HC Deb 09 March 1979 vol 963 cc1700-21

2.58 p.m.

Mr. Peter Tapsell (Horncastle)

I beg to move, That this House believing that peace and prosperity in the Middle East is of great importance also to the whole Free World; notes with concern the trend of events in that area; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government, in concert with her friends in the region and elsewhere, to give urgent consideration to the development of policies calculated to preserve the independence of all the countries of the Middle East and the maintenance of peace between them. When I last spoke on Middle Eastern and energy matters on 28 June 1973, I quoted Mr. Brezhnev as saying that the Middle East is the world's most dangerous area ".—[Official Report, 28 June 1973; Vol. 858, c. 1826.] Despite the wars now being waged in South-East Asia and Central Africa, that is probably still the truth of the matter. The fact that the President of the United States has at very short notice cancelled all his appointments in his own country in order to be in Cairo today and Tel Aviv tomorrow underlines the importance that he rightly attaches to the maintenance of peace and stability in this area. So do the recent firm statements by his Defence and Energy Secretaries, and also the press reports that the United States fleet, military aircraft and missile units have been moved into appropriate positions.

These are all most welcome signs that the political severity of the challenges that may now face the free world are at last stirring the United States out of its post-Vietnam hesitancy for which such a high price has already been paid in terms of the extension of Soviet power and influence throughout the world.

The present situation throughout the Middle East is one of extreme uncertainty. Will the second Camp David talks succeed? Who will eventually emerge as the new rulers of Iran? What are the implications, particularly for Kuwait, of the renewed move towards union between Iraq and Syria? How secure is Saudi Arabia? Will South Yemen, equipped and trained by the Soviet Union, instigate guerrilla attacks on Oman as well as on North Yemen? Will the immigrant communities in the Gulf States become restless? What is the future for democracy in Turkey? How far will Islamic fervour transform the scene in predominantly Sunni Muslim countries?

Those are just some of the pertinent but unanswerable questions that we must ask ourselves, as those living in the area are asking themselves. The answers that events will give, possibly in the near future, are likely to have a direct effect, for better or worse, on the life of everyone in Britain and throughout the world. Geography has given the Middle East a key strategic position throughout recorded history, but modern science, by making the existence and prosperity of the industrial world dependent on oil, has added an extra dimension to its importance.

The free countries of the industrial world consume about 35 million barrels of oil each day. As The Economist pointed out in an article last week, five countries—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates—between them supply three barrels out of every five that Western Europe imports, two barrels out of every four that the OECD imports, and one barrel in every three of the 35 million barrels that the OECD countries consume each day, including their own production. If the Soviet Union or its agents become masters of the Middle East, they will be masters of the world. They know this, and it is the prize above all others for which they strive.

Against this strategic and economic background, many commentators have predicted that the recent revolution in Iran will prove the most significant revolution since the Russian Revolution of 1917, which brought the Communists ultimately to power there. There is little doubt that the Iranian revolution was a genuinely popular revolution, reflecting the rejection of the previous regime by virtually the whole urban middle class and industrial working class.

One reporter, describing the mood in Tehran as the Imperial Guard threw off their uniforms and fled in tears, quoted the famous comment of Charles James Fox on the fall of the Bastille: How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world! And how much the best! I still comprehend and sympathise with Fox's sentiment in the historical context in which it was uttered, but I do not forget that the fall of the Bastille was followed by a generation of tyranny, bloodshed and war, which spread right across the world.

The potential dangers of the Middle East situation are most serious, but we must not exaggerate them and thus paralyse our will to overcome them. The reality is enough. In three important respects there may have been a tendency to exaggerate the likely political and military consequences of the Iranian revolt. The economic consequences are a different matter.

It should not be readily assumed that the internal upheaval in Iran and the hostility to the monarchy there will be echoed among the indigenous peoples, at least, across the Gulf with their ready access to a more relaxed and intimate style of leadership. It is significant that the Iranians, or Persians, as they once again prefer to be called, do not regard themselves as belonging to the Middle East and are insulted if that is suggested. Understandably, they are intensely proud of their unique history, culture and language, as well as of their Shi'ite Muslim faith, which gives them a special and somewhat separate place in Islam. They are not Arabs. Both they and the Arabs are conscious of that, and it would be out of character for the Gulf Arabs to be over-influenced by the Persian example or slavishly to imitate it.

Secondly, we should not exaggerate the extent of the shift in the military balance of world power that has resulted from the disintegration of the Shah's over-equipped and over-large forces. These forces were regarded with justifiable apprehension on the other side of the Gulf, but no one who visited the allegedly crack Iranian battalions in the Dhoffar area of operations could have supposed that the Iranian Army was capable of seriously opposing the forces of the Soviet Union. I never understood the purpose of the Shah's armed forces on the scale which they reached. As some of my hon. Friends know, I have long argued in private that in terms of the world balance of power those forces were a liability rather than an asset to the free world, as perhaps many of the East European satellite forces are to Russia. Their alleged effectiveness was based on a myth. The Imperial Guard—the so-called Immortals—has joined the Maginot Line among the military myths of history. It is better that these things should happen in peacetime. Nevertheless, myths are an important part of politics. The appearance of a power vacuum in such a sensitive area is highly dangerous.

In assessing a third fear, one should not view the Muslim religion as a stalking horse for Communism. Certainly, potentially explosive Islamic fervour is more than usually evident in almost every Muslin country from Morocco to Indonesia. It is a political as well as a religious event of the first importance, which may threaten the political stability of a number of countries. But it is in no sense Communist inspired, except negatively, in that the Muslim Reformation is partly at least a reaction to Marxist, as well as to capitalist, ideology. Russia will seek to profit from instability and discord wherever it occurs and where possible to place Reds under beds, but it is not easy to conceal a Red beneath a prayer mat.

Mullah Barzani, the famous Red Mullah, died last week. I met him once. I may have been misled, but he did not seem very Red to me. I thought that he was an old fashioned Kurdish nationalist. Eighteenth-century England would have hailed him as a hero, like the Corsican national List Paoli. The Ayatollah Khomeini was misjudged in a different way. The Western capitalist world has become so deeply secular that it is difficult for some commentators to comprehend the strength of religious faith in others or even to respect it. That is why many were still scoffing at the Ayatollah Khomeini up to the moment when he rose up from his devotions and returned in triumph to his country. The French President did not make that mistake.

Whatever its ultimate consequences may prove to be, the Ayatollah has given a most remarkable example of the triumph of religious faith and personal character over apparently overwhelming physical obstacles. He has shown anew that the spirit really can overawe the sword. The name of Ayatollah Khomeini may come to be hailed, with those of Gandhi and Luther, in the Pantheon of dynamic religious leaders of significant political movements.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I am following carefully what my hon. Friend is saying and, as usual, I agree with it and admire it very much. On the point about the triumph of the faith over the sword, however, does my hon. Friend agree that some of the orchestrated violence that Khomeini's supporters were able to set in train in Iran happened because there was an inflow of money and weapons, for example from the PLO and possibly from Libya, which may have sustained the religious faith of which my hon. Friend speaks? In short, the faith is powerful but it needs weapons, too.

Mr. Tapsell:

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that religious faith is only the yeast in these situations. As in the cases of Gandhi and Luther, there was a great deal of orchestrated violence and ulterior political and economic motivation behind the support all three received. But I do not think that that undermines the essential point that I was seeking to make, which I did because it is important for Britain to have a more sympathetic and realistic attitude to the Ayatollah than has yet been presented by our media.

Of course, the Ayatollah's actions and the success that he has achieved have created in Persia, temporarily at least, a situation approaching chaos. But that need not necessarily prove to be a continuing source of comfort to Russia because Russia has more to fear from nationalism and Mohammedanism than any other country in the world, especially when those two forces are closely linked together, as they usually are. The Russian Communists must be very concerned lest their own extremely large Muslim population—numbering perhaps as many as 40 million—may be set alight with a religious and nationalist fervour that is wholly foreign to a centralised, godless, Marxist dictatorship.

It should never be forgotten that by far the greater land mass of the Soviet Union is inhabited by peoples who are either Asiatic or Mongolian, and that those vast areas have always been exploited from Moscow and, previously, from Petrograd as inferior colonies by a hated European Russia which has ruled them for only little more than a century.

The fall of the Shah may prove to be a source of great anxiety to the Soviet Union, which almost certainly explains partly why the Russians gave him so little trouble until the very last weeks of his period of power.

For the three reasons that I have given, I do not believe that we should lose our sense of proportion about the scale of the problems which face the free world in the Middle East as a result of the Persian revolution. Nevertheless, they are real and serious. Speaking outside this House on 16 February this year, I predicted that the world would face further large increases in the price of oil during 1979. Every passing day brings new evidence of this. Reduced oil extraction rates are becoming fashionable. The economic effects of this may be very great, and could become devastating. But, again, politically and economically it should not be forgotten that the Soviet Union is also expected to be a major importer of energy in the 1980s.

The more immediately political problem is to reassess the security of the largely defenceless States on the Arabian side of the Gulf. I am sure they are doing so themselves. Already, following events in Iran, we have seen the first tentative signs of Saudi Arabia beginning to distance herself politically a little further from the United States. That is a process which may continue and may be imitated by others unless reassurance is forthcoming, and is forthcoming quickly and convincingly.

In his brave decision to fly to the Middle East, President Carter is demonstrating in the clearest fashion that he regards peace and stability in the Middle East to be a vital American interest. It is also a vital British interest. No doubt the United States naval presence in the Indian Ocean will be further strengthened and the base at Diego Garcia will be more fully and more formidably equipped. These are necessary military steps which Russia will understand. But self-protection is the best protection, particularly in areas where any taint of neo-colonialism is politically damaging, as the Russians have already learned to their cost in Egypt and Somalia, and as they will probably discover in due course in Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Many of the Arab States have been learning to co-operate with each other with increasing effectiveness in the economic sphere as their multinational funds for economic and social development bear witness. A single Gulf currency will come before long. I wonder whether the increasing signs of Russian interference in the affairs of the Arabian peninsula will not now persuade them to co-operate more closely and more formally with one another in the military sphere against the threats of both external aggression and internal subversion.

There is, of course, the Central Treaty Organisation, to which both Britain and the United States are signatories. One of the main clauses of that treaty reads: The Pact shall be open for accession to any member State of the Arab League or any other State actively concerned with the security and peace of the region and which is fully recognised by the contracting parties. When one considers that the other four original signatories of the CENTO treaty were Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan and that no other country has applied to join, while Iraq, the only Arab signatory, withdrew exactly 20 years ago this month, one wonders whether this treaty has any useful role to play in the future defence of the Arab world. I doubt it.

Nor would it, I believe, be other than counter-productive for the Americans to be seen to be taking the initiative in setting up a new Arab version of CENTO. But if some of the Arab States decide to do this on their own, that would be quite another matter. I would not be surprised if Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrein and Kuwait decided that it was now in their interests to establish an Arab defence league to guarantee the security and integrity of their six countries, both individually and collectively. These six States have much in common besides contiguity. They have the same religion, the same monarchical form of government, the same Arab culture, large oil revenues, small indigenous populations and substantial immigrant communities.

Although they have been fierce in their rivalries in the past, a common danger may well bring them much closer together in the field of national security. Here is a challenge for Arab statesmanship. Once they have formed their Defence Council, they would be fully entitled to call for the help of their friends, in whatever form they thought desirable as need might arise. One other advantage of such a community of the six, an Arab military community, is that none of those six countries has a common border with Israel, so that no one in Tel Aviv need have fears that it would be other than a genuinely defensive arrangement.

That brings me to the fourth critical issue in the Middle East, the most important in the judgment of the peoples of the region. Oil, foreign interference and the internal conflicts between traditionalism and radicalism are subordinate, in the passions they arouse, to the issue of Palestine. With the President of the United States in Cairo today and due in Tel Aviv tomorrow for critical talks, I shall confine myself to making two general points about the Arab-Israeli dispute. They are based on 30 years' personal experience of the Middle East, during which I have visited every country in the region, some many times.

First, while the step-by-step approach to a settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Arab world, initiated by Mr. Kissinger and pursued by President Carter, has much to commend it, I do not believe that it would be in the long-term interests of peace and stability in the area if an impression were created that Egypt had become fundamentally separated from the rest of Arab opinion. That is not to say that the rejectionist States should be given a power to veto. But at least the tacit consent of some other moderate Arab States is essential to any successful settlement, if it is to last.

The phrase "a separate peace" is very dangerous and damaging, and it should not be, or appear to be, either an aim or a result of American policy. I do not believe that such a peace would last. On the contrary, it would be more likely to provide a cause of new bitterness and conflict, which would outlast the political careers of signatories of any such treaty.

Secondly, any far-reaching settlement which goes well beyond the type of very limited agreement embodied in, for instance, Sinai I and Sinai II must take closely into account the broad principles underlying resolution 242 of the United Nations, and in particular clause 2(b) of that resolution, which affirms the necessity For achieving a just settlement for the refugee problem. A reasonably acceptable settlement of the refugee problem—a truly just settlement now lies beyond earthly attainment—lies, in my judgment, at the heart of the problem. Although many of the refugees will never want to live in it, and it will never be a truly viable State and is bound itself to be a source of future trouble, this fact remains: no settlement, by whoever it is agreed, will peacefully survive if it does not provide a national home for the exiled Palestinian Arabs. The people of Israel, whose forefathers struggled for so long for their own national home, are better placed than anyone else to appreciate that truth.

3.24 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

The whole House will be extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Horn-castle (Mr. Tapsell) for launching this debate. It is a sad fact that, partly because of our position in the world, partly because of the inevitable pressure on parliamentary time, and partly because of other factors connected with the immense rapidity of events in the Middle East, the House has had no opportunity in recent weeks to consider the prospects for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty—a momentous event worthy of its own separate debate—or the events in Iran, beyond one or two most welcome statements by the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers as the position of British subjects in Iran was affected.

I wish to express my sincere gratitude to my hon. Friend for his initiative in introducing this subject. I congratulate him on his dazzling expertise in Middle Eastern affairs. His knowledge of the subject impressed us all. His comments met with widespread approval in the House. Although I appreciated my hon. Friend's reluctance to say too much at this critical stage about the negotiations in Egypt and the discussions which are to take place tomorrow and over the weekend in Israel, I believe that it is now timely for the House to put forward some of its views.

We all wish to express our admiration for the efforts of President Carter, President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin in the courage that lies behind their dynamic initiative. We appreciate the amazing vision which they have displayed in this complicated area and the hard-nosed negotiations which they have conducted.

We all wish President Carter well in his bold and courageous move in visiting the immediate area and in trying to take in hand the various threads of the problem. I am not one of those who take the view that President Carter has not reached the heights in American domestic politics, or indeed in his foreign affairs vision. In many ways the United States is fortunate to have Mr. Carter as its President. The Middle East is also fortunate to have President Carter on the scene showing his particular brand of courage.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Unless he fails.

Mr. Dykes

Unless, as my hon. Friend says, President Carter fails. It is an enormous gamble. Perhaps when President Carter departs from the scene we shall see another great anti-climax in the Middle East. That may happen if it is left to the Foreign Ministers and the Secretary of State again to carry on the negotiations. We shall have to wait and see.

This is yet another dramatic opportunity which Egypt and Israel must grasp. I am known in this House as an admirer of all Middle Eastern countries, but I have a particular admiration for Israel, for what it represents and for its achievements over the years since its foundation. However, it must be said by friends and admirers of Israel that the present opportunity will be an enormous challenge to the talents of Prime Minister Begin, the Israeli Cabinet, the Knesset and the Israeli public.

Perhaps it is well at this moment for friends of Israel in this House to express one or two views on the position. Initially we all watched the negotiations, we then saw them fail, and we all know that they were dramatically revived and have now reached the present position. We have watched with a certain amount of nervousness as certain internal policies have been pursued by the Israeli Government in the occupied territories—policies which cannot help in delicate and subtle negotiations.

Therefore, with, I hope, as much fervour as I can command on a rainy Friday afternoon, I issue a dramatic and sincere appeal to Prime Minister Begin and his colleagues not to allow certain of those policies to go too far down a road which will lead to difficulties later when the interpretation and the practical effects of any agreement possibly reached in the next few days will have to be worked out.

In that connection, I think of the religious settlements which are now developing not near the border of the State and the occupied territory but well beyond. I think also of some of the physical expansion taking place on the Arab side of Jerusalem. Are those sensible developments when, obviously, Egypt, in an increasingly isolated position vis-à-vis other Arab countries, is still trying to pursue negotiations?

I believe that all friends of these negotiations and of their potential success will echo that sentiment but will at the same time call on Mr. Sadat and the Egyptians to do what my hon. Friend said was necessary, that is, take this as a total accord in the area, relating it to the other Arab countries, and not allow themselves to become isolated from them. That is one of the great dangers.

I come now to the first part of my hon. Friend's remarks, which were directed to the momentous and in many ways frightening and appalling events in Iran. Whatever one may think about the previous regime—I am sure that strong views could be expressed about that regime if time allowed, and I certainly had many anxieties and doubts about it—nevertheless the economic progress which was undoubtedly being made in Iran under the previous Government has now been interrupted.

I hope that that interruption is temporary and will not have a lasting effect, because, for all the religious fervour which may be being generated now in that country, I do not believe that those citizens who were emerging painfully from what amounted to a feudal economic situation over a very short time would be prepared not only in the cities and conurbations but in the country areas as well to go back to the dim and gloomy prospects of a feudal economic existence and a subsistence life. I believe that their expectations have been aroused, and in that sense it is interesting and welcome, not only for the internal reasons there but for geopolitical reasons connected with the supply of oil and overall stability in the Middle East, that the new Government in Iran are already talking about a much more rapid resuscitation of oil sales and supplies both for themselves and for the rest of the world than would have been imagined even four weeks ago.

I regard that as extremely encouraging, and I hope also that once the internal affairs of Iran have been sorted out rather more, a legitimate semi-secular Government—or at least one less based on religious fervour to the exclusion of all else—will be able to emerge, whatever the Ayatollah himself may decide to do by way of his own leadership and tutelage in that country.

Because of the pressure of time, I shall mention only one or two other factors connected with this whole theatre. We must all pray for the gradual revival and rehabilitation of the Lebanon. This was not mentioned by my hon. Friend, but I am sure that there is enormous good will in the House for that process. My own hope, however ambitious and amazing it may sound at the moment, is that the people of Lebanon will try to go back to some kind of almost self-adjusting political mechanism between the various religious, political and social communities in that country as time will allow. Perhaps the Minister will be able to say a word about that.

I shall not dwell on the Gulf States, which my hon. Friend knows far better than I do, save to say that I wholeheartedly support the idea which he enunciated for some kind of military arrangement. I believe that such developments will be aided in so far as we are still a country with one foreign policy directed to that whole area, and that they will be aided also by the recent visit made by our Head of State. Although that tour was, of course, inevitably ceremonial, it had many important consequences transcending just the ceremony and the position of our Head of State in making so successful a tour.

My final remark in that context is that the more that one thinks about it, all the time—in other areas as well, but above all, I suppose, in the Middle East, with its particular problems at present— this country cannot manage with a foreign policy constructed merely by ourselves alone. We really need an EEC foreign policy, not transcending all the national foreign policies of the member States—that would be absurd and, indeed, unnecessary—but something that embraces a greater spirit of "political cooperation" than we have seen so far. That, after all, has been only an occasional thin layer of common co-operative activities by the member States. We need much more than that.

It is interesting that on several past occasions in the Middle East, whenever the EEC has spoken with one voice—on the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, and on the United Nations position in that context, and so on—a great impact has been achieved in the Middle East as a whole and particularly in Arab countries. That policy can be advanced and developed in the future, even though France often appears to be somewhat out on a limb.

I repeat the congratulations of the whole House to my hon. Friend. We are all grateful that he has launched this debate.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. It is most unusual to appeal for brevity in speeches on a Friday, but there remain only 25 minutes. The Minister wishes to reply to the debate and quite a number of hon. Members want to speak. I hope that they will be brief.

3.36 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The hon. Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell) moved the motion very eloquently and obviously with very great knowledge of the area concerned. I certainly agree with the terms of the motion. I do not suppose that anyone would dispute that, with all the difficulties that we face, everyone desires peace, and a lasting peace, in the Middle East.

I want to make some brief comments about Israel. The House ought to understand exactly what Israel's position is today. I agree with the hon. Member that it is our fervent hope that President Carter's visit will result in peace being brought to the area and in every effort being made to secure a lasting peace throughout the whole of the Middle East.

However, everyone who has visited Israel and who knows the effort that has been put into it during all these years and the great democracy that has been built up there will know that the one real friend, in the real sense of the term, that Britain possesses in the area is Israel. The House must understand that it is all very well talking about Palestinian problems, about people being refugees and about refugee camps, but we know perfectly well that these camps have been kept as an eyesore by Arabs for many years. That problem could have been tackled many years ago.

I remind the House that all that Israel wants, with all that it has built up, is security and peace. The very emblem of Israeli existence is the word "Shalom"—peace. It wants to live in peace. In order to live in peace, it must have security. It is all very well talking about the Arab States and their attitude to Israel. If one wants an example of what the position of Israel truly is, one has only to look at Russia's attitude towards Israel to see the enmity which is a fester that is being maintained throughout the area.

As Israel has said, it is ready to discuss all the things that have been put forward by President Carter in conjunction with Mr. Sadat and to ensure a peace settlement on a sound basis. But the peace secured by Israel must be a peace that has with it the element of true security. The idea, for example, of building up on the West Bank an enemy State, a Palestinian State, which would have hostility towards Israel, would mean great danger to Israel.

How can Israel, surrounded by enemies as she is, suffering as she has, expect to live in peace if there is continual danger to security? I hope that President Carter's visit will result in such a peace treaty on a sound basis. I join in the hope that affairs in the Middle East, which are certainly menacing, may be dealt with in an effective manner. I know how important is the effect upon this country. However, I hope that the House will understand and appreciate Israel's position.

3.41 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell) on having raised the debate and made such an effective and powerful tour d'horizon of the area. The he should be more debates on this subject. I could speak for a long time. However, in the circumstances I shall confine myself to one general and one specific point.

The general point, which is perhaps the most crucial at present, is the question of Camp David and its consequences. I refer to whether the visit of President Carter to the Middle East at this moment can supply the vital missing link of Camp David. There will be no solution to the Middle East problem unless there is a solution of the Palestinian question. Will such a solution emerge from the visit of President Carter? It will be very interesting to hear what the Minister has to say on this matter.

The flaw in the Camp David talks was that the Palestinian problem was not adequately dealt with. That put the moderate regimes in the Middle East, and the greatest friends of the West, the Saudi Arabians and King Hussein of Jordan, in an impossible position. Even if they wished to support the initiative, they could not do so because the basic and essential requirements for a fair, comprehensive settlement were not there.

My question is this. Is President Carter in the Middle East to try to bring about the essential conditions of linkage without which the Camp David peace treaty will not function, or is he there to achieve a peace settlement at any price? If it is the latter—which would boil down to a separate peace treaty between Israel and Egypt—it could have disastrous consequences for Western interests in the Middle East. I dearly hope that he is there to bring about the essential linkage which was not present in the Camp David settlements as they emerged.

My second point is specific. It has not been raised before in this House. There was a debate in the other place on a report of a Select Committee on a Bill dealing with foreign boycotts. That debate took place in January. Although the Bill was drafted in general terms, those who took part in the debate assumed that its aim was to counter the Arab boycott of Israel.

There is no reason why Israel should not seek to defend itself against the Arab boycott by enlisting support in this country. The main shortcoming of the debate in the other place was a tendency to treat the Arab boycott as though it were an isolated phenomenon that could be discussed and judged, purely on its demerits, as an interference with international trade and the freedom of British exporters to conduct their business without political harassment.

All those who spoke condemned the boycott, but even the minority of speakers who came out firmly against any attempt to legislate—including the Minister of State in the other place—did not attempt to put the boycott in its proper context of an Arab resort to economic warfare to counter, in some measure, the effects of Israel's overwhelming military superiority. They based their rejection of legislation on the possible damage to British export trade alone. In so far as they conceded that the boycott ought to be regarded as a form of economic warfare, they failed to relate it in any way to the manner in which Israel is exploiting its military superiority. This, instead, is the true context in which the boycott ought to be discussed and judged.

For many years Israel has used its military power to deny the Arabs the right to return to their homes in Israel and the occupied territories—

Mr. Weitzman


Mr. Walters

—to colonise Arab territory acquired by war, including Jerusalem, to deny the people of Palestine their inalienable right and to undermine the basis for a peace settlement approved now by a wide consensus of the rest of the world.

Mr. Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

I find this an extraordinary defence of the Arab boycott, which is an intolerable interference with British trade. The argument has nothing to do with conditions in the Middle East. It has to do with whether British traders are impeded by a third party from trading in the usual way. There is absolutely no justification at all for it. We are not Arabs in this House.

Mr. Walters

Absolutely. We are not Arabs in this House. We are not Israelis in this House either. If we are looking at the question from the point of view of British trade, the arguments are overwhelmingly in favour of the fact that there is much greater trade to be had with the Arab world. If we are to look at the question, we should not look at it purely from a trade point of view. If we look at it from a trade point of view, my right hon. Friend will concede my point immediately. He has only to look at the trade figures.

Mr. Dykes

Does that mean, therefore, that my hon. Friend supports wholeheartedly the Arab boycott of Israel?

Mr. Walters

The point I am making is that if we are to discuss the Arab boycott of Israel we have to discuss it in the context of the situation in the Middle East and not purely in such a limited way.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Walters

I should like to continue, because we are rather short of time. The point I am making is that the Arab boycott, just like other manifestations of Arab-Israeli hostility, needs to be kept in perspective as part of a wide-ranging conflict in which there is right and wrong on each side. If anyone, from a standpoint of sympathy for the Arabs, and particularly for the Palestinians, ever ventures to suggest that there is only one aspect to take into consideration, that is criticised—

Mr. Wietzman


Mr. Walters

The hon. and learned Gentleman says "Rubbish". He made a speech earlier in which he talked about the refugee camps being kept there to exacerbate the situation. Anyone who has visited the refugee camps knows that that is glaring rubbish. I did not interrupt the hon. and learned Gentleman earlier, because of the pressure of time. The point is that the Arab boycott has to be kept in perspective. This is only one specific point that I want to make, because it was not made in the debate in the House of Lords. It is only peripheral but it is relevant. The question of Camp David, which is vital and essential, is the one which I would like the Minister to deal with when he replies to the debate, for on that really depends whether we have peace in the Middle East or whether we have perhaps a temporary peace and then eventually war, with all the destructive and damaging consequences to the West.

3.49 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Frank Judd)

I should like unreservedly to join those who have congratulated the hon. Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell), not only on having given us this opportunity to debate the Middle East and related matters but on the extremely informed and objective way in which he initiated that debate.

I think the tragedy of this afternoon is that the time has been so short for an issue of such immense importance, not only to this House but for all those whom we represent throughout the United Kingdom. The way in which the debate has been conducted has been a demonstration of the House at its constructive best. If we could have more debates in such a constructive atmosphere, the British people would applaud us.

The subject of the debate is of tremendous importance to this country. We have close and friendly relations with the great majority of Middle East countries. In my visits to the area I have found that our voice is listened to with great respect and that there is much good will towards the British people, as well as an awareness of the limit of Britain's power.

Our economic interests in the Middle East are among our most substantial outside Europe and North America. Despite the increasing contribution of North Sea oil to our needs, we still import and shall continue to import substantial quantities of oil from the Middle East. British firms have made an important contribution to the rapid development of the oil-rich countries. Our exports to the area are immensely valuable to the British economy.

For the past 30 years the area has lived in the shadow of political tension and military conflict. Thousands of lives have been lost, and untold sums have been spent on armaments and on destruction which should have gone on development. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes.

More recently, great wealth from oil has ushered in unprecedented social and economic advances in the area. Progress in these fields, rather than in building up arsenals of weapons, is the best guarantee of security, both external and internal. Disaffection thrives where people are deprived of their basic rights and of a fair share of the prosperity they see around them. Britain and other European countries have contributed to social and economic developments through their aid policies and through sharing ideas and expertise.

However, rapid development has brought with it serious strains. Discontent has appeared, along with heightened political awareness. The speed of development has introduced an element of cultural shock. Traditional values reject the introduction of alien customs, and this has injected new problems into our relationships with these countries.

The Arab-Israeli dispute lies at the heart of the Middle East problem. Successive British Governments have placed the search for peace in the Middle East among their highest priorities in foreign policy. The search has been arduous and slow, with many setbacks. President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 established new hope. In declaring support for his pursuit of peace, the Government have consistently made clear their belief that his aim is for a comprehensive settlement of the problem. That is our aim, too.

The greatest achievement of that visit was to break down barriers of suspicion and distrust which have destroyed all previous efforts to make peace. That same spirit inspired the success of the Camp David meetings last September and it is vital that it should not be lost.

Hon. Members referred to President Carter's courage and unremitting efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East. I emphasise that he deserves our admiration and support. The Government wish him every success in his current mission. Agreement is closer than ever before.

A peace treaty between Egypt and Israel will remove one important source of tension and will make another war less likely. That, in istelf, would be a significant achievement. It would demonstrate that the hostility and mistrust of several decades could be overcome if both sides are prepared to compromise and show good will. A treaty would demonstrate that differences of opinion can be smoothed over in the course of intensive negotiation.

These are important lessons, but such an agreement would not in itself bring peace to the Middle East. We must accept that a large number of Arab Governments have expressed their strong opposition to negotiations on the basis of the Camp David agreement. An agreement between Egypt and Israel will therefore have to be judged on its contribution to the goal of a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement on the basis of the United Nations Security Council resolutions, taking into account the legitimate rights of Palestinians. No one in this House or outside it who has visited Lebanon, who has visited Jordan, who has seen the explosive deprivation of the refugee camps or who has studied the problems of the West Bank can pretend that it would be possible to construct a lasting peace while the Palestinian issue is unresolved.

I believe that the American Government are fully aware of this and are as determined as anyone to widen negotiations and come to grips with the problems of the West Bank and Gaza. There can be no question of resting on oars. An Egypt-Israel treaty should be the first building brick in this construction. It should pave the way for further difficult negotiations on a transitional period of full autonomy on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Beyond that, the question of the final status of the West Bank and Gaza would remain to be resolved.

If these negotiations are to have a chance of success, certain steps are particularly urgent. First, I suggest that Israel should refrain from all activity to extend its settlements in the occupied territories. The continued expansion of Israeli settlements is an obstacle to peace. The Government appeal to Israel to desist from any measures to increase its settlements in the occupied territories, and thus avoid jeopardising prospects for an overall peace settlement in which all countries and peoples of the area can join.

Secondly, there must be unequivocal recognition by all the Arab parties of Israel's right to live in peace within secure and recognised frontiers. Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with parties to the conflict who have not accepted this principle. This is why, while the PLO's formal position does not accept Israel's right to exist, it is extremely difficult for us and many other Western countries to talk with the PLO. I look to a time when this problem can be overcome. It is equally unrealistic to expect a settlement to be realised without the participation of all the parties concerned, including representatives of the Palestinian people.

I should also like to mention—as the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) rightly did—the situation in Lebanon. I have been able to visit that tragic country twice in the past 15 months. I have the greatest respect for the efforts which that country's Government are making to restore peace and stability. The British Government have declared their support for Lebanon's independence, unity and territorial integrity.

Following Israel's invasion of South Lebanon almost a year ago, the United Nations Security Council established a peace-keeping force to end the fighting and to help the Lebanese Government restore their authority. The Government strongly supported the establishment of this force and played an important role in providing logistic support for it from Cyprus. Despite the character of its members, that force has still not been able to fulfil its mandate completely.

In his report to the United Nations Security Council in January of this year, the Secretary-General spoke of the lack of co-operation with the United Nations force on the part of the Christian irregular forces in the area and the Israeli defence forces. It is vital that the United Nations force receives the full cooperation of all parties involved in the Lebanese conflict. Without it, the danger of further violence which could escalate into a more serious regional conflict will remain high. At the same time, the Government hope to see a determined and realistic effort to extend the presence of the Lebanese Government—civilian as well as military—to the south.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary has recently covered the Government's view on developments in Iran in his statement to the House on 20 February and in his answers to subsequent questions. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the enormous success of Her Majesty the Queen's visit to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This visit has undoubtedly strengthened the already friendly relations with those Governments.

In addition, my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and I had the opportunity of discussing with the Governments of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States their preoccupations in the light of events in Iran and the review of the future of the region. What I heard from many of the leaders in the Gulf would reflect almost exactly some of the sentiments expressed in debate this afternoon. There is the recognition that security cannot be bought or provided like an umbrella. It has to be built upon the will and determination of the countries individually and of the region as a whole. But, of course—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.