Pressure is mounting on William Hague to vote for Palestinian UN member when it comes to the Security Council - thanks to President Abbas’ speech to the General Assembly and Labour’s clear support for a ‘yes’ vote. EDM 2135 on Palestinian membership of the UN now has over 100 signatures.
Labour Friends of Palestine & the Middle East would like to thank the 7 MPs who put Hague under more pressure in his Middle East statement on Thursday and any other MPs who tried to get in (see extracts from debate below).
It’s beginning to work. The Foreign Secretary conceded to Gerald Kaufman that Abbas “was right” to go to the UN because it succeeded in highlighting the issue in front of the world. This was one of the “differences between us and the US in our approach to the issue.”
But despite Labour’s clear statement of support for Palestine at the UN, Hague has remained vague. Although he has said several times that “we want to see a Palestinian state”, he refuses to say whether the UK will vote for statehood or for UN membership.
Excuse Number One was that “there is currently no specific motion to vote on”. Excuse Number Two was that it was done to “maximise our leverage over both Israelis and Palestinians to return to talks”.
The extent of “leverage” was demonstrated this weekend by the Israeli announcement that they are going ahead with another illegal settlement between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The 2,600 houses at Givat Hamatos will be strategically located to divide Palestinian East Jerusalem from the West Bank.
Hague will need a lot more pressure to persuade him to vote the right way.
House of Commons statement on Middle East 13 Oct 2011 - (references to Palestine & Israel)
Mr Hague: The case for progress on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become more urgent as the pace of change in the region has quickened. We support a settlement with borders based on 1967 lines, with equivalent land swaps, a just settlement for refugees and Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states.
On 23 September at the UN General Assembly, President Abbas lodged an application with the UN Security Council for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations. This application is now being considered by the UN membership committee. Also on 23 September, the Quartet adopted a statement that provides a clear timetable for a conclusion to negotiations. We have called on both parties to return to talks on that basis. I welcome Baroness Ashton’s statement on 9 October that the parties will be invited to meet in the coming days. Success in this will require bold, decisive leadership from both sides, as well as painful compromises.
Palestinians should focus on returning to talks, rather than setting too many preconditions. For the Israelis, time is slipping away for them to act in their own strategic interest. The expansion of settlements must end; they are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. That is why we voted in favour of the UN Security Council resolution on this subject in February and why we continue to condemn the announcement of new settlements. The Israeli Government need to take bolder steps than Israeli leaders have been prepared to do in recent years.
Separately, I welcome the agreement between Israel and Hamas to release the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, as part of a prisoner exchange. Holding him in captivity was utterly unjustified from the beginning, yet it has gone on for five long years, and the whole House will warmly welcome his return home.
Douglas Alexander: Let me associate myself entirely with the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about the prospect of Gilad Shalit’s long-overdue release, and the recognition that a negotiated two-state solution remains the route towards peace and stability in the region. There is much common ground on the issue across the House. However, I note the carefully chosen words that the Foreign Secretary used in relation to the recognition of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations. Will he confirm today that it has never been the case that that recognition can only follow the conclusion of the negotiations? Will he offer the House a little more insight on where those discussions in the Security Council have reached?
Mr Hague: The Foreign Secretary and I are in agreement on welcoming the release of Gilad Shalit. The Security Council is considering the membership application of the Palestinians through its normal procedures. When and how to take that forward will be partly up to the Security Council and partly up to its members. There is currently no specific proposition before the Security Council on this. He said that I had expressed carefully chosen words on the issue. They are very carefully chosen, because words really matter on this issue. It is a delicate and difficult subject. Our words are all directed towards trying to bring about the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
How we act in the Security Council or on any motion that may come before the UN General Assembly will be determined by how we can bring about a resumption of negotiations. All 27 EU countries have withheld a verdict on motions at the UN, partly because there is currently no specific motion to vote on, but also to maximise our leverage over both Israelis and Palestinians to return to talks. That is the basis of our position and I think that it would be wrong to move away from it at the moment.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): Does he agree that the advancements that could be made after the long-overdue release of Gilad Shalit could be followed by Hamas agreeing to recognise the state of Israel and renounce violence?
Mr Hague: This successful negotiation is a ray of hope in a difficult and often bleak situation in the Middle East. It shows that a successful negotiation can be carried out with the involvement of Israel and, as was necessary in this case, Hamas, through the good offices of Egypt, and I congratulated the Egyptian Foreign Minister on Egypt’s role in this. It would of course be welcome if Hamas were to move away from its rigid positions. If peace is to be brought about, it is very important that all concerned recognise Israel’s right to exist, support previous agreements and denounce the use of violence. It would be very welcome if Hamas would do those things or make concrete moves towards them.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): On the same theme, does the Foreign Secretary accept that the continued economic siege of Gaza creates the space for the most extreme voices to gain traction there? If we are to see movement towards a proper negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is it not necessary for that economic siege to be lifted?
Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman’s terminology is slightly different from how I would describe the situation, but yes, we think that the Israelis should act to allow more goods into and out of Gaza. We have criticised the current policy on many occasions, although there have been some improvements over the past year. I agree with the gist of his remarks. Often the effect of the policy has been to strengthen the position of Hamas domestically within Gaza and its financial interests there. It would be wiser for Israel to change the policy, just as it is necessary for Hamas to change its policies in the way I have just described.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): We have seen the winds of change blowing though north Africa and the Middle East in an encouraging way and the British Government have been strong and robust in their words and actions, for which I congratulate the Foreign Secretary. We have also seen the opportunities in Israel and Palestine with the pending release of Gilad Shalit and the deal. It would be helpful, and compatible with the negotiations and Baroness Ashton’s intervention, if we ensured that Israel knows that Britain’s objective will be to recognise a Palestinian state as soon as possible so that there can be parity and equality in the negotiations and their conclusions?
Mr Hague: It is of course our objective to help bring about a two-state solution. We believe in and want to see a Palestinian state, but that state will only be a truly viable state, in control of its own territory and able to make its own decisions, as a result of negotiations with Israel. We can pass all the resolutions we like at the United Nations, or not, but what is required is a successful negotiation. That is what we must keep in mind. Our attitude to the recognition and inclusion of Palestine at the United Nations is determined by how we can restart negotiations. I put it that way round, but the objective is absolutely as describes it—to have a Palestinian state.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): When he talks about carefully chosen words with regard to the Palestinian application for membership of the United Nations, will he note that the carefully chosen words of Obama and Clinton are already intended to oppose the application totally and bully and blackmail other countries as well as the Palestinians into opposing it? Will he assure the House that the Government will not succumb to that bullying and blackmailing and that they will do the right thing for the Palestinians?
Mr Hague: Of course, I work closely with Secretary Clinton on this and other issues, so I do not characterise the United States’ policy as the Foreign Secretary does. Nevertheless, there are differences between us and the United States in our approach to the issue. We voted in opposite ways on the resolution on settlements in February, and we have a different way of handling the Palestinian approach to the UN: the United States has discouraged it—that is absolutely right.
I believe, however, that President Abbas did achieve at the UN General Assembly the highlighting of the issue in front of the world. Nothing technically changed at the United Nations, but he did achieve that and did press on the world the urgency of it—and he was right to do that. So we do differ from the United States in many things that we say on the issue, although we share with them the objective of a negotiated two-state solution.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): The first question that the Foreign Secretary was asked from the Government side of the House basically involved urging Hamas to recognise the state of Israel, and if I understood the Foreign Secretary correctly, he broadly agreed with that idea. I think that both sides of the House would have a real problem, whatever individual Palestinian or Israeli political parties did about recognising each other, if there were any doubt about the international community recognising Israel. That being the case, why should there be any doubt about the international community recognising Palestine? Sooner or later a decision will have to be made on the issue at the Security Council. How will the Foreign Secretary take the feeling of the House before Britain makes its decision on that question?
Mr Hague: The paramount need is to return to negotiations—I stress that. The Palestinian state that He and I want to see come securely into existence will come about in the end only through successful negotiations, and therefore the difficulties that arise with ideas of UN resolutions at the Security Council or in the General Assembly are the dangers of resolutions that may undermine the prospect of negotiations, rather than buttress them. That is what we have to weigh in the balance, and carrying resolutions that then make it harder to pursue negotiations or are not accompanied by a clear commitment to return to negotiations may not be helpful. That is just one factor that we have to weigh in the balance.
On parliamentary opinion, as He knows, I make as many statements as possible on this subject—I think more in this calendar year than any Foreign Secretary has made in some decades; and, if the business managers can find time for debates on these matters, I would welcome it.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s rejection of the admonitions of some in this House for precipitous recognition of Palestinian statehood. He may know that in December 2008 I raised in an Adjournment debate the incarceration of Gilad Shalit, who has been in captivity since 25 June 2006. Will restate the imperative for Hamas to use that gesture as an opportunity to build for the future, to reject violence and terror, and to move towards peace and prosperity under the auspices of the Quartet principles?
Mr Hague: Yes, I very much agree. In line with my earlier answer to the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott), that is absolutely right. That gesture is a glimmer of hope, but it is very good news in the individual case of Gilad Shalit. In terms of the overall scene we should not overstate it, as it is a glimmer of hope, but all sides should now seek to build on it.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s focus on the importance of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as the only way to achieve a viable and lasting Palestinian state alongside Israel, but what steps is he taking to secure the resumption of those negotiations, without conditions, as the Quartet requests?
Mr Hague: We have made our view very clear, including in discussions at the United Nations General Assembly. For instance, during the General Assembly ministerial week last month, I held direct talks with President Abbas and with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr Lieberman. At the beginning of that week, our Prime Minister also spoke to the Israeli Prime Minister about the matter, and we have urged all of them to return to negotiations in the spirit that I described in my statement.
Of course, we work through the European Union as a whole and through the very good work of Baroness Ashton on the matter, and we also influence the work of the Quartet—the EU, the UN, the United States and Russia —whose statement on 23 September provided the framework and timetable for a resumption of negotiations, so we are active on this issue on all diplomatic fronts.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I commend him and, particularly, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on their work over many years to secure the release of Gilad Shalit. Does agree that the fact that Israel has released more then 1,000 prisoners, many of whom were involved in horrific terrorist atrocities, shows that it is willing to negotiate and to make some moves towards peace?
Mr Hague: Yes, I do agree, and I thank him for his remarks, as does the Under-Secretary; we are grateful for that. The release does show such willingness, but it is now important to replicate it in other negotiations.
In this case, Israel has made, as the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) suggests, a decisive offer to bring about the release of Gilad Shalit; we now need Israel to make decisive offers on a much grander scale in order to bring about a two-state solution. That is what we urge it to do in the coming weeks. It will be necessary for Israel to do so if we are to arrive at that two-state solution, because without that solution Israel will be in a steadily more isolated and dangerous international situation.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I thank the Foreign Secretary for the individual efforts that he made with regard to Gilad Shalit; I know that that is greatly appreciated.
Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Would not a successful resolution on UN membership for Palestine strengthen the hand of Fatah, whereas at the moment, with the prisoner exchange, Hamas is looking as though it is more successful than Fatah?
Mr Hague: He has an important point. It is true that how we act at the United Nations and how we promote negotiations must support the work of the moderate leaders of the Palestinians. I do not think that Israel is going to have better partners than President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for reaching peace and a two-state solution. That is why we should not be dismissive of their efforts and what they have brought to the United Nations, with President Abbas’s speech on 23 September. It nevertheless remains the case that a return to negotiations is the only way to bring about what we want. The simple passing of resolutions, if passed in a form that makes the situation worse in some ways—the US Congress has threatened to cut off funding and the Israeli Government have threatened to withhold tax revenues under certain scenarios—would not bring about that negotiated solution. That remains our paramount interest in our approach to these matters.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): He will be aware that I have just returned from a trip to Jordan and the west bank. I used the opportunity of a meeting with the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister, Mr Fayyad, to call on him to facilitate the release of Gilad Shalit. I was therefore delighted when that action took place the following day. However, I do not claim the credit; I express the delight of everyone in this House that it has finally happened. During the visit, it became evident to me that the level of settlement activity on the west bank is speeding up, and that is obviously of great importance. Will he therefore make sure that the Palestinians return to negotiations urgently, rather than using their time lobbying members of the Security Council and the United Nations to secure a vote, so that we can get a viable two-state solution?
Mr Hague: I am pleased that he raised the case of Gilad Shalit; he is well on his way to a Nobel peace prize for the instant result that was achieved on that. Yes, the pace of settlement activity, which is illegal and which is on occupied land, is wrong. It is also one reason why it is an urgent issue, because a two-state solution will become impossible in a few years’ time if it is not arrived at in the near future. That means Palestinians returning to talks, but it also means Israelis returning to them ready to make a decisive offer to Palestinians.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that very many Palestinians—I would imagine the large majority—believe that the western Governments, including the British Government, are much more on the side of Israel than of Palestine, and that therefore the question of a vote in the United Nations, if there is to be one, is of crucial importance regarding the line that Britain is going to take?
Mr Hague: We are on the side of a two-state solution. We want a secure Israel living alongside a viable and secure Palestinian state. I do not see us as being on one side or the other. We make no compromises on the security or the legitimacy of Israel. He can gather from my remarks today and on many other occasions, and from the way that we have voted on settlements at the Security Council, that we believe in putting Israel under pressure to arrive at a two-state solution. We have done more of that, I have to say, than happened under any previous Government. That is the direction of our policy; it is not a matter of taking sides one way or the other.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): On a recent visit to Gaza, the United Nations was keen to stress that 800,000 Gazans were living on UN food aid and that 600,000 of those people would receive no food aid at all come 1 January because of a lack of funds. If poverty is a major barrier to peace in the region, what can the Foreign Secretary do to remedy the impending humanitarian disaster?
Mr Hague: Through the work of the Secretary of State for International Development, we are one of the biggest contributors to the funding that goes to Gaza. Wherever such problems arise, we encourage other nations to join in with such funding. We will encourage other nations to do that, as indeed we have been doing. We are on to that.