(Hghlights of sections related to Palestine)
The events in the Arab spring and mounting concern over Iran’s nuclear programme do not detract from the urgent need to make progress on the middle east peace process. I repeat our calls for negotiations on a two-state solution without delay and without preconditions, based on the timetable set out in the Quartet statement of 23 September. In our view, the parameters for a Palestinian state are those affirmed by the European Union as a whole: borders based on 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps; a just, fair and realistic solution for refugees; and agreement on Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.
Israel’s announcement last week that it would accelerate the construction of 2,000 settlement housing units was wrong and deeply counter-productive. That was the eighth announcement of settlement expansion in six months. We also condemn the decision to withhold tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, which was provocative and against Israel’s own interests, as it has direct implications for the Palestinian Authority’s ability to maintain effective security in the west bank. We call on Israel to revoke both those decisions. We are also concerned about the situation in Gaza and the constant risk of an escalation in violence. We believe the Israeli restrictions harm ordinary Palestinians, inhibit economic development, and strengthen rather than weaken Hamas. It will be both right and directly in Israel’s interest if it permits increased imports of building materials for UN projects and for the private sector in Gaza; allows legitimate exports to traditional markets in the west bank and Israel; and reduces restrictions on civilian movement between Gaza and the west bank.
On Friday, the admissions committee of the Security Council will conclude its consideration of the Palestinian application and produce a report summarising Council members’ views on whether Palestine meets the criteria for membership under the United Nations charter. As that could now soon be followed by a vote in the UN Security Council, it is appropriate to inform the House of the Government’s intentions.
The United Kingdom judges that the Palestinian Authority largely fulfils criteria for UN membership, including statehood, as far as the reality of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories allows, but its ability to function effectively as a state would be impeded by that situation. A negotiated end to the occupation is the best way to allow Palestinian aspirations to be met in reality and on the ground. We will not vote against the application because of the progress the Palestinian leadership have made towards meeting the criteria, but nor can we vote for it while our primary objective remains a return to negotiations through the Quartet process and the success of those negotiations.
For those reasons, in common with France and in consultation with our European partners, the United Kingdom will abstain on any vote on full Palestinian membership of the UN. We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help to bring about peace. The United Kingdom will continue to be one of the principal supporters of Palestinian state-building efforts, assisting the Palestinians to tackle poverty, build institutions and boost their economy. If their application to the UN Security Council fails, the Palestinian leadership have indicated that they may take the issue to a vote at the UN General Assembly, where different voting procedures and different considerations apply. We and the other countries of the European Union will continue to emphasise that any proposition put to the General Assembly must make a return to negotiations more likely.
For Israel, the only means of averting unilateral applications to the UN is a return to negotiations. A demonstration of political will and leadership is needed from both sides to break the current impasse. This includes the Israeli Government being prepared to make a more decisive offer than any they have been willing to make in the past.
The middle east peace process cannot be viewed in isolation from the rest of the region. In each country there is a huge opportunity for peaceful change, the advancement of human rights and economic development. The decisions they take now will affect their future security and prosperity, and we urge all of them to take the path of reform.
Let me turn to the issue of Israel and Palestine. The need for progress on this conflict has, if anything, become more urgent in light of the recent changes in the region, which have only increased the Palestinians’ desire for statehood and have shaken some of the core assumptions that have underpinned Israel’s security in past decades. What is the Foreign Office’s best assessment of the likely impact of the announcement by the Israeli Government of 2,000 more settlement units and threats to withhold Palestinian tax revenues, which the Foreign Secretary condemned, on the Quartet’s attempts to facilitate a return to talks? Will he also join me in condemning the latest rocket attacks on the people of Israel?
The House is aware that, as the Opposition, we set out our position on the issue of Palestinian recognition on 20 September, and that in a letter to the Foreign Secretary on that date I said that the case made by the Palestinians for recognition at the United Nations as a state was strong. I said that the British Government should be willing to support the recognition of Palestinian statehood as part of continuing steps to achieve a comprehensive two-state solution, but I also said at the time that there remains a heavy onus on the British Government and other members of the international community to work to ensure that any change in the level of Palestinian recognition is followed by meaningful negotiations between the parties.
The Foreign Secretary rightly stated that the goal of all diplomatic efforts should be a two-state solution brought about by negotiations. On 13 October, he told the House:
“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.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 497-502.]
Yet today the Foreign Secretary has been unable to explain his decision in reference to negotiations that have resumed. That is because no meaningful negotiations are taking place. After his statement today, many Members in all parts of the House will still be struggling to see how a decision to abstain is likely to help bring about resumed negotiations.
Given the absence of any meaningful negotiations between the parties at present, a point which I am sure the Foreign Secretary will not dispute, can he tell the House how his position of having no position is likely to advance the peace process? This decision announced by the Government today represents a further acceptance of and accommodation to a wider pattern of failure—failure to achieve meaningful negotiations, failure to meet the aspirations of the Palestinians and, indeed, the Israeli people, and continued failure by the international community to find a way through the present impasse.
Given the Government’s decision announced today, what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the likely consequences of the Palestinians’ bid for statehood being rejected in the Security Council? How will the Government cast their vote when the issue comes before the United Nations General Assembly? The House deserves a clear answer on this question. I hope in his response the Foreign Secretary will be able to offer a clearer sense of what he now regards as the realistic path forward to a negotiated two-state solution, which I sense the whole House is united in continuing to support.
On the middle east peace process, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether actions are helping, including the settlement announcements. Clearly, they are not helping; nor are the rocket attacks on Israel, which he rightly pointed to. He pointed out that his position—and it is our position as well—is that any change in the status of Palestine at the United Nations must be accompanied by or followed by a return to meaningful negotiations.
I think that there is common ground on that across the House, but it is how to act on that basis that gives rise to differences on how we should vote at the UN Security Council.
We consider there to be no substitute for negotiations under the Quartet process, which we obviously want to get going. We believe that it is vital for Israel and the Palestinians to embrace the opportunity to take the Quartet process forward, but we also believe that voting for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations at this moment would reduce the incentives for the Palestinians and the willingness of Israelis to find a negotiated solution. I fully respect a different point of view, but that is our judgment on the matter and that of most, if not all, European Governments in and outside the European Union.
A further factor in our decision is the fact that there has been a serious European effort to bring about a resumption of negotiations by supporting the Quartet. That effort will continue. I do not expect any of our European partners to vote at the Security Council for Palestinian membership. A serious divergence in our voting behaviour at the Security Council at this point would disrupt and complicate European efforts to revive and support negotiations.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I commend the Foreign Secretary for making his announcement on Palestinian statehood to the House first and wish that more Cabinet Ministers would do the same. Is it not clear from what he said about the expansion of illegal settlements, the fact that President Obama, as we have heard, has to deal with Mr Netanyahu every day and the fact that still nothing is happening that an abstention at the United Nations would simply be an abdication of responsibility and achieve nothing?
Mr Hague: As I said, I think that will be the position of many of our partners and many members of the Security Council, based on our best judgment of what is likely to bring about a return to negotiations. The shadow Foreign Secretary rightly said that such meaningful negotiations are not taking place at the moment, but the best chance for a viable, durable Palestinian state living in peace with Israel is for such negotiations to be resumed and to succeed. It is certainly our judgment at the moment that a positive vote at the UN Security Council would not help to bring about a return to negotiations. I entirely respect a legitimate alternative view, but that is our judgment and that of the French Government and many of our colleagues.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): I fully support everything my right hon. Friend said about Syria, Libya, Iran and Bahrain, but I hope that he will forgive me for registering my profound disappointment that the United Kingdom will abstain in Friday’s vote in support of Palestinian membership of the United Nations. Does he understand that many on both sides of the House, and indeed in the country, believe that such a decision is wrong in principle, is ultimately against British interests and will reduce our influence in the region?
Mr Hague: Clearly I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend on that point. British interests are in a negotiated settlement; we have no higher interest than that in the middle east peace process. We want to see successful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians leading to a two-state solution. We have to act in a way that is consistent with that and supports it. There are differences of opinion on how best to do that, but our judgment is that it can best be done by acting in this way. It is also the general judgment of our European partners. He is a strong enthusiast of Britain acting with our European partners, but we would be going in the opposite direction if we were to vote differently. I am often asked to ensure that we work closely with our European partners, but when such a situation arises people want me to go in a different direction.
Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): I endorse entirely the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). Will the Foreign Secretary please think again about this? His argument seems entirely tactical, yet there is absolutely no evidence that holding back from a decision to vote for this, which I think he would otherwise support, will encourage Israel to come to the table. Surely the whole weight of the argument is that Israel will come to the table only if the international community is firm with it.
Mr Hague: I did not notice under the previous Government a dramatic recognition of Palestine or support for its membership of the United Nations—[ Interruption. ] It seems the right hon. Gentleman is still learning as he goes along. He is right that the judgment is largely tactical. Our tactical judgment is that this is the best way to proceed at this moment in the peace process when we are faced with this particular situation. We strongly support the successful creation of a viable Palestinian state. As I pointed out in my statement, under successive Governments the UK has been one of the biggest supporters of that in so many ways, including financially, and the judgment takes nothing away from that, but we believe that we have to maximise the incentives for Palestinians to re-enter negotiations without setting many preconditions and the willingness of Israelis to find a negotiated solution, however frustrated many of us may be with them, and we believe that that is best served by voting in the way I have described.
Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN and the EU have all assessed the performance of the Palestinian Authority and reported that they are ready for statehood and that, therefore, the consequences of an abstention at the Security Council on 11 November will be severe? Our partners in the middle east look on amazed while we support the right to self-determination in every other country in the region but deny the Palestinians the same right. I strongly urge him to order a reconsideration of the matter and exercise a positive vote at the Security Council.
Mr Hague: As my right hon. Friend well appreciates, Palestinians are in a different situation. We strongly support their right to a state and a two-state solution in the middle east, but all concerned must concede that such a state can come into meaningful existence only as a result of successful negotiations with Israel. That is where we must direct our efforts. It is not right at this time to vote for a resolution that is not linked to negotiations. That would give the impression that there is a better way of proceeding than returning to negotiations. At this moment there is no better way.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I support the Foreign Secretary’s view that only direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will solve the conflict. Does he consider that in the current situation the Palestinians are refusing to go back to the negotiating table because they regard the unilateral declaration as an alternative to negotiations in which they would have to recognise Israel?
Mr Hague: The hon. Lady’s point is related to the one I am making, which is that we should not encourage the idea that at this moment there is a substitute for negotiations that will bring about a Palestinian state, because realistically there is not. That is why we have taken this position. I think the Palestinians should be ready to re-enter negotiations without setting additional preconditions, but I also think that Israel has to enter negotiations with a readiness to make a much more decisive and—if I may describe it like this—generous offer to the Palestinians than it has been prepared to make for many years. Both things are necessary to bring about a successful negotiation.
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Is it not the case that the UN process is a distraction from the biggest obstacle to what we all want to see, which is an independent Palestine living alongside a secure state of Israel? That biggest obstacle is the unchecked nuclear ambition of Iran. It is simply inconceivable that the Israeli people will accept another state becoming a base for Iranian proxies in the way that south Lebanon and Syria have been until we sort out the problem of Iran.
Mr Hague: It is certainly true that the behaviour of Iran makes peace in the middle east a much more difficult goal to attain. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. However, I would say—and I do say—to Israeli leaders that the conduct of Iran makes it all the more important for them to settle their differences with the Palestinians and seek to arrive at a two-state solution. That is a very important aspect of the argument as well.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as reported in The Wall Street Journal,Prime Minister Netanyahu has in the past couple of days announced a dismantling of illegal settlements? That could mean more settlers being removed than since the evacuation of Gaza, which led to increased terrorism. Does he agree that it is difficult to support a Palestinian state when part of it is still controlled by terrorists funded by Iran?
Mr Hague: I am aware of announcements made by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Nevertheless, I say to my hon. Friend that the overall effect of Israeli settlement announcements is very negative, is the wrong judgment and does not help the peace process. We should be absolutely clear about that. I readily agree with him on his second point. Clearly, the situation in Gaza—the continued intransigence of Hamas—certainly does not help the peace process or help to persuade Israelis that a partner for peace is available to them.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Palestine’s bid for membership of the United Nations is a lawful one and that it asks no more than the recognition that Israel has demanded as non-negotiable for itself and which was granted by the United Nations 63 years ago? When lawful acts like this and the recent UNESCO decision to admit Palestine to membership are met with reprisals through accelerated settlement building, financial boycotts and attempts in the Israeli Parliament and on the streets of Jerusalem to gag Jewish Israeli groups that dare to speak out for peace and human rights, how is it credible for the UK to sit on its hands and abstain? The time has come to make up our minds.
Mr Hague: There are two points to respond to. It is certainly entirely wrong to respond to votes such as the one that took place in UNESCO with reprisals of any kind—with announcements of new settlement construction and the withholding of tax revenues. That aggravates and escalates a difficult situation and does not help Israel any more than it helps Palestinians.
The hon. Gentleman said that we are sitting on our hands. The important point is that, across all the European nations involved in these matters, we are absolutely not sitting on our hands. We are trying to get negotiations going again through the Quartet, the work of Baroness Ashton—the EU High Representative—and all the representations that the United Kingdom, France and Germany make. We are all highly active in that regard. However, at this moment in the very difficult fortunes of the peace process, it is consistent with that approach for us to act in the way I have described.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): As it is clearly a waste of time asking the right hon. Gentleman to reverse his deplorable decision on Palestinian membership of the United Nations, may I ask him to endorse the French President’s character reference of the Israeli Prime Minister?
Mr Hague: It would not be in the interests of the United Kingdom for the Foreign Secretary, whoever that may be, to endorse any such remarks. We do not get into endorsing leaked conversations.