HC Deb 05 June 1967 vol 747 cc629-42
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the Middle East situation.

The House will have learned with deep concern that, early this morning, hostilities broke out in the Middle East. The situation is still unclear. There has been heavy ground fighting on the border of Israel and the United Arab Republic. There has been substantial air activity, including attacks on airfields in the United Arab Republic and elsewhere. There has also been air activity over Israel. There are reports of fighting on other frontiers of Israel.

Our Consul-General in Jerusalem reported earlier this morning that the city was "engulfed in war". Although the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation arranged a cease-fire from 12 noon in Jerusalem, the latest information reaching me is that, after some initial success, sporadic firing has broken out again.

I cannot emphasise too strongly how much Her Majesty's Government regret this tragic development. It was precisely in an attempt to avert the risk of such a development that the Government took the step I put before the House on 31st May. As the House knows, we have repeatedly urged, by all means open to us, both Israel and the Arab States to exercise restraint and seek a solution to their problems through peaceful negotiations.

During this morning I have been in touch with the representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Italy, and, of course, with our mission to the United Nations. This afternoon I shall be seeing representatives of the Arab States and we have also been in touch with the Embassy of Israel.

Our immediate aim must clearly be to bring about an early and general ceasefire. The Security Council has been convened and is about to begin its emergency meeting. I hope that it will proceed immediately to the adoption of a resolution calling for this cease-fire.

The Government's attitude—and the House will, I know, support me in saying this—is that the British concern is not to take sides, but to ensure a peaceful solution to the problems of the area. In this situation, our interest is the same as that of all those in the area as well as the rest of the world. The House will wish to know that instructions are being given to all our forces in the area to avoid any involvement in the conflict.

The House will also wish to know the position of British subjects in the area. On 23rd May, British subjects in the U.A.R. and Israel and on the west bank of the Jordan were advised to leave unless their presence was essential. This advice was extended shortly afterwards to cover the rest of Jordan. British subjects in neighbouring countries in the area were advised to be ready to leave at short notice.

My information is that, following this advice, most business visitors and tourists in Israel, Jordan and the U.A.R. have left, but that the majority of permanent British residents have probably remained. The Government are in touch with our representatives in all the countries concerned about emergency evacuation plans. All merchant shipping due to pass through the Suez Canal is being advised to delay transit for 24 hours. Our advice will be kept under constant review.

I have received reports of mob attacks on our Embassies in Benghazi, Tripoli and Tunis and on the Consulate in Basra. I am maintaining the closest touch with all our posts and will be raising this with the Arab Ambassadors when I see them later this afternoon. We shall make further reports to the House as the situation develops.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The House will be grateful to the Foreign Secretary for making an early statement on this very grave situation. I do not think that anyone who took part in the debate last week will be surprised that this has happened, because we stressed again and again the urgency of the situation.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say any more about the form of the resolution which will be put before the Security Council and about the Government's attitude? First, does it require reinstatement of the United Nations force on both sides of the frontier of Israel and Egypt? Secondly, is there a chance of a four-Power conference being called to limit the scope of the war?

There are many factors of which the House is ignorant, particularly, of course, about the talks which the Prime Minister had with President Johnson and on the declaration as to the keeping open of the Gulf of Aqaba and what action the Governments have agreed to keep the Gulf open.

I had hoped that the Prime Minister would make a statement today, but, as he has not done so, will the Foreign Secretary arrange for a debate, if necessary tomorrow, so that we may examine the case very carefully?

Mr. Brown

I have some doubts, on the spur of the moment, whether a debate as early as tomorrow would at all assist the situation, or be a good thing for the House, but we will consider the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion. It can be discussed through the usual channels.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what form the resolution would take. As I have said, we are at the moment in consultation with the other members of the Security Council and with the other countries to whom I referred about this matter. I would have thought myself that the right thing to do now is to go as quickly as we can for a straightforward resolution of the Security Council, calling on both sides to observe immediately a cease-fire, and not to tangle it up with other questions. This is being discussed at the moment in New York and those are the instructions that I have given to my noble Friend, Lord Caradon.

The question of calling for reinstatement of the United Nations force is, I would have thought, much more a part of a long-term solution to the problems in the area. What we are faced with is not finding a long-term solution now, but with the short-term problem—the immediate problem—of getting the fighting stopped. It is surely better to go straight for that.

On the question of a four-Power conference, I have made it clear this morning to the representatives of the other members of the four Powers how strongly I think this situation calls for the convening of such a meeting—it could be at United Nations level in New York—and that we should get together. That message has been conveyed to my opposite numbers in their capitals.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be making a statement on his talks tomorrow, as the right hon. Gentle- man knows, but the talks to a large extent covered matters other than this.

On the question of a declaration about the Gulf of Aqaba, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, important as that was last week, what has now happened has somewhat overtaken it.

Mr. Mayhew

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement that Her Majesty's Government have no intention of taking sides in this matter will be widely welcomed?

Will my right hon. Friend also note, in relation to the question of the Gulf of Aqaba, raised by the right hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home), the grave danger in the new situation of the Government identifying themselves too closely with the Israeli point of view on that point? May we assume, therefore, that the Government's policy now is for diplomatic means to limit and shorten the war without showing partiality to either side?

Mr. Brown

What I have said today I said firmly, and meant, last week. Taking sides on the merits of this issue is not required of us. What is required is to get a situation in which the solution to the problems which undoubtedly exist can be obtained by negotiated methods whereby an equitable arrangement can be arrived at which can honourably be advanced on both sides.

Last week, we were talking about the Gulf of Aqaba, which at that stage looked both to me and to the House as being the likely flash-point and the most important issue to try to take care of if we were to avert a war. We have to recognise that this morning's events have to some extent, though not wholly, overtaken that situation. We now have a war in which the starting point was elsewhere than the Gulf of Aqaba.

The right thing for us to do, with our colleagues on the Security Council and others who have interests in the area, is to work as hard as we can to bring about a general cease-fire as quickly as we can in order that we can talk about the problems that exist.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the widest possible support will be given to any initiative to achieve a cease-fire, preferably through the United Nations, and, in default of that, outside it?

May I ask, first, what is the position at this moment of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation in view of the report put out by the Israeli Government that the office of that organisation has been overrun by Jordanian troops? Secondly, can the right hon. Gentleman say what civilian cities on either side have been attacked? Thirdly, what is the position of shipping in the Suez Canal at the moment?

Mr. Brown

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the importance of trying to get a ceasefire. It is with this that at the moment I shall concern myself more than other things.

As to U.N.T.S.O., I have no firm information that the office has been overrun. I saw the report referred to. At the moment, many reports are coming in, and in the very nature of things one has to wait a little while before one is sure that any of them are accurate. Certainly, U.N.T.S.O. was operating in the Jerusalem area this morning without any question and may well be operating elsewhere, but, frankly, at the moment the situation is too confused. I may be able to tell the House a little more about it tomorrow.

I have no reports at the moment of civilian cities being attacked, although there are a number of reports, some of them I think accurate, about airports which are either in or very near civilian cities being attacked, but there does not appear at the moment to have been any confirmed information about an actual attack upon cities.

Shipping, at the moment, seems to be moving through the Canal, but, as the right hon. Gentleman will have noted, I have advised all British shipping to delay any movement towards the Canal for another 24 hours.

Mr. Shinwell

In view of the failure of diplomatic activities and the failure of the Security Council to come to a decision during the last two or three weeks, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether there is any guarantee that the Security Council will at its next meeting come to a decision and that that decision will not be affected by a veto? In any event, will the decision be of a character which will prevent the Arab countries from continuing their act of aggression against the State of Israel? They have been in a state of war against Israel for many years.

If there is a failure by the Security Council to promote a cease-fire, are we to witness a situation where the might of the Arab States will overwhelm this small country, to which we have been pledged for many long years against aggression? When people who have recently had discussions with General Nasser talk about not taking sides, is it not more likely that what they mean is not taking sides which will affect the intention of the Arab States, which might mean the destruction of the Jews in the State of Israel?

Mr. Brown

I do not think that it is right to talk about the failure of diplomatic activity. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] What produced the situation this morning it is much too early to say. However, I would just say to the House, and to those who murmured just now, that for two weeks now we have, because of very intensive diplomatic activity, held the situation and prevented war from beginning. I must say that I hoped that this could go on. What began it this morning I do not know; we shall have to find out.

In the end the United Nations and the Security Council must be the one real hope of getting a degree of law and order into the world, and I propose that we should go on to use that organisation for this purpose.

Mr. Shinwell

What a hope!

Mr. Brown

I am not willing at this stage to envisage a failure to get a cease-fire resolution through the Council.

As to not taking sides, I simply mean what I say. I understand my right hon. Friend's emotions and feeling and I am not by any means casting any doubts upon them. I recognise why he holds them. But I am certain that anybody standing at this Dispatch Box at this moment will do more good not only in our own national interest, but certainly in the interests of peace in that area, if he avoids being thought to be taking sides of the merits of the issue.

Mr. Sandys

While doing everything in their power to bring about a cease-fire, and avoiding taking sides in this conflict, will the Government bear in mind that most of us feel very strongly that any eventual settlement must recognise Israel's right to live as an independent nation?

Secondly, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, now that the International Red Cross has confirmed that poison gas has been used in the Yemen, and in view of the possibility of the extensive use of gas against Israel, he will urgently take up this matter at the United Nations?

Mr. Brown

On the first point, the right hon. Gentleman is repeating much of what was said in last week's debate. None of us on either side of the House said that Israel, like any other nation which has recognised the United Nations and is a full member of it, did not have the right to live. That is the very minimum that we can say in this matter. On the other hand, there are many issues involved here, many problems and many arguable points. I still think that we should do far better at this stage not to revert too much to what we were talking about last week, but to concentrate on reducing passions and emotions so that we can get a cease-fire. This is the big issue.

On the question of the use of gas in the Yemen, as the right hon. Gentleman says, the International Red Cross has now been able actively to confirm this. The whole House will, I am sure, deplore and condemn the use of this agent by any Power in any cause. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] While I do not join the right hon. Gentleman in anticipating any use of it in this conflict—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—because I think that it would be very silly to do so—the right hon. Gentleman may be quite sure that Her Majesty's Government, in the discussions at the United Nations and elsewhere, will see that full account is taken of what we have now discovered.

Mr. Ellis

Can my right hon. Friend say what his policy is with regard to arms shipments to this area, to either side? Can he tell us what arms over which we have still some control are on their way? Can he tell us how much and to whom, if supplies are already in transit? Also, can he say what his policy in future is likely to be?

Mr. Brown

It has never been the policy to discuss in the open shipments of arms that the country makes to anybody, and I do not think that it would be of much value if I were to do so at this point. However, we have contracts already entered into for shipments of arms to various parts of the area, as have other Governments, and I am urgently in touch with them as to the action that could be taken about this in view of what has happened.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that, although many of us would entirely agree that the great Powers would be wise to keep out of this dispute if.they possibly can, there is, nevertheless, a very clear distinction to be made between the Palestine Arabs and Egypt, and that the sympathy that some of us may have for the Arab cause is confined to the Palestine Arabs and not to Egypt?

Mr. Brown

Since the purpose at this moment must be to get a cease-fire, and since one of the parties to the cease-fire must be the United Arab Republic, I should have thought that on the whole that question could be regarded as being not too helpful.

Mr. Abse

Does the Foreign Secretary appreciate that the citizens of the State of Israel are composed largely of a remnant of those who were exterminated as a result of the ineffectiveness of international action? Does he further appreciate that if Israel is not to have to depend desperately upon itself it must have some greater assurance that there will be effective international action, particularly in the Gulf of Aqaba?

Mr. Brown

I take note of what my hon. Friend says. I know the area very well, and I know the people very well indeed. I still think that we will serve the cause of peace better by not pronouncing on the merits of the case, as either the Israelis or the Arabs see them at this particular time. Let us get the cease-fire, and then the merits of the case can be argued out. If any of us, whether we are Jews or non-Jews, whether we are Zionists or non-Zionists, whether we have in the past taken a "pro" or "non-pro" Arab attitude, get ourselves into a situation today of arguing the merits, we will thereby only reduce our capacity to help bring about a cease-fire.

Mr. Longden

Do not Her Majesty's Government think it a good thing to take sides between international rule of law and international chaos? Was it not precisely because so many nations refused to take any responsibility whatever and pursued what would be called today the permissive policies—what the Germans called the "ohne mich" philosophy—that the League of Nations petered out in impotence and we had to suffer the Second World War? What are our European allies doing about this?

Mr. Brown

I cannot answer for our European allies. What I am doing is to make quite clear to our European allies, as I have done this morning and in the past, what we together ought to do about it. I certainly take the view that we should be on the side of international law and order and not on the side of international chaos. I certainly take the view that we should be prepared to stand up and be counted for that, even when times are difficult.

I still say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to some of my hon. Friends behind me, that there is a moment when pontificating against these issues can be counter-productive. I urge upon the House that this is one of those moments.

Dr. John Dunwoody

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that, if the reports that Jordanian troops have occupied the United Nations headquarters in Jerusalem, using force against United Nations troops, are true, this casts very grave doubts on the response of the Arab world to the United Nations' representations, and that this underlines the importance of Her Majesty's Government making direct approaches to other involved Governments?

Mr. Brown

We are in danger of pass-sing judgments too soon on reports that might very well turn out only a little while later to be inaccurate. I therefore urge that we do not do so. One of the reasons why I urge this in the case of Jerusalem is that, despite the report, U.N.T.S.O. was able to organise a ceasefire and was able to get this endorsed by both sides. The fact that there has since been sporadic firing suggests that it has not been all that successful.

On the other hand, it certainly sounds as though it is no longer engulfed in war, and, therefore, it could not have been wholly taken over. It must be operating to some extent. I urge my hon. Friends and the House as a whole not to be in too great a hurry to pass judgment on reports which, by their very nature, must be slightly suspect.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

While warmly welcoming the right hon. Gentleman's attitude today, may I ask whether it is not nevertheless the case that the present evidence suggests that the fighting was begun by the Israelis?

Mr. Brown

I do not know how the hon. Gentleman is able to form that judgment. The information available to me would most certainly not put me in a position to decide the answer to that question. All my contacts with my colleagues in other capitals this morning—which have been very extensive—make it quite clear that they are in the same position as I am. The position is anything but clear.

Mr. Heffer

Referring to the suggested four-Power meeting, would my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that if such a meeting is held he will press for a complete embargo on the sale of arms to all sides in this conflict? Would he not also agree that all large Powers bear a great responsibility in this situation, precisely because we have been selling arms over the last few years to various States?

Mr. Brown

As I made clear in my speech last week, we have a very much better record when it comes to not disturbing the balance by the sale of arms than some other countries. My hon. Friend will remember that I gave some evidence for that. As to what one should say at the four-Power meeting, at whatever level we can get it, I can only say that I take note of what he said. I have a good deal of sympathy with what is behind it. My hon. Friend had better leave it to see if I can get the conference organised first.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Is it not highly dangerous for anyone to speculate that the Israelis possibly started this war at this stage? In view of the grave danger of this whole situation, will the Foreign Secretary undertake to keep the House informed as it becomes clearer, if it does, even later this evening?

Mr. Brown

It would be ill-advised to speculate either way about how this began. There are very many possibilities of how it could have begun, and very many possibilities of mismanagement and all kind of things. I canvassed to the House, last Wednesday, the sort of ways in which it could happen without anyone really intending it to happen. One has to keep that as a possibility in mind, too. It would not help at all to speculate on the origins of this. History will settle that for us, I have no doubt.

I said in my original statement that we will keep the House fully informed as things develop. Certainly, my right hon. Friend or myself will make another statement tomorrow, when the situation in some respects may be clearer. But if reports are required at even more frequent intervals than that, as the situation develops, we will certainly give them to the House.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am sure that the House will respond to the request for restraint at this moment. May I return to the resolution before the United Nations? The right hon. Gentleman, perfectly sensibly and rightly, talks in terms of a cease-fire, but the cease-fire will not hold for long unless there is a policing force to maintain it. That is quite certain. Will the right hon. Gentleman at the same time, if he cannot include this in the resolution, see that the machinery is set up for this purpose, or use all his influence in this respect?

Mr. Brown

One of our difficulties over the last week or so, when we did buy a bit of breathing space, was that of getting the necessary number of votes—the right hon. Gentleman is well aware of the mechanics of all this—for carrying any resolution of that detailed kind through the Security Council. This is one of the things that has held it up.

If we were to try to include something of that sort into a cease-fire resolution we should run into the same situation, whereas the immediate need is for a call to all parties to cease fire. It would be wiser to go for that as being likely to be obtainable rather quickly and then to use the time that that buys us to see what arrangements we can then make, by negotiations, and in what form a United Nations presence can be restored to that area, from where, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, I regret so much that was ever removed.

Sir B. Janner

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, during the negotiations, he will keep in mind the provisions of the Charter, and also the fact that for many years Nasser has said that his intention is to destroy Israel and that the method that he has adopted during the last few weeks, the plans that he has made, appear to be in accordance with that determination, as was the case under other circumstances elsewhere within our own memory? Will he please see to it that the United Nations emphasises what the Charter requires and ensures that it is put into proper operation?

Mr. Brown

I certainly believe that action in the U.N. and elsewhere should be based upon the provisions of the Charter, and for that we shall argue and work.

As to the reference to President Nasser, there are many ways in which what he has said from time to time can be interpreted. I still say to my hon. Friend, knowing very well his deep interest in this, that we shall help the cause he has at heart as well as the cause of peace most, by not getting involved in this at the moment.

Mr. Tilney

Is not what is happening here the strongest possible argument so far for the establishment of a permanent United Nations international peace force, with some teeth?

Mr. Brown

I would have not the slightest difficulty in signing a resolution to that effect. The greater difficulty is to bring it about.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

As the Prime Minister himself has stated that this is a case of one nation being determined to annihilate another nation, that other nation being a member of the United Nations, how can my right hon. Friend talk of the impossibility of taking sides?

Mr. Brown

Because I do not believe that the issue is as black and white or as simple as that.

Mr. Tuck

The Prime Minister said that it was.

Mr. Brown

I have been very careful today, and I was last week, as was my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, to avoid taking positions that would have inflated emotions. I am, however, bound to say to my hon. Friend that there is a case which the Arabs can deploy. It is a case which has not only plausibility, but legality and force. If one is to emphasise, as ray hon. Friend has done, one side, one is bound to have to put the other side as well. I do not think that doing this helps very much in a situation in which I want to get the emotions down so that we can get a cease-fire.

Mr. G. Campbell

Will the Government immediately propose the urgent strengthening of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, because it contains the U.N, observers who are now on the ground—this is a practical suggestion—and they will have a vital rôle in obtaining and maintaining the cease-fire?

Mr. Brown

Yes. I do not disagree with that at all, although I am not willing at this moment to pronounce on what form the restored United Nations presence should take. It might be one of a number of forms. There might be a chance of getting the force back on both sides of the border this time instead of one side. It might be that through either a strengthened U.N.T.S.O., or by a combination of both, we can restore it.

It might be that the Secretary-General, either in addition to those two things or as a beginning, should have his own representative in the area. This is not the moment to pronounce upon what the form should be or to assume that any one form is mutually exclusive. These are all possibilities.

Mr. Bellenger

While the whole House recognises the genuine attempts of my right hon. Friend to call a halt to this conflict by diplomatic measures, nevertheless we are quite conscious that they may not succeed. Does not my right hon. Friend therefore think that it would not only be courageous, but would help his efforts, if Britain at this time announced that, while the conflict is on, she will cease to supply arms to either side?

Mr. Brown

I answered that question earlier. There are a number of suppliers of arms, a number of countries with contracts not only signed but in many cases already entered into. This is a problem which affects more than ourselves. I am consulting the others urgently about the action that we should take.

Earl of Dalkeith

Has the Foreign Secretary considered the advisability of the Prime Minister flying out to Cairo forthwith to have personal talks with President Nasser with a view to seeing whether he can assist him to find a solution to the question of withdrawing without losing face, or does he think that that would be a complete waste of time?

Mr. Brown

I am bound to say that a little mischief in me wondered what was the motive in that question.

Mr. Paget

Does my right hon. Friend remember that we tried intervention once in Spain? [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonintervention."] Non-intervention. When he says that the Arab aggressor may have something to be said for him, does he also remember Neville Chamberlain saying that there was something to be said for the Sudeten case in Czechoslovakia? Does he realise that I have horrible memories of the 1930s coming back to me?

Mr. Brown

My hon. and learned Friend may well have horrible memories of the 1930s. So have I. But I believe that we do not make things better for ourselves by assuming that history always repeats itself. There are always differences in the situation, and there are very great differences in this one from the situation with which my hon. and learned Friend is seeking to compare it.

Mr. Heath

I think that the whole House has shared the Foreign Secretary's view that in this confused situation it is too early yet to judge the situation and that he is absolutely right at the United Nations to aim at bringing about a ceasefire at the earliest opportunity. At the same time, I am sure that he is the first to recognise that the cease-fire itself will have to be followed by measures for what the Government described in the debate last week as an equitable settlement.

As so much is at stake in this matter, I humbly suggest to the House that we should share the Foreign Secretary's restraint today. The right hon. Gentleman has recognised that we shall want to debate this issue and its ramifications at a very early opportunity, and we welcome the chance of discussing this now through the usual channels.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker