Arab-Israel Question

– in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 11th January 1988.

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Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 3:45 pm, 11th January 1988

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on British policy on the Arab-Israel question in the light of recent developments on the West Bank and Gaza.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

The current unrest underlines the urgent need for progress towards a settlement. We shall continue to work for an international conference as the framework for negotiations between the parties directly concerned.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

Is the Minister aware that when I left Israel this morning the grim news was of still more disturbances, killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces and the clubbing of women demonstrators in east Jerusalem? Does he agree with me that, after 20 years of deprivation of civil rights under military rule, the patience of the Palestinians in the occupied territories has finally snapped and that, while the Israeli preoccupation with national security is understandable and accepted, no military response will put an end to the Palestinians' grievances, and neither will the deportation of individual Palestinians?

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that in the past few days, King Hussein of Jordan, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of Jordan, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister of Israel and Palestinian activists in the West Bank and Gaza, while offering differing interpretations and suggesting their own possible solutions, told me that disturbances will continue until there is a negotiated settlement stemming from an international conference convened under the auspices of the United Nations with the twin objectives of security for Israel and self-determination for the Palestinians? That point of view has been echoed to me by individual demonstrators — both women and youth — to whom I have talked.

Is the Minister aware that the main obstacles to the convening of an international conference are the obduracy and inflexibility of the Prime Minister of Israel, who is at odds with his own Foreign Minister on this issue, and that the continuing inertia of the United States Administration is contributing to the problem instead of helping to find a solution? Will the Government now consider whether an initiative from Britain can seek to end the stalemate so that, as so many have told me is their wish, in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, can try to live together in peace instead of being locked in conflict?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks and commend him on his visit, which was enormously helpful. It is clear that what he has said about the situation in the West Bank and Gaza—both today and in his article in The Observer—is entirely correct. A deep and desperate problem now faces the Government of Israel in finding the way forward. It is crucial that there should be widespread recognition throughout Israel —regardless of party—that the present situation cannot continue and that security cannot be maintained at the point of a gun. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said last October, the effect of that is to brutalise those involved, which, in the long run, simply builds up more problems.

We believe, as the right hon. Gentleman has asserted, that there is an opportunity for an international conference, under the auspices of the five permanent members of the Security Council, within which sensible discussions can take place between all the parties as to ways in which, in response to a genuine willingness to end the occupation and allow the self-determination of the Palestinian people, the state of Israel can have that most precious thing, as we would see it—recognition by its neighbours of its right to exist behind secure boundaries.

We can none of us choose our neighbours, whether in our private lives or as nations, but it is absolutely and fundamentally clear that long-term security cannot be maintained at the point of a gun and that, having regard to the nature of the leadership of most of the neighbouring countries, there is now an opportunity for a long-term solution to be found. In the first instance, however, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that will require some movement from certain factions within the Israeli Government.

I make two further points to the right hon. Gentleman. First, I am glad that he found his discussions with Jordan so fruitful, as indeed do the Government. It is clear that on the Arab side, as on the Israeli side, there is a legacy to live down. It is also clear that all who wish to play a part in the process must legitimise themselves. At this time, there is a particular responsibility on the PLO to accept the two relevant Security Council resolutions, Nos. 242 and 338, and to renounce violence to give effect to its pledge and commitment that it is the representative of the Palestinian people, and it, will not be brought into the framework unless it is prepared to do that.

As for the British position, we shall continue to do all that we can to use our historic patterns of friendship with all parties in the region to try to advocate that cause. I am genuinely delighted, as I am sure the whole House is, that whatever issues may divide the House on party lines this is not one of them.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that then he went to Gaza he undertook a difficult task and did it well?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr Andrew Faulds Mr Andrew Faulds , Warley East

Would it be in order, Mr. Speaker, for me to congratulate my right hon. and admirable Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on the courage and vision of his statement today and to couple that with congratulations to the Minister of State on his courage and vision m what he said and how he conducted himself while he was in the middle east?

Is it not time that the international community, and particularly the EEC, started to exert economic pressure on the Fascist Government of Israel to make them restrain their policies and in particular the activities of some of the assorted thugs from Poland and America who have been misbehaving within the Israeli army?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of commendation, but I cannot agree with his prescription. It is clearly the duty of the entire international community, whether through the European Community or through the United Nations, to make our views on the situation known, because the occupied territories are exactly that: they are not part of Israel, but, as the international community says, are administered in accordance with international law. Every effort must be made through every convenient forum to make all parties appreciate the need at this time to lay aside some of the burdens of the past and to try to work for a better future. We have already explored ways in which both sides could do that.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that the many hon. Members who, like himself, have seen what is happening in Gaza, unlike the writers of the more spectacular editorials of the past few days, totally endorse his remarks? Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that, where an even-handed approach between tyranny — I think that that was my hon. and learned Friend's word—and the oppressed secures no result, the time has come to speak more in favour of the oppressed than of the oppressor? Will he tell the Israeli Government that if they go ahead with their totally illegal proposal to deport Palestinians from their homeland, the British Government, with others in the European Community, will see to it that the economic advantages to trade that Israel enjoys with the European Community will cease?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

My hon. Friend is unquestionably right to condemn the deportations. They are illegal under international law, and, what is more, they are counterproductive in their practical effect. They will only create martyrs and make a difficult situation even worse. I hope that the Government of Israel will pay heed to what the United Nations has asked and suspend the policy of deportations.

On my hon. Friend's comments about the West Bank and Gaza, it is impossible to understand the full dimensions of that situation without going there. Going to the West Bank and especially to Gaza is a deep shock. It is clear that the people there wish to have some hope for the future. However, such hope for the future will come only if two things take place : first, recognition by the Government of Israel that the status quo is not an option — it is unacceptable and cannot continue — and, secondly, that those who purport — some from a considerable distance from the West Bank and Gaza—to be the spokesmen of the people there should, by renouncing violence and accepting Israel's right to exist, bring themselves into a position such that they can play a proper and positive part in the framework of discussions that we are trying to establish.

I know that my hon Friend has ploughed a lonely and brave furrow in some of the discussions that he has had with groups in the region. I hope that he will impress upon them that statesmanship is looked for from both sides, not just from one.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. May I make a plea for brief questions and answers, because time is moving on?

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

I should like to express my own sorrow at the loss of life and the casualties in recent events and my hope that the parties will live together in peace. However, regretfully, I should also say that I trust that in retrospect the Minister will recognise that his tactics and lack of tact, his language and behaviour, were unworthy and unhelpful to peace —[Interruption.] They assisted only the extremists on both sides and did not assist Britain's prospects of playing a useful role, as we would wish, in bringing the two sides together.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman speaks with sincerity. However, he has had his response from the House and does not need a further response from me.

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that, at the very moment when he was in Gaza, the President of the state of Israel was telling international parliamentarians that relations between this country and Israel had never been so close during the 40 years since independence as now, under the present Prime Minister? Is it not obvious that the Israelis will not want 650,000 disaffected Arabs in their territories? The trouble is that no other Arab country wants Gaza or to take responsibility for its people.

Is it not a fact that the state of Israel is desperately anxious for a peaceful settlement but that no Arab leader, of any responsibility, dares to come forward to discuss peace, boundaries and the future of Gaza with the Israelis?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I appreciate that my hon. and learned Friend speaks with great sincerity and awareness of the situation. However, I must point out that if the Israeli Government were full-heartedly to accept an international conference, they would not find their Arab neighbours unwilling to participate. I made it clear earlier—I am happy to reiterate it for my hon. Friend's benefit—that if progress is to be made, it will require efforts on both sides. I have sought to set out—I shall not repeat it—a few of our ideas about what is required.

However, my hon. and learned Friend should be disabused of one idea. He seems to suggest that Israel is willing to give up Gaza—[Interruption.] I must remind my hon. and learned Friend that one section of the Israeli Government may be willing to give up Gaza, but the Prime Minister, Mr. Shamir, travelled to Gaza last year and took the opportunity of his brief visit to say that Gaza is part of Israel and is not negotiable

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the Minister accept that, although his reaction in Gaza was understandable and, in many circumstances, to be welcomed, there is, as I found this new year on my first visit to Israel and the West Bank, a growing desire for peace now among the Jewish community? A prime responsibility of the Government is to encourage the enlightened members of the majority community in Israel to put pressure on their politicians and leaders so that they may achieve peace. That view is growing and is widespread among the military and others, who are willing to recognise the independence of Palestine so long as they have security for Israel.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

What the hon. Gentleman says is right. We must remember that Israel is the middle east's one democracy and that this is essentially a battle for the hearts and minds of the Israeli voters. I hope that the process of re-evaluation which many people in this country have had to go through when watching their television screens during the past five or six weeks will also be happening in Israel.

It is important that the peace process, through the framework of the international conference, which seems to command wide support on both sides of the House, should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat, for Israeli's security needs to be recognised. For example, there is no reason why Israel's giving up of the occupied territories would mean that hostile armour would have to be replaced in the occupied territories or why a demilitarised solution should not be found. Clearly, there can be a way forward only if people are prepared to enter the process in the first place. Until then, I fear that we can see only all the problems of an area in limbo, which is what we see in the occupied territories at present.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Since the people in Israeli-occupied Egypt and Jordan have been denied for two decades any form of democratic institution, such as we enjoy, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that unless those visiting those territories, as he did, speak out, as he did, there will be no voices to be heard speaking out clearly and sincerely as the alternative to violence? Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that speaking out openly is the only alternative to violence? I hope that all hon. Members back that alternative.

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend as his warm private letter was the first I read when I returned from Israel. I am grateful to him for his message. One of the false hares that is around is the idea that somehow one makes matters better by not speaking out about them. I believe that it assists the process of drift and postpones the evil time when a decision must be taken if people, particularly friends, are not prepared to speak out and to say with candour what it is after all our duty as friends to say. I hope that this will be seen positively, as the whole international community sees it, not as a threat to Israel, because that is certainly not how it is interpreted.

Several Hon. Members:

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Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I must draw the attention of the House to the futher statement and important business before us. I shall allow two more questions.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

In relation to the international conference, could the Minister tell us whether the Government, or any members of the Government, have been in touch with the United States since his visit?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

There is regular contact with the United States, and obviously it is crucial that all five permanent members of the Security Council should play their part. I have no doubt that the United States would be fully prepared to do that. Naturally, in a complicated situation there will always be discussions and inevitable differences of view on precisely the right framework. It remains our view, and we give it to all parties, whether permanent members of the Security Council or countries in the region, that the international conference is the only truly viable option at present. We shall continue to advocate that, and with all the more enthusiasm because it appears to be the view expressed by the House this afternoon and on other occasions.

Photo of Mr David Sumberg Mr David Sumberg , Bury South

While no one can be happy with living conditions in the Gaza strip, does my hon. and learned Friend accept that, in contrast to the Egyptians, over the past 20 years the Israelis have tried to rehouse thousands of people there? Is there not a large measure of hypocrisy, particularly in the United Nations which, on the one hand, condemns what is going on in the Gaza Strip, yet condemns Israel for trying to rehouse refugees?

Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney

I understand why my hon. Friend speaks as he does, but the amount of effort that has been spent in the occupied territories on improving the quality of life of the people has been extremely limited and falls far short of what is needed. Indeed, I am sad to say that far too much attention has been paid to investing in illegal settlements in the occupied territories which only make a difficult situation worse. I do not know whether my lion. Friend has had the advantage of visiting the occupied territories, but I invite him to do so and to see for himself the miserable conditions which, once seen, scar the memory.