Minister says UK has crucial MidEast role

Ivan Lewis, the Middle East minister, believes Israel and the Palestinians are facing their “best last chance for peace in a generation”.

Speaking after returning from a tour of the region which took in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon, Mr Lewis outlined a ten-point plan which he believes will help Britain play an important role in the peace process.

It is built on the Arab League’s commitment to a two-state solution, indications from the Syrians that they are willing to engage in negotiations, and security and reform progress made by the Palestinian Authority.

The Bury South MP said: “There is a sense of momentum on the ground. Delay will not lead to peace and tranquillity. It will lead to deterioration.”

He said the government is “totally opposed” to the demonisation of Israel through boycotts and calls for arms embargoes.

“We have long stood firm and will continue to stand firm against such demonisation both in this country and around the world.

“When Israel has been the subject of much criticism in the international community, Britain has frequently refused to join the criticism. Yet too often, when as a friend we are critical, we then seem to be accused of being in some way anti-Israel. There is a selective memory about how Britain has time and time again resisted the chorus of attacks. Those who are suggesting there is a weakening or a dilution in the relationship have got it wrong.”

He said international demands on Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank must be met with a reciprocal “positive gesture” from the Arab world.

Mr Lewis also called on Iran to break its silence on its nuclear programme: “The clock is ticking in terms of the development of that nuclear programme. Now is the time to hear Iran’s response.”

During the trip he met Gilad Shalit’s father, Noam, and discussed the soldier’s plight with Palestinian National Authority minister of foreign affairs, Dr Riyad Al Malki.

He said that while the government continued to work for Mr Shalit’s “immediate release”, a period of quiet diplomacy may be needed to help secure his freedom.

Mr Lewis, a former vice-chairman of Labour Friends of Israel and ex- chief executive of the Manchester Jewish Federation, also spoke of the reception he received in Syria and Lebanon as a Jewish minister.

“I was treated like any other international foreign affairs minister would be — with respect. I behave no differently to anyone else. I have never hidden who I am. I’m proud of being Jewish.

Last updated: 9:44am, August 27 2009