UK’s Mideast minister visits Israel ahead of key Parliament debate

The Foreign Office has told Israeli and Palestinian leaders that they have to consider “bold moves” to secure a breakthrough.

Tobias Elwood (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tobias Elwood
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
LONDON – Recently appointed UK Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood, who will be opening a debate in the House of Commons on Monday concerning Palestinian statehood, is visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories this week on a post-Gaza-conflict fact-finding tour.
The low-key trip, his first visit as minister, has enabled him to hear firsthand how both sides view the chances of reviving the two-state solution – which, Foreign Office sources have said, he will be emphasizing as the only way to make progress in the region.
Having held meetings with leading figures in Gaza on Monday, he signaled a diminished role for Hamas.
“It is important that the Palestinian Authority returns to Gaza to provide services and security to all Gazans,” he said after the meetings.
The Foreign Office said Tuesday that he had told Israeli and Palestinian leaders that they had to consider “bold moves” to secure a breakthrough – with the understanding that as a result of the recent Gaza conflict, it was essential both to safeguard Israel’s security and to make rapid progress in easing the plight of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza.
On Tuesday, he met with community leaders in the South and heard about the impact of Gazan rocket fire, and he saw an Iron Dome battery in Ashkelon. Later, he said that “having heard firsthand from residents of Israel’s southern communities about their experiences of living under rocket fire, I reaffirm the United Kingdom’s determination to stand by Israel’s right to self-defense.”
He also met Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to discuss the peace process, Gaza, UK-Israel relations, Iran and the region.
Ellwood said he hoped Israel could take the opportunity offered by the Cairo talks to address the fundamental causes of the conflict in Gaza, “including a lifting of restrictions, and to end the cycle of violence, providing lasting peace and security to Palestinians and Israelis.”
However, in line with the views recently expressed in the EU and the US, he made clear the UK’s continued irritation over the settlements issue.
“I reiterated the UK’s long-standing concern about settlements, including the recent announcement about additional units at Givat Hamatos, which undermines trust between the parties and has serious implications for the prospects of a two-state solution,” he said.
While in Jerusalem he visited Yad Vashem and laid a wreath in memory of those who died in the Holocaust.
Speaking after his visit to Gaza but before meeting the Israeli politicians, Ellwood said he had seen firsthand the “disastrous consequences” of the summer’s conflict and was “profoundly shocked and saddened” at the suffering ordinary Gazans had experienced.
He said the cycle of violence in Gaza was “unsustainable” and that humanitarian aid was not enough.
“We must address the underlying causes of this repeated conflict – for the sake of ordinary Palestinians across the Strip, and for Israelis, too,” he said.
Monday’s House of Commons debate will end with a vote on whether MPs feel it is the right time for the UK government to recognize a Palestinian state. While their decision will not be binding, the British government may face pressure to listen to Parliament’s view on the subject.
During the debate, both the government and opposition spokesmen are expected to express support for a two-state solution based on a negotiated settlement, but whether this will be enough to persuade MPs who are voting freely (without whipping) on what is essentially backbench business remains to be seen.
Jewish organizations have only started alerting the Jewish community in the last few days to the dangers of losing the vote, while supporters of the Palestinian cause – including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign activist group – have been actively promoting a “yes” vote for nearly a month.
A Foreign Office spokesman stated Tuesday that the UK continued to reserve the right to bilaterally recognize a Palestinian state at a moment of its choosing and “when it can best help bring about peace.”
However, Ellwood is expected to state categorically at the debate that “we continue to believe that negotiations toward a two-state solution are the best route to meeting Palestinian aspirations in reality and on the ground.”