HC Deb 06 June 1967 vol 747 cc796-809
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 1, 3, Q4, Q8 and Q18.

During my visit I was able to have very full discussions over a wide range of topics with the Prime Minister of Canada, the President of the United States of America, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the President of the Security Council. Much of the content of these discussions must, of necessity, remain confidential, but I can tell the House that the situation in the Middle East figured prominently in all of them; and that, in addition, President Johnson and I discussed the situation in Vietnam in some depth.

My talks about the Middle East were aimed at securing conditions in which the countries concerned in the Middle East could be fairly asked to maintain continued restraint and not to resort to violent action. In particular, they related to the problem of the freedom of passage in the Straits of Tiran.

As my right hon. Friend said yesterday, the events of yesterday morning have overtaken these discussions, but the House will recognise their direct relevance to any long-term settlement capable of securing and maintaining peace in the Middle East on a basis which could be regarded as honourable by all concerned in the area. It will be our objective in securing the cease-fire for which we are pressing to ensure that such a long-term settlement is achieved. The issues I was able to discuss in such depth last week will of course, be highly relevant.

I now turn to the current situation. Since my right hon. Friend spoke to the House yesterday, there has been a flood of news, a great deal of it conflicting, about the fighting in the Middle East, though a pattern seems to be emerging. The most serious operations on the ground seem to have been on the United Arab Republic/Israel border, but information about them is unclear and disputed. Yesterday's air action by the Israel Air Force against United Arab Republic airfields was extended to airfields in Jordan and Syria. There are also reports of advances by Israel forces into Jordanian territory and the capture of the towns of Jenin and Latrun. The local truce in Jerusalem which was arranged yesterday did not, unfortunately, hold, and fighting continued into the night.

I would like to add the voice of Her Majesty's Government to that of His Holiness the Pope and others who have appealed for a cessation of fighting in the Jerusalem area before terrible damage is done to places which are sacred for three of the great religions of the world.

A most serious development has been the deliberate spreading by the United Arab Republic Government of entirely false accusations that British and American air forces have taken part in the fighting on the side of Israel. It has been reported that President Nasser has announced that he will, in retaliation, close the Suez Canal to navigation. President Aref of Iraq is also reported to have said that he has ordered a cessation of the pumping of oil to the Mediterranean for the same reason and there have also been reports that the Kuwait Government have forbidden oil exports to British and American destinations.

Her Majesty's Government have already categorically denied this monstrous story, and all our Ambassadors in the Arab countries have been instructed to make clear to the local governments that this is a malicious and mischievous invention. One story alleges that aircraft from British aircraft carriers have taken part in the fighting. During the past week the only British aircraft carriers in the area have been H.M.S. "Victorious", which has been at Malta, and H.M.S. "Hermes", which has been at Aden, each over 1,000 miles away. In view of these incontrovertible facts, we are calling upon the Arab Governments not to disrupt commercial arrangements which are as much in their interest as ours on the basis of such false statements.

In New York, the Security Council met promptly as foreshadowed, but then rose for private consultations, which continued for 14 hours. I can only tell the House of my regret that a resolution calling for a prompt and general ceasefire has not yet been passed. I think that it is vital that there should be no further delay.

As regards the shipment of arms, as my right hon. Friend informed the House yesterday we are consulting with other Governments who are suppliers for the area. The House will realise the desirability of ensuring, so far as we are able, that any embargo covers all arms supplies to the area, from whatever source. Pending the outcome of our consultations, we are suspending any further shipments to any of the countries involved.

Mr. Heath

The House was glad to hear the Prime Minister confirm that, in his discussions with President Johnson, he made clear that any measures to assert the rights of the maritime Powers in the Gulf of Aqaba are still relevant and they must take their part in any settlement for permanent peace. I believe this to be so. Second, we agree with the Prime Minister that it is absolutely right to use every means possible to show to the Arab countries that British forces are taking no part in the conflict.

May I now put three questions, recognising that the situation is still very fluid. First, in the Prime Minister's discussions with President Johnson, what contingency plans were made to deal with the situation which may now have been brought about, with the Suez Canal closed and certain Arab countries denying oil to Britain and to the United States?

Second, is the right hon. Gentleman now having any discussions with European colleagues about what action can be taken to deal with this situation? Perhaps he could state the Government's view on whether President Nasser is entitled in these circumstances to close the Canal. It would appear that, even on his own position in 1957, he is not entitled to do that, and that it should be possible to get an interim order from the International Court making this clear.

Third, in his discussions with President Johnson, did the Prime Minister propose changes in his policy for British forces in the Far East and in Aden as a result of the present situation?

The Prime Minister

I need not comment on the right hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. We are in agreement there.

The principal contingency plans which we started to discuss were those which would have been required in a different state of affairs in relation to the Aqaba situation. But, of course, we arranged to keep in the closest touch, which we have done, on any change in developments if fighting were to break out. We had some discussions on oil, and those discussions will continue, although, as regards both the United States and the European countries which might be involved if this plan were proceeded with, the right forum would be the O.E.C.D., which has its own special arrangements for dealing with all matters, emergency or otherwise, in relation to oil.

As regards the Suez Canal, the news is very conflicting and confused on whether there is a temporary or more than temporary closure. There seems to be some confirmation from the area that the Canal is at this moment closed. We do not know how long it will last. As to legality and entitlement to close it, the right hon. Gentleman is right: closure to peaceful nations—and Britain is in that position—whether for a reason of the kind which, I hope, I have satisfactorily dealt with this afternoon or for any other reason, is quite beyond the legal capacity of President Nasser.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Will the Prime Minister go a little further and say what understandings were reached in his discussions with President Johnson with regard to maintaining United Kingdom oil supplies from across the Atlantic?

The Prime Minister

There was no detailed discussion about that particular contingency, apart from the arrangement for urgent discussion if a situation like this were to arise. I am sure that, despite the feverish heat and passion in the Middle East at this time, the Middle Eastern countries concerned, and especially their Governments, will recognise that what they are talking of doing is not so much cutting off our oil but cutting off our markets from their oil, and that this might have very serious effects for their long-term sales position. This country would not be willing to be put twice in a decade in a position in which this kind of threat or blackmail could be held out. There might be a number of people in this country thinking in terms of long-term contracts with other oil supplying areas, which might have the most profound and devastating effects, which we should all regret, on the Middle East.

Mr. Marten

Did the Prime Minister discuss with President Johnson the question of forming a United Nations peacekeeping force? Does not he agree that, if there is to be a cease-fire, the first thing which the United Nations will probably want to do is to put in a substantial peace-keeping force as soon as possible to separate the contestants, and that it should get on with the formation of that force now?

The Prime Minister

In the discussions last week, it was widely agreed among those with whom I spoke—both the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States, and it was the basis of a lot of our discussions in the United Nations building—that as part of a long-term settlement we would need some kind of United Nations peace-keeping force restored to that area, but including the Israel side of the borders as well as the Arab side of the borders.

Mr. Blaker

I understood the Prime Minister to say just now that closure of the Suez Canal to peaceful nations would be quite unjustified. I am sure that he would not wish to give a false impression. Perhaps he would care to clear the point up. Does not Article I of the Convention of 1888 lay down that the Canal will always be open, in peace or in war, to ships of all nations?

The Prime Minister

I was not attempting to give a legal construction of the whole Suez Canal Convention. What I was trying to make clear is that we are not at war with Egypt, as the tendentious propaganda suggests. We are in their context a completely peaceful nation, not taking sides at all in this dispute and fighting. Clearly, in these circumstances, the Egyptians have no right to close the Canal to us and to others because of trumped-up statements of the kind which have been made.

Mr. Spriggs

The people of North and South Vietnam have been suffering death and destruction for many years. What steps is my right hon. Friend prepared to take to bring about a peace conference on Vietnam?

The Prime Minister

As I said, I discussed this at considerable length with the President of the United States, because we both agreed that the crisis in the Middle East was no reason for neglecting a much more long-standing crisis in Asia. The position remains exactly as it was before; we are prepared to take any initiative, as is the United States, to get armistice talks, to get ceasefire talks, and to get a peace conference, whether at Geneva or anywhere else, if only Hanoi would come to the conference table with us.

Mr. Alfred Morris

In my right hon. Friend's discussions with the President of the United States, was consideration given to bilateral or multilateral action outside the United Nations if the United Nations finds it impossible to conciliate in the grievous conflict in the Middle East?

The Prime Minister

To a considerable extent, the context in which we were talking has been changed by the events of yesterday. We were concerned with what could be done to secure some understanding about freedom of passage through the Straits of Tiran. In those circumstances, we decided to put full weight behind the Security Council and, at the same time, to try to secure a multilateral declaration of maritime Powers, and only if those efforts failed should we be prepared to consider other matters. In the event, while the Aqaba question which we discussed will be highly relevant to a peace settlement, as the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition agrees, it has been overtaken now by the actual outbreak of fighting.

Mr. Thorpe

I accept that the Government's first priority is to obtain a cease-fire through the United Nations, but does the Prime Minister recall that in 1950 the Labour Government made a firm declaration, in company with the Americans and the French, that they would intervene to prevent the violation of armistice or frontier lines in the Middle East? On the assumption that Israel were threatened with being driven into the sea, are we to take it that the Government prefer to wash their hands of this obligation, or do they believe that they have a continuing moral obligation for the future of this State?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman's question is extremely hypothetical. Statements about the tripartite declaration have been made by successive Governments; a statement was made by one of my predecessors and I myself have made a statement about it. The tripartite declaration was made principally in the context of arms supplies at a time when the signatories to it were the only arms suppliers to the Middle East. The situation has been very much changed since that time. Mr. Macmillan, in 1963, and my right hon. Friend and I since, have made clear that we do not think it relevant to the present situation. What is relevant is our obligation as members of the United Nations.

Mr. Driberg

When my right hon. Friend discussed Vietnam with the President, was any reference made to the disclosure in Toronto that the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs had threatened total nuclear retaliation against China if China should enter the Vietnam war, even with conventional weapons?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. No reference was made to that. I have not seen that particular report and I cannot say anything about that. The only member of the United States Government who has authority either to threaten or invoke such a threat is the President of the United States, and I am satisfied that that is not his intention.

Mr. Sandys

Can the Prime Minister give us some indication of the kind of action he has in mind to secure the reopening of the Suez Canal?

The Prime Minister

I have made it clear that it is only in the past few hours that this report has come through. We have been checking on its accuracy, content and meaning. I think that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish us to jump to any conclusions about what our attitude should be. I am sure that he will be particularly concerned that we should not jump to wrong conclusions about how to set about it.

Mr. Hale

As a number of the combatant Arab nations are members of the sterling area, is not this war on their side being partly financed at the expense of the £? May not it be necessary, in view of the embargoes they announced today, for Her Majesty's Government reluctantly to consider a moratorium upon those States which have declared a trade war upon Britain?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure if the opening part of my hon. Friend's question meant—I am sure that he did not mean this—that we were some way financing this war. We are not financing it in any way. It is true that a number of the countries on both sides hold balances in this country. This is a commercial matter, and I am quite sure that my hon. Friend's suggestion would not be appropriate in present circumstances. We have had no suggestion in any form of economic warfare against this country. I think that it would be quite wrong to consider that solution.

Mr. Tapsell

While we all recognise the importance of not allowing the conflict in the Middle East to drag the great Powers in to conflict with one another, will the Prime Minister recognise that many of the small Powers in the Middle East are deeply reluctant to have their affairs settled by the great Powers? Will he, therefore, direct his mind to calling a peace conference with one of the smaller neutralist Powers in the chair?

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

Which one?

The Prime Minister

That raises the question, "Which one?". I think that this matter should be left to the Security Council. The Security Council is properly representative of great Powers, small Powers, Middle East Powers and neutral Powers. I think that it is a matter for the Security Council. We have given every support to the proposal of the President of France for close four-Power co-operation under the aegis of the Security Council to that end. As the House will know, my right hon. Friend and I are in very close touch at this moment with the heads of Governments of the other three permanent members of the Security Council.

Mr. Dickens

Did the Prime Minister make it clear to President Johnson that the British Government will dissociate themselves from any further American escalation of the war in Vietnam, and, in particular, will strongly oppose any American land invasion of North Vietnam.

The Prime Minister

The President of the United States fully understands our position so far as any further escalation is concerned, including any crossing of the border or invasion of North Vietnam.

Mr. Burden

While the Prime Minister has given the complete lie to the malicious invention of Colonel Nasser regarding British air cover over Egypt yesterday, does he agree that while that invention might indicate the massive blows that were struck against him it also indicates a very dangerous situation in which, whenever such blows are struck, Colonel Nasser might well try to blame us so as to involve us with Russia?

However successful the Israelis may be, they can never conquer the Arab States, so will the Prime Minister undertake to put into discussion immediately with the United Nations considerations to try to ensure the future of Israel when this war has ended?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman was quite right to stress the dangers which, as he indicated, are only part of the dangers. I have made clear that when my right hon. Friend meets the Arab Ambassadors later today he will give them chapter and verse for our denial of the malicious statement that has been made. This is also being made clear in the capitals of the countries concerned.

The second point was on?

Mr. Burden

The limited success of the Israelis.

The Prime Minister

I do not think that there has been any suggestion of a war of conquest here. The Prime Minister of Israel has said that Israel seeks no territorial changes, but wants to be in a position to resist aggression. I think that we can help best in these circumstances by not entering into declarations on these questions. Our job is to help, with those on the Security Council, to get a peace which satisfies the honourable requirements of all parties in the area.

Mr. Winnick

While we want to get a cease-fire as quickly as possible, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend is aware that many people in Britain consider Israel now to be in the same position as we were in 1940, standing alone and righting those who want to destroy her and put her people to death?

The Prime Minister

I think that historical parallels, particularly in the Middle East, can very often lead to the wrong conclusions and dangerous courses of action. We have stated our position; it was fully stated in the debate last week. The Israeli Government have made it clear that they are fighting in this conflict on their own and do not desire outside help. It would be very harmful for me to follow up the kind of question put by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Walters

What new steps does the Prime Minister propose to take to bring about a cease-fire irrespective of which way the war happens to be progressing?

The Prime Minister

This is being done through the Security Council, where my right hon. Friend is in hour-by-hour touch with Lord Caradon and giving him instructions as to the line he should take there. We are working for a cease-fire as quickly as possible so that we can then discuss the more long-term problems that need to be laid down if we are to have some kind of guarantee against this kind of tension and war arising again. In addition, as I have said, we are in very close touch with the other Governments principally concerned, not themselves being Governments involved in the fighting.

Mr. Molloy

In his discussions with the President of the United States, did my right hon. Friend raise the question of the United States now facing reality and making a move to recognise the People's Republic of China at every level of diplomacy?

The Prime Minister

Not on this occasion, Sir. There was a lot more to talk about, and the President of the United States fully understands our point of view on this, which has been explained both by my right hon. Friend and by myself in speeches to the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I understood that the Prime Minister, in talking about an embargo on arms, rightly said that this needed close consideration because it must cover all suppliers. I understood him to go on to say that this country was suspending the shipment of arms to any country in the area, or am I mistaken? He will be aware that the Soviet Union is doing nothing of the kind. How long will the shipments from this country be suspended if the Russians do not take the same action?

The Prime Minister

We are trying to find out the position with regard to the other countries. A statement has been made by France which we are trying to verify and get elaborated, and the position of the Soviet Union needs to be known more clearly than it is at the present time.

But I agree with what I think is the right hon. Gentleman's point of view, that whatever is done should not be on a basis which creates unfairness as between one side and another in the Middle East. We have, of course, arms deliveries on order not only to Israel, but to other areas of the Middle East. We are, therefore, temporarily making this administrative suspension of shipments while we explore the situation with other countries, and we shall review the matter again tomorrow. It is a 24-hour suspension in the first instance.

Mr. Mendelson

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that if it is found that the Soviet Government are continuing arms supplies to Egypt and to Syria, whose Governments have publicly pledged the destruction of Israel, our country will not leave the people of Israel without the wherewithal to defend themselves.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are discussing a very grave issue.

The Prime Minister

I have said that we believe that the proper settlement of the arms question should be on a basis of fairness and balance between the two sides who are fighting. Certainly, if we were to find that arms were going from anywhere else to one side, that would be a very important issue to be taken up in our reconsideration of the matter tomorrow. At the moment, we are by administrative action stopping shipments, whether to Israel or to Arab countries, until we have a clearer picture of the international arms supply to those areas.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In view of the disappointing news which the Prime Minister has given of the state of affairs in the City of Jerusalem, and the fact that serious damage there would be a world tragedy, will he consider taking an initiative with all the Powers concerned to have Jerusalem declared an open city, in the same way and for the same purposes as Rome was so declared in the latter stages of the last war?

The Prime Minister

I should like to make it clear that not only do we fully support the appeal made yesterday by His Holiness the Pope to that very end, but that we have gone further and made plain our willingness, in addition to what is happening in the Security Council, to assist in a local sense to do anything to bring about a cease-fire to protect Jerusalem, not only to stop the damage and carnage there, but to protect the Holy City itself. We have actually been at work in trying to arrange a local cease-fire in Jerusalem.

Mr. Heffer

Further to the point concerning arms sales, will my right hon. Friend say what discussions are now taking place with the Soviet Government to stop Soviet arms going to the Middle East?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will know that we are in the closest touch with the Soviet Government. I have exchanged a number of messages with Mr. Kosygin on the broader issue, my right hon. Friend is in close touch with the Ambassador—I saw the Ambassador myself this afternoon—and we are in close enough touch, I hope, to be able to establish the position on this question. When we have established it, we will consider in the light of that what our own attitude should be.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles

In view of all these threats to our interests and, indeed, to the interests of the Commonwealth as a whole, will the Prime Minister now make an unequivocal statement that Britain will maintain an effective presence east of Suez for the foreseeable future?

The Prime Minister

This raises a much wider question than the position in the Middle East, although it is, of course, a fair question, because it arose out of my talks with the President of the United States. We are considering that position. I can now take into account the views of the President. We shall be discussing the position with the Australian and New Zealand Governments during the next two or three weeks before an announcement can be made to the House.

Mr. Ginsburg

Notwithstanding what my right hon. Friend has said about arms supplies, would he be prepared to give the House an assurance that there will be no holding up over the next 24 hours of any request by the Israeli Government for essential medical supplies?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly consider the question of essential medical supplies. I agree that that might require other considerations. I was, of course, referring to arms for the actual fighting, and to arms for both sides.

Sir D. Renton

Further to the question by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), will the Prime Minister bear in mind that the initiative which he has used and will use further should also relate to the holy places at Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I think that I am right in saying, however, that those places have not been in any danger as yet, whereas there has been heavy fighting in Jerusalem. Our representatives in Jerusalem have shown great courage—they have been very much under fire themselves yesterday in a very dangerous situation—in what they have been doing to try to arrange a local accommodation in order to secure a cease-fire. If a cease-fire could be arranged, I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about extending it to other areas which were involved in the bilateral discussions between Israel and Jordan.

Mr. Kelley

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that it might assist clarification of the situation if Her Majesty's Government stated their attitude to the decisions which were imposed on the Middle East as a result of the tripartite action in 1956 and whether they agree that that situation should persist or otherwise?

The Prime Minister

If my hon. Friend is referring to the settlement made by Mr. Hammarskjoeld at the beginning of March, 1957, relating to the Gulf of Aqaba, the position of Her Majesty's Government and, I think, of the House as a whole, was made clear during the debate last week. As for other issues, we have now to try to get a settlement that will settle those issues, if we can, once and for all.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Would not the Prime Minister agree that perhaps the most disturbing element in the whole situation is the total breakdown of the United Nations and the Security Council? In view of this, will he urgently call a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the four great Powers, first, to see whether there cannot be an agreement about reinforcement of arms for the area and, secondly, if that should break down, to try to establish a cordon sanitaire to see that no arms come in?

The Prime Minister

No, I think that the right hon. Gentleman's approach is not the right one. I think that all of us feel, as was stated by right hon. Gentlemen opposite and by myself last week in the debate, that the United Nations has taken a serious blow by the decisions of three weeks ago. This was a point which I made strongly when I was in the United Nations building.

It must, however, be a matter for the Security Council now to secure a ceasefire. I believe that it is right for the four Powers concerned, instead of calling a conference at some time in the future, now to work, as we are trying to work, within the Security Council to get that. If it cannot be done by quadripartite co-operation in the Security Council, it cannot be got by quadripartite cooperation outside the Security Council.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I need not assure the House that Mr. Speaker shares the awareness of every hon. Member of the House of the gravity of the issues which we are considering. We must, however, move on now to the next item of business.

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