Foreign Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:03 pm on 7th May 1981.

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Photo of Mr Julian Amery Mr Julian Amery , Brighton, Pavilion 5:03 pm, 7th May 1981

In the closing passages of an incisive if not illuminating speech, the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) said that rearmament should at every step be accompanied by a show of readiness to accept arms control and to work for detente—but how long is that to continue? We have had Afghanistan. We have had unacceptable pressures placed on Poland. The Soviet Union does not need to invade Poland. She is there already and in control of its main communications. We have a level of Soviet rearmament unexampled since the war.

I do not object to the fact that, in the Rome communiqué, the United States Administration should have been pressed by their European allies to accept the idea of resuming arms control talks on theatre nuclear weapons this year, but it is shaming that we were obliged to ask the Americans to get European Governments off the hook because of a failure of democratic leadership. The spectacle of statesmen on their knees to their electors, with an ear to the ground, is unedifying. Their bottoms are in the air, which is undignified and vulnerable.

The right hon. Gentleman devoted much of his speech to Africa and the Middle East. For two reasons I, too, shall concentrate on those areas. First, there is increasing agreement that the threat of Soviet imperialist expansion is most likely to develop in the Middle East. It may also exert considerable pressure on events in Central and Southern Africa. Secondly, in those areas there may be differences of opinion between the United States Administration and the European Governments, which could become dangerous if they are allowed to grow.

A school of thought that the right hon. Gentleman voiced is that the real danger in those areas comes from subversion arising from local problems rather than from direct military aggression, some months ago the Foreign Secretary also gave comfort to that view. If that were so, the response should be political instead of military, and we should give the lead in solving local problems rather than deploying armed forces, I believe that that is a cosy view, designed to allow us to escape from the obligations and sacrifices involved, physically, financially and diplomatically, in deploying military forces. In any case, the distinction is unreal.

Over the past six or seven years, subversion has been at most the preparation for military intervention. In Angola, the Soviets helped the MPLA—now the present regime—to build up. But it would never have been able to retain power without direct military intervention by regular Cuban forces, assisted by Soviet and East Germans. Nor would it hold its power today without that force. In Ethiopia, Colonel Mengistu headed a revolution— a subversion, if one prefers. He would long ago have been destabilised and overthrown by the combined efforts of Somalia, the Eritreans and the internal Ethiopian opposition had not regular Cuban forces been deployed with Soviet and East German elements attached. The great Soviet base in Aden did not come about by subversion, except in the initial invitation. The initial Taraki coup in Afghanistan could be said to be subversion, but it could not have been maintained without the occupation of eight or nine Red Army divisions.

Those were all military victories; and they call for a military response. That is not so say that we should not use our best endeavours to settle local problems, but it is idle to believe that a settlement of the Palestinian or Namibian problems would exorcise the Soviet threat to the Middle East or to Southern Africa. On the other hand, the converse may be true, that a full military deployment can provide in itself the backing for diplomatic efforts to bring about the settlement of local problems.

Taking first the Middle East, the main threat in the Levant, in the Western part of the Middle East, comes from Soviet influence exercised through Syria and to some extent through the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It has been reduced by the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt and will be further reduced if, as seems to be the case, the Americans have succeeded in achieving agreement with Egypt and Israel for the establishment of American forces in the Sinai as an element of the peace-keeping force. I believe that that development is of the greatest importance.

I cannot help but express once again to my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal my regret at the lukewarm attitude that we have consistently adopted towards the reconciliation of Egypt and Israel. We are dealing here with the two strongest military powers and the two most advanced, if not the wealthiest, economies in the area. No country has done more than ours to bring about the creation of the State of Israel or the creation of modern Egypt as we know it today. In spite of its present isolation in the Arab world, Egypt remains by far the most important cultural and political influence in that area.

Yet when it comes to a peacekeeping force in Sinai, participation by Britain is not even considered. That is most regrettable. If we were there, we should have far more say in the development of events in the Middle East than we shall achieve by any declarations made by the Grand Canal.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Lebanese crisis is the focal point at the moment. It arises from the determination of the Syrians to crush the Christian community in the Lebanon. Secretary Haig has described the Syrian action as "brutal". If press reports that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are cutting off their subsidies to the Syrian element in the Arab Defence Force are true, this suggests that Mr. Haig's work has already begun to bear fruit and that there is some co-ordination of American and conservative Arab diplomacies. I have not yet seen any British statement supporting what Secretary Haig has said. I hope that we may get it from the Minister of State tonight. Certainly, it is scandalous that no voice has been raised in Rome or in Canterbury in favour of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and that it has been left to Israel to stand up for our co-religionists.

The far graver, although less immediate, threat is to the Gulf. It comes fron the Soviet presence on the Northern border of Iran, in Afghanistan, only 300 miles from the straits of Hormuz. It comes also from the Soviet presence in Aden and in the Horn of Africa. Clearly, the first answer here must be the rapid deployment force. The countries between the North of the Gulf and the Horn have small populations and cannot be expected to exercise a great influence on the course of events, as they themselves are the first to admit. We must welcome the decision of Kenya, Somalia and Oman to help the Americans in setting up the rapid deployment force. I pay special tribute to the Sultan of Oman for his courage in being prepared to enable the Western powers to use the island of Masira, so incontinently and improvidently thrown away by the Labour Government only a year or so before the Gulf crisis came to a head.

I say emphatically that Britain must make a major contribution to the rapid deployment force. The right hon. Gentleman rather scorned what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on this in Washington. In my judgment, she was quite right to say what she did, just as Mr. Haig was quite right to say what he did during his recent tour of the Middle East. The immediate and public reaction from some of the Arab countries should not dismay her or the United States. It is natural that those countries should adopt a rather cool attitude towards the proposals when first put forward. They do not yet know how strong the force will be or how soon it can be deployed. In the Middle East, one has to live for the day. One cannot plan very far ahead.

Naturally, those Governments do not wish to provoke either their opponents at home or the Soviet Union. It is also natural that they should wish to obtain a good price for their co-operation, but the Saudis know very well that they are wholly dependent on the United States for their survival, and their actions speak much louder than their words. Their keenness to acquire modern American weapons systems and the men who will maintain and operate them over several years shows clearly where they stand. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have been left in no doubt about this in the private talks that they had during their visit. Perhaps the Minister of State can also enlighten us a little more about the course of the visit in which he took part.

I suppose that it is also natural that in an election year, the Israelis should be critical of the American proposal to sell advanced weapons to the Saudis, I think that they are wrong in this. The more widely the United States is involved in the Middle East, the sooner the Saudis will be reconciled with Cairo and involved in the peace process themselves.

The immediate crisis in the Middle East comes from the Iran-Iraq war, which at present is at stalemate. But the situation may change suddenly, and the consequences could be unpredictable. The Ayatollah's regime is inherently unstable and will collapse—possibly soon. When it does, this may open the door to the Soviet penetration towards the Gulf against which even President Carter warned in unmistakable terms. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that it is urgent to develop a Western policy to prevent this. It is not easy to say what it should be, and this is certainly not the arena in which to discuss these matters. It may be tempting to wait and see, but inaction could lead to an accomplished fact. Once the Soviets are installed on the North shore of the Gulf, it will be very difficult to secure their withdrawal.

By comparison with the immediate Lebanese crisis and the crisis in the Gulf resulting from the Iran-Iraq war, the Palestinian problem seems much less urgent, but it is deep-seated and deep-rooted, and it is not just a local problem. It reverberates through the Middle East. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, whose links with the Palestine Liberation Organisation are well known, are right to emphasise the importance of the problem. I am glad to note that both have somewhat changed their emphasis since the Reagan Administration came to power and have been putting rather more pressure on Mr. Arafat to recognise the rights of Israel to secure and recognised boundaries.

The only reservation that I would express about the views that my right hon. Friends have publicly stated concerns the PLO. The Palestine Liberation Organisation is not a State, and it is not an organisation. It is a movement. Like all movements, it is many-faced and has many links, not least with Moscow. It is often said that the PLO is not basically pro-Soviet, but works with Moscow only because it has no Western backing. There may be some truth in that, but we are entitled to suggest that Mr. Arafat takes a leaf out of President Sadat's book. Egypt fought three wars against Israel with Soviet support. In each of them, it failed altogether to achieve its objectives.

It was a mark of the statesmanship of President Sadat that he learned his lesson, broke with the Russians and turned to the United States. As a result, he has secured all of Egypt's objectives without striking a blow. We have a right to tell Mr. Arafat that he cannot expect us to support him until he first breaks with Moscow and makes it plain to us that he will no longer be on the other side.

Here is the rub. The leaders and the chief components of the PLO are physically situated in Lebanon and Syria. Inevitably, they are under the considerable pressure of Syrian and Soviet control. To involve the PLO as principals—that is what the Venice declaration suggested—in a settlement of the Palestine question would, in present circumstances, be to bring in the Soviets through the back door.

I know that some people hold that we cannot get a settlement of the Middle Eastern problem without Soviet participation. That is a tenable view—it is the view of Mr. Cy Vance—but in the context of American-Soviet relations today, it is wholly unrealistic to seek that kind of approach to a settlement. To do so would mean abandoning any possibility of a settlement for a long time to come.

I wonder whether we would not do better to seek a more localised approach to a settlement rather than a general approach. Resolution 242 commits the Israelis to withdraw at any rate from most of the territories occupied on the West Bank and Gaza. Camp David commits them to some form of autonomous regime for those areas. Therefore, should we not encourage them to negotiate either with the previous owners—in the case of the West Bank, Jordan—or with such local representatives as may emerge as a result of the autonomous development? Let those negotiating parties between them decide how, and at what level, to bring in the PLO. That is an approach, and I can say no more about it. My own personal view is that we shall make very little progress towards a settlement until an American presence has been much more firmly established in the area than it is today.

Such a presence will be the basic condition of confidence between Israelis and Arabs. Even today, I do not think that the Israelis would leave the bit of Sinai from which they are due to withdraw before April next year if there was not an American component in the peacekeeping force in Sinai. Similar considerations apply much more strongly to the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours to the east. Meanwhile, I hope that the Government will accept that the Palestine problem is not yet ripe for solution and that they will perhaps be wise to keep it on the back burner.

I should like to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) on the African problem. Whether we like it or not, we are in for a new relationship with South Africa. We cannot deploy substantial naval, air and land forces in the Indian Ocean without ensuring their communications with the Atlantic ocean and both seaboards of the Atlantic.

Only South Africa offers the harbours, air fields and industrial equipment which could make such communication possible.