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UK Govt On Middle East Diplomat Letters

Middle East/Diplomats' Letter

Asked again about the letter from former diplomats to the Prime Minister regarding the Middle East, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that if the former diplomats wanted a debate about our foreign policy, then that was something to be welcomed. As he had told journalists at yesterday afternoon's briefing, our goal was clear both in terms of Iraq and the Israeli/Palestinian question: we wanted to see stability and democracy. On the Israeli/Palestinian issue, as the Prime Minister and President Bush had made clear repeatedly, not least in their joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden recently, the goal was a two-state solution - a viable Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state. As the Prime Minister had said, if Prime Minister Sharon's recent announcement resulted in 7,000 settlers leaving Gaza and parts of the West Bank, then that was to be welcomed as a first step. As both he and the President had made clear, that did not in any way pre-empt or pre-judge final status negotiations. Equally, our goal in Iraq is to see a democracy because we believed that the Iraqi people should be making judgements about themselves for themselves. It was important for people to recognise that that goal was only possible because of the removal of Saddam. Similarly, it could only come to pass if the terrorists there who saw democracy as a threat to their position were defeated. That was the raison d'etre for the approach we were taking on Iraq and the Israeli/Palestinian issue.

Asked for a reaction to the description of the former diplomats, reportedly by an FCO source, as the 'camel corps' because of their known pro-Arab views, the PMOS said that he had no intention of commenting on descriptions or characterisations. The important thing was to debate the substance of the issue - that democracy would result in greater stability in the Middle East and therefore in stopping the breeding ground for terrorism. Prior to the Iraq conflict, the status quo in Iraq had not been acceptable. Ditto that vis-à-vis the Israeli/Palestinian now. The question, therefore, was whether to engage with the reality on the ground, or wait for some other perfect solution to emerge. The Prime Minister was firmly of the view that the former was the right approach to take.

Asked if the Prime Minister continued to stand by his view that he wanted to see a viable Palestinian state based on Israel's pre-1967 borders, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister's view remained unchanged. Equally, he believed that Israel's announcement for the first time that it would withdraw from Gaza and parts of the West Bank should be welcomed as a first step, not rejected.

Asked if the Prime Minister felt 'hurt' at the attack on him by senior former diplomats who would have been appointed by his Government to senior sensitive posts, the PMOS pointed out that since most of the diplomats were retired, it was unlikely they would have been appointed to posts under this Government. That said, it was important not to personalise the issue but to take on the substance of the argument. If the suggestion was that Iraq was not ripe for democracy or even that the country was better off under the leadership of Saddam, then we would disagree. We were not sure if that was what the diplomats had been saying. However, our view was the reverse. We believed it was better for the Iraqi people to have the right to control their own affairs and that making some progress on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, even it was only a first step, was better than not making progress at all.

Asked if the Prime Minister had been consulted by President Bush before the Rose Garden press conference about the President's support for the Israeli settlements issue, the PMOS said that we were in constant contact with the US Administration, as you would expect, and we were always aware of each other's thinking. Pressed as to whether the Prime Minister had been consulted specifically about what the President was intending to say in the press conference, the PMOS said that it wasn't our policy to comment on the detail of every single conversation the Prime Minister might have. He repeated that we were in constant discussion with the US Administration with whom we shared opinions and views. It was not a question of a one-off conversation. It was about an ongoing process. Questioned further, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had set out his view about the settlements issue very clearly in the press conference. Both he and the President had both underlined that this was not in any way to pre-judge final status issues. Put to him that the President had not used the phrase 'first step', the PMOS said that as President Bush had made clear in the Rose Garden, "I am committed to the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. As I said, all final status issues must still be negotiated between the parties." He had said later, "We're not going to prejudge the final status discussions." Journalists could check the transcript for themselves. Asked if he was indicating that the diplomats had been wrong to suggest that supporting Israel's policy on the settlements would effectively bury the roadmap, the PMOS said we would disagree with that view completely. We had argued strongly for the roadmap and we were obviously not going to do anything which might sideline it. Equally, we believed that Israel's pullout from Gaza and parts of the West Bank meant that there would be a big role for the Quartet to play in helping the Palestinian Authority to make their aspiration for self government real, both in terms of running the economy, putting in place a security system and establishing a proper judicial system.

Asked if the Prime Minister had been aware of what President Bush had been going to say about the settlements issue two days before the press conference in the Rose Garden, the PMOS said that the British Government and the US Administration were constantly aware of each other's thinking, as you would expect. Put to him that being aware of an issue was not the same thing as being consulted about it, the PMOS said that he had absolutely no intention of getting drawn into a discussion relating to the detail of private conversations. All he would say was that there was an ongoing discussion in which both we and the US were continually aware of each other's thinking. Both the Prime Minister and the President had stated their own cases in their joint press conference. Both had also underlined that the position being adopted was not to pre-empt, pre-judge or preclude final status negotiations. Asked when the Prime Minister had formulated his policy on Prime Minister Sharon's announcement, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had stated his position in the Rose Garden press conference. Questioned further, the PMOS said that journalists were barking up the wrong tree in trying to create divisions and splits where none existed. We had obviously considered Prime Minister Sharon's announcement and had reached our position, as announced by the Prime Minister in the Rose Garden on 16 April. There was no great mystery.

Asked if the Government continued to see the roadmap as the basic plan for peace in the Middle east, the PMOS said yes, absolutely. Asked if we believed that Israel would accept that, the PMOS said that he wasn't a spokesman for the Israeli Government. The question was whether we were able to take the opportunity to make real progress on the ground, or wait for everything to fall into place first. The Prime Minister believed that it was better to engage with the reality on the ground and work towards a final agreement rather than sit back and wait.

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned that the Foreign Office was employing so many people who did not appear to share his view on the Middle East, the PMOS pointed out that these people were now private citizens who were, of course, perfectly entitled to express their opinions. Equally, we were entitled to put forward the Government's case and the reasons behind it.


Asked if migrants who were not self sufficient because they were in poorly paid jobs would be entitled to housing benefit and income support, the PMOS said that the important point was whether they had come to the UK to fill an important job vacancy and were still working, or whether they had come to the UK to live off the benefits system. We would not allow anyone to get away with the latter situation. Asked which migrants would now be refused a council house who would otherwise have been eligible for one before, the PMOS said that he was referring to people coming from the new accession states or other parts of the EU who were not economically active. Further details would be announced by the ODPM on Friday.

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