HC Deb 03 April 1996 vol 275 cc370-3
2. Ms Glenda Jackson

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has received regarding the middle east peace process; and if he will make a statement. [22611]

3. Mr. Pike

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he next plans to visit the middle east to discuss the peace process. [22612]

Mr. Rifkind

I received the Israeli ambassador last month. Representations have also been made by the Palestinians.

I have no plans for an early visit to the middle east.

Ms Jackson

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that reply, but are not both Syria and Lebanon continuing to furnish safe havens for militant groups not only opposed to the state of Israel, but committed to the destruction of the entire middle east peace process? What are the Government doing to bring such influence as they possess to end that action and to urge Syria back to the peace table?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Lady is correct. It was the Syrian Government's failure to condemn the bomb outrages in Israel that led to the end of the Israeli-Syrian talks, which was a serious setback. With others, we have impressed on the Syrian Government the crucial requirement to desist from giving direct or indirect support to people who advocate violence. The peace process must include Syria as well as other countries in the region. It is important, therefore, that circumstances permit a resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria. That would in due course lead to a peace treaty with Lebanon, so all these matters are closely interconnected. As the hon. Lady implies, the first step is the cessation of direct or indirect support for the people who are trying to destroy the peace process.

Mr. Pike

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will agree that, in the long-term peace process, it is essential that the international community takes strong action to condemn terrorism in the middle east. Does he further agree that there should be no faltering of the economic progress made in the Gaza strip since the peace process was started, which could be to the advantage of any minority that advocates terrorism in the region?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes. If one goes to Gaza, one sees the benefits of the peace process: the huge economic construction that is taking place. Since the bombing incidents, the Israelis have had to take steps to close access to Gaza and to the occupied territories. That is unfortunate. We hope that it will be possible for the Israelis to relax those constraints, because anything that damages economic progress and development in either the west bank or Gaza is unlikely to help the peace process.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Israel has prevented Egyptian flour from being brought into Gaza, where there is a desperate shortage? Does he know that Israel has been stopping Palestinian farm produce from entering both Jordan and Egypt? Does he agree that such punishment, which is totally unrelated to security, will in the long run rebound on Israel and do nothing to help the peace process?

Mr. Rifkind

We realise that the Israelis have a natural desire to prevent access to the west bank or to Gaza of any material that might assist terrorists or terrorism, but that cannot, of course, be said to apply to foodstuffs or other humanitarian requirements. I understand that supplies are now flowing more naturally into Gaza and other territories—I hope that that is the case. We will encourage the Israelis to allow the basic requirements of people who live in those territories to be met by proper deliveries.

Mr. Batiste

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware first hand of the concern in Britain that, over many years, the IRA has been able to raise funds in the United States, so he will understand Israel's concern that Hamas may be raising funds for terrorism in Britain. Will he give clear and categorical assurances to the Israeli Government that such fundraising will not be allowed in Britain?

Mr. Rifkind

It is clear that any evidence that we might obtain that suggests that funds are being raised for terrorism would have to be dealt with in a specific and unambiguous way. Of course, there is always a practical difficulty in being certain where funds raised in Britain are being directed. Of course the people responsible for raising those funds always provide what sounds on the surface a reassuring explanation. We need to know, therefore, whether any evidence suggests that there are other destinations for such funds. If the evidence is available, there are powers to deal with such activities.

Mr. Ernie Ross

Has the Foreign Secretary had time to study the proposal for reconciliation based on a comprehensive and institutionalised dialogue signed recently between leading members of the Palestinian community on the west bank among whom were Faysal Husanyi; Marwan al Barghuthi, a representative of FIDA; Ghassan al Khatib; Samia Khuri, a women's activist, and members of Hamas? That proposal recognised the right of the Palestine National Authority to carry out its work within the framework of political pluralism. Is not that the way forward for the Palestinian community on the west bank and in Gaza if we are to see a real comprehensive peace in the middle east?

Mr. Rifkind

We, of course, welcome any initiative that encourages democratic principles and political pluralism in the west bank and in Gaza. The recent elections for the Palestinians were an important step in the right direction. They allowed a free expression of opinion. The Palestinian people showed tremendous enthusiasm for that process and that also is very much to be endorsed.

Mr. Alexander

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, if the new Palestinian Government are to succeed and gain acceptance for the democratic principle, the authority of President Arafat must be upheld and supported? Will he condemn any country or individual that tries to undermine that authority, because otherwise President Arafat is in danger of losing the support of his own people?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes. As my hon. Friend implies, as a result of the recent elections, President Arafat now is not simply the leader of the Palestinians but the elected leader of the Palestinians. That gives him a democratic legitimacy which he may not have been able to claim in the past but which he is entitled to claim now. We very much hope, therefore, that that will be recognised by all who have the ability to influence events in that part of the middle east.

Mr. Fatchett

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the real danger to peace in the middle east is that the peace process itself should go cold and that that is seen as a victory for terrorism and for those who are trying to derail the peace process? Will the Foreign Secretary also acknowledge that the danger of the peace process going cold is that it puts unmanageable strains upon the new Palestinian democracy and does little in the medium and longer term to add to the security of the people of Israel? What steps are the Government taking in terms of new initiatives to help the peace process, to ensure that the parties get round the negotiating table and that we get back to the optimism that was with us earlier in the year?

Mr. Rifkind

It was very much concerns of the kind expressed by the hon. Gentleman that led to the calling of the international conference at Sharm-el-Sheikh. That was an important opportunity for the international community, including the United Kingdom, to demonstrate our support for the peace process and our determination to ensure that it did not just get lost in the sand, and to give political support to the Israeli Government, to President Arafat and to other Arab leaders who are working for the success of the peace process. They need to know of the support, both political and economic, of the international community, and that, I believe, has given a considerable boost to the prospect of resurrecting the process in a credible and substantive way.

The next most important development will be the elections in Israel and we hope that those who are working for the peace process will get the endorsement of the Israeli electorate.

Mr. Carrington

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the Israeli closure of the occupied territories is causing great suffering to the Palestinian people and that that is having just one effect which is to encourage support for the terrorists among the Palestinians. If the Israelis want to keep the peace process on track, they must ensure that they open the borders to the occupied territories quickly, because that is the only way of recreating support for President Arafat and for the peace process.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is correct to make those points. The Israeli Government will have to come to a judgment about whether the benefits that they perceive from the closure of the territories could be outweighed in the way that my hon. Friend suggests by a growing disillusion for the peace process among those who live there. The Israelis fortunately have the same interests as do we in the success of the peace process. Therefore, I hope that it will be only a short time before proper access is permitted again.

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