24 September 2020
James Cleverly responds to a debate on settlement and annexation of the Occupied Palestinian territories

James Cleverly responds to a debate on settlement and annexation of the Occupied Palestinian territories and outlines the Government’s desire to protect the viability of a peaceful, secure state of Israel, and a peaceful and secure state for the Palestinian people. 

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I am genuinely grateful that the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) secured this debate on what is a sensitive but incredibly important issue. A number of Members from all parts of the House have highlighted that since initially being given a date for this debate, much has changed in Israel’s situation and its relationship with its regional neighbours and the Palestinian people.

The middle eastern peace process continues to be a complex and sensitive issue. I cannot really do it full justice in the time allocated today, but I will attempt to cover as many points as I can. I know that many Members correspond with the Department on a regular basis on this area. I hope that, through correspondence and perhaps in future debates, any details that I am not able to cover today will be explored.

The UK remains active in attempting to secure a peace process for the region, and we warmly welcome the recent announcements of the normalisation of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. All three countries are good friends to the United Kingdom. We welcome that their relations have improved. I recognise the points that the hon. Member made about it formalising what was, in many instances, a pre-existing relationship, but that public formalisation really matters. As has already been discussed, it has unlocked direct flights through Saudi airspace, which is another significant issue. I do hope that it has also shown the leadership of the PA that there is a shift in mood among Arabic neighbours. They should recognise that and take this as an opportunity to positively engage with a dialogue for future peace.

That said, it should be clear that the United Kingdom’s position on the future relationship between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples has not changed. We desire a stable, secure and peaceful two-state solution, with a thriving Israel next door to a thriving Palestine based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and fair, agreed and realistic settlements for refugees. We continue to believe that a two-state solution is the only viable long-term solution for the area. More than that, as a good friend of Israel, we genuinely believe it is in Israel’s best interests to also have a viable Palestinian state so that it can maintain its desired future as a Jewish democratic state.

I have been asked very explicitly in a number of speeches about the UK’s position on annexation, so let me explain it to the House in clear and unambiguous terms. The UK’s position on annexation is that it would be a violation of international law. It would be counterproductive to securing peace, and it would be a significant blow to a viable two-state solution. As a lifelong friend, admirer and supporter of Israel—

Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) (Lab)

Will the Minister give way?

James Cleverly

I will.

Zarah Sultana

In August, the Labour party announced that should annexation take place, we would call for a boycott of goods sourced in the occupied territories. Does the Minister agree that this would demonstrate a genuine commitment to the rights of the Palestinian people and international law?

James Cleverly

The UK Government have a long-standing position to oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement towards the state of Israel, but more than that, it is better that we prevent annexation from taking place. We have made the case, through our excellent bilateral relationships, that we oppose annexation. The Prime Minister has consistently made it clear, as a vocal friend of the state of Israel, that he opposes annexation. He expressed this publicly in an article in the Israeli media and directly, including in a phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu on 6 July. The Foreign Secretary raised this in Jerusalem on the 24 August with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Alternate Prime Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, and I outlined our opposition to such moves at the UN Security Council on 24 June. Our position is clear on that.

As a strong friend of Israel, and a friend who stood up for Israel when it faced biased and unreasonable criticism, we are continuing to urge Israel not to take steps in this direction and for annexation to be permanently removed as an option.

Jim Shannon

The country that continues to be the greatest problem is Iran. I understand that the United Nations arms embargo on Iran, for conventional weapons, expires in mid-October. Will the Minister use his good powers as a Foreign Office Minister to ensure that work is done alongside the USA to make sure that that arms embargo is reinstated?

James Cleverly

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. I am constrained by time, and that is an important and complicated issue, which I cannot address in this speech.

The UK’s position on settlements is also clear. Again, they are illegal under international law and present an obstacle to a sustainable two-state solution. We want to see a contiguous west bank, including East Jerusalem, as part of a viable sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders.

In 2016, the UK supported UN Security Council resolution 2334, which states that Israeli settlement activity “constitutes a flagrant violation” of international law and “has no legal validity”. This is the long-standing position of the UK Government, and we are able to have these very direct conversations with the Israeli Government because we are friends—long-standing and close friends of the Israeli people and the Israeli Government. That gives us the opportunity to have these frank and sometimes difficult discussions.

Sam Tarry (Ilford South) (Lab)

Will the Minister give way?

James Cleverly

I am going to make progress; otherwise, I will deny the hon. Member for Aberavon the opportunity to come back in. We maintain strong and close relations with the Israeli people and the state of Israel, which enables us to have these direct conversations.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised Iran’s intentionally insulting and provocative language, and we must understand that Israel, from its inception, has felt an existential threat. That very much informs its view to its own protection, and we must understand that. We must also work to remove that existential fear because that ultimately will unlock the viable, peaceful two-state solution.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), who injected a very moving, personal contribution. We must always remember that this is not just about lines on maps and international power politics—this is actually about people. That is why the UK Government maintain our support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, to help those people who are suffering because of this unresolved situation.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and some of my right hon. and hon. Friends raised the issue of insulting language and incitement in textbooks. The former Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), raised this issue with the Palestinian Authority’s Education Minister on her very first phone call in post. The Foreign Secretary also raised it with the Palestinian Prime Minister and the Education Minister on his recent visit to the OPTs. We have pressed the EU to publish its interim report on Palestinian textbooks. We want it to be addressed at pace and transparently.

The hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), in what was once again a thoughtful and balanced contribution, asked about businesses and their activities in the occupied territories. We give guidance to businesses and ultimately it is a decision for individual companies whether to operate in settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, but the British Government absolutely do not encourage or support such activities. As I have said, the British Government firmly oppose boycotts of Israel, but we understand the concerns of people who do not wish to purchase goods exported from Israeli settlements near the OPTs. It was in order to allow consumers to have that choice that in December 2009 the UK Government introduced voluntary guidance to enable products from Israeli settlements near the OPTs to be specifically labelled as such.

Time precludes me from going much further with the details, but I will close with a reminder that this debate is about protecting the viability of a peaceful, secure state of Israel, and a peaceful and secure state for the Palestinian people. There is an opportunity, and we have encouraged the Palestinian Authority to engage with Israel, the United States of America, its Arab neighbours and friends, and the UK, to put a counter-offer on the table. We know that President Trump is someone who likes to do a deal, and we strongly urge our friends in the region to take him up on the offer.