Labour MPs press the Government on UN recognition of Palestine

During this week’s Foreign Office and Commonwealth Questions in House of Commons, Labour MPs pressed the Foreign Secretary William Hague on the issue of the ‘recognition’ of Palestine at the UN in September.

Labour MPs Margaret Curran and Sandra Osborne tabled the question asking the Foreign Secretary “What his policy is on UN membership for a Palestinian state?”

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague) responded by saying “Membership of the UN by September is one option under consideration by President Abbas. We believe that Israelis and Palestinians should return to negotiations. We will make a decision on UN membership only at the appropriate time.”

The subsequent exchanges followed:

Margaret Curran MP: Time and again, the Secretary of State has said that he is in favour of an independent Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. Surely with events going apace in the Middle East, the time is right to show solidarity with the Palestinians, support them at the United Nations and prove, once and for all, that we are on the Palestinian side.

Mr Hague: We have lent a great deal of support to Palestinians at the United Nations. For instance, as the hon. Lady will know, in February we voted for the Palestinian resolution on settlements. We voted the opposite way to the United States on that occasion, which is unusual for this country. We strongly support a future state based on 1967 borders, and we welcome President Obama’s recent speech in that regard. We must remember that the way to a viable and secure state is through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It is to those negotiations that we want both parties to return.

Sandra Osborne: I am disappointed in the Foreign Secretary’s answer. If we wait for negotiations to resume, we will wait forever, given how things are going. President Obama made self-determination the focus of his speech to the Middle East and made reference to the brave people struggling for freedom in the Arab world. Does that not also apply to the Palestinians, and would UN membership not take us a step forward?

Mr Hague: The hon. Lady will have to be disappointed with the position of all European countries, because we have all withheld a decision on the question of Palestinian recognition and membership of the UN. It is vital to remember that the way to a secure Israel and a viable, prosperous Palestinian state is through negotiations between the two. She is right to be frustrated or exasperated by the time that the negotiations have taken. Nevertheless, there is no way to lasting peace in the Middle East other than through those negotiations.

The Shadow Minister of the Middle East, Stephen Twigg MP, followed up and asked about the Secretary of State’s “assessment of the moves towards Palestinian unity? Does the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas make it more or less likely that the United Kingdom will support UN membership for Palestine?”

Mr Hague: Our stance on that, if it comes to that point in September, will depend on many things, including the issues that I have commented on. It is important that the reformed Palestinian Authority—we still await many of the appointments to that body—uphold non-violence, are committed to a negotiated two-state solution, and uphold the previous agreements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Those are the factors by which we will judge the Palestinian approach.

Last week during the Foreign Secretary’s Statement on the Middle East and North Africa, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander MP, also raised the situation in Palestine:

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): There have been significant developments in relation to Israel and Palestine over the last few weeks, to which the Foreign Secretary alluded. I welcome the US President’s decision to reaffirm his country’s long-standing support for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders and mutually agreed land swaps. Last week’s clashes on the Israel border and the Golan heights, in which a number of protestors were killed or injured, were deeply concerning. Israel of course has a right to protect its borders, but can the Foreign Secretary tell the House what the Foreign Office is doing to ensure that Governments on both sides of those borders do everything they can to avoid provocations and escalations that make it harder to find peace? After the President’s speech in the United States and his speech to parliamentarians here in Westminster Hall, can the Foreign Secretary update us on any further discussions that he has had with Secretary of State Clinton on how, in practical terms, the United States and the UK will push for progress on the issue in the coming months? In addition, given the widespread discussion that the Palestinians plan to argue for statehood at the United Nations later this year, can the Foreign Secretary give his assessment of, first, where European Union allies are on that issue and, secondly, when the UK Government intend to come to a final view on the matter?

The Foreign Secretary Mr Hague (reponse on Middle East part) did not adequately respond but said “On the middle east peace process, of course we are active in urging all sides to avoid provocations. We are in constant touch with France, Germany and the US in encouraging both sides back into negotiations on the back of President Obama’s speech. In my view, the strength of our case would be added to by a statement by the Quartet to follow the US statement. We have asked the US in addition to support that.”

The former Labour Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw MP, asked about the situation in the Middle East:  “In his statement the foreign Secretary said that the “status quo is not sustainable”—I think the whole House will agree with that—but does he not acknowledge that the one person who believes that the status quo is indeed sustainable is Prime Minister Netanyahu? It is perfectly obvious from the rebarbative, obdurate speech that he made in Washington straight after President Obama’s statement that he has no intention whatever of making any constructive moves towards a settlement. That is clearly accepted in the States, as I recognised when I was there over the past two weeks.  In that context, is it not time for the British Government to abandon the approach of successive Governments, which is to deal with Israel with kid gloves? Should we not make it clear to Israel that we will make decisions in the interests of the Israeli people, of which the Israeli Government now seem incapable, as well as the wider Arab world?

Mr Hague: Prime Minister Netanyahu is the elected Prime Minister of Israel, and we must always bear that in mind, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should make a strong case, as we do, for an agreement based on the 1967 borders. Our Prime Minister met Mr Netanyahu a few weeks ago and made that case very strongly, as I have done to him and to the Foreign Minister, Mr Lieberman. We will continue to make that case based on diplomatic persuasion, but we will also vote in accordance with our convictions. In February, we voted in the Security Council for the Palestinian resolution on settlements. That was a clear indication of the view in this country and in this House on those matters and on the importance of taking forward the peace process. I would express this a bit more diplomatically than the right hon. Gentleman did, but it is incumbent on me to do so, as it is no longer incumbent on him.

Other contributions made by Labour MPs included:

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary really believe that his remarks about the killing of Palestinian demonstrators by Israel—it was Israel, by the way, which was not mentioned by him—were sufficient, and that remarks that he made urging restraint were enough? Would it not be far better to condemn absolutely what happened over the weekend? I thoroughly agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that it is time that the British Government made it clear to Israel that certain actions, such as what happened over the weekend, are totally unacceptable.

Mr Hague: Obviously we condemn anything that leads to unnecessary deaths, and I have made a strong appeal for avoidance of the use of lethal force. Israel’s response is certainly one that should be criticised, but Israel is not the only country that may be criticised in this regard. The area on the other side of the Golan heights boundary is under the direct control of the Syrian Government, and the access that people have gained there leads one to speculate about the motives of the Syrian Government in this matter. So the responsibility may not be all on one side, and trying to cross the borders is not the way to resolve the problems of the middle east.I think we are all absolutely clear about the fact that the use of lethal force should be avoided whenever possible.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): In the light of the report in yesterday’s The New Yorker that Barack Obama used his recent visit to canvass western European Governments to vote against the recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations, will the right hon. Gentleman affirm that this Government will vote in favour of the recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations General Assembly in September, since no decision could be more calculated to force the Israelis to come to their senses?

Mr Hague: We have taken no decision about that, and it would be premature to do so. This situation may arise in September. At the European Foreign Affairs Council, my advice to all my colleagues of the other 26 European nations was that we should withhold our statements on that issue. The fact that we have done so, and that we will judge events over the coming months, may be one factor that encourages all parties to behave responsibly over those few months.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary has consistently condemned the use of live fire against unarmed protesters by murderous regimes such as Assad’s and Gaddafi’s, so why does he find it difficult today to condemn exactly the same thing by the Israeli regime? What protest is he making to the ambassador and to the Government of Israel and what sanctions will he consider if there is a repetition of these events, which go on week by week on all of Israel’s illegal borders?

Mr Hague: I have pointed out that the responsibility for the situation on the borders is not entirely on the Israeli side. I have made very clear our opposition to the use of lethal force and that the defence of borders and boundaries should be proportionate. Hon. Members should make no mistake about that. That is the message that we convey to the Israeli authorities. We should not be so short sighted as to believe that in the case of Syria no one else is involved in trying to create those incidents and putting people in a position in which they are caught up in violent incidents.

Other questions raised by other MPs were as follows:

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): The reported reopening of the border between Gaza and Egypt runs the risk of refuelling Hamas and Islamic Jihad. What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to make sure that the Egyptian Government stop assisting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, so that pressure can be brought on all sides to return to the negotiating table?

Mr Hague: Clearly, we do not want the Egyptian Government to do anything that will increase the risk of violence in Gaza or emanating from Gaza, but I must say that I do not think that the reopening of crossings necessarily leads to that. The closure of borders in Gaza has tended to strengthen Hamas, creating a corrupt economy on which it has been able to thrive and increasing the sense of grievance on which it is based. So I do not think that Egypt’s announcement, in itself, represents a strengthening of Hamas, but of course we must be on the alert for anything that would lead to more weapons going into Gaza and to an increased risk of violence.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that events in Syria have the potential to be even more destabilising than events in Libya given the cynical attempt to stir up problems on the border with Israel? Will he therefore outline to us the additional sanctions on Syria that he is considering with the EU partners mentioned in the statement?

Mr Hague: The sanctions so far cover President Assad and 22 other individuals in terms of asset freezes and travel bans. Additional sanctions would involve the designation of further individuals involved in repression and violence in Syria and of commercial organisations, so the sanctions on Syria would be wider spread. I do not want to pretend to the hon. Gentleman that such sanctions will change the entire situation in Syria. They are a demonstration of our strong view rather than something that will transform the situation there. We must recognise our limited leverage in Syria, but we are exercising the leverage that we have.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that Israel has the right to defend its own borders, given that the consequences of not doing so would be enormous? Does he agree that Iran is likely to have had influence on recent events over the weekend and has he made an assessment of Iranian influence in Syria?

Mr Hague: Israel does have the right to defend its borders but it must do so in a sensible and proportionate way; I think we should stress that. I have no direct evidence of Iranian involvement in the events around the borders of Israel but I have seen a good deal of evidence of Iranian involvement in Syria in attempting to crush dissent, including in the provision of riot control equipment and of expertise in how to flood particular towns and cities with security forces for the purposes of repression. Iran has a strong role in trying to quell the views of the people of Syria and we should condemn it for doing so.