Middle East

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 10th April 2002.

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Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister 3:32 pm, 10th April 2002

May I join you, Mr. Speaker, in the sentiments that you have just expressed? All those who worked so hard on the lying in state, the funeral and the procession gave the country a ceremony of which we can all be justly proud.

With permission, I should like to make a statement following my discussions with President Bush in Crawford, Texas. Normally, an informal bilateral meeting would not be the subject of a statement. Exceptionally, because of the situation in the middle east, I thought it right to come to the House and give hon. Members a more extended chance to put questions than Prime Minister's Question Time affords.

Of course, at Crawford, we discussed many issues, including bilateral relations, trade issues, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Russia and NATO, Africa, and energy policy. I am very willing to answer questions on those issues. However, I shall concentrate on the middle east. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will also deal with this issue in the usual way in tomorrow's business statement, and there will be a further opportunity for debate next week.

There are many situations, both at home and abroad, which are called a crisis when, in truth, they are not. In this case, however, it is hard to overstate the dangers or the potential for this conflict to impact far beyond the region. It is, indeed, a genuine crisis, and one on which all of us, in whatever way we can, small or large, have a duty to act.

In the past few days, I have discussed the situation not just with President Bush, but with President Putin, President Mubarak, President Chirac, Prime Minister Jospin, Prime Minister Aznar and others. I look forward to discussing it in depth with Chancellor Schroder of Germany this weekend. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been in constant contact with his counterparts.

Nobody who has been following recent events on television could fail to recognise not only the seriousness of the situation but the appalling and real human suffering. In the past fortnight, there have been at least 55 deaths in six suicide bombings in Israel. Just this morning, at least eight people died in a suicide attack on a bus near Haifa. On the west bank, at least 230 Palestinians and 34 Israelis have died. Over 1,500 Palestinians have been injured, and a million Palestinians live under curfew.

There have been terrible human tragedies on both sides. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims, whether Israeli or Palestinian: the two Israeli women who went with their families to a cafe in Haifa and lost their husbands and children in a dreadful suicide bomb attack; the Palestinian bell ringer of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem who was shot and killed in Manger square; and the 12-year-old Palestinian boy who went out to buy some milk when the curfew was lifted and never returned—he, too, was shot and killed. Amidst the suffering, there appears to be no strategy to end it, and therefore no hope.

Both sides must see that violence is not, and never will be, the answer. The solution to this crisis will never be reached if it is seen purely as a security or military question. There must be a political process too.

I believe that the whole House will welcome President Bush's statement last week calling on the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories, and on the Palestinian Authority to tackle the terrorism. Without those basic minimum steps, or some steps towards meeting those objectives, and without a proper ceasefire, we cannot even begin to get a political process restarted.

So what can be done? In summary, I can tell the House that we are taking the following steps. We are in close touch with the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the United States, with our European Union partners, and with Governments in the Arab world in the urgent search for a way of stopping the bloodshed and getting a political process restarted.

We shall be seeking a UN Security Council resolution, based on Crown Prince Abdullah's plan, to promote such a process, following Secretary of State Powell's visit to the region this weekend. We stand ready to help with monitoring, both of detainees and of a ceasefire when one is established. I am convinced that this is a role that the European Union is well placed to undertake.

We are also ready, together with our European partners, to help the Palestinian Authority rebuild the infrastructure of the west bank and Gaza, and to work with it, too, in reconstituting its administrative structures. We are also ready to help the authority establish an accountable and transparent security structure that can co-operate with the Israelis and the wider international community to ensure peace and security in a Palestinian state and so underpin the stability of the region.

In respect of stability in the region, I shall say a word on Iraq. Forgive me, Mr. Speaker, if I repeat some of what I said earlier. There will be many occasions on which to debate Saddam Hussein's flagrant breach of successive UN resolutions on his weapons of mass destruction. For the moment, let me say this: Saddam Hussein's regime is despicable, he is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked. He is a threat to his own people and to the region and, if allowed to develop these weapons, a threat to us also.

Doing nothing is not an option. As I said in my speech in Texas, what the international community should do through the UN is challenge Saddam to let the inspectors back in without restriction—anyone, any place, any time. If he really has nothing to hide, let him prove it.

I repeat, however, that no decisions on action have been taken. Our way of proceeding should be and will be measured, calm and thought through. When judgments are made, I shall ensure that the House has a full opportunity to debate them.

I return now to the more pressing matter of Israel and Palestine. At some point, both sides will realise that, no matter how much blood is shed and no matter how many lives are wasted, Israel will still be there, and the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians will still be there.

The initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah, to which I referred a moment ago, has been agreed by the Arab nations and is based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 1397. It is the only realistic basis for a solution—land for peace. The Israelis must allow a state of Palestine, secure in its own borders. In exchange, the Palestinians and the whole Arab world must recognise and respect Israel's borders and her security. A UN Security Council resolution restating these principles, with firm international backing, is the best way forward politically.

The House will know that in the region, particularly from the Israelis, there is much hostility to the idea of outside intervention. I entirely understand why, but the sad and simple truth is that the hatreds are too deep, and the wounds too raw, for the two sides to be able to resolve this alone. The US is right to be engaged and to press both sides to change, and I am clear after my visit to the US that the focus and engagement that is required will be forthcoming. Colin Powell's visit to the region is welcome evidence of that.

Both sides have heard many words of condemnation, and I do not need to add to them here. I understand the anger of the Palestinians, who see the steady encroachment of Israeli settlers who take their land from them in defiance of international law and successive UN Security Council resolutions. That must stop, but so must the appalling suicide bombings that have taken so many Israeli lives in the past few months. Palestinians have supporters the world over for their cause, but that support is weakened every time the suicide bombers act. Chairman Arafat must speak to his people and do everything in his power to stop these murderous outrages.

Both sides, therefore, know from the international community what needs to be done and they should get on and do it now. Real leadership is tested by the tough decisions and not the easy words. So, no matter how strong the feelings, no matter how deep the hatreds, now is indeed the time to pull back, to stop, and to realise that the current strategy is going nowhere, that the time for violence is over, and the time to get a peace process going is long overdue.

The international community is ready to help. People the world over are willing us to do so. Wherever we can help, we will. Whatever we can do to help, we will. But we need co-operation from both sides directly involved in the conflict.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

May I start by joining the Prime Minister and you, Mr. Speaker, in congratulating the Serjeant at Arms and all the members of staff in both Houses who helped so significantly in preparing this House and Westminster Hall in particular for the Queen Mother's lying in state?

We thank the Prime Minister for making his statement today. The appalling terrorist attack this morning has reminded us—as he pointed out—that the crisis in the middle east remains on a knife edge.

The Prime Minister's list of those innocents from Haifa to the west bank who have lost their lives, particularly this morning, is tragic and memorable. Today, the prospects for resuming any kind of peace process seem remote. It is because of the gravity of the situation with which we are now confronted that there must be a stepping-up of our efforts to help both Israel and the Palestinian people find a resolution to this conflict, as the right hon. Gentleman said.

Of course, we wish the United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, well in the round of negotiations that he is conducting and is about to conduct in the region and we welcome the reaffirmation today by the Prime Minister and President Bush of their commitment to a just settlement—one in which the two states, the state of Israel and a viable, democratic Palestinian state, can live together in peace and security.

We also agree that the incursions by Israeli troops into Palestinian Authority territory must end without delay, as has been said. Whatever the short-term successes that might be gained through military action in the west bank, there can be no purely military solution to this centuries-old dispute. Does the Prime Minister agree, however, that it is also the duty of any Government to protect their citizens from violence, including terrorism, as I believe he pointed out? The Israeli people have also been subjected to a vile and orchestrated campaign of terror. Day by day, suicide bombers have massacred innocent civilians, while Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority appear to have taken little or no effective action to confront those who are behind them. Does the Prime Minister agree that, in line with our demand for an Israeli withdrawal, there is now a heavy responsibility on Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority? They simply must deliver.

I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware of two documents that the Israeli Government maintain were found in the camps. If they are genuine, they show a clear link between Chairman Arafat and the terrorist networks sustaining the suicide bombers. That confirms the belief that if the will exists within the Palestinian Authority, it is possible to deliver a period of peace—it happened for 24 days over Christmas. Chairman Arafat has admitted that he was responsible for that peaceful interlude. Now, he will have the opportunity to deliver again. There must be sustained pressure on the terrorists from Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

I wonder whether the Prime Minister agrees that Arab states of good will must make it clear to countries such as Iran and Iraq that they should cease their meddling in these affairs, as it is becoming more and more clear they have been doing in the past few months.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the biggest issue and perhaps the key to the whole peace process, has to be the short and long-term guarantee of Israel's security? The worst outcome would be an Israeli withdrawal only to be followed by a further wave of suicide bombings. In the event of such bombings, Israel would again want to act to defend itself and its people, which would plunge the whole situation into crisis. The Prime Minister is aware of the problem because he has spoken about the need for observers—he did so again today. They may have a useful role to play in the coming months, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that they cannot be expected to police terrorism on the west bank in the way that Israel would understandably require as a precursor for further talks? What is the Prime Minister's assessment of Chairman Arafat's willingness to guarantee Israel's security against future attack? What is his assessment of the ability of Arab states to assist in this crucial short-term task, beyond the long-term peace negotiations?

The principal lesson that we can take from Northern Ireland—the Prime Minister is right to make this point—is that only when terrorism ends will there be a realistic prospect of a resumption of meaningful peaceful dialogue. In his statement, the Prime Minister referred to rebuilding the infrastructure of the west bank and Gaza. Does he agree that a complete and unequivocal end to terrorism could lead to significant economic benefits? Does he agree that holding out such a prospect in very obvious terms could be an encouragement to those who are engaged in terrorism perhaps to think again?

We agree that the basis for any resumed dialogue following an end to violence should be the proposals put forward recently by Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which remain the only prospect for long-term peace and security in the area. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the plans should include the guarantee of the short-term security of Israel; otherwise, they will not come to anything at all. The two cannot be divorced, as I hope the Prime Minister agrees.

The Prime Minister is right to say that now is the time for real leadership to shine through. The crisis will only get worse unless two things happen without delay: the end to violence, coupled with those guarantees of security. The Opposition will continue to support the Government and the United States in their pursuit of those two objectives.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We are in complete agreement about the basic principles here. The right hon. Gentleman says that the incursions by the Israeli defence forces should end without delay and that the Palestinian Authority must cease terror. That is right. The question is how we get people to a situation where that is likely to happen.

I totally understand why Israel feels, when its citizens are being subject to these appalling terrorist acts—acts of random violence, but with the specific purpose of doing as much damage to innocent civilians as possible—that it has to retaliate. My concern has always been—I have said this to the Israeli Prime Minister—that while I understand that, what is the strategy to get us from where we are at the moment to a different place?

In my view, the key is to make sure that we combine an overall long-term process—basing that on Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative seems sensible, since it recognises the two basic principles that most people now accept—with sufficient minimum security steps that re-engage the parties with some semblance of confidence.

That is very difficult, which is why I proposed some form of outside help. Of course, those involved could not do the work of policing terrorism. However, one of the things that the Israelis constantly say, with some justification, is that if the Palestinian Authority arrests suspected terrorists, they simply go through a revolving door; they are locked up, but then simply go back out again. One suggestion that I made earlier, and which remains, is that the international community could easily police the situation once those people are arrested and detained properly.

We have to look for imaginative ways of dealing with some of the key issues; otherwise, the suicide bombings will continue, the reprisals that the Israelis take will continue and the hatred and bitterness will get worse. One must ask how we have got to a stage where the bitterness is so deep that teenage Palestinians are wiring themselves up as suicide bombers and blowing themselves up. That is an indication of how deep the hatreds are. Unless there is a political vision that people can aim for, together with some minimum security steps, into the vacuum comes mindless and terrible violence, which is what we have at the moment.

I totally understand the reluctance that Israel, in particular, has regarding the involvement of outside people. I also understand its frustration at the fact that the Palestinian Authority has not been, or was not, taking proper steps to deal with terrorism. In the end, however, unless the situation is to continue, with many innocent Palestinians dying as well, we have to find a way of unblocking the current situation and putting together the minimum security steps and the long-term process. Otherwise, I fear that the situation will get worse, and I do not think that people have yet contemplated quite how much worse it could get.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to add our expressions of gratitude to all your colleagues and the House authorities for doing, with great dedication, such an efficient and characteristically courteous job with regard to the events attending the death and the funeral of Her Majesty the Queen Mother. We are all very grateful.

I am also grateful to the Prime Minister for having taken the decision to come to the House to make this statement and to take some questions. He is discussing a dangerous and deadly global situation. The loss of a British soldier from the first battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment, killed accidentally yesterday in Kabul, brings home to all of us in the House just how dangerous these international commitments are for our service personnel.

The Prime Minister has reported back thus far in his discussions vis-à-vis Iraq. He will acknowledge that we must all be honest. This situation crosses the political spectrum—there is genuine unease in the Labour party, among the Liberal Democrats and perhaps in sections of the Conservative party. We must acknowledge that that unease is a reflection of genuine and sincerely held shades of opinion throughout the country. Therefore, as a result of his discussions with President Bush, will the Prime Minister acknowledge that no country can conduct a foreign policy on the basis of "my ally, right or wrong"? Although I am not implying that the Government are seeking to do so, there is a need for discernment. Many of us hope that the Government may be able to temper some of the ideas of the American Administration as the situation unfolds.

I welcome the fact that if decisions on Iraq have to be reached at some point in the future, the Prime Minister has confirmed that the House will have an opportunity to debate the matter fully. Will he confirm that if we reach that stage, incontrovertible evidence will be presented publicly, preferably at the level of the United Nations Security Council? That will be most important, not just for the legitimacy of any action under international law, but for maintaining a political consensus, not least with neighbouring Arab states. If the Prime Minister can continue to make a valued and valuable contribution in that direction, the whole House will thank him and his colleagues.

On the middle east and the appalling tragedy that is happening between Israel and the Palestinian people, we strongly support the Prime Minister. The Secretary- General of the United Nations has said that he is personally appalled by what is happening, and President Bush has called for Israeli withdrawal on three occasions. I hope that the Prime Minister will be assured that all parties in the House will join him in sending that signal to all the combatants involved. I hope that some sanity will be restored.

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that meeting force and violence with still more force and violence will never provide a solution? It does not even provide the framework for a solution. That signal must be sent with increased resonance, and this is a very good opportunity for us to do that.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I join the right hon. Gentleman in expressing our condolences to the family of the soldier who was killed yesterday in Afghanistan.

On Iraq, what is important is to put into play all the different issues that arise here. Some people will be against taking action in respect of Iraq no matter what it does, but I accept entirely that there are many people who are concerned, for example, whether that action will be sensible, whether it will have the backing of international law and whether proper thought has been given to the consequences for the wider region. Those are all perfectly sensible questions. All I say is that of course those are questions that we shall consider very carefully, which is why I have constantly said that we are not at the time of decision making.

In addition, most people would accept—again, not everyone, but the vast majority—that Saddam Hussein does lead a despicable regime, that he is a threat in respect of weapons of mass destruction and that it is important that we deal with that threat. Those are all the things that are in play in debating the issue. All I can say to people is that I hope that the way in which we have proceeded in respect of Afghanistan shows that we are prepared to proceed in a reasonable and measured way, consulting with key allies and not taking action precipitately. Again, we will not do that.

But it is the case that Saddam Hussein poses a threat. That is why the UN resolutions are there. If this was somebody who, in all the time that he had been leader of Iraq, had behaved responsibly, but we were worried about certain weapon systems that he was now developing, I could understand even more so the hesitation that people might have. But this is somebody who has a track record of absolutely extraordinary aggression on his neighbours, on his own people, on everyone that he sees advantage in being aggressive towards. That is why the UN resolutions are there. That is why British pilots are still flying over the no-fly zone in order to protect people in Iraq. That is why the inspectors went in, could not do their job properly and then came out.

I hope that in the same way as I understand the need to respond to the concerns that are being raised, others will understand the need to respond to the genuine concerns about Saddam Hussein and realise that in the end we can all respond to concerns but we have to take decisions on them. I can assure people that those decisions will be sensible and that the House will have a proper opportunity to debate them before we act upon them.

I have never taken the view that we support the US right or wrong. In relation to steel or an issue such as Kyoto we make it clear where we have a disagreement. But I do believe in this country's relationship with the United States. I do believe that that relationship is special and I do believe that it is a fundamental part of British foreign policy and should remain so. All I can say is that in my dealings with the Administration and with this President, we have found them immensely open and consultative, and where they have acted they have acted not just with consultation but in what I would regard as a sensible way.

Finally in relation to the middle east, of course we should send out the signals that we are sending out as the international community, but I come back to the point that I do not think that the signals are enough any more, because if the signals were going to work, they would have worked before now. What is necessary is to help both sides to sit down and plan a way through this. That cannot be done simply by leaving the situation as it is or by UN resolutions, although those are important. It has to be done by getting down to the detailed work in order to make sure that, step by step, we have the necessary measures that can allow us to find our way out of the current situation and to give the political process a chance to restart.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Everyone should condemn the suicide bombers without any qualification, but is not the core of the issue the need for a viable and genuine Palestinian state, not a statelet, without which all the indications are that the sea of blood will continue and so many innocent people on both sides will lose their lives?

How far is the United States really committed to such a Palestinian state? We should bear in mind the fact that time and again Sharon has indicated his strenuous opposition—indeed, all his political lifetime, at least in the last 35 years—to giving up the territories occupied since 1967. Only the terrorists will triumph if we do not bring about the sort of state to which a Palestinian people are entitled.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend: in the end, it is the political solution that will count. I believe that America is committed to the two principles that I described. Indeed, President Bush's recent statement made that very clear. The engagement of the United States now—especially the visit of Colin Powell—is extremely important. All the way through, my plea to everyone involved in the situation is that we must stay with it to get a result. The current situation has gone down so far—it is so bad—that only by continuous engagement, which I am sure the US will offer, will we have any form of solution. My hon. Friend is right to say that in the end it is the political solution that will work.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk

I speak as chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel. Like the Prime Minister, I have many links with the Jewish community in this country. He knows that among the principal concerns are guarantees for Israel. It is of course within the power of the Israeli Government to cease their military activity forthwith—Israel is, after all, a democratic state—but if they did, what guarantees would there be that the terrorist attacks would cease? Who is capable of delivering those guarantees? This afternoon, the Prime Minister hinted that there may be international policing and monitoring of the situation, but, for me, the nub of the problem is the question of guarantees.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that the right hon. Lady puts her finger on what is understandably the issue for Israel. The only truthful answer is that no absolute guarantees can be given about anything in this situation. However, what we can do is to look back two or three years when the current level of violence was not happening and a real political process was on track. I happen to believe that the offer made by Prime Minister Barak at the time should have been looked at in a different light—but it was not. We have to get back to a situation in which that political process is under way. The only reason why I offer the prospect of outside help in the initial stages is that I think that the thing is so bad now that I cannot see that there is even the basic minimum of trust for guarantees, which cannot be made without that. I totally understand—I have held this conversation many times, which is why I do not take the view held by some others. For example, some European leaders would probably take a less sympathetic view than I do towards the position of Israel. Knowing that its people are subject to suicide attacks and terrorist bombs—we know what that is like; we went through it ourselves in the 1970s—the pressure on Israel to act is enormous.

I understand all of that, but I come back to the basic point: unless there is a political process, the violence continues. Although the guarantees that can be given may not be absolute, we have a better chance of delivering security if there is a political process and if there is some outside help simply to make sure that the Palestinian Authority are actually doing what they said they would do.

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

A former Israeli Cabinet Minister said of Mr. Sharon, during their last election, that he was a serial arsonist. That was because of the experience of Lebanon. Again, Mr. Sharon seems to be wedded to a purely military solution. Today, we heard from the secretary-general of the council of ministers of the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Ahmed Abdel Rahman, that the only option left to any Palestinian was

"to become an explosive bomb wherever he goes".

That appears to be a clear incitement to suicide bombers and is wholly irresponsible. Given the gravity of the situation and the fact that it is getting worse, how can one force both sides to the table? Has my right hon. Friend, with President Bush and our US allies, considered using the threat of forms of sanction to force both sides to the negotiating table, which is the only way to find a resolution to this appalling problem?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am not sure that in these circumstances that would provide the solution. In the medium term, we need agreement on basic security measures with, if necessary, outside help to monitor them.

I totally agree with what my right hon. Friend said about the remarks that have been made, but in the end the only way through is to restart the political process. I am repeating myself, but that is true. The trouble is that the political process cannot restart until minimum security steps are taken. My worry is that the two sides are so far apart that there is no prospect of a political process or of putting the parties round a table until we have begun a bridging process towards that, based on security.

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

Will the right hon. Gentleman please tell President Bush that many in this country are not yet persuaded that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein is sufficiently great to justify military action, especially when the middle east is in such a turbulent state? Will he also tell Prime Minister Sharon that although suicide bombs are a particularly horrible way in which to carry out murder, from the point of view of the victim there is not much difference between a suicide bomb and a rocket, a tank shell or an air-launched bomb discharged from afar? They are equally undiscriminating in their consequences.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I really cannot add much to what I have said on Iraq. On the last point, that is precisely why the situation is as it is, and in a sense that is what the terrorists want. The original terrorist act is designed to produce a reaction; inevitably in the reaction that follows, innocent people die as well as those who may be terrorists, and the situation spirals downward from there. The only way out of that situation is the one that I have described.

What is happening on both sides is absolutely appalling, and what always strikes me about such situations is that both sides get themselves into a position where they cannot see that innocent blood is being shed on the other side as well as on their own. That is why external assistance is necessary to bring the parties closer together.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

Going back to the Prime Minister's opening statement, he referred to his discussions with President Chirac. Did President Chirac tell him—I bet he didn't—that in 1977, when he was Prime Minister of France, he had as a guest the thuggish young vice-president of Iraq, and he took him on a detour in Provence to, of all places, Cadarache, the French equivalent of Aldermaston? It is to my discredit that I, like many others, turned a blind eye to the huge amount of arms being poured into Iraq in the 1980s by our country and others.

As late as January this year—between 26 and 30 January—Iraq was given a clean bill of health by the International Atomic Energy Agency. I concede that that is different from the inspectors. Nevertheless, the IAEA gave Iraq a clean bill of health on nuclear capacity. In those circumstances and given the fact that the Defence Secretary had an invitation to send a scientific delegation of his choosing to Iraq at the beginning of March, would it not be wise at least to go and talk to Iraq? If nothing comes of that, so be it, but is it not high time that we started serious discussions?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I do not think that I will comment on President Chirac and whoever he may have had as a guest in the 1970s.

My hon. Friend's point is serious on two levels. First, in respect of sending a team out to Iraq, in my view that is best done through the United Nations. Saddam Hussein has the opportunity to prove that he has nothing to hide by letting the inspectors back in unconditionally; he should do that.

My hon. Friend says, fairly, that he and everyone else turned a blind eye to what was happening in Iraq in the 1980s. There is some truth in that, but what we are learning about our international community is that when we turn a blind eye, sooner or later the problems come back to us full frontally. That is precisely what happened in Afghanistan, and it is one reason why, although we must act carefully and sensibly, we should certainly not turn a blind eye to what Saddam Hussein is doing.

As for my hon. Friend's point about nuclear capability, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is still trying to acquire nuclear capability and ballistic missile capability. Furthermore, although we do not know what has happened, we suspect that the piles of chemical and biological weapons remain.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

When I met Chairman Arafat in the last few days of Binyamin Netanyahu's Administration, we spent about an hour and a half discussing all the outstanding problems in bringing a peace process to a conclusion. He said that there was at that time nothing that could not be resolved with good will, and that the main obstacle was the personality of Binyamin Netanyahu. When I asked him how that could be overcome, he said that if only he could deal with Ehud Barak, a deal could be achieved. It is therefore tragic that when he got a deal with Barak, he did not take it.

I am extremely worried that the documents that the Israelis claim to have captured in Ramallah and elsewhere, which were mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and which I saw yesterday, appear to show that at the highest level the Palestinian Administration have been sponsoring, organising and even funding terrorist acts. As a result, it will be all the more difficult to build confidence in any future arrangements. What does the Prime Minister think may be done to overcome that problem, and can he flesh out his ideas about the possible involvement of other, sensible Arab Administrations in that process?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman's point about the proposals made by Ehud Barak is a good one: it is a tragedy that they were not acted on properly at the time. As for what can be done now, if the Israelis can be persuaded to withdraw and the Palestinians to take the necessary action—with outside help if necessary—to control terrorism, the principal thing the Arab states have to do is get behind that initiative. In other words, they have to make it clear that they do not support terrorism; the states that are, either tacitly or openly, supporting terrorism must cease; and they must explicitly recognise—as Crown Prince Abdullah's plan does—Israel's right to exist.

Sometimes, people do not sufficiently understand Israel's sense of insecurity in circumstances in which a significant part of the Arab world overtly does not accept its right to exist. That is why it is important that we act on Crown Prince Abdullah's proposals. If there is a ray of hope in this ghastly situation it is that increase in recognition. All countries have moved their position. Countries that were hesitant about accepting the notion of a viable Palestinian state are now saying that they want it, including the United States of America. The European Union and the United Kingdom have stated it explicitly. Secondly, the Arab world is prepared to recognise Israel's right to exist. Those two principles are now accepted.

As the hon. Gentleman says, rightly, the problem is that mistrust is so great—how on earth can negotiations ever start again? That is why the minimum security steps are vital.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell Second Church Estates Commissioner

Since Saddam Hussein is the spectre at our debate, will the Prime Minister put the subject with which we are dealing into context? He will recall that in 1988, Saddam Hussein rained down chemical weapons on Halabja, that 5,000 people died within half an hour, and that thousands of others were blinded or suffered severe side effects. For 17 months, poisonous gases were used on outlying villages, and 4 million people living in northern Iraq and Kurdistan were affected. Can we not remind ourselves of how important it is that Saddam Hussein lives with UN resolutions, and the sooner he does so the better?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to remind us of the nature of Saddam's regime and the way in which it deals with its political opponents, with routine political executions. We should remember that. When they think about it, most people realise that this person constitutes a threat. We must be careful how we deal with it.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

First, on behalf of my colleagues, I endorse everything that has been said in appreciation of the work of the Serjeant at Arms and his colleagues over the past few days.

On the middle east, I agree that there must be an end of terrorism, that there must be Israeli restraint and withdrawal, and that there is a need for a political strategy. However, I am a little concerned about some of the parallels that are drawn with Northern Ireland. Between 1970 and 1995, we had many different political initiatives, none of which succeeded. Among the reasons why the process after 1995 was more successful—there were many—were two that seem to me relevant. First, the terrorists became convinced that their campaign would fail. Secondly, there was a change in the underlying ideology. Even Irish republicans realised that the blood and soil nationalism that they had been attached to was wrong.

I do not see any sign of a similar ideological change in the middle east. We cannot look at Palestine apart from the rest of the Arab nation. While I appreciate what Prince Abdullah has done in recognising Israel's right to exist, the situation would be much more hopeful if the Saudi authorities were to start to try to redefine the particular brand of Islam that is the ideology of their state, because that has provided many of the wellsprings of the violence and the particular forms of terrorism that we have seen.

Of course we must deal with the symptoms, but until there is a willingness among the Arab states to get to the ideological roots of the problem, we cannot have very much optimism.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I always understand the right hon. Gentleman's hesitation about the parallels with Northern Ireland. However, I believe that there is a parallel. I do not believe that it would ever have been possible—everything that the right hon. Gentleman says is right, of course—to have a process unless there was continuous engagement in a detailed proposal to work our way out of the impasse, and a political vision to go alongside that, which was there in the Belfast agreement.

It is worth pointing out that two and a half or three years ago there was not the present level of violence. What has changed, first, is that a political solution was rejected. There then appeared to be no political strategy. In some ways the situation is not entirely dissimilar. Leaving that aside, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must judge the situation in the round.

I think that the Palestinians know perfectly well that the state of Israel will not cease to exist. The Arab world knows that Israel is not going to go away. Whatever the Arab world says and whatever ideological hangover there is from the past, it knows that that will not happen. The trouble is that while no political process is under way, it is reluctant to say that. That is why Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative was important.

If we could envisage a situation, difficult as it is now, where real progress was being made and where the Israelis and the Palestinians were working through a proper process, I think that a series of things would start to change in the middle east. For a start, many of those countries that have effectively reared their people on fairly poisonous anti-Israeli and often anti-Semitic propaganda would have to change. I think that there is a recognition among some of those Governments that people who are reared on that type of propaganda often turn into the sort of political extremists who ultimately come looking for the Governments of those very states.

There is a clear sense in which the region could change. For example, if people like Saddam Hussein were not in power any more, the situation could change. There are these prospects but they all depend on the basic political strategy being reinvigorated. Until that happens, the hatreds just get worse.

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

Everyone will agree with my right hon. Friend on his view of the Saddam Hussein regime: the world would be better off without it. Nevertheless, on 27 September last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Bradshaw, stated that the objective of British foreign policy was to remove the threat of Iraq's weapons and not to replace the Iraqi Government, which was described as a matter for the people of Iraq. On the other hand, as long ago as 1997, President Clinton stated that sanctions against Iraq must remain for as long as Saddam Hussein lasted. What is the current view and policy of the British Government? If they take the latter position, there is no incentive to get the current regime in Iraq to change tack and allow inspectors in. I happen to remember that, initially, the inspectors left of their own accord; the difficulty now is to get them back in.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course, the policy is to protect ourselves against weapons of mass destruction, but obviously that cannot be divorced from the regime, because it is the regime that is responsible. In respect of the comments made by President Bush, and indeed President Clinton before him, regime change in Iraq has been the policy of successive American Governments, but that is the case precisely because of the fear of weapons of mass destruction. All I would say to my hon. Friend is that it is for that very reason that the international community has said to Saddam Hussein, "Let the inspectors back in." That is what I am saying, but it must be done unconditionally.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

In wishing the Prime Minister well in his immense task, may I ask him to consider two points? First, will he tell Mr. Sharon clearly and unambiguously that the way in which he has conducted his regime has not helped his cause and has made many friends into doubters, and that while we are all committed to the existence of the state of Israel, we do not believe that the current regime is acting in a very civilised manner?

Secondly, to reinforce the bipartisan nature of the approach, which has been very evident in today's exchanges, will the right hon. Gentleman consider asking his predecessor John Major whether he would be prepared to play a part? He could perhaps act as a roving envoy and go to the middle east to talk to people. He has immense experience and a little more time than the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister take on board that suggestion?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am certainly happy to consider that suggestion. On the hon. Gentleman's first point, which was about Prime Minister Sharon, I think that I have said all that I have to say. I understand the concerns that are being expressed. My view now is that the important thing is to try to get the process re-begun. Frankly, I am more interested in doing that than in condemning particular people for what they have done. The position that we have set out in respect of Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories is very clear.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House to make the statement and support him in calling for an end to suicide bombings and for withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied towns. I should like to put two points to him. First, the sort of action that is being taken by Sharon and the Israeli Government has not brought, will not and cannot bring an end to the appalling suicide bombings. Secondly, while the international community has called for Israel to withdraw, it has not done so. It has been flouting the will of the international community.

It is not only mistrust that is a problem, but the fact that an illegal occupation is going on. On Saturday, I spoke to a Palestinian friend in Ramallah who had not been able to step outside her front door for more than a week. If she had done so, she would have risked being shot. Food and medical supplies were short; indeed, even ambulances could not get to the sick and wounded. Is there any other part of the world where, faced with such circumstances, we would think it suitable or sufficient only to call for withdrawal rather than ensure that that is backed up by some form of action? While I am unaware of the west supplying any arms to the Palestinian Authority or, indeed, to any Palestinians, an awful lot of military hardware is being supplied to Israel. May I call for an arms embargo on Israel while it is behaving like this? Secondly—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Gentleman is taking far too long.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is drawing attention to the fact that some 1 million Palestinians are now living under curfew, and that is precisely what is happening. Many hundreds of the Palestinians who are losing their lives are innocent. The problem, however, is that innocent Israelis are dying, too, as the bomb at Haifa showed. The Israelis believe that these people are coming from the occupied territories to commit acts of terrorism. We have to recognise, therefore, that we are required to be even-handed, and that means being genuinely even-handed. It means saying that the Israelis have to withdraw from the occupied territories, and that the Palestinians have to take the necessary action to stop the violence and the terrorism.

That cannot be done simply by condemning one side or the other. Who could possibly see the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem being treated in the way that it is being treated and not feel a sense of tragedy about what is happening? All I will say to my hon. Friend is that, on the other side of the argument, he must realise that if, in his constituency—or that of any other hon. Member—people were going into cafés where families were sitting having a meal, and suicide bombs were going off and children were being killed by a deliberate act of violence, the anger of that community would be huge and intense as a result. We can take a position, one way or another, in condemning this side or that side. We have said what should happen on both sides, but I honestly believe that it will not happen until the things that I have described take place. I promise my hon. Friend that no amount of pressure will resolve this properly without external assistance to get over the problems.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I welcome most warmly the Prime Minister's statement. Would he not accept, however, that while terrorism—from wherever it comes—must be not only defeated but eradicated, the perception at the moment is that Prime Minister Sharon has declared war on the Palestinian people as a whole, not just on the terrorist organisations Islamic Jihad and Hamas? Is there no opportunity to get an international world community coalition together to guarantee a meaningful Palestinian state—not one involving Bantustans—and to guarantee the state of Israel within its traditional boundaries?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is precisely that to which the United Nations resolutions are supposed to give effect. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need both those things to happen. My point is simply that, unless the Israelis are sure that there is at least some means of being secure from terrorist attacks, it will be very difficult to get them to stop doing what they are doing. That is why it is so important that we put both things together. Some external assistance is necessary precisely to allow each side the confidence that someone objective is trying to assist them to do the things that they both know they must do.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

May I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that the maintenance of the breadth of the international coalition against terrorism remains an important priority for him and for President Bush? On the point that my right hon. Friend made at Question Time about Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons attacks on the Kurds, may I say that it is important to try to ensure that those who have already been victims of Saddam Hussein will not suffer a second time in any action against Iraq? Indeed, we should not repeat the mistakes of the past, in which one evil regime was replaced by another, but try to create as far as possible the conditions for a multi-ethnic, religiously tolerant, representative regime in Iraq, if and when Saddam Hussein's regime is changed.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend about the international coalition. It is important that we build as much support as possible for any action that we may undertake. She is entirely right that, if the regime in Iraq is to change, it is important that it changes to one that is genuinely broad based. I hope that we have provided some symbol of our good intentions in that regard by what has happened in Afghanistan, where we are genuinely trying to produce a broad-based regime. I am sure that, like me and many others, she would be one of the first to say that many people in Iraq would rejoice at Saddam Hussein's departure. I hope that at some stage we shall be able to furnish the House with details of the way in which his regime operates, because its brutality is scarcely believable.

It is important to proceed in a measured way. As I said in my speech in Texas, I have been involved in three regime changes—Milosevic, the Taliban and the gangster group that took over Sierra Leone—and I can honestly say that we should not regret any of them. Let us proceed with care, and pay attention to my right hon. Friend's sensible warning that we must ensure that, if we ever get a regime change in Iraq, what follows is an improvement on what is there now.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I welcome the impending visit of Secretary of State Powell, despite the length of time he has taken to arrive. The Prime Minister spoke of seeking an early United Nations Security Council resolution, which is most welcome. Will one be sought before any further action is taken against Iraq?

On the humanitarian side, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the 400,000 people currently without running water in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and other areas? Will he spearhead a humanitarian effort to ensure that the lives of those people, who are being denied their Geneva convention rights as non-combatants, are not at risk due to a lack of basics, including running water?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The time for debating any legal basis of action against Iraq is when we take such action. The Foreign Secretary will speak to Shimon Peres later today about the situation in Ramallah. It is important that basic facilities are put back in place for the people there, and that the wounded, some of whom are seriously injured, are given proper medical attention.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

I welcome my right hon. Friend's evenhanded approach to the middle east. Given the Israeli attack on the university in Bethlehem, and given the specific British interests and concerns, have discussions been held with the Israeli ambassador in London? Have instructions also been given to our ambassador in Tel Aviv?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I understand from my right hon. and hon. Friends that that is indeed the case. We are in close touch with the Israeli authorities about these issues the entire time.

Photo of Peter Tapsell Peter Tapsell Conservative, Louth and Horncastle

Will the Prime Minister keep in mind at all times the fact that it is now 35 years since the Security Council passed resolution 242, and that the failure of the international community to impose that UN territorial demand has inevitably led to the present tragic and dangerous situation? Until something along the lines of resolution 242, which is not dissimilar to the new Saudi initiative, is imposed, the situation will go from bad to worse. Nothing will be achieved by sending messages to Mr. Sharon or Chairman Arafat, or by sending envoys on tours of the middle east. What is needed is for the international community to impose a settlement on the area by military force, and to put in a permanent United Nations intervening force, such as that which has kept the peace in Cyprus for many years. Did the Prime Minister discuss that possibility with President Bush?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I did not discuss that particular possibility, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, without a political solution based on resolution 242 and the other UN Security Council resolutions, there will not be lasting peace. The question is how we get to the position in which negotiations take place to ensure that that happens and is successful. I am afraid that at present that is a very long way off.

Photo of Mr Ernie Ross Mr Ernie Ross Labour, Dundee West

Although I welcome today's statement by my right hon. Friend, the real significance of the past few weeks has been the commitment offered by the American Government—and, more importantly, by the President—to a Palestinian state. Those of us who have been involved in the middle east for more than 30 years know that the Israel-Palestine question is the core of the middle east problem, and that only a resolution of it will provide general peace. We have been hoping for an American President who recognises the need for a Palestinian state, and the significance of the recent statement cannot be overstated. If Colin Powell arrives quickly and the Americans remain truly engaged, the Palestinians will begin to believe that the President and the American people really do recognise their right to a state. That would go a long way towards building peace.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right about that. The commitment of the entire international community to a viable Palestinian state is, as I have said, one ray of hope in this ghastly situation.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Opposition Whip (Commons)

Some people view Yasser Arafat as being opposed to suicide bombings but unable to prevent them; others see him as being in favour of them and unwilling to prevent them. The Prime Minister has access to better sources of information than most of us: to which of those views does he subscribe?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I subscribe to the view that, if there is a proper peace process, the Palestinians are willing to engage in it. Although I concur with criticisms of the Palestinian Authority's inability, or refusal, to control terrorism properly, we have to recognise that we will be dealing with them, and that we cannot choose which of their members we will deal with. The truthful answer to the hon. Gentleman's point is that the real danger is that, as long as the bloodshed and violence continues, a growing indifference will come about—in fact, it is happening—to innocent blood being spilt on both sides.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I remind the House that early next week a full day's debate will be held on this subject.