I am grateful to have this opportunity to discuss important events concerning the Holy City during the month of May. I am grateful, too, to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office for coming along to reply to this brief debate. Its purpose, of course, is to give him the chance to give the House an account of the Government's response to those events and to give us his thoughts on where we all go from here.
The House knows only too well that east Jerusalem was conquered by the Israeli army in 1967 from the Arabs and has therefore been occupied territory since that date; thus, it comes under the fourth Geneva convention of 1948.
Occupied territory is a temporary phenomenon. I am just as opposed to other countries conquering and occupying by force of arms other people's territory against the wishes of their populations in 1995 as was my father's generation in western Europe in 1940–41. It is to me desperately important that the occupying power behaves impeccably. Alack, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will be well aware that that has not been the case in east Jerusalem.
A few weeks ago, led by, I believe, the outspoken mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Olmert, the Israeli Government decided to acquire 131 acres of Arab-owned land in east Jerusalem. There is some dispute about whether it was all Arab-owned land, but I think that the Foreign Office broadly accepts that figure.
Undoubtedly, the intention has been for some time to reduce the Arab population of east Jerusalem, to build them out and to have de facto annexation of Greater Jerusalem. Undoubtedly also, the intention is thus to ensure that east Jerusalem is never the capital of an independent and sovereign state of Palestine.
That is incredibly foolish. I think that the Israeli public—the majority of whom apparently go along with that policy—have totally misunderstood the resentment that any such policy, if carried out to the full, would bring to the area.
There was an interesting letter in The Independent on 20 May written by supporters of the International Campaign for Jerusalem. It said:
Whatever piece of paper Mr. Arafat may be cajoled into signing, and whatever our individual views, the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim worlds will never accept the permanent loss of Jerusalem…What Israel and the US now seem bent on doing is to condemn Jew and Arab to relentless conflict for final domination.
Those are rather grim words.
The matter was appropriately brought before the United Nations Security Council. Alack, Madeleine Albright, the US permanent representative in New York, on behalf of the Clinton Administration, cast a veto over the resolution being proposed. That resolution was based on six other Security Council resolutions going back as far as 1968.
The ambassador said that the words went too far. On the contrary, it was a mild resolution in the rather heated circumstances. It called on the Israeli Government to rescind the seizing of the 131 acres and called on them to desist taking any such action in the future.
The Americans have done this before. They have been the big friend of Israel when it has run into trouble with the international community. But I hope that the House will take grave exception to the veto that was cast. It was, after all, President Clinton who basked in the glory of that famous White House ceremony when he persuaded a slightly reluctant Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands with Mr. Yasser Arafat. How can the Americans now be regarded as fair referees between Arab and Jew after that veto?
Going beyond the middle east, there is the basic matter of international law. If we do not have international law, we have international anarchy. We have illegal acts, including terrorism, and we have a rule of might is right. I cannot believe that the United States Administration would for a moment wish to support those particular activities.
You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, under that declaration of principles between the Palestinians and the Israeli Government, the ultimate status of Jerusalem was deferred until next year. That was appropriate. But to make a very obvious point, it is totally wrong for the Israeli Government, having reached that agreement with the Palestinians, then to try to change the fundamentals by building the Arab population out of east Jerusalem. That is deceitful and disgraceful and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will declare that that is his view, too.
Where do we go from here? Mr. Rabin faced a potentially humiliating defeat in the Knesset. The Arab and communist parties and the Likud party joined forces and there was a real danger of his Government going down. Therefore, reluctantly, he decided not to go ahead with that seizure of Arab land. There were general words that such activity would not take place in the future. I hope that the Minister will give us some guidance. To what have the Israelis committed themselves on that point?
I have seen nothing, and no one has brought to my attention any reports, to show that Mr. Rabin thought that he had made a terrible mistake in going ahead with the seizure of Arab land but realised that he had badly treated his partners on the Arab side. Think of the position of King Hussein of Jordan, who has reached a separate agreement with Israel. He was facing a deep crisis at home in his domestic politics. Think of the position of Egypt or Syria. Both countries either have or may well have in the future very close relationships with Israel.
Will it be possible for the Palestinians and the Israelis to reach a final decision on the future of Jerusalem? We hope so. Many years ago, the late Lord Caradon wrote a pamphlet in which he suggested that Jerusalem should become an international city. When he gave me that pamphlet, I was not convinced, but as time has passed—although I am well aware that any such idea is anathema to both Jew and Arab—I have decided that it may provide the answer. Perhaps the problem could be kicked into touch for 50 years until relations between countries such as Israel, Jordan and Syria are on an even keel. The alternative, a continual row over Jerusalem, could prove extremely dangerous.
I am not entirely happy about leaving negotiations to the elected Government of Israel on one side and the Palestinian National Authority on the other. First, the balance is clearly unfair; secondly, the international community must be involved. Of course the 183 countries in the United Nations have views on the future of Jerusalem: it is not just a local middle east issue. How can my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister ensure that international pressure is brought to bear on the future of the Holy City?
I thank the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) for allowing me to speak. The Conservative and Labour middle east councils have worked together for some years to help both the Palestinians and the Israelis to solve their problems through dialogue, but we have been increasingly frustrated by the American Government's determination to favour one side throughout the long, sorry process. The Israeli Government's veto of the Security Council resolution prompted us to engage in this short debate.
From the outset—ever since the signing of the Oslo agreement—hon. Members have supported the Palestinians and Israelis who have committed themselves to the diplomatic peace process. Today's debate is important, but its usefulness or otherwise will depend on whether we can establish a suitable approach to the central and sensitive question of Jerusalem. I am anxious to hear the Minister's response.
A meeting between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal middle east councils and a representative of the American embassy was recently called to discuss the American veto of the Security Council resolution. We were anxious to impress on the American representative the importance that we attach to international law—which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bexleyheath—in the search for a successful outcome to the middle east peace process. That applies particularly to the question of Jerusalem and its status as an international city under international law.
As recent events have demonstrated, controversy over the Israeli development of Jerusalem in defiance of international law poses unacceptable risks to the peace process. The purpose of the international consensus on the status of the city was to avoid such circumstances. The law governing Jerusalem provides a holding position pending negotiations and agreement on a final settlement; importantly, it also provides the best way of shoring up faith and confidence in the diplomatic peace process during these difficult times.
During a symposium organised by the Conservative and Labour middle east councils in London in 1992 to discuss the role of international law in the context of the peace process, Dr. Rashid Khalidi made precisely that point. He said that the failure of Israel and the international community to implement the principles of international law
daily brings home to the Palestinian population under occupation their powerlessness, as well as the fact Israel is unrestrained by any external power or law, and that even the super-power sponsor of the negotiating process is unwilling or unable to restrain Israel from such violations, despite the duty to do so as a co-signatory to the Fourth Geneva Convention. This in turn reinforces the profound scepticism among the Palestinian population regarding this negotiating process, which in turn is grist to the mill of the minority opposed in principle to the process.
As the hon. Member for Bexleyheath said, the declaration of principles—which we are anxious to see fully implemented—was clearly constructed in such a way as to leave the most sensitive and complex issues until the final stages of the negotiations. One of the main reasons for our concern about the Israelis' attempt to continue the annexation of land that is in dispute—particularly land in the Jerusalem area—is that it puts pressure on the peace process.
It is encouraging that Israel backed down in the face of international opposition to its recent plan to expropriate more land in east Jerusalem, despite the US veto of the proposed UN Security Council resolution condemning such a land grab. There are those—including people in Washington—who say that this is a bilateral process in which we, as an international community, must not interfere. I say that support for international law—and, indeed, for the United States' own letter of assurances sent to the Palestinians before the Madrid peace process began in 1991, stating that neither side should do anything on the ground to prejudice the final outcome of the talks—can only promote progress in the bilateral process involving Israel and the PLO. Only yesterday, there were signs of progress in the Cairo talks, with an unexpected number of additional powers being offered to the Palestinian National Authority.
All that augurs well for an agreement on redeployment by the 1 July deadline. It is crucial for the House to send a clear signal of support for the conduct of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in the spirit and practice of reconciliation rather than against a background of confrontation, whether in Jerusalem, Gaza or the west bank.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) and the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) on raising this issue. They both have considerable experience and knowledge of the subject, and, as it happens, they nearly always agree. I shall try to respond to their specific points.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath began by reciting the recent history of a very ancient city. He is, of course, right to say that the fourth Geneva convention applies. He emphasised the importance of an occupying power's compliance with the convention, and I entirely agree. That is fundamentally important, and from time to time we have made precisely the same point to the Israeli Government.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Dundee, West also focused on the Israeli Government's recent decision to expropriate 130-odd acres of land in and around east Jerusalem. My hon. Friend advanced the arguments against that expropriation very clearly. The British Government regarded the decision as a serious development; let me make it plain that we consider the settlements in the occupied territories in east Jerusalem to be illegal, and also to constitute a serious obstacle to any peace settlement.
The decision to expropriate was roundly condemned by the international community, and the United Kingdom joined—and joins—in that condemnation. I very much welcome the decision by the Israeli Cabinet not to proceed with the expropriation. I very much hope that that proposal is not brought forward again at any time in the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath stated rightly that the status of east Jerusalem is to be left to the end of the negotiations. I believe that it is right that it should be left to the end of the negotiations. I know that there has been a tendency, especially by the Palestinian negotiators, to seek to bring forward the question of the status of east Jerusalem to an earlier stage. I believe that such an approach would be an error and it is certainly inconsistent with the declaration of principles.
The plain fact is that an agreement on the status of east Jerusalem is going to be extraordinarily difficult to achieve. I do not believe that it is possible to achieve such an agreement unless substantial agreement is achieved on all the other matters. Therefore, I hope that all the parties to the negotiations will be ready and willing to stand by the principles already agreed and leave the status of east Jerusalem until the end.
I hope very much that it will possible to approach that question of status from the point of view that east Jerusalem should be made a focus for reconciliation rather than a subject of continuing conflict. I do not see how that is going to be achieved unless all the parties to the negotiations accept that a way has to be found of sharing Jerusalem. Quite what that way is, it seems to me, is not something for a British Minister to seek to identify in advance. It is a matter for negotiation by the parties to the negotiations.
I am absolutely clear in my own mind that it is wrong to seek to pre-empt any conclusion that might otherwise be possible by, for example, creating facts on the ground. Against that background, I certainly condemn any attempt to extend settlements in or around east Jerusalem. I say, too, to the Palestinians that they must not seek to pre-empt the decision in any way.
I am aware of the view of the Israeli Government that sharing Jerusalem will not be possible, that they are willing to provide access to the holy places but cannot go beyond that. That view is, of course, felt throughout the Likud, but is also a view expressed by almost all the Ministers in the present Israeli Government. My own belief is that such an approach will not provide the basis for a long-term, sustainable agreement.
I think that, if we are to see a settlement that will satisfy Palestinians and Arabs, it is going to have to be on the basis of some sharing of Jerusalem that goes beyond merely allowing access to holy places. As I say, it is not for a British Minister to seek to identify any particular model, but it is for us to commend the principles to those who participate in the negotiations, and that we will do.
The hon. Member for Dundee, West concluded his speech by referring to elections and redeployment. I share his view that this is a matter of enormous importance. I hope that it will be possible to come to an agreement around July on elections within the occupied territories and a redeployment of the Israeli defence forces away from residential areas or, at least, away from the most sensitive ones.
If the Palestinian authority is to have the kind of legitimacy that both we and, more important the Israelis wish to see—and, which, of course, th
It was partly this thinking that caused the Prime Minister to offer that the European Union should seek to co-ordinate the observing and monitoring of those elections. I am glad to say that the principle of that has been accepted and we see a fixed agreement to carry out the redeployment and to carry forward the elections as being a critical phase in the process of securing a final agreement. The European Union and the British Government in particular will seek to do all that they can to reinforce that part of this process.
It being half past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, pursuant to Order [19 December].