Since I visited the region at the beginning of the year, negotiations between Israel and the PLO have continued and some progress has been made towards an agreement on Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho. President Clinton and President Assad met on 16 January, and I hope that this will give new impetus to the negotiations on the Syrian and other tracks. It may take some time yet, but I am clear that there is a determination now on all sides to work for, and to achieve, a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.
Given the encouraging signs of progress in the latest negotiations and the need to underpin the peace process with growth and prosperity, would not now be a good time to tear down unnecessary barriers to trade in the region, beginning with the wholly unjustified Arab boycott of Israel, the scrapping of which is long overdue?
The Arab boycott of Israel is gradually fading and eroding, as recent actions and words in the Gulf have shown. In terms of our own affairs, the rapidly increasing total of our exports to Israel tell their own story. They were up 50 per cent. in the first 11 months of last year.
Does the right hon. Gentleman know that the Arab League is due to meet in March to decide on the removal of a number of companies from the boycott list on the basis that they will be doing business in Gaza and Jericho? Will the right hon. Gentleman please ensure that Britain will do everything that it can to ensure that all British companies are removed from that list forthwith?
I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman and with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) that any justification for the boycott that there ever may have been—we never accepted that there was one —has now gone. The boycott is eroding fast and we shall do our best to help that process.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that over the years the Palestinians have, on occasion, experienced humiliation when crossing into the occupied territories from Jordan and vice versa? Therefore, does he further agree that, under any arrangement, the Palestinians should have the right to control access to the Jericho territory?
That is one of the points, perhaps the most difficult, that is still being thrashed out and it was argued between Mr. Arafat and Mr. Shimon Peres in Davos a few days ago. The Israelis feel—one must have some sympathy for them—that it is a matter of security for them to be able to exercise some control over people coming into Gaza and Jericho, given that once they are in there, they can go freely into Israel. However, the Palestinians are also sensitive about those areas, and they will feel a sense of indignity if they do not have control of the process. It is a matter of working out in detail procedures that are a compromise between those two views. I think that that end is in sight.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity. Without following him too far, let me say that I had occasion yesterday, both in public and in private, to express my views on that. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt agree that the test is whether the leader of Sinn Fein is now prepared, at last, to bring violence to a permanent end. He is a failed politician; he is no longer elected as a Member of the House and Sinn Fein has a limited share, as a minority of the minority vote in Northern Ireland. It would be quite wrong if he were given some special treatment simply because he has used the bomb and the bullet to disguise the fact that electorally he has not been successful.
Rather than letting the Arab boycott fade away, is it not time for the United States and the European Union countries to make a major effort to reward Israeli imagination and courage—and Palestinian courage, as trade will also benefit the Palestinians—by dismantling the boycott and suggesting that to the Arab League as soon as possible?
We have done that. However, Israel has some way to go before there is a full and comprehensive peace. Israel still occupies Gaza and Jericho, using methods which certainly do not help forward reconciliation. I agree that the time for the boycott is over and that we must work to bring about its disappearance, but I should not like it to be thought that no effort is required on the other side of the ledger, because it certainly is.
Dr. John Cunningham:
Everyone should welcome the meeting between President Clinton and President Assad, and every sensible person wants an end to the Arab boycott, but surely that can come only when the peace process has been fully completed and there is mutual recognition between all the parties to the dispute. As we can proceed with economic reconstruction while the political dialogue is taking place, can the Foreign Secretary tell us whether he has been able to make a positive response to the points that I put to him in December in support of the proposals that he has now received from the Palestinian Council for Economic Reconstruction and Development?
We have given a positive response to the needs of the Palestinians. When I was in Gaza on 5 January, I announced that our aid programme to the occupied territories would amount to £70 million over the next three years. Most of it goes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and I was impressed by what it is doing in Gaza. A good share also goes to health, education and training.