HC Deb 15 January 1997 vol 288 cc303-6
2. Mr. Gunnell

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the United Kingdom's proposals to assist the middle east peace process in 1997. [9233]

11. Mr. Burden

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the prospects for peace in the middle east. [9243]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I warmly welcome the agreement on redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron. The agreement is a vital step in unblocking the middle east peace process: it follows persistent efforts on all sides. King Hussein's intervention was particularly helpful, building on the efforts of the United States and the rest of the international community. It is now important to move on swiftly to other outstanding elements of the interim agreement. The Syrian and Lebanese tracks should also be urgently pursued. The peace process must continue to move forward.

Mr. Gunnell

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that reply. All reasonable people will join him in whole-heartedly welcoming the agreement. Does he agree that one of the remaining issues is the timetable which the agreement has set for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the west bank? Is it not important that it includes all areas except the settlements and Jerusalem, which have been left for final status discussions? Does the Foreign Secretary see ways in which the British Government can help to ensure that progress is made on that and the other tracks of the peace agreement that he mentioned?

Mr. Rifkind

The Hebron deal needs to be followed swiftly by implementation of the other outstanding elements of the interim agreement: redeployment in areas B and C on the west bank, the release of Palestinian prisoners and free passage between the west bank and Gaza.

Mr. Burden

May I add my welcome to today's announcement of the agreement and express my hope that it means that the building blocks of a lasting peace in the middle east are being put back in place? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that many of the recent difficulties have arisen from prevarication and delay in the implementation of existing agreements? I hope that today's announcement will herald a way of tackling the outstanding issues—many of which he referred to, such as the issue of prisoners, communications between the west bank and Gaza and the withdrawal from rural areas—rather than heralding any further delays in those matters.

Mr. Rifkind

Clearly, the new element was the election of a different Israeli Government as a result of the Israeli general election, which has led to a period of considerable uncertainty. The decision to reach agreement on Hebron is however a very, very decisive step in the right direction. It means that for the first time Mr. Netanyahu and his Government have formally committed themselves to a crucial part of the Oslo peace process and the commitments that their predecessors were also trying to take forward. It could be the start of a very important and welcome new phase in the negotiations.

Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd

I accept the views expressed by everyone—I am sure—in the House on the crucial nature of the agreement. Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind in any discussions with Israeli Ministers that there are wider issues too? The future economic development of the Palestinians is crucial, and without free movement between the Gaza strip, the west bank and east Jerusalem, where many Palestinians want to work, it could be threatened. Will he bring all his influence to bear on bringing sense to that matter?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree that the matter is crucial. I raised it directly with Mr. Netanyahu, both when I saw him in Israel and when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I saw him in Lisbon. We have also encouraged through the European Union a study of the economic needs of the Palestinians in the west bank and of Gaza and hope that it will lead to rapid improvements, particularly in access for, and free movement of, those who live in those territories.

Sir Timothy Sainsbury

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that coalition government and a multi-party Cabinet, which is the result of the system of proportional representation that this country should certainly avoid, gave Prime Minister Netanyahu particular difficulties in reaching the agreement? Does my right hon. and learned Friend therefore accept that the Israeli Prime Minister deserves not only congratulations on his persistence and determination in reaching the agreement but our continuing support in bringing the other parties—Syria and Lebanon especially—to the negotiating table, so that further progress can be made?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The electoral arrangements in Israel certainly gave rise to the difficulties referred to, but its recent constitutional changes also provided for the direct election of the Prime Minister. I am not sure whether that innovation would be more welcome in this country than proportional representation.

Mr. Janner

I welcome the agreement fully. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel is a turbulent democracy and that one of the problems with all democracies, including our own, is that all too often they elect bad Governments for whom we did not vote?

Mr. Rifkind

I believe that the electorate are always supreme. I appreciate why that consideration may not appeal to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Sir Cyril Townsend

Will my right hon. and learned Friend acknowledge the part played by King Hussein in reaching the agreement? Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, unless very firm action is taken to prevent the expansion of the settlements and the construction of new ones, much of what we have been talking about will be totally swept away by attacks on the ground?

Mr. Rifkind

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent knighthood.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that the achievements of the past few days could be overtaken if there were intemperate behaviour, with regard to either expansion of settlements or other actions that might be seen as particularly provocative.

Mr. Fatchett

I add the Opposition's support for and pleasure at the agreement that has been signed. I offer our thanks to all those who have assisted in that process and especially draw attention to the very positive contribution made by King Hussein of Jordan, which will be widely recognised and acknowledged as a key element in the peace process.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the agreement has to be seen as one step on the road of the peace process and that the crucial issue is that it is up and running again? Does he also agree that civilised opinion throughout the world would be opposed to all those who tried to prevent the implementation of this agreement? Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what steps he will take to assist the continued development of the peace process, in the clear knowledge that any attempt to halt that process is damaging to the interests of the people of both Israel and Palestine?

Mr. Rifkind

King Hussein has been a superb force for moderation and progress over many years. His latest contribution deserves the tribute of the House and of all those interested in peace in the middle east.

For the future, the United Kingdom Government believe strongly that the role of the international community is to assist those who are working for peace. We do not believe that separate initiatives by this country or Europe as opposed to America would be productive. We believe that the western countries can work together and help in a constructive way to facilitate the peace process.