The Middle East peace process is in danger of becoming a casualty of
the revolutionary tidal wave sweeping the Arab world, and Israel is
putting itself at risk by failing to compromise, William Hague told The
Speaking on an emergency peace mission covering five countries in
three days, the Foreign Secretary issued a blunt instruction to Israel
to tone down the belligerent language used by Binyamin Netanyahu, its
Prime Minister, since the uprising and protests, which have spread from
The situation in Egypt intensified yesterday, with hundreds of
thousands of protesters again pouring into Tahrir Square in Cairo to
demand that President Mubarak stand down now rather than wait until
elections in September.
In his interview with The Times, Mr Hague gave voice to
differences with the White House, demanding that the Obama
Administration give a timetable for bringing the peace process back on
track and urging an agreement based on 1967 borders.
Flying from Tunis to Amman, the Jordanian capital, Mr Hague made
clear that the sharply deteriorating political situation in the Middle
East was a key focus for his trip. “Amidst the opportunity for
countries like Tunisia and Egypt, there is a legitimate fear that the
Middle East peace process will lose further momentum and be put to one
side, and will be a casualty of uncertainty in the region,” he said.
Hinting at increasingly fractious relations between Britain and
Israel, he added: “Part of the fear is that uncertainty and change will
complicate the process still further. That means there is a real
urgency for the Israelis and the United States. Recent events mean this
is an even more urgent priority and that’s a case we are putting to the
Israeli Government and in Washington.”
Mr Hague responded to increasingly militaristic pronouncements by Mr
Netanyahu, who has been urging
his nation to prepare for “any outcome” and vowing to “reinforce
the might of the state of Israel”. The Foreign Secretary said: “This
should not be a time for belligerent language. It’s a time to inject
greater urgency into the Middle East peace process.”
The intervention by Mr Hague is likely to dismay some on the
Conservative benches in Westminster who have supported Israel. However,
party sources pointed out that the number of pro-Israeli hawks on the
Tory side had declined after the 2006 war against Lebanon.
His words also underscores the British foreign policy dilemma
towards the “freedom movements” across the Arab world; welcoming the
challenge or overthrow of authoritarian regimes, yet cautious about the
uncertainty of the governments that will replace them. Mr Hague praised
the “inspiring” changes made since the overthrow of President Ben Ali
in Tunisia, but faced repeated questions over why Britain was disowning
a regime that it had supported for 23 years.
The Foreign Secretary intends to deliver a nuanced message to Arab
leaders, emphasising that Britain will speak up for political and
economic freedom, but explicitly acknowledging that in different
countries “change will take time according to their cultures”.
British officials do believe, however, that the next Egyptian
government will almost certainly be closer to Hamas than the Mubarak
The build-up of arms in Lebanon by Hezbollah, which has ties to
Iran, adds to the urgency. “The scale of any military conflict that may
happen between Israel and Hezbollah is growing, because of the growth
of armaments in the area,” Mr Hague said. He made clear that he
regarded the Israeli attitude to settlements as “disappointing”,
adding: “Within a few years peace may become impossible.”
Earlier, the Foreign Secretary arrived in Tunisia, becoming the
first foreign minister to visit since the revolution last month, and
lent support to the transitional Government, led by Rachid Ghannouchi.
Britain is offering a £5 million Arab Partnership Fund —“seed
money” for economic, social and political projects.
Officials are concerned, however, that early progress may not yet
lead to a stable, genuine democracy. The Foreign Secretary said that
the European Union needed to rise to the challenge to influence events
for the good. “If the EU doesn’t do that, people in this region would
conclude that Europe is not able to construct an effective response in
its own neighbourhood,” he said.
He was challenged by young revolutionaries over Britain’s years of
support for the Ben Ali regime. Inès Chermiti, 25, a student in
Tunis, twice asked the Foreign Secretary to explain why the deposed
dictator had been given support.
“Your Government worked with Ben Ali for 23 years. What was your
position then?” she said, before asking: “Do you support the people?”
Mr Hague said that commercial interests — particularly BP’s gas
fields — had been, and would continue to be, “very important” to