, I have to say, in respect of Israel as well.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Although I agree with everything that the Foreign Secretary and others have said condemning Palestinian suicide bombers, should we not be asking the Government of Israel to desist from their policy of targeted assassinations of Palestinians? They have killed perhaps hundreds of Palestinians in circumstances—some of which I saw a month ago in the west bank—that appear on the face of it to be a violation of the fourth Geneva convention.

Mr. Straw: Yes. We always make representations whenever we think that a member state of the United Nations is transgressing international law.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about the double standards employed in this debate? I speak as someone from a Jewish family. Is it not strange that Ariel Sharon and others have said that Yasser Arafat is not fit to be leader because he cannot control terrorist groups, whereas Ariel Sharon served under a Jewish Prime Minister who did not merely control a terrorist group, but set up the terrorist group that blew up the King David hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people? Does not that show us that the Jews and the Arabs are the same—that if they are exposed to ethnic cleansing and have no other escape, they will resort to unacceptable violence? Please can we have a reduction in the double standards and get the peace process back on track?

Mr. Straw: The United Kingdom Government and, I believe, the international community, have to have one view of terrorism, which is that we are against it and we want the full implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1373. I have to deal for now and for the future, rather than for the history. The simple fact is that the suicide bombings that have taken place and are

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continuing are organised by the most terribly evil people in those terrorist groups, and they are designed as much to deny the Palestinians any effective say over their future as to deny the Israelis any sort of life for themselves. That is why it is imperative that firm action is taken against the suicide bombers by the Palestinian Authority as well as by the Israeli Government. Meanwhile, and alongside

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that effective security action, we have a political process which, thank God, might now have started following President Bush's speech yesterday.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order.

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