Hugh Robertson backs a motion that the UK Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, and calls for an international road map, including incentives and disincentives, leading to a final agreement in which the recognition of a Palestinian state is a key milestone.
Sir Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con): It is a great pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), and the many right hon. and hon. Members who have already made excellent speeches.
As the last Minister out of the washing machine on this topic, it is appropriate for me, on behalf of Members from across the House, to pay tribute to the many excellent people at the Foreign Office, both in the Box and in our two excellent missions in the embassy in Tel Aviv and the consulate in East Jerusalem—ably led by Matthew Gould, Sir Vincent Fean and Alastair McPhail—who have done so much, along with their staff from the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and those employed locally, to represent our interests and to help the people of the region. All of us genuinely owe them a great deal.
Over the past year, my time was dominated by the Kerry peace plan. That process initially excited much optimism, but I am afraid that it was ultimately doomed, like many of its predecessors. When I was thinking about what I could usefully say today, my eyes were drawn to a line in Jonathan Powell’s new book—it was reviewed at the weekend—which states:
“A deal depends on personal chemistry and uncommon leadership”.
Having studied this area in detail over the past year, I regret to say that both of those factors were absent during the most recent round of negotiations.
What did we learn from those negotiations about the middle east peace process and the connected issue of recognising the state of Palestine? First, I genuinely believe that there will be no deal unless the international community not only remains engaged in the process, but drives it. The US is the only power in the world that can force the necessary concessions from the Israeli Government and meet their security concerns. The Kerry peace plan remains an excellent basis for restarting negotiations.
The reconstruction of a Palestinian state will require the sort of Gulf money that has been evident, and welcome, in Cairo over the weekend, so keeping the wider Arab world involved is key. Egypt also has a key role to play, and the UK needs a more consistent policy on Egypt. We have unique bilateral relationship with it: we are the largest bilateral investor in the country, and about 1 million British tourists travel there each year. Resolution of the Gaza issue depends as much on the Egyptians as the Israelis. We should deal positively with Cairo for the greater good of the region.
Secondly, having secured proactive international buy-in, we need to freeze the situation on the ground and buy some time for the negotiations. At the moment, every hurdle and obstacle on the way is met with terrorist violence and announcements about more settlements. If there is much more building, particularly on area C, a two-state solution will fast become undeliverable, and we will be left with the one-state option that is in no one’s interests.
Sir Alan Duncan: Was my right hon. Friend’s experience that Mahmoud Abbas was a genuine partner for peace?
Sir Hugh Robertson: It absolutely was. By the same token, I believe that many people on the Israeli side are genuine partners for peace. I am afraid, however, that the ability to make the crucial decisions and the really tough compromises necessary to deliver a peace process was in the end absent, as they have been in the past.
Thirdly, the international community needs to look at an appropriate and calibrated programme of incentives and disincentives at key points in a peace process, and recognition of a Palestinian state is one key component. It will be extraordinarily difficult, but the process must be done in such a way that it is in neither side’s interest to derail it.
Finally, I fear that we need in practice to look again at our own policy. Having sat on the Front Bench only a few months ago, I know that the Minister is bound to say that the British policy is to support a two-state solution—that is good—based on the 1967 boundaries, with agreed land swaps. However, as I did when I stood looking at a settlement in East Jerusalem, we have to recognise that the international community lacks the will to bulldoze £1 million houses built illegally in settlements. We will have to form a new border, probably based on the wall, and then deal with the settlements beyond it if we are to make any progress.
I firmly believe that the principle of a Palestinian state is right and fair. I am delighted to be a signatory to the former Foreign Secretary’s amendment to that effect. However, I feel that declaring it unilaterally at this time could well be the catalyst for a further period of instability. The international community needs to re-engage on this issue as never before, led by the USA with the Arab world and Egypt alongside it. It must lay out a road map, including incentives and disincentives, to a final agreement in which the recognition of a Palestinian state is a key milestone. There is no doubt that that will be extraordinarily difficult, as many of our predecessors have found, but the alternative is unacceptably grim. This House can play a part in that process tonight.