» Thursday, December 7, 2006

Middle East

Asked when the Prime Minister was going to the Middle East, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) replied that he was not going to give out details to people. The Prime Minister had said that he would go before the end of the year, and it was important that we maintained the momentum and keep it moving forward. Since we had last visited the region, there had been the ceasefire, which was important, and there had also been a very significant speech from Prime Minister Olmert, as well as the debate that was still going on within the Palestinian leadership. The important thing was, however, was that we maintained the momentum, and that we built on the work done by the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report.

Asked if the Prime Minister was going to make a statement next week, as the Conservatives were demanding one, and when would it be debated by MPs, the PMOS said that it was a matter for the House what debates there were. What was important was that we had set out very clearly what we believed was the next step forward. People knew the Prime Minister’s views on Iraq, the broader Middle East, as he had set those out in the House on many occasions. The important thing was that we moved forward.

Asked how long the Prime Minister had felt that the situation in Iraq was gravely deteriorating, the PMOS said that if people looked back at what the Prime Minister had said in his speech in Los Angeles, he did an analysis there which reflected his views that overall, we could not say in the fight against extremist terrorism that we were winning. Part of that was the picture in Afghanistan, and part of that was the picture in Iraq. Therefore, this was an analysis which was part of the Prime Minister’s evolving analysis of the overall situation. What was equally important, however, was what the Prime Minister thought the positive answer was. Part of that was achieving the steps necessary in Iraq, and the Prime Minister had spelt those out today, getting the players involved on the right terms, as the Prime Minister had also spelt out today, but above all, creating a broader context of the Middle East as a whole.

Asked if the Prime Minister accepted the view of the Baker/Hamilton report that talks with Iran should be separate from the issue of its nuclear programme, the PMOS replied that what was important was that people were open to the possibility of dialogue. However, that dialogue had to be set very firmly within the context of people being confronted with the strategic choices that they made. Those choices, whether it was Iran or Syria, were about whether people continued to supply bomb-making material to terrorists who were killing our soldiers in the south of Iraq. It was also about whether those people also continued to support other terrorist groups around the Middle East. The PMOS said that those were the important questions.

Asked whether it was about enrichment, the PMOS said that our position on the enrichment issue was absolutely clear. We had not moved our position on the enrichment issue, neither had the US, not had the international community.

Put to him that the Prime Minister had spoken about the empowering of the Palestinian Government, and was he referring to the idea of there being a referendum called for by Mahmoud Abbas, the PMOS said that in terms of the Palestinians, it was for them to decide a way forward. The important thing, however, was that we moved forward, but equally, we had to do so on the internationally accepted principle. These were not principles imposed by us or the US, but rather, by the international community as a whole. That involved recognition of Israel. The PMOS said that there could not be a two-state solution if one of those states did not recognise the other.

Asked whether the talks with Iran were conditional on Iran stopping its nuclear enrichment programme, the PMOS replied that in terms of our position, we continued to have diplomatic relations with Iran, and always done so. In terms of our position on uranium, it was absolutely our position that they had to suspend enrichment.

In answer to questions about the Prime Minister’s trip to the Middle East, and was it a low key incremental trip, as opposed to any big announcements that may come out of it, the PMOS replied that what it was first and foremost was a chance to talk to the people on the ground, not only about how things had moved on, or not moved on, since the Prime Minister’s last trip, but also, the implications of the ISG report. It was also about how we got around the remaining problems. There had been significant developments, such as the ceasefire, or Prime Minister Olmerts’s speech, but the important thing was: how did we move things further forward?

Asked further about Iran and Syria, the PMOS replied that what the Prime Minister had said was that we had to present Iran and Syria with a strategic choice, i.e. whether they continued to support terrorism, or not. It was also about what role they played in Lebanon, and would they allow the democratically elected government of Lebanon to exercise its authority? It was a simplistic caricature to talk in terms of weakness. Rather, the important thing was what was the point of a conversation? That point was to say to people that they had a choice to make, and that they could either play a constructive role and become part of the international community, or they could continue to play their current role and accept that the international community would bypass them.

Put to him that the House of Commons had not had a chance to debate the ISG’s conclusions, and was the Prime Minister very keen to have such a debate in Parliament, the PMOS replied that the important thing was that the ISG had said many things that had been part of our evolving thinking along the way. In terms of troops, what it had said was that we were aiming for condition-based withdrawal. We agreed, as that had been our policy. What the ISG had also said was that we should engage with the region on the right terms. We agreed. The ISG said that there should be a broader Middle East strategy. We agreed. In terms, therefore, of going forward, the important thing was to move on, and moving on was precisely what we would be trying to do by going to the region.

Asked in terms of the Palestinians, if there was not a unity government, what was the alternative way forward, the PMOS replied that it was a matter for the Palestinians to resolve. In terms of the Quartet principle, what we said when we were last in the region was that a unity government, irrespective of the views of the constituent parts, recognised Israel, as there had to be a partner for Israel to negotiate with, otherwise there would not be two states negotiating a future. Therefore, the important thing was to find a way of doing that. The PMOS said that in Palestine at the moment, President Abbas did accept the Quartet principle, and there was Hamas, who appeared not to. What we had to do was to try and find a way of resolving that issue, either by a unity government, or as the Prime Minister had said, by some other way. The PMOS said again that the people who could decide that was not us, or anyone else, but the Palestinians.

Briefing took place at 7:00 | Search for related news

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