HC Deb 23 November 1981 vol 13 cc620-9
Mr. Speaker

I call the Lord Privy Seal to make a statement.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take points of order as I normally do, after statements.

Mr. Canavan

My point of order concerns the Lord Privy Seal's statement.

Mr. Speaker

Very well.

Mr. Canavan

Some hon. Members have an unfair advantage over others, in that they get advance copies of the statements while the rest of us have to wait until the Minister makes the statement at the Dispatch Box. Is it in order for this privilege to be extended to members of the Social Democratic Party, who have flouted the will of their electorate?

Mr. Speaker

I do not decide to whom copies of statements are given, but certain courtesies are observed in the House, as I well know.

3.35 pm
The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Humphrey Atkins)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the request of the United States Government for a British contribution to the proposed multinational force and observers in Sinai. We and the Governments of France, Italy and the Netherlands, who received similar requests, have notified the United States, Egyptian and Israeli Governments of our agreement in the following terms: The Governments of France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, after consulting their partners in the Ten, have decided, subject to their constitutional procedures and to agreement on the practical and legal arrangements, to accede to the request of the Governments of Egypt, Israel and the United States to contribute to the multinational force and observers in Sinai. The four Governments state that their participation in the MFO is based on the understanding that:

  1. (i) The force exists solely for the purpose of maintaining peace in Sinai following Israeli withdrawal. It has no other role.
  2. (ii) The force is being established in its present form in the absence of a United Nations decision on an international force and its position will be reviewed should such a decision become possible.
  3. (iii) Participation by the four Governments in the force will not be taken either as committing them to or excluding them from participation in such other international peacekeeping arrangements as have been or may be established in the region; and
  4. (iv) Participation in the MFO by the four Governments is without prejudice to their well-known policies on other aspects of the problems of the area."
This decision is a symbol of our determination to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement following negotiations between the parties which would bring justice for all the peoples and security for all the States of the area. We welcomed the achievement of peace between Israel and Egypt as a first step towards that goal. Similarly, we welcome the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai as the first step towards the realisation of the call for withdrawal contained in Security Council resolution 242, which specifically declared inadmissible the acquisition of territory by war, and we believe that the international community has a duty to play its part, as necessary and with the agreement of the parties concerned, in peace arrangements in the Middle East. We are ready to participate also in such arrangements in the other territories currently occupied in the context of Israeli withdrawal. We regard our support for the arrangements associated with the implementation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty as quite distinct from and independent of the rest of the Camp David process.

In addition, we wish to express our firm support for the Egyptian Government and people and our belief in the need for stability and continuity in Egypt. Our decision to participate in the MFO follows from the policy, as stated in the declaration issued at Venice in June 1980 and in subsequent statements. This policy, while insisting on guarantees for the security of the State of Israel, places equal emphasis on justice for the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination. It also holds that the PLO must be involved in the process leading to a comprehensive peace.

We pledge ourselves to support the MFO. We also repeat that, together with our partners in the Ten, we will continue to work for the achievement of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East in all ways consistent with the principles to which we hold.

The Ten, as a whole have made a statement in support of our decision to participate in the following terms: The Ten consider that the decision of France, Italy, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom to participate in the multinational force in Sinai meets the wish frequently expressed by members of the Community to facilitate any progress in the direction of a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East on the basis of mutual acceptance of the right to existence and security of all the States in the area and the need for the Palestinian people to exercise fully its right to self-determination.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

I think that the House will feel that it is important that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel should be followed by the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Sinai. However, it is still unclear after the Lord Privy Seal's statement whether either the Arabs or the Israelis welcome participation in the force, whose purpose is to keep the peace thereafter.

We have all followed with bewilderment the muddle of the past few weeks, during which the Foreign Secretary and certain British ambassadors in the Middle East have played a conspicuous role. The statement raises more questions than it answers, and I propose to ask some of the questions.

First, is Britain planning to provide the force with troops as well as equipment? Are the other partners to the agreement also providing troops as well as equipment?

Secondly, I think that medieval schoolmen must have had something to do with the drafting of the basis on which the force is being contributed. I have been trying to find my way through the clauses and subordinate clauses that the Lord Privy Seal has read. Do I understand that this contribution is not connected with the Camp David agreement and that the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Sinai is seen by Her Majesty's Government and the other contributors to the force as implementing, in part, resolution 242 of the Security Council? Does their decision follow from the Venice declaration, rather than from anything else?

If I am right in believing that that is so, will the Minister tell us whether the Israeli Government have accepted the statement as the basis on which we should contribute troops? Does the PLO also approve?

Finally, I return to a question that I raised during the recent foreign affairs debate. The decision of the Western Powers is clearly an essential response to American requests, rather than to requests from Israel or the Arabs. Has the United States in return clarified its Middle East policy, which is currently in a state of extraordinary confusion? There would be a good deal of concern on both sides of the House if, in practice, our contribution to the force implicated us in developments of American policy in the Middle East which we could not support.

Mr. Atkins

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we were contemplating the provision of troops. The details remain to be worked out in detail—[Interruption]—but it is our understanding and our offer that troops will be available. We are given to understand that it will not be very many and that they will be support troops.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

How many?

Mr. Atkins

The answer to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) is "Yes". That applies to our European colleagues.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the connection with Camp David. As I said in my statement, the offer on our behalf is in support of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. He will remember that I said in my statement that we regard that as separate from the rest of the Camp David process. He asked also whether the Israelis would accept it. I hope that they will. The Israelis have been informed of our acceptance, but in accordance with the treaty they have the right of veto. However, it is our hope that they will accept the offer made by us and the other three Governments in the Ten.

The United States is clearly aware of our position and that of the Ten. It accepts that we are not departing from it, although we are glad to make this contribution in the manner that I have described.

Mr. Healey

I do not want to press the right hon. Gentleman again, but he must be more specific in answering my final question. The House well knows, and so does the world, that American policy in the Middle East is in a state of some disarray. Nobody in the United States or outside really knows what it is. During the recent foreign affairs debate I asked the right hon. Gentleman to assure the House that Britain would not offer a contribution to meet the American request unless American policy was clarified in a way satisfactory to us. Has there been any such clarification of American policy in the past two weeks?

Mr. Atkins

As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, I do not answer for United States policy. I have said before, and I say it again, that the United States has its own policy, which is based on what it did in 1978. It understands clearly that we have our own policy, which we shall continue to pursue, and it accepts that.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow 20 minutes for questions on this statement before we move on to the second statement. If right hon. and hon. Members are brief, that should be adequate.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there does not exist in the House or outside that full-hearted consent that is necessary for the commitment of British troops otherwise than in performance of an international agreement to which we are a party or for the defence and interests of this country? Will the Government desist from using the Common Market as a stalking horse behind which the Foreign Office can pursue a foreign policy that is its own and not that of this country?

Mr. Atkins

This is in pursuance of a request from the United States that is supported by the Governments of Egypt and Israel. It is designed to secure peace in the Middle East after the Israelis have withdrawn from Sinai. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman would think that that was an ignoble motive.

Sir Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

I have not studied the immensely complicated statement that my right hon. Friend has made, but might I suggest to him that it would be more satisfactory, especially when the Israeli Government have not been fully consulted, if a more generous contribution were made to the greatest step forward to peace in the Middle East? We should assert openly that we are prepared to support this withdrawal with our forces, without the endless phrases and sub-clauses that my right hon. Friend has produced to try to square the circle with the Venice declaration. Venice has nothing at all to do with it. It has about as much to do with it as has the Battle of Hastings.

Mr. Atkins

My right hon. Friend suggests that we should make a more generous contribution. The contribution that has been mentioned to us is of the order that I have described. I am sorry that my earlier words did not reach the House. I said that our understanding is that our contribution will be about 100 men.

Mr. Cryer

The right hon. Gentleman did not say that.

Mr. Atkins

In that case, may I immediately apologise to the House and say now that that is my understanding? The contribution will be one of about 100 men. The bulk of the forces are being provided by the United States, Fiji and Colombia. We are being asked for a small contingent of support troops. My right hon. Friend suggests that we should provide more. I do not think that there is any point in providing more than we are asked to provide.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Are the Government still committed to the concept of a transitional period for the West Bank with autonomy, which was part of the Camp David process, or are they now advocating a Palestinian State on the West Bank to be instantly negotiated? If it is the latter, must they not realise that that is not possible? Would it not be better to try to widen and extend the Camp David process, to stick to the commitment on the PLO and to criticise the Israeli Government over their settlement policy?

Mr. Atkins

We have done nothing and are doing nothing—[Interruption.]—to impede the Camp David process. We are contributing to the peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel, which I believe will have the support of the House. I hope that it will. The further processes are proceeding. It is our belief that those processes need reinforcement. That is why, in June 1980, in conjunction with our European partners, we issued a declaration on how we believed matters in the Middle East should proceed. That remains our position. I repeat that we are entirely content to offer support to the maintenance of peace in Sinai after the Israelis have withdrawn.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Do the Government really believe this to be an advisable decision, in view of the warning of the Secretary-General of the Arab League about the damage that it will do to our relations with the Arab world? Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that the decision will make it much more difficult to bring the rejectionist States to an acceptance of the Fahd proposals, which is perhaps the most damaging aspect of this whole silly business?

Mr. Atkins

No, Sir. We are aware of the concern that our decision to participate has caused in the Arab world. We have been going to some trouble to explain to the Arabs the thinking behind our decision to participate. We hope that when the Arabs have had the chance to study the statement that I have made and to read the documents associated with it they will understand and approve of our policy.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that this is a serious decision. Is he aware that the experience of such peacekeeping operations is that, although, desirably, they represent only a short-term measure, there is always the danger that such forces and their composition can hinder an eventual settlement? Will my right hon. Friend give the House some more information on the extent and length of our commitment?

Mr. Atkins

I recognise the dangers mentioned by my hon. Friend, but we believe that the commitment will help to ensure peace between Egypt and Israel in accordance with the treaty that they have signed. The precise details of our contribution remain to be worked out, although I have given the House an indication of its size. There is no limit on the length of our commitment. We believe that our forces will remain there for as long as they are required. Let us all hope that it will not be for too long.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I welcome the agreement as far as it goes, but will the Minister confirm that not only does it imply no support for Camp David but also none for the Saudi initiative? The Minister talked of the possibility of further Israeli withdrawals, but are there any in prospect?

Mr. Atkins

Our position is not quite as negative as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. Of course we support the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. What we have offered to do now is in support of that treaty. It is our belief, as stated by us and by our partners in Venice last year, that, for the ultimate peace of the area, more will be needed. We shall pursue that. It is impossible as yet to tell how matters will go, but we believe that this is an important and useful first step which we, the United Kingdom, should support.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

Will my right hon. Friend re-emphasise the willingness that he expressed to participate in similar forces set up to assist in withdrawal from other territories? That would go a long way to confirm that Europe intends to stick to the principles of the Venice communiqué which are essential to achieving peace, and wishes to see withdrawal from all the Arab occupied territories in conformity with resolution 242.

Mr. Atkins

I refer my hon. Friend to the following sentence in my statement: We are ready to participate also in such arrangement s in the other territories currently occupied in the context of Israeli withdrawal.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that this token force is to come into the area only after Israeli troops have withdrawn from Sinai and that it will remain there as part of the continuing Camp David peace process? If he will not do so, is he aware that the presence of that force will not be acceptable to all parties in that area?

Mr. Faulds

The voice of the Knesset speaketh in the House of Commons.

Mr. Atkins

I confirm that the force will become operative only on 26 April 1982. That is the day following that on which the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel provides for total Israeli withdrawal.

Mr. Peter Tapsell (Horncastle)

I fully support, and with great admiration, the devoted efforts of our noble Friend Lord Carrington to bring peace to the Middle East and to obtain security for all the countries there, and particularly his sympathetic reaction to Prince Fahd's eight-point plan. Bearing in mind the confusion that arose in 1967 when President Nasser asked the then United Nations force to withdraw from this area, is the position entirely clear on the circumstances in which the force can stay there, even if either Egypt or Israel ask for it to be withdrawn?

Mr. Atkins

Yes, Sir. Under the peace treaty between the two countries, both Egypt and Israel have a right of veto on the force. We hope that they will not veto this force but will allow it to be established and to remain and pursue its solely peacekeeping function.

Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise, however, that the sending of the force will inevitably render us liable to be accused of bias by the nations that do not accept the Camp David process? Will not that make it impossible for us to pursue a much more objective and neutral course towards bringing about peace in the Middle East, which would otherwise be possible?

Mr. Atkins

No, Sir. I do not think so, because I hope and believe that the precise nature of our force will be recognised by everyone in that area. We have not departed from the principles that we enunciated in June 1980. Everyone knows that, too.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how logistic support is to be provided for the force? If our Armed Forces are called upon to participate, will they enjoy additional increment either by way of a cost of living allowance or danger pay, such as is paid in Northern Ireland? What will be the terms of service?

Mr. Atkins

That is more a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence than for me. However, it is my understanding that our forces will receive the same benefit as if they were there solely on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. David Watkins (Consett)

Will the Government take advantage of the new developments, even if they are somewhat obscure, to press for full American support for the European peace initiative?

Mr. Atkins

We are in constant touch with our American allies. We seek the whole time to bring our policies on the Middle East close together. We are acceding to their request, made with the approval of the Egyptian and Israeli Governments. They are well aware of our concern and that of our partners in the Community. We shall continue to work together for long-term peace in that area.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that two bus loads of members of our Armed Forces is a rather derisory figure to police an area that is nearly 1,000 miles long? Does he agree also that this initiative by the British Government is following entirely from Camp David and has nothing at all to do with the Venice declaration?

Mr. Atkins

I repeat that the decision is in pursuance of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. My hon. Friend is the second of my hon. Friends to urge that we should send more troops. We have been asked only for a contingent of approximately 100 men. It seems to me that if that is all we are asked for, that is all that we should send.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

As the matter is connected with the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, what discussions have the Government had with Israel and Egypt? Would it not be preferable to get their agreement first, rather than announce a plan and say that those countries have the right of veto? The Minister said that 100 British troops would be sent, How many troops will be involved altogether? He did not mention how many United States troops were to go, but it is to be the main force there.

Mr. Atkins

The total force will be approximately 2,500, the main contingent of which will be provided by the United States, Fiji and Colombia. The hon. Gentleman also asked about consultation with Egypt and Israel. I remind him that the force is being provided following a request by the Governments of the United States, Egypt and Israel. We have acceded to it. We are in constant touch with the Governments of the United States, Egypt and Israel about that.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)

As today's announcement means that we will be able to contribute to the peacekeeping force without in any way backing down from the negotiating position taken by this country and the other European Powers at the Venice summit, does not my right hon. Friend regard the formula—even the ambiguities in it—that has achieved that as a necesary act of diplomatic bridge-building between the dying embers of Camp David and the much more hopeful signs of Prince Fahd's peace plan?

Mr. Atkins

Without endorsing my hon. Friend's precise words, I believe that what we have agreed to do will meet the request made of us. At least that is what Her Majesty's Government hope. However, I emphasise that, by the terms of their peace treaty, the Egyptian and Israeli Governments have a veto. We hope that they will not use it.

Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

Is not our potential contribution being made in the context of the rightful and overdue return of Arab land? Will the right hon. Gentleman extend the initiatives to put pressure on the Israeli Government to withdraw from the West Bank and from East Jerusalem?

Mr. Atkins

Yes, Sir. The treaty requires Israel to withdraw from Sinai, and the Israeli Government have agreed to do so. United Nations resolution 242 requires a country to withdraw from territory that it has taken by war, and naturally we shall pursue the resolution.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but does he agree that it is vital to make it clear to Israel that she has to worry not only about the United States in resolving her Middle Eastern problems? Therefore, does not a wider, more effective and active European involvement in the overall situation mean that the Americans may take more notice?

Mr. Atkins

There is no doubt that the countries of the Middle East have to take account of everybody else in the Middle East, and that is what the Venice declaration, which we and our partners made in June 1980, recognises. As I said, it places emphasis on guarantees for the security of the State of Israel, justice for the Palestinian people and the rights of everyone in the area. I am sure that the Israeli Government will come to recognise that. Indeed, I believe that they do now.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

Where two former enemies are gradually gaining confidence in each other, is it not common sense that those nations that are ready to do so should, for a limited period, supply a number of troops, under well-defined conditions, to ensure that the confidence is maintained when one side retires from territory that is in conflict? Is it not necessary also to set a limit on the time that we shall stay there, so that confidence may be seen to grow and so that the exercise does not drift away, as others have done, in mutual recriminations about the precise role? I totally support the move being made and hope that the right hon. Gentleman's sub-clauses will not mean that either Egypt or Israel will veto the proposal, but may I strongly urge him to set a time limit?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for what the Government are doing. I note his second point. At the moment we have not set a time limit on our contribution. It is difficult to set a specific time limit in weeks, months or whatever phrase would be appropriate in the circumstances.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Is the cost to be borne on the public funds of this country?

Mr. Atkins

My understanding is that the normal cost of maintaining the soldiers, which would fall on this country in any case, will be borne by us, but that under the terms of the treaty the extra costs will be borne by the three countries bat requested the assistance.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

Since a properly constituted United Nations force finds such a task difficult, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the status of our troops will be and to whom they will be directly responsible?

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Gentleman will note that in my statement I spoke about the practical and legal arrangements. They are not yet finalised, and our agreement cannot be confirmed until they are. However, we understand that the arrangements for United Nations peacekeeping forces, which are well understood and of long standing, will apply.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Am I right in believing my right hon. Friend to say that the provisions for Sinai would apply also to any other part of Arab land vacated by the Israelis, and could that in particular be the West Bank if that became a Palestinian State? As the Israelis purport to remain there only for security reasons, is that not reassuring to them and can they not now get on immediately with negotiating the setting up of a Palestinian State?

Mr. Atkins

I am sure that the Government of Israel will hear what my hon. Friend says. What I said in my statement was: We are ready to participate also in such arrangements in the other territories currently occupied in the context of Israeli withdrawal. At the moment we do not have that context.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. One hon. Member on the Opposition and two hon. Members on the Government Benches have been rising all the time, so I shall call them, if they please.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Does the Minister accept that the more likely response of the Israeli Government is in line with what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) said, and is that not preferable, if Britain is to have an independent role, as the Arab world would find it difficult to distinguish our participation in such a peacekeeping force from independence from the Camp David accord?

Mr. Atkins

Yes, Sir. That is why I made a detailed statement to the House, which is being communicated to the Governments of the United States, Egypt and Israel and distributed to the other Governments in the area. I hope that when they read it they will understand precisely what our position is.

Mr. Keith Stainton (Sudbury and Woodbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that one point that I find obscure, which is not a matter of detail, is the command structure? With the heavy involvement of the Americans, who are seeking participation of other nations and may well seek to shift the command accordingly, could there not be grave consequences for Europe? What will happen if the balloon goes up?

Mr. Atkins

The force will be commanded by a military officer appointed by the United States, but it will also be responsible to the Director-General, who is part of the treaty. We believe that there may need to be a group to exercise political control drawn from the participating countries. With regard to my hon. Friend's question about what happens if the balloon goes up, as I said before, that is something that is understood and exercised in the case of United Nations peacekeeping forces. This is not a United Nations peacekeeping force, because the Security Council would not agree to it. However, I believe and hope that it will be run on exactly the same lines.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Is it right that we do not yet know the attitudes of the Israeli and Egyptian Governments to the complex form of wording? Why was an attempt not made to agree a form of words, in view of the danger of putting at risk the Camp David agreement, which, despite all the other grand plans, is the one that has actually achieved something in the Middle East?

Mr. Atkins

The Egyptian Government have signified their agreement. We hope that the Israeli Government will follow suit later today.

Mr. Healey

Is the Lord Privy Seal aware that the bewilderment of the House has been increased by the way in which he has dealt with questions over the past half hour? If he cannot say precisely how many troops there will be, what their composition will be, what the command structure will be, or whether the Israeli Government will accept the force on the conditions that he states, why was it necessary for Her Majesty's Government and the other Governments concerned to make a statement, when only six weeks ago they stated that they were in favour of such a force?

Mr. Atkins

Because I believed that it would be courteous to the House to announce the Government's decision. If the right hon. Gentleman and the Opposition would prefer me not to announce to the House what the Government decide, I shall take note of what they say.