HC Deb 23 May 1991 vol 191 cc1048-57

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

9.35 am
Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend and constituency neighbour the Minister of State for replying to this brief debate on Israel-United Kingdom relations. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his most constructive interview on Israel Radio last week, of which I have read the text.

I should like to say a little, first, about why I chose this subject. The United Kingdom has extremely close relations with Israel. The Balfour declaration of November 1917 first gave British support to a Jewish homeland. As the mandatory power between 1920 and 1948, we were directly responsible for the area then called Palestine. The countries that we now call Iraq and Jordan were effectively created by Winston Churchill after the Cairo conference of 1921. The Hashemite dynasties were placed on their respective thrones by him, largely to assuage the anger of the Emirs Feisal and Abdullah because Feisal was turfed off the throne of Syria by the French. The flag of the new nation—or, rather, of the reborn nation of Israel—was raised on 14 May 1948 as the British high commissioner left Palestine for the last time.

There are many people alive today—some of them still in this House—who were physically present in those difficult and dangerous days. Britain and Israel will always be good friends, because our friendship was born out of the sufferings of the Jewish people and nurtured by the political and social institutions that we bequeathed to the state of Israel.

Then there is the Jewish community in Britain. I am not a Jew and I have no Jewish family, constituency or business interests, but because I am closely connected by friendship with our Jewish community, I know the intense loyalty and affection that they feel for the Jewish state of Israel, while of course being among the most distinguished, valued, patriotic and hard-working of all the subjects of Her Majesty the Queen.

I came to this cause as an undergraduate at Cambridge—a Christian by conviction and practice and studying history. As a student, I read about the Inquisition, the Crusades, the pogroms in western Europe and Tsarist Russia and the ultimate abomination of the Nazi beasts. I knew in my heart then, 30 years ago, and I know it to this day, that there had to be an answer to the stake, the rack, the pogrom, the gas chamber and the crematorium. There could be no Christian theology that could ignore or excuse the stench of burning Jewish babies. There had to be a political response which showed that evil did not finally triumph at Auschwitz. There must be one place in the world where a Jew could feel entirely and unhesitatingly at home. That place is the Jewish state of Israel. Its rise, like a phoenix from the ashes of the crematoria, will always be an inspiring cause for me, and I make no apology for it.

I am not blind to Israel's faults, but I am not blind to Britain's either. I love my own country and, although I am a Gentile, I love Israel as well. I count it an honour to receive filthy, anti-Semitic hate mail, as I often do, and as I certainly will after this speech. I know that the mild burden which I carry in receiving such muck is as nothing to that placed on the Jewish people by Christians for 2,000 years and carried week after week by Jewish Members of this House in their own postbags.

I make these points because that is the background against which I want to deal with a number of specific issues. I welcome unreservedly the generous tributes paid by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State to the courage of the Israeli people when they were facing ordeal by Scud missiles during the Gulf war. As the allies asked, Israel did not retaliate, but that put great strain on its political and social structure. Hon. Members should ask how we and our constituents would have felt if we had endured missile attacks night after night and made no military response.

It was right that Ministers should show support for the Jewish state, and it was right that sales of British oil, suspended since the oil crisis of 1979, should be resumed. It is now appropriate to go further. United Kingdom trade with Israel has hovered around £1 billion for too long. We need a quantum leap in that important market. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews are pouring into Israel, and many more are likely to come over the next few years, and I want to see British firms being encouraged by the Government to make their contribution to housing those people. A strong trade mission to Israel, headed by a senior Minister, would be appropriate as soon as possible following the worthwhile visits by Ministers to Kuwait and other Gulf states.

The Department of Trade and Industry should take a much more vigorous line over the Arab trade boycott, which is not recognised by Britain and which lacks international sanction. The boycott is wrong in principle and should have no place in a civilised world trading system. European legislataion should be drafted along the lines of United States laws to outlaw the boycott. The Department of Trade and Industry should tell British firms to ignore it rather than just to use their commercial judgment.

I cannot understand why we still retain an arms embargo against Israel. It is nine years since its military operation in Lebanon. Yes, there are still some Israel military personnel in Lebanon and the South Lebanese Army of General Lahad is trained and armed by Israel. However, Lebanon has effectively been annexed by Syria, which has thousands of troops in that sad country. There are foreign troops all over the middle east in other people's countries—some by invitation, some not. Israel has no difficulty in obtaining weapons from the Americans, and it makes many of its own anyway.

In the completely changed circumstances after the Gulf war and with the collapse of the Warsaw pact, I should have thought that our British arms companies would welcome access to the Israeli market. At present, we are leaving the way clear to the Americans to sell weapons to the Israelis and the Arabs. That does not help British business or diplomacy. The embargo policy has lost all meaning and should be changed at once.

I have a few random thoughts on how we should proceed with the peace process, which is crucial to relations between Israel and the United Kingdom. Humility is called for from a Gentile living on the peaceful Rutland-Northamptonshire border. Members of my family are not threatened with stabbing every time they go shopping and I do not live 20 miles from a country that is still theoretically at war with mine. I know that everything that I shall advocate today is hotly disputed by- many Jewish people in Israel and virtually all the Arabs. There is no one solution and no single proposal that commands significant majority support in Israel, and we elected western politicians should remember that when we draft our paper scenarios for peace in the middle east. I shall give my beliefs, for what they are worth.

First, no borders between Israel and its neighbours are sacrosanct except those with Egypt which have been settled by a formal peace treaty. The other borders are ceasefire lines and remain open to negotiation. Secondly, no useful or honourable purpose can be achieved by Israel remaining in permanent military occupation of the whole of the west bank and Gaza. The local Arabs do not want Israel there and there cannot be a lasting peace on that basis. Further Jewish settlements in disputed areas are unwise and put unnecessary pressure upon those seeking peace, but such settlements say nothing about the final status of those territories. Nor is it acceptable that such areas should be required to be Judenrein. The dreaded concept of "transfer" is unacceptable and monstrous, as is the concept that all Jews should be prevented from living in an area that has been sacred to them for thousands of years, but they may not always live there under an Israeli flag.

If there are to be real and worthwhile negotiations on the basis of United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, they will involve land for peace, but not necessarily all land. If both sides approach peace talks on the basis of non-negotiable maximalist demands, they will never get off the ground. The great powers cannot impose a settlement. They cannot resolve the internal political differences in the Israel democracy or among the Palestinians.

In 1921, Churchill could put Arab emirs on the thrones of countries that he had created by the exercise of colonial authority. However, if the United States is not even prepared to depose Saddam Hussein by force after totally defeating his army, it is ludicrous to think that Secretary Baker or Foreign Minister Bessmertnykh can act like the Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander at Tilsit in 1807 or like Sykes and Georges-Picot in 1916 and carve up the middle east between them.

Any settlement must be accepted by all parties to the dispute, and they must be able to sell it to their people. It is pointless to go to a conference table saying that no part of the Golan Heights will ever be handed back to Syria and no new sovereignty will be allowed over the west bank and Gaza.

Equally, it is useless to say that nothing else will do except that the Golan Heights should be returned unconditionally to Syria or that there can only be an independent Palestinian state comprising the whole of the west bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Those are not negotiations: they are war cries. I have told distinguished Palestinians in the consulate general in Jerusalem—the people met by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister and by Secretary Baker—that if all that they are prepared to demand is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on pre-determined borders, there is no point in having a peace conference, because they will already have spelt out their non-negotiable demands and the Israelis would not attend such a conference anyway.

Also, I have told Jewish friends that, if all that they envisage is the status quo or an ultimate outcome of limited Arab autonomy, that would not be the implementation of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. No Arab leader could possibly accept that except as a temporary and transitional stage, as was proposed in the Camp David agreements over a decade ago.

There must be a peace conference. Both sides need to compromise on the initial arrangements. The Palestinians should be encouraged to hold early internal elections, as proposed by Mr. Shamir in May 1989. The newly elected leaders should be recognised as the Palestinian part of a joint delegation with Jordan. Of course, most of them will be members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and some will be Hamas. They do not need to say that too loudly and, as Shimon Peres has said, it is best not to inquire too closely into their background once they are elected. There is no need to argue about their home address, whether it be Ramallah or Nablus road, Jerusalem, as long as it is not Tunis or Baghdad. Israel will not sit down with people who boast loudly that they take their orders from Yasser Arafat, who sided with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war. If the elected spokesmen of the Palestinians are prepared to control their public rhetoric, a joint delegation could be created which would be representative and realistic.

There seems to have already been some movement on the conference. Israel would prefer no conference and bilateral negotiations with its Arab neighbours. Syria and the PLO want a United Nations conference with all five permanent members of the Security Council and the Arab states so that they can avoid direct negotiations with Israel. Neither proposal is realistic. The best answer is what Secretary Baker and Foreign Minister David Levy have been inching towards, which is a regional conference under joint American-Soviet auspices with a plenary session, separate working parties and perhaps a report-back session six months later.

The question whether the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the European Community should be represented by observers is a relatively peripheral matter on which concessions could be made by Israel. Of course, Israel is unhappy with the United Nations because of the notorious "Zionism is racism" resolution. That should be scrapped at once. Also, it is doubtful about the European Community, which it regards as pro-Arab since the Venice declaration. Those are not matters of great substance. They are not like Kissinger's "three lousy hills".

The main thing is for discussions to get under way. It is perfectly possible for Israel and Syria to make peace, given proper agreements on security and electronic listening devices on a totally demilitarised and United Nations-supervised Golan. I cannot see that this is a sensible time for new Israeli settlements, called Brukhim and Kanaf, to be established on the Golan by Mr. Ariel Sharon. It is possible for progress to be made in separate discussions about the west bank and Gaza, provided they include a Jordanian-Palestinian deputation and neither side persists with maximalist demands.

I would not pretend to any great optimism, and the behaviour of the PLO in the Gulf war made matters harder. An announced immediate end to the intifada and a release of more detainees could represent joint confidence-building measures on both sides. Public renunciation of all acts of violence by the PLO and a freeze of further settlement activity on the west bank would be other useful steps.

Many people may have been led to believe that peace between Israel and the Arabs was just around the corner once the Gulf war ended, but specialists on the issue know that, like the 400-year-old Irish question, it is one of the most complex and divisive problems in the world. Perhaps it is a problem without a solution—only with an outcome, as happened on the battlefield in 1948, 1967 and 1973—but I hope and pray that that is not so. "Blessed are the peacemakers," and never more than when trying to make peace in the holy land itself.

9.50 am
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) on his success in the ballot and on his speech, which, as ever, was balanced. He speaks with much knowledge, sensitivity and sincerity on these issues. When he leaves the House at the next election, his contributions on the middle east will be missed by many of us.

I should like to pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State in improving, on a personal level, relations between Britain and Israel. The Foreign Secretary has developed a warm personal rapport with the Foreign Secretary of Israel, and the visit that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State recently paid to Israel was a great success. When Ministers visit the middle east, it is rather like their having to dance on eggs. My right hon. and learned Friend managed his visit with much skill.

I welcomed the answer that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State gave yesterday that The PLO certainly discredited itself by its conduct during the Gulf war and that—this is a slight change in Government thinking— We are not pressurising the Israelis to sit down at the same table with the PLO."—[Official Report, 22 May 1991; Vol. 191, c. 926.] That is implicit recognition that attitudes in the middle east were changed by Yasser Arafat's decision last August to embrace Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. In so doing, he knocked the ground from under those who were seeking to get discussions going between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

There is no doubt that there is a great reservoir of good will in Israel for the United Kingdom. I had the privilege to be in Israel in 1986 when the then Prime Minister made the first official visit to Israel by a British Prime Minister. The spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm and welcome that she received showed how warm relations were between the two countries. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will soon visit Israel. I hope also that, at some stage, a member of the royal family will do so, because unfortunately, ever since the creation of the state of Israel, members of the royal family have visited her neighbours but never Israel.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, I pay tribute to the self-restraint and statesmanship shown by the people of Israel during the Gulf war. I do not believe that any other democracy, seeing its people being killed and attacked by missiles from the sky, would have been as willing to show the same self-restraint.

We all welcome the tremendous influx of emigrants from the Soviet Union to Israel. Sometimes we in the west do not understand that many people are emigrating to Israel£200,000 a year, and about 400,000 in 1990–91. That is the equivalent of 5 million people migrating to the United Kingdom. I recall the unholy row about passports being offered to enable 55,000 heads of households in Hong Kong to come to the United Kingdom in four, five or six years' time. In Israel, 400,000 people are being assimilated within a short period.

That is placing tremendous strains on the Israeli economy, which must provide jobs and housing and teach the immigrants new languages. That involves a huge cost. I hope that we in the west, who have fought so hard to secure basic human rights for the people of the Soviet Union, will be willing to help with the cost of resettlement.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that many Soviet Jews are seeking to enter Israel because they were not free to practise their religion and culture? That is a legacy of anti-semitism, which has done so much to destroy relationships.

Mr. Marshall

I agree with my hon. Friend—on this matter we can describe ourselves as hon. Friends. I look forward to the day when, on other issues, the hon. Gentleman will be an hon. Friend.

I visited the Soviet Union three years ago and met several refuseniks. I was appalled by the stories that they told. It was impossible to teach or learn hebrew without running the risk of imprisonment. The intolerance and persecution that they suffered was out of this world. It was an eye-opener for someone who had not seen religious intolerance, except perhaps occasionally in Glasgow, to realise that it was so rife in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Gladstone once said that if he solved the Irish question the Irish would change the question. I hope that that will not be true of the middle east. Peace in the middle east will be achieved by a series of building blocks. The first building block in the 1970s was Camp David. I hope that in the 1990s the next building block will be in Gaza and that we shall eliminate the Arab boycott. I hope that the Euroepan Community, which is based on free, unfettered and non-discriminatory trade, will legislate against the Arab boycott. If we are not to achieve success on a European scale, I hope that the United Kingdom will follow the lead of the five other European Community countries that have legislated against the boycott.

I hope that we shall recognise that peace will be achieved not by a major international conference, with 16 Arab states reading prepared speeches, but, as at Camp David, by a series of bilateral accords. We must recognise that the most likely place for the next building block is Gaza, and that if it is to become an independent state it will need a huge influx of capital. I hope that those who are willing to make speeches and lecture the state of Israel about the need to make concessions will recognise that that capital will have to come from the western and Arab countries, because no other countries can provide hope for the people living in Gaza.

9.59 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) on having chosen this subject for debate. I shall go further and say that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton brings to such debates an unusual balance which, I am afraid, is often lacking when we discuss this subject. I agree with the basic proposition that on this issue more than on any other we hear an unbalanced view and an excess of emotion. Therefore, I think that he brings to these debates a very distinguished point of view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton is to leave this place at the end of this Parliament. As he said in his speech, he is a near parliamentary neighbour of mine. I should like to say that I regret his decision; he will be a loss to his constituency and to the House. He will also be a loss to the state of Israel, because he urges the cause of Israel in a way that the House finds profoundly persuasive.

My hon. Friend began his speech by reminding the House of the very close connection between the United Kingdom and the state of Israel. He was right to do so. That connection is based on history and on common values. We are a friend of the state of Israel. We are also a friend of most of the Arab states and, I should like to think, of all the Arab peoples and—in so far as there is a distinction—of the Palestinian people. One of the characteristics of friendship is the right to speak with candour: if friends cannot make criticisms of friends, who can? It is important that we discuss these issues, and we are entitled to make criticisms of our friends without those criticisms being in any way misunderstood.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton spoke of the close relationship between the two Governments. I am glad to say that that relationship has improved substantially since the latter part of last year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Israel in October last year and has thereafter maintained close contact with Mr. Levy, the Israeli Foreign Secretary. I had the pleasure of visiting Israel about two weeks ago and of receiving in London Mr. Netanyahu, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met Prime Minister Shamir in April of this year. We have a close relationship with Israel as we have with the Arab states and with the Palestinian people.

My hon. Friend said that the state of Israel and the peoples of Israel behaved with great courage and forebearance during the Gulf war. He was right because they did. They were subjected to an unprovoked and brutal attack by a tyrant but did not strike back. Nobody doubted their right to strike back—of course, they would have been entitled to do so; any sovereign state would be entitled to do that—but it was not in their interests or those of the wider world. The wider world is grateful to them for the restraint that they showed.

My hon. Friend referred to the importance of trading relations between our two countries improving still further, and again he was right to do so. Expressed both ways, the trade is about £1 billion and we should like to see that expanded. My hon. Friend knows that there is to be a substantial trade delegation to Israel in June—I think that about 30 business men are planning to go. I very much hope—I echo a point made by my hon. Friend—that it will be possible for the Minister for Trade to go to Israel this year.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the boycott and the arms embargo. I regard the boycott as a thoroughly undesirable policy. My hon. Friend may know that there was a meeting on 11 May in Luxembourg between the European Community and the countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council. I, in common with other representatives of the European Community countries, impressed on the GCC representatives the great importance of relaxing the boycott. My hon. Friend was wholly right about the desirability of that. The only point on which I do not agree with my hon. Friend is the desirability of legislation on that issue, because I believe that it would be so unenforceable as to make the attempt undesirable.

My hon. Friend referred to the arms embargo, but I am not able to help him on this issue. He will know that the arms embargo was imposed on the state of Israel in 1982 as a consequence of the invasion of the Lebanon. The troops of Israel are still in the Lebanon and we wish to see all foreign troops leave. That means especially the armies of Syria and those of Israel: they must go as soon as possible. While they are still there, it would not be sensible for the arms embargo to be relaxed.

I shall now deal with my hon. Friend's main point about the peace process.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

My hon. and learned Friend fails to mention one important matter. Does he accept that Israeli is the only true democracy in that part of the world?

Mr. Hogg

I certainly accept that within the stale of Israel as historically defined Israel is a true and pure democracy.

I shall now deal with the question of the peace process. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton began by saying that one should approach this issue in a state of humility. He was right to say that, not least because, as far as the state of Israel is concerned, it is not a mere dispute; it is about the security and sovereignty of its land. It is idle for us to pretend that there is not, or has not been, a threat to the safety and the security of Israel. We need to remind ourselves constantly that one of the duties of the international community, reflected in resolutions 242 and 338, is to ensure the security of the state of Israel. That is a duty on all of us and is part of the equation. The other part of the equation is the duty, also reflected in resolutions 242 and 338, to ensure that the Palestinian peoples have a right to self-determination and have political rights. That balance must be struck.

I found the concept of building blocks, expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South, very persuasive. There is merit in that approach to the problem. Indeed, it is an approach that I see reflected in many of the Baker proposals as I understand them. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton advocated a pragmatic, step-by-step approach which calls for the ultimate settlement to reflect the purposes of resolutions 242 and 338. I find that approach and those principles wholly persuasive.

My hon. Friend was also right to make the important point that a settlement cannot be imposed upon the state of Israel by the great powers because the state of Israel is a democracy as far as its historically defined frontiers are concerned. Israel, as historically defined, is a pure democracy and we cannot impose upon it a solution that the peoples of Israel believe would imperil its very existence. What we can and should do is to try to persuade the peoples of Israel and their Government of the need to make a number of important changes.

My hon. Friend was also right to say that any settlement must involve a recognition of the principle of land for peace. He was also right to say that it would be highly dangerous for the parties to adopt maximalist positions and to refuse to depart from them. A number of steps could be taken by way of confidence-building measures and my hon. Friend mentioned some of them. He suggested, for example, that there should be an end to the intifada and that the detainees held by Israel should be released.

I entirely agree with that approach. We should try to find measures that could be taken which would enhance the confidence of people on both sides. My hon. Friend has given two examples and there are many others. One example is the cessation of the construction of new settlements, which my hon. Friend mentioned. They are not a help to the peace process. Other examples are an end to the boycott and to the state of belligerency, a willingness to ensure that all the higher educational establishments in Israel and in the occupied territories are open, and a recognition that people should not be obstructed when they wish to go to work. All would be worth the doing and would enhance confidence.

My hon. Friend said time and again that we must be careful not to make those things pre-conference conditions. Let us not hedge the process of talks with too many difficulties. It will be difficult enough to get the parties to sit down at the table without creating too many pre-conference conditions.

My hon. Friend mentioned the role of the United Nations and the role of the European Community. In abstract terms, there is every reason why the United Nations should play a prominent part in the discussions that we hope will take place, not least because, if a settlement is ultimately negotiated, one or more of the parties will, I suspect, wish to see that settlement underpinned in some way by the Security Council. However, the question is not whether it is intrinsically justified, but whether it is desirable to make the presence of the United Nations a pre-condition to the negotiations taking place. I have many reservations. It is a good thing for the United Nations to be present, and I hope that the state of Israel will not make the presence of the United Nations in an observer capacity a barrier to the commencement of the regional conference.

The same point applies to the European Community. As my hon. Friend said with such force, the United Kingdom has a long-standing relationship with the middle east, as have many other countries in the European Community, such as France. In years to come, it is certain that we in the European Community will be asked to play a part in the economic revival of the region. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South said just that. It would be foolish to make the presence of the European Community, which has an important role to play, a barrier to discussion. I hope that the state of Israel will show flexibility on that point.

My hon. Friend also dealt with the question of the Palestinians, and he approached the matter with real good sense. We are not saying to the state of Israel that it must sit down with the Palestine Liberation Organisation at the conference table. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made that point yesterday, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South drew attention to it this morning. We are saying two things: first, that the PLO is a factor in the area and has a role to play; and, secondly, that those who purport to represent the Palestinians at the conference table must be able to speak with authority and must carry conviction among their own people. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton said. Let us not look too closely at the addresses of anybody.

My hon. Friend ended in a persuasive way when he said that, with his long experience in politics, he thought that the issue was one of the most difficult that any diplomat or politician has had to encounter. He recognises the possibility that there is no solution, only an outcome. However, like him, I hope otherwise. If we do not see peace between the parties there, we face the prospect of war. Peace will require a great effort of will and a willingness by all to compromise. The first step to that process is to get the people to sit down at a table, and that will not happen unless the parties are prepared not to impose too many pre-conference conditions. When the parties sit down at the table, the process of negotiation will open up a variety of questions and opportunities. We need to get the parties there. If there are too many pre-conference conditions, we shall not get them there. My hon. Friend's contribution to the subject was of unusual distinction.