Middle East Peace Process

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 1:43 pm on 8 May 1996.

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Photo of Mrs Barbara Roche Mrs Barbara Roche , Hornsey and Wood Green 1:43, 8 May 1996

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent representations he has received concerning the middle east peace process. [27195]

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan , Falkirk West

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the situation in the middle east. [27198]

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

We welcome the commencement of final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians at Taba on 5 May. We look forward to the resumption of talks between Syria and Israel, and a lasting and comprehensive peace in the middle east.

Photo of Mrs Barbara Roche Mrs Barbara Roche , Hornsey and Wood Green

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, as some of his hon. Friends have pointed out, one of the keys to progress in peace talks in the middle east is a change in Syria's attitude? Syria refused to attend the talks on preventing a spread of terrorism in the middle east. When the Foreign Secretary was asked by his own side what positive contribution the British Government could make, he and his colleagues could give no assurances or undertakings. Coupled with the British Government's failure to play a significant part in brokering the ceasefire, does that not show that the Government are not really interested in advancing the peace process in any meaningful way?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I am afraid that that was a very silly question. The hon. Lady seems to measure a country's degree of involvement by the travels of its Foreign Minister, but I do not necessarily see a direct link. There are many occasions on which a Minister visiting a particular location can make an important contribution, and other occasions on which such a visit can make a difficult situation even more complex.

The fact is that the international community had a single interest in a ceasefire and an end to the conflict in Lebanon. It was always evident that the United States would carry the greatest weight and influence in a matter of this kind. Our interests, and those of other European countries, were the same as those of the United States: we were interested in an early ceasefire and an end to the conflict. The best contribution that we could all make was a co-ordinated international effort, and that is what eventually produced the ceasefire that we have all welcomed.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan , Falkirk West

For how long will Israel be allowed to treat international law and the United Nations with contempt by flouting resolution 425 and mounting vicious attacks such as the one on the UN peacekeeping base at Qana, which killed 102 innocent civilians? Will the Foreign Secretary tell us clearly whether he did, in fact, convey to the Israeli Government a strong message condemning such an atrocity? Will he also consult our UN partners about what action can be taken to make Israel comply with resolution 425?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I can say quite plainly that I made it clear directly to the Israeli Foreign Minister that we deeply deplored the shelling of the UN base and the loss of life. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Israelis maintained. and continue to maintain, that the shelling was by accident and not by design. The extent to which one condemns such incidents depends on whether one concludes that it was deliberate or by accident. That is why I have said that the UN report, which is disturbing, needs to be properly addressed and examined.

Photo of Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd Mr Mark Lennox-Boyd , Morecambe and Lunesdale

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the continuing restrictions on the movement of Palestinians out of Gaza and the west bank to their work is causing them most dire economic hardship? As any peace process must involve winning the hearts and minds of people who are not violent and want to go about their business, everyone should make the strongest representations to the Israeli Government to allow the free movement of people.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. When the Israeli deputy Foreign Minister was in London recently, we made representations to him exactly to that effect. We have been pleased that there has been some progress in reopening the borders of Gaza and the west bank. We believe that maximum progress of that kind would be valuable because great economic hardship is being caused to the Palestinians by the closing of the borders. It is therefore important that that should be taken into account when the Israelis consider their security interests.

Photo of Mr Jacques Arnold Mr Jacques Arnold , Gravesham

Was not the disaster in Qana a tragedy waiting to happen, given Hezbollah's practice of siting for firing its Katyusha rockets next to mosques, hospitals and other civil installations?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

The fact that such incidents occur close to UN bases is certainly a disturbing feature. That is part of the wider picture and emphasises the need for an urgent and comprehensive way in which to resolve the region's complex problems.

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross , Dundee West

Have there not been recent hopeful moves in the middle east such as, in the recent Palestine National Council meeting, the dropping of articles in the Palestinian charter that call for the destruction of Israel and the decision of the Israeli Labour Government to remove opposition to a Palestinian state? Does the Secretary of State welcome the statement by Prime Minister Peres that the Israelis will consider paying compensation for the damage caused in Lebanon? What action will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take to ensure that the Israelis are encouraged along that line of compensation? I agree with him that the only way forward is a comprehensive peace plan based on international law in Security Council resolutions 242, 338 and 425.

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman has raised some important points. The decisions of the PLO to amend its covenant and of the Israeli Government to drop from their party platform opposition to a Palestinian state are truly historic. Even in the midst of the rather depressing and disturbing events of the past few weeks, two decisions were announced by Palestinians and Israelis that mark a dramatic change from the entrenched positions that both have held for the past 40 years. It opens up a prospect of real and fundamental peace, and emphasises the ability of Palestinians and Israelis to work together to remove some of the deep-seated prejudices that have so dogged progress in that area for so long.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that Israeli Arabs are the only Arabs entitled to vote in a democratic election, as they will later this month? Does he accept that, when their citizens are under attack, as citizens were from Katyusha rockets and kamikaze guerrillas in northern Israel, any democratic Government has to react, as the Israeli Government did, and that that action was aggravated by Syria and Iran's failure to attend the recent summit to combat terrorism?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

A depressing feature of the middle east for so long has been the cycle of violence, with one violent incident being used to justify others. I do not believe that one is required to choose between them. In each case, a problem arises out of the overall failure to achieve a peace process in the region. That emphasises the need to turn away from that historical confrontation. As has been said, it is encouraging that some fundamental progress has been made and continues to be made towards a comprehensive peace in the region as a whole.

Photo of Mr David Steel Mr David Steel , Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the cornerstone of the Government's policy in the middle east remains the resolutions of the UN Security Council, especially in view of the exposed position of the UN peacekeeping force in the Lebanon? While I welcome the superb efforts of Secretary of State Christopher, will the Foreign Secretary also make it clear that, in the wider politics of the middle east, it is the authority of the UN that counts rather than the authority of the US?

Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Foreign Secretary

Of course the legitimate authority has to be that of the United Nations. The UN itself has been grateful to the United States and to all others who have contributed towards the achievement of a peace settlement in the region.