One of the main things which strikes me on taking the post of British Foreign Secretary is the size of the challenges which face us all today. This is especially the case if we take examples from the Middle East:
Despite whole-hearted international support for a just and lasting two state solution to the Middle East conflict involving the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state living in peace alongside a safe and secure Israel; the challenges in achieving this seem as formidable as they have ever been.
Regarding the abysmal humanitarian situation in Darfur, the lack of progress – despite huge international efforts – in resolving this issue is something for which history will judge us harshly if we fail to pressure the parties to solve their differences and cooperate to rebuild this shattered region.
In Iraq, despite the best efforts of the Iraqi government and international forces, the violence continues, along with the disturbing phenomenon of sectarian violence. We continue to take very seriously our responsibilities in helping create a better future for Iraqis
We and our Middle Eastern partners are increasingly concerned about the damaging role that Iran is playing behind the scenes in the region which is increasing instability in Iraq, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This makes the prospect of an Iran with nuclear weapons all the more frightening.
Such challenges and numerous others necessitate that our governments work together as never before. Fair and effective solutions to conflict in the Middle East, promoting political and economic reform, grappling with the underlying factors conducive to terrorism, fighting poverty and tackling climate change are all immense challenges which any one country cannot cope with alone. We need each other and when we work together effectively we are far greater than the sum of our parts.
However, I am well aware that building international consensus on these issues is not something which can be taken for granted. Relationships and building mutual understanding take effort, and I am conscious that issues like Britain’s involvement in Iraq have strained our past relationships with people in the Middle East. I will take this opportunity to say that I firmly believe that on all the big and important issues, we see eye to eye and share the same aims. We are proud of our traditional partnership with countries in the Middle East and I want to consolidate this role of a trusted partner and friend. Even if we disagree on how to achieve our shared goals, we must be able to listen to and respect each other’s point of view.
Nowhere is this more true than achieving peace in the Middle East. Very few people reading this will disagree with my strong desire to see the Palestinians reaping the fruits of their own state, with a fair settlement on the issues of Jerusalem, the right of return and secure borders. We all watched in horror last month as Palestinian factions turned their guns on each other. No-one wants to see disunity amongst Palestinians. Our first priority must be to support President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad as they try to restore law and order and improve daily life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We must ensure the people of Gaza do not suffer further. The recent violence will have left scars. But ultimately Palestinian unity, based on a commitment to peaceful progress, is crucial for a future viable Palestinian state. Britain and the EU are continuing our funding to all the Palestinian people and to persuade the parties to fulfil their obligations in order to bring about a better future for all – both Israelis and Palestinians.
In achieving progress on this issue, the continued involvement of Arab states is paramount, particularly important are recent Saudi and Egyptian efforts to break the deadlock and get things back on course. Both I and Prime Minister Gordon Brown continue to see this as a priority issue for British foreign policy working with the international community. The bedrock of our approach will be threefold: first, unstinting support for a two-state solution; secondly, supporting those committed to peace; and thirdly, supporting economic and social development across the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
However, we should not forget other huge challenges which demand urgent solutions.
For example, without an urgent international response to climate change, then the world as we know it will be a very different place in 50 to 100 years time. In the Middle East water is always a political issue. States have been brought to the brink of war over water supply – water levels of rivers like the River Jordan, the Euphrates and the Nile are literally issues of life and death. Climate change is set to exacerbate these problems.
All this provides a powerful argument for multilateral solutions. Only a united and determined international community can succeed on issues of climate change, nuclear proliferation and conflict resolution. Many countries across the Muslim world have a major stake in these issues and that is why I regard establishing close relations with people across this region as being so vital.
The Middle East is a region of huge economic, cultural and human potential. You only have to look at the astounding levels of growth and development in Qatar and the Emirates; Morocco’s continued transition towards greater political inclusiveness and openness; and Algeria and Libya increasingly exploiting the opportunities of their huge economic potential. In partnership with all countries in the region, we seek to use our relationship to promote stability, reform and prosperity so that all these countries can realise their potential on the world stage. This includes Syria, which we are willing to welcome with open arms, when through its actions it can demonstrate that it is a serious partner towards peace.
This is of course a strategic relationship from which Britain stands to gain a lot through trade; visits to Britain from the Middle East for tourism, business and study; and greater interaction in order to better understand each other’s cultures and values.
I hope that during my term as Foreign Secretary we will be able to work together to build constructive and trusting relationships that will enable us to provide real and lasting solutions to these issues. I firmly believe that in doing so we are creating a brighter and better future for us all.