HC Deb 15 November 1955 vol 546 cc201-5
48. Mr. A. Henderson

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the present tension between Israel and Egypt, he will propose that a conference be held under the auspices of the United Nations to secure a peaceful settlement of the problems affecting the Middle East; and whether he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. A conference such as the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests can, I think, only have any hope of success if the parties concerned have previously shown willingness to compromise. It is for this that we are working.

In my speech at the Lord Mayor's Banquet I tried to set out as accurately as possible the conflicting points of view which impede a settlement of the longstanding Palestine dispute. I think the House will agree that this dispute lies at the heart of all troubles in the Middle East. It has been our policy, in close co-operation with the United States Government, to seek some means of bringing about a settlement. The proposals put forward by Mr. Dulles in August, and fully supported by us, were such a step. My deliberate purpose last week was to give a new impulse towards a settlement.

I stated what I believed to be the Arab and Israeli positions with regard to negotiations. I said that the Arabs stand on the 1947 and other United Nations Resolutions, whereas the Israelis base themselves on the Armistice Agreements of 1949 and the present status quo. I went on to say: The stark truth is that if these nations want to win a peace, which is in both their interests, and to which we want to help them, they must make some compromise between these two positions. The gap between the two positions is certainly wide and plain. But how can there ever be a peaceful settlement unless both sides are willing to compromise? Peace and conciliation are so urgently necessary for the peoples of the Middle East that sacrifices by both sides must be in the ultimate interest of both. It is in that conviction that I have appealed to them to work together with us and our American Allies for peace.

Mr. Henderson

Does not Article 12 of the 1949 Armistice Agreement provide that both sides can call upon the Secretary-General of the United Nations to convene a conference of representatives of both sides for the purpose of reviewing or revising the Armistice Agreement? Does not the Prime Minister agree that, in view of the situation that has developed, the time has arrived—it is now six years since the Agreement was signed—for some attempt to be made, through a conference, to bring about a settlement of the outstanding differences between the Arabs and the Jews? Will he utilise the good offices of Her Majesty's Government, through the United Nations, to bring about such a conference?

The Prime Minister

I am not at all opposed in principle to a conference, but, frankly, I do not think we shall get any result from one unless we have on both sides a willingness to make some form of compromise. What I said at Guildhall—perhaps the only thing I said that was new—was that, in my judgment, if there was to be any positive result, both sides must be willing to approach a meeting in a spirit of compromise—I am sure that is true—and if they will not, we can have as many conferences as we like but there will not be any positive result.

Mr. Robens

In regard to the statement which the Prime Minister made about boundaries, may I ask exactly what he has in mind? He will appreciate that there has been a good deal of consternation in the Middle East about his speech. He said that there is a gap between the 1947 boundaries and the Armistice boundaries. What has he in mind—a considerable change in the present boundary, or merely small changes to deal with the present rather difficult position at various parts of the frontier?

The Prime Minister

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. I do not accept his use of the term "consternation." I had not expected that what I said would please everybody. If I had thought it would please everybody, it would not have been worth while saying. I knew that there would be difficulties and uncertainties, but I thought the time had come for somebody to say bluntly that unless we attempted to move from the two positions rigidly taken for so many years there would never be a settlement.

As to how far either party should move, I did not attempt to lay down anything, nor would I be prepared to do so now, but if we could reach a position in which both parties were willing to visualise the possibility of moving at all from the fixed positions which they have hitherto taken, then negotiation might have a chance.

Mr. Robens

Have not the Israelis indicated that they are not too worried about small changes in certain parts of the frontier but would be completely against going back to the 1947 boundary—and with some justification? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to realise that, having made that statement at Guildhall—whether or not he feels that it has created consternation or not, from my own information I am sure it has—he now has a duty upon himself to indicate much more plainly the kind of ideas that he has in mind about what is to be done?

The Prime Minister

With all respect to the right hon. Gentleman, most emphatically no. What I sought to obtain—those who have had long experience of this business will know this is true—was that either side should be willing to visualise the possibility of moving from the fixed positions which they have held for so many years. I am not pressing either one side or the other. Of course the right hon. Gentleman is right in his definition of the Israeli Government. Equally, other definitions could be given in respect of the Arab States. However, the point is that we must try to get them both to accept that there can be some movement from their present fixed positions. If they will once admit that, then we can perhaps—I am sure that with our American friends, we can—try to work out a way to secure a settlement.

Mr. Shinwell

While I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's desire to effect a settlement, and at the same time appreciate that, before a settlement can be reached, some compromise on both sides is essential, is he aware that both Egyptian and Arab spokesmen have recently made declarations to the effect that they will never be content until the State of Israel is destroyed? Is it possible to effect any kind of settlement so long as this intransigent attitude on the part of the Egyptians and other Arabs is continued? Does the right hon. Gentleman take account of that? Will he use all his good offices, as I am sure he is anxious to do, in an endeavour to persuade the Arab States to adopt a more reasonable and conciliatory attitude?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman has just touched upon one of the very problems that we have to consider. Obviously, if there is to be discussion about the boundaries, there must be an acceptance on both sides of the existence of the States who will have those boundaries. If we can get that, to that extent at least we shall have met one of the points which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Strachey

Would the Prime Minister at any rate be prepared to indicate what he did not have in mind and say that he did not have in mind a concession by Israel to return to the 1947 boundaries, which would mean about halving its present area? Is it not the case that, for the very purpose that he has in mind, as long as his remarks are perhaps being misconstrued in that sense, no progress is possible?

The Prime Minister

What I have in mind was what I said, and I have nothing to add to or subtract from that.

Mr. Nicholson

Failing the achievement of the major objective, would not my right hon. Friend agree that something could be done to stop the succession of raids and counter-raids? Will he consider strengthening the hands of the United Nations observers, who at the moment seem to be in a most anomalous and difficult position?

The Prime Minister

I have already replied to that point in the House. I had some discussion with General Burns about this, and he knows that we will give him any help that lies in our power, if he requires it. He and the others working with him are doing a very remarkable job under extremely difficult conditions.