HC Deb 25 October 1973 vol 861 cc1475-85
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

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

I warned the House on 22nd October that we should not become too euphoric about the prospects for peace in the Middle East and that there were many difficulties ahead. The fragile cease-fire, although reinforced by a second Security Council resolution, has repeatedly broken down, mainly in the Suez area. My most recent information is that no fighting is in progress at present. The Security Council met again last night following a broadcast appeal by President Sadat for Soviet and United States intervention. But this proposal was not pressed in the Council.

There are already a few United Nations observers in the battlefield area. What we believe is needed now is the immediate despatch of substantial numbers of additional United Nations truce supervisors to the sensitive area, in whatever numbers the United Nations commander considers necessary. I understand that the Secretary-General has the necessary personnel on call. They could be sent to the battlefield within hours. We have been pressing for this from the start.

A draft resolution tabled by the non-aligned group in the Security Council provides for this, and we shall support it. It also provides for the establishment of a United Nations emergency force. I have always said that some such action would be needed and that we would participate if required to do so. That pledge stands. We favour immediate planning by the Secretary-General, as also envisaged in the non-aligned draft.

Before coming to any final decisions, we must be quite clear on what the mandate of such a force would be—what precisely it would be expected to do, and where it could be deployed. There is a great difference between truce supervision which is done by groups of unarmed observers and the guaranteeing of demilitarised zones. The latter is the kind of task which we have envisaged for a United Nations force. We shall be in the closest consultation with the Secretary-General and the members of the Security Council about the task, size, and composition of such a United Nations force.

At the same time as all this is going on, it is imperative that the negotiations envisaged in the Security Council resolution of 22nd October should start immediately. These negotiations should be used not only to make progress towards a settlement of the main Arab-Israel dispute but also to deal with the immediate situations of greatest danger to the cease-fire, and thus to the whole prospect of peace.

Hon. Members will have been concerned to see reports that the Soviet Union may be considering moving its own troops into the Middle East area and that American forces have been put on an increased state of alert. The United States Secretary of State, Dr. Kissinger, will be giving a Press conference a little later this afternoon, and hon. Members will understand that I should not anticipate what he will be saying then. As regards Russian intentions, we have no confirmation of these reports, but I have instructed our Ambassador in Moscow to seek clarification at the highest level immediately.

This latest news of an increased state of tension can, however, only underline what I have just said about the urgent need for the negotiating process to start between the parties, and at once.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) will forgive me if his copy of my statement does not exactly correspond to mine, because I was anxious to get the latest information to the House into my statement, and that I have done.

Mr. Callaghan

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy and for the statement, which the House will have heard with great interest.

Although the actions of the United States and the USSR in recent days seem to have had the purpose of reducing tension, nevertheless military moves of the kind which have been reported will increase world tension—this should be made clear—and could lead to misunderstandings and mistakes that neither side may desire but that could, if pressed, endanger the whole world. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will represent to both the United States and the USSR that they would be most imprudent to act unilaterally in this matter and that it should be their effort and endeavour to place their whole weight behind the creation of a United Nations force at the earliest possible moment.

I understand that it will be very wise to define the task and complexion of the United Nations force before it gets into place, but the urgency of the situation is such that I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not insist on having the last button on the last soldier's gaiter in place and will not mind a few rough edges in order to get this force into place at the earliest possible moment in order to prevent the serious difficulties that could ensue.

I am bound to say that the United States reaction, for whatever reason it may have been taken, appears to be a little like over-reaction. Have Her Majesty's Government been consulted about the United States air force which operates from this country and what state of alert it is in? Has permission been sought from us, and have we given it?

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must place the United Nations force at the earliest possible moment. Could he confirm that we would have troops available, if needed, to support such a force, and that we could provide logistic support for any other nation which might wish to provide troops but did not have that support?

Finally, I emphasise the point which the right hon. Gentleman himself made. If his information is correct, apparently no fighting is taking place at present, apart from small sporadic actions. In that case, I hope that he will represent urgently both to the United States and to the USSR our view that over-reaction at this stage will worsen matters and not improve them.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I respond at once to the right hon. Gentleman in what he said at the conclusion of his remarks. We are urging on the United States and on the Soviet Union that they should put their whole weight behind an international force and not try to deal with this matter bilaterally. If they could deal with it bilaterally in agreement, that would be another matter in the early stages, but I think the answer must be an international force.

The right hon. Gentleman hoped that we would not insist on the last button of the last soldier being in place and would be prepared to leave some rough edges. I understand very well what he means, but there are two operations here. There is a hugh Israeli salient, inside which are pockets of Egyptian troops all over the place, and the Egyptian Third Army is totally isolated on the east side of the Suez Canal. Therefore, there is a preliminary job to be done at the beginning—for example, to provide water and food for these troops, and other kinds of services.

The difficulty of introducing an international force right away is that the proper situation for an international force is in some de-militarised zone between the forces which has some definable lines, and that is not the situation yet. That is why I emphasised the importance of getting a line on which an international force could operate.

I am in touch with Dr. Kissinger about the alert. At this moment I do not know enough to answer the right hon. Gentleman's questions about it, but I hope to know something very shortly.

The answer to the last question of the right hon. Gentleman is—yes, we have troops available. We would have them available when necessary—when the Secretary-General of the United Nations, asked for them. We would be able to give logistic support. It will depend, I think, on the judgment of the Secretary-General himself very largely as to what the composition of the force might be following the initiative of the non-aligned countries.

Sir John Tilney

Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that any international force is so composed that it is not withdrawn suddenly, in whole or in part, at the whim of some national Government?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

That is an essential condition of putting in an international force.

Mr. John Mendelson

Will the Government give instructions to the British representative on the Security Council to oppose firmly the suggestion that Russian and American troops should go there? Apart from the grave dangers of either of those powers sending their troops on their own initiative, it would create grave dangers at present and in future because it would be unacceptable to those who hitherto have been engaged in the fighting.

Further, will the right hon. Gentleman press in the Security Council for a proposal that the force to be sent should be made up of people from countries which are regarded as trustworthy by all the sides involved—perhaps representatives of the forces of Canada, India, Sweden and Holland—so that we may be certain that nobody feels in danger of being treated with bias by any of the troops in the force?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I am sure that the right answer is an international force. I do not think that we want to be dogmatic about how it should be formed. That must be a matter for the Secretary-General's judgment, because he is able to judge how it would be most effective and how the parties would receive it. On the question of Russian or American troops acting alone, there is a great deal of difference between Russian and American troops appearing in the area separately, without any agreement between them on what they are to do, and an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union on how they should carry out their initial tasks.

Mr. Sandys

As the events of the last few hours have shown that it is impossible to rely on the joint action of the two super-Powers to resolve the present crisis, can my right hon. Friend assure us that he is in close touch with our European partners in the Community and in NATO with a view to agreeing upon a common European attitude in the present situation?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think that the European Community countries are certainly willing to help if that is desired. All of us could produce elements of an international force, but it must be for the Secretary-General to judge its exact composition.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there will be widespread support for his statement? Is he also aware that one cannot over-estimate the importance of the United Nations observers having adequate emergency forces, with ground and air cover, in what could be a very explosive military situation?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman two further questions? First, may there not be a case for the Red Cross carrying out a massive task of carrying supplies and food to the 30,000 Egyptian troops who are encircled? Secondly, can the right hon. Gentleman say what has been the attitude to date of the immediate disputants—Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel—to the proposal of the non-aligned States?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The Security Council meeting last night adjourned without a decision. We shall have to see what decision it takes when it resumes. Syria has now accepted the cease-fire. Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Israel have all accepted the cease-fire.

Mr. Churchill

In the event that it should prove to be the intention of the Soviet Union to intervene unilaterally with military forces in the Middle East, will my right hon. Friend give the assurance that the British Government will stand four square with the United States and with as many of our partners in Europe as possible in dissuading the Soviet Union from any such foolhardy enterprise?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I said earlier that there was no confirmation that that was the Soviet Union's intention. I think that it is better to pursue the diplomatic contacts and try to persuade the Soviet Union that the right way to proceed is by the introduction of the international force and not to take unilateral action.

Mr. Callaghan

Will the Foreign Secretary amplify a reply which he gave a few moments ago about the United States and the Soviet Union? He said that if there was a joint agreement between them it would be a different matter as regards policing the area. I take it that he means that it could not be done unless there was also agreement by Egypt and Israel.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

That goes without saying.

Mr. Driberg

Was it necessary for the right hon. Gentleman to wait until Dr. Kissinger has held a Press conference later this afternoon before trying to ascertain the significance of the so-called low-level alert? Cannot he get directly in touch with President Nixon—if he is still available [Interruption]—and express the great concern which is felt in this country and, indeed, throughout the rest of the world at the prospect of either of the super-Powers, whether it be the Soviet Union or the Americans, sending armed forces into the danger area? Does not this follow on the danger which was evident last week when 2,000 American marines were dispatched to somewhere near the danger zone?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We can certainly get in touch direct with President Nixon or Dr. Kissinger, and we are in direct touch, but I do not have the information at this moment.

Sir Gilbert Longden

In the meantime, will my right hon. Friend use his influence to strive to ensure that the terms of the Geneva Convention about the treatment of prisoners are honoured by all the belligerents, because it is reported that the Israelis have furnished a full list of their prisoners to the proper quarters whereas the two other States have not yet done so?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think that it is fair to say that the confusion has been such that it has been impossible to identify a great many of the prisoners, but I give my hon. Friend the assurance that I think it is right that the convention should be applied.

May I say in reply to the earlier supplementary question of the Leader of the Liberal Party that I will inquire from the Red Cross whether it thinks that it can do some useful work in this matter.

Mr. Barnes

As the United States nuclear strike forces have been alerted, and in view of the strain which the President of the United States is under at present, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that sufficient restraints are in operation to prevent the conflict from being widened by any unbalanced decision?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I hope that the strains which the President is under will not influence this matter at all and that he will be able to conduct his foreign policy exactly as it has been conducted before, without any restraints imposed by the domestic situation. I have no doubt whatever that Dr. Kissinger is in direct touch with Moscow at this time. We shall wait to see what he has to say, but I hope that there will be better news in a few hours.

Mr. Walters

Will my right hon. Friend agree that this time a cease-fire should be linked to a genuine and determined effort to find a lasting settlement? The matter must not be allowed to fall into suspense, which would be a certain prescription for fighting to start again in a few years' time.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

There was perhaps an inclination on behalf of the Soviet Union and the United States to think that the two sides might be allowed to look at each other and absorb some of the lessons of the war. I have said from the start that that should not be so and that the cease-fire must be followed up directly and quickly by the initial processes of a peace settlement.

Mr. Mikardo

While not dissenting from what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the necessity and value of an international force, may I ask him to bear in mind that if such a force is under the control of the Security Council it is under the control of a body the majority of whose members—seven out of 13—do not even recognise Israel and the majority of whose veto members—three, perhaps four, out of five—are manifestly anti-Israeli? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that that inevitably causes some difficulty?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I should not think that that need cause the Secretary-General any difficulty in providing an international force. It is not for the members of an international force to say whether they are anti-Israeli or pro-Israeli, anti-Arab or pro-Arab. They will have the job of keeping the peace in a demilitarised zone. That is the task of an international force. I do not think the hon. Gentleman's fears are valid.

Mr. Haselhurst

Reverting to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden), may I ask my right hon. Friend to make it an urgent priority of his diplomacy, once it is clear that an effective cease-fire exists, to press the relevant Governments to make a complete and early exchange of all prisoners?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir; this will be an essential element in the first stages of peacemaking.

Mr. Mayhew

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, despite his earlier reply, unless there is specific evidence of the alleged Soviet intention to send troops to the Middle East, the alerting of the entire United States nuclear deterrent at this stage must be taken as confirming the fears about the stability of judgment of the United States President at this time? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a widespread feeling among the Arabs that, despite specific and written assurances from the Russians, the Americans and Israelis are preparing to stall on their part of the bargain relating to withdrawal from the occupied territories, and that this would cause immediate tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and the greatest danger to the world as a whole?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

We have to be very careful about the language we use. I will repeat what I said earlier; namely, that hon. Members will have been concerned to see reports that American forces have been put on an increased state of alert—the actual state of alert is uncertain—and that the Soviet Union may be considering movement of its troops. There is no evidence at the moment that it is seriously considering this, but these are just reports of which the House must take note. I think we shall know a little more in a few hours' time before we decide what words we ourselves use about these reported movements.

Captain W. Elliot

If, as appears likely, large Egyptian forces are surrounded, unless they get food and water they are likely to die of hunger or thirst. Before that happens, does not my right hon. Friend feel that fighting may well break out again, and does he not feel that some approach should be made to see that those forces get food and water?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

Yes, Sir. There are now about 218 observers available in this area, and one of their first tasks must be to see how food and water can be got to isolated pockets of troops. The Secretary-General has all over the world about 2,000 of these people ready to put on their blue berets and go to such an area as this. I hope that the Secretary-General will be able to mobilise a much larger force to do exactly what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Captain W. Elliot) suggests should be done.

Mr. Heffer

In view of the gravity of the situation and the fact that the right hon. Gentleman says that he is now getting in touch with Moscow, will he give the House an assurance that before we conclude our business this evening he will give the House a further statement on the situation, because it is obvious that the House should know before we leave exactly what the situation is? Furthermore, is he aware that some of us are of the opinion that possibly this Russian proposal is mythical, and that this is much more to do with President Nixon's internal difficulties in the United States at present than it is with the situation in the Middle East?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I have just said some very cautious words in response to an earlier supplementary question put to me by the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew). This may be mythical, and I hope it is, but we shall know more about the situation in a short time.

Mr. Heffer

Will the right hon. Gentleman make a statement?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

If it suits the House, of course I shall came back to make a report tonight, if I have something worth while to report.

Mr. Wilkinson

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that this latest serious turn of events demonstrates the wisdom of the Foreign Secretary's policies in the Middle East, and that it would have been extremely unwise to fuel the fires? As a result, are we not now in a much better position to be able to act as a conciliator and peacemaker and as an acceptable component of any peacekeeping force?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I think that what my hon. Friend says is right, but I would much rather avoid taking any credit for anything one has done and look forward to what one may be able to do to stop a further outbreak of conflagration in this area.

Mr. Small

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that we should reflect on the opinions of men who will be finding themselves in the front line and must put ourselves in the position of volunteers in the Middle East situation? I remember having discussions with the British forces in Germany and Cyprus on points of this sort. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that it is the view of the men that we should call for volunteer forces in any peacekeeping situation? Is it not a fact that such forces may be forced to use their weapons to defend their own lives when they are caught up in difficult circumstances near the opposing forces? All I am asking is that we should consider the views of those men who will find themselves in this sort of dilemma and who, of course, cannot make their views known at the top table.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

If an inter3/30/2007national force is formed, it should be composed of the most experienced and disciplined people we can find.