We will applaud MidEast democracy

This government has always gone to bat on the side of peace, insists the Foreign Office Middle East minister


Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt: relieved that the global community had avoided a ‘train wreck’ at the UN

Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt: relieved that the global community had avoided a ‘train wreck’ at the UN

Alistair Burt has had a busy week. After making a speech at the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna warning of the continued nuclear threat of Iran, the Middle East minister flew to New York to join David Cameron and William Hague in discussions over the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations. There couldn't be a more timely moment to catch him for an interview with the JC.

He wanted to talk first about the year as a whole. He emphasised that he has already visited Israel twice in a year, combining the political with the commercial, especially in his discussion of high-tech co-operation. But he was also keen to emphasise where the government has fought Israel's corner in recent months. "In recent days we made good on our pledge to deal with universal jurisdiction... and we have also announced our decision not to go to Durban III, a conference ostensibly about racism that was hijacked and turned into an anti-Zionist occasion ten years ago. We saw no reason to celebrate or commemorate that. That's a decision we hope gives people a good sense of where UK principles are."

He said he was relieved that a "train wreck" had been avoided at the UN. " We've seen a situation which did not produce a confrontational resolution for the United Nations to consider, but the issue of advancing the peace process is very much alive. The speech by President Abbas and his delivering the letter to the Secretary-General, putting in a formal application for full statehood, which is a long way short of a resolution, has ensured that minds are focused on how to make progress."

He clarified that the UK supported the next stage of the procedure which involves a committee considering the Palestinian application for full statehood and reporting back to the security council. The hope is that this will buy time for negotiations to restart.

I don’t think any reader should wake up one morning and be surprised or amazed that Islamists constitute members of parliament, members of an assembly or even a government. What’s important is not the labels. Within the Arab world, the label Islamist covers a range of opinions and a range of attitudes towards democracy. What we should all do is judge people on their actions as well as their words.”

"The speeches that were made at the end of the week did not raise insuperable barriers for each side, there was no diplomatic breakdown... each side knows that they have to enter into serious negotiations."

When Mr Burt, who was a prominent voice in the Conservative Friends of Israel , was appointed a minister in the Foreign Office, it was seen as a sign of the new government's intention to continue with the pro-Israeli policy of the Blair-Brown era.

But when I raised the issue of briefings to the JC last week from senior Conservatives that the UK Prime Minister was going in to bat for Israel, Mr Burt would have none of it. He insisted: "The British government was, and always is, going into bat on the side of peace in the Middle East. We know that peace cannot be delivered by unilateral gestures, it has to back a process of negotiation and the Prime Minister is doing what he always does, considering all the interests of those who are seeking peace in the Middle East and doing his best to support the process that is most likely to bring that about."

Asked about comments by his ministerial colleague, Alan Duncan, on the Department for International Development website, that Israel was engaged in a "land grab" that involved stealing water from the Palestinians, Mr Burt was happy to clear the air, noting that the video of the remarks concerned was taken down by DfID. "We have expressed concerns about settlements in the past", he said. "But we couch these in a language that is very clear and straightforward. The FCO maintained its position on these issues and the way in which we express it."

Mr Burt could not have taken up his post at a more extraordinary time in the Middle East and North Africa. The events of the Arab Spring have transformed the region. But I wondered how he thought people should interpret the revolutions.

"All of us who live in democracies should celebrate the fact that people who previously did not, now have the opportunity to do so," he said. "And frankly I think that is unequivocal. They have to be true democracies and they have to adhere to principles that the international community would recognise and support. But from what we see of those who are advancing the cause in Egypt, Tunisia, in Libya, these principles will be there."

He added that there had never been a better time for Israel and the Palestinians to work towards peace and stability in the region. "We have heard arguments that it has not been the right time, in the past, when things were stable. An argument that it's not the right time now leads one to believe that some people never think it's the right time. Well, actually, it is a good time."

So how did he counter those who said that the Arab Spring would simply lead to an Islamist Winter?

Mr Burt had a blunt message for JC readers on this point.

"I don't think any reader should wake up one morning and be surprised or amazed that Islamists constitute members of parliament, members of an assembly or even a government. What's important is not the labels. Within the Arab world, the label Islamist covers a range of opinions and a range of attitudes towards democracy. What we should all do is judge people on their actions as well as their words."

At the same time he made it clear that the election of a government did not, in itself, make its policies legitimate. "We will be steadfast in upholding principles," he said. "Gaza went through a process of elections and elected Hamas. We do not have contact with Hamas, because however it was elected, the principles it adheres to are utterly contrary to those of the UK, and we have no dealings with them."

    Last updated: 2:14pm, September 27 2011