Middle East

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th April 1998.

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Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn 12:00 am, 7th April 1998

What steps he intends to take to assist the progress of a peace settlement in the middle east. [36528]

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Chair, Agriculture Committee, Chair, Agriculture Committee

If he will make a statement on the progress of the middle east peace process during the British presidency of the European Union. [36536]

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

What is his assessment of the current position of the peace process in the middle east; and if he will make a statement. [36543]

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If he will make a statement on progress in the middle east peace process. [36552]

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I visited five capitals in the middle east and the headquarters of the Palestine National Authority last month. In Gaza, I emphasised our commitment to security and announced the formation of a European and Palestinian joint committee on security. In Israel, I stressed the importance of progress on the basis of land for peace and the long-standing opposition of Britain and Europe to the expansion of settlements that were in conflict with that principle. In Syria and Lebanon, I discussed their response to the Israeli proposals for withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

Throughout the middle east, there was a warm welcome for the decision of the European Union, under the British presidency, to extend its financial support for the peace process and for our efforts to break the deadlock on interim steps such as the Gaza airport, sea port and industrial estate.

The forthcoming visit to the middle east by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will further demonstrate the priority that we attach to restoring progress to the peace process. It remains our objective to secure a peace settlement that will offer security and justice to both the Palestinian and Israeli people.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

I thank my right hon. Friend for his full reply. I particularly thank him for his efforts in pressing British, European and United Nations policy on the illegal settlements in the occupied territories and his support for the Oslo principles. Will he confirm—I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will confirm this in his forthcoming visit —that a moratorium on illegal settlements is necessary to secure peace and security in the region?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that it has been the long-standing policy of both this Government and the previous one to oppose the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories. The Israeli Housing Minister has announced that he may proceed with 4,400 houses in the west bank this year. Most of the people of Israel understand that any gain there may be in respect of their housing is more than offset by the great damage that such expansion does to the prospects for a peace settlement that is as much in their interests as it is for the people of Palestine.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Chair, Agriculture Committee, Chair, Agriculture Committee

At a time when we are rightly celebrating the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel, will the Foreign Secretary resist his penchant for gesture politics, which he sadly demonstrated on his recent visit to Israel? Will he instead seek to learn the lessons of the previous Government, who were anxious to offer practical assistance to all parties engaged in finding a peaceful solution to the problems of the middle east? In that context, may I commend to him the interview with the Prime Minister of Israel in one of today's national newspapers and ask him to consider seriously the possibility of offering practical secure corridors between the different parties in the middle east to help achieve a peaceful outcome?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

We have several times offered to assist in achieving safe passageways, particularly in the southern area. We stand ready to assist in any interim step that would help to boost confidence between both sides. It is very important that we restore confidence and trust to make progress once again. It has not been easy to achieve such agreement, but I am happy to pursue any opening that is given us by the Prime Minister of Israel.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I consider the Foreign Secretary's conduct on his recent trip to the middle east entirely appropriate. Does he agree that the greatest stumbling block to a lasting peace in the middle east is the fact that Israel continually sets up settlements on disputed land?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

On my visit to Har Homa, I am absolutely clear that I was right to underline the long-standing opposition of Britain and Europe to the expansion of settlements on occupied territory. I fully agree with Lord Hurd, who said at the time that I was right to proceed with the visit because to abandon the visit would have been to show that I was abandoning the policy.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Was it not clear from the start that my right hon. Friend was going not just in his own right and on behalf of this country, but as the representative of the EU presidency, and that any snub was a snub to the EU initiative as a whole? Therefore, how does he see the EU initiative proceeding in light of that visit, and particularly in relation to the US initiatives?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that my visit to the middle east—and particularly to Har Homa—achieved the full support of my colleagues throughout the EU, and has had much support throughout Europe. On the US visit, we have been in close consultation with the US authorities, and I have discussed the matter a number of times with Madeleine Albright. While I was in the middle east, I pressed the leaders of the Palestinian authority and the Israeli Government to give a positive response to the proposals when they come forward. It is important that we get both round the negotiating table, knowing that the US proposals have the double authority of the US and the EU.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

May I offer my congratulations and support to the Foreign Secretary on his recent visit to the middle east, which has done a great deal to restore the reputation of Her Majesty's Government throughout the region? Will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity today to underline the fact that the British Government and Parliament have no quarrel with the Israeli people, but rather with the Israeli Government and the policies they pursue—particularly their rejection of the agreement reached at Oslo, based on the principle of land for peace? If, as appears to be the case, the Israeli Government are willing to implement the obligations contained in UN resolution 425— withdrawal from the Lebanon—would it not be logical and right for them to accept also the obligations contained in UN resolution 242, which guarantees a homeland for the Palestinian people?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that many people in Israel want the peace process to proceed. Mr. Netanyahu was elected on a commitment to peace with security. Security requires that the peace process continues and has a reasonable chance of success. Part of that process involves the Syrian and Lebanese tracks as set out in UN resolution 425, which is now 20 years old. I was interested in the proposals put to me by the Israeli Defence Minister during my visit to Jerusalem about withdrawal from southern Lebanon. I hope that it will be possible for the Israeli Government to take that forward and that it will provide a basis for unblocking the present stalemate on the Lebanese and Syrian tracks.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

With reference to the supplementary question from the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) in respect of the 50th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, is my right hon. Friend aware that David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, who helped to found the country—and whom I knew personally—would look with contempt and revulsion at the policies of the current Israeli Government because they worked all the time for peace with their Arab neighbours? Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on his visit to Har Homa, and on the Prime Minister's forthcoming visit to Gaza, where he will stay overnight? Will my right hon. Friend continue to press for a fulfilment of the Oslo accords which Netanyahu is violating?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

My right hon. Friend speaks with great authority and personal experience in this matter. I entirely agree that those who helped to create the state of Israel have greatly contributed to the success of the nation, which we salute. The security of that nation now depends on those currently in power in Israel showing the same vision as Itzhak Rabin, and recognising that one makes peace with one's enemies, and not just with one's friends.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Following his return from the middle east, why did the Foreign Secretary choose not to make a statement to the House, as is the custom? Was it because he thought his trip was unimportant, or because he does not regard it as part of his duties to account to the House for his doings?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the custom for statements to the House is that they are made when there is a policy change. There was no policy change involved in my visit to the middle east. Indeed, the policy that I enunciated throughout my visit to the middle east was the policy which Opposition Members espoused when in government. It is a pity that they do not espouse it now that they are in opposition.

Photo of Mr Robert Sheldon Mr Robert Sheldon Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his visit to Har Homa was widely applauded in the face of the unmannerly conduct of the Israeli Government? Will he continue to put pressure on them to rejoin the civilised countries of the world, among which Israel once played so notable a part?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support. I think, however, that the immediate area for us to focus on now is the Prime Minister's forthcoming visit. Last week, I met the Israeli ambassador. We had a very good exchange for an hour, at the end of which he gave me an assurance that the Prime Minister would be received courteously and that his visit would be a success. I am sure that the visit will provide a way forward for us to engage Israel in the peace process and to demonstrate the underlying health of our relations with the great majority of the Israeli people.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Secretary of State

The House would have listened with astonishment to the Foreign Secretary's novel doctrine of ministerial statements, but surely the one thing on this issue that should unite all hon. Members is the hope that the Prime Minister's visit will help to revive the peace process. Is the Foreign Secretary so pleased with his own performance that he believes that there are no lessons to be learned from it to enhance the Prime Minister's prospects of success?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I shall try to rely on his diplomatic skills of charm and courtesy. I say to him and to the House that I am not pleased with the present state of the peace process. Indeed, I came back from the middle east deeply concerned for the peace process and by what I had heard, not only in Jerusalem but in the Arab capitals.

I have discussed the Prime Minister's visit with the Israeli ambassador. I am confident that the Prime Minister will be treated with courtesy and respect. He does go with specific proposals; we very much hope that those proposals will help to unblock the deadlock on the interim steps, which is so important for restoring confidence. It is vital for the people of Israel and the Palestinian people that we make progress, and vital for Europe, which is a major contributor to the funds of the peace process and is the next neighbour to the middle east. We also have a clear interest in achieving peace in the middle east.