HC Deb 10 March 1998 vol 308 cc300-4
2. Mr. Fabian Hamilton

If he will make a statement on Britain's role in the middle east peace process. [31796]

6. Mr. Gapes

If he will make a statement on the prospects for a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and its neighbours. [31800]

10. Sir Sydney Chapman

If he will make a statement on progress with the middle east peace process. [31805]

14. Mr. Quinn

What plans he has to visit the middle east to discuss the peace process. [31811]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

With the presidency of the European Union, we have launched an intensive European effort to restore momentum to the middle east peace process. In a speech last Thursday, I set out an EU initiative on the peace process, in three parts. First, I detailed six immediate steps that must be taken to restore confidence in the peace process. In particular, I called on the Government of Israel to make substantial, credible and urgent further redeployments of troops. At the same time, I called on a 100 per cent. commitment from the Palestine National Authority in respect of security.

Secondly, I pledged the EU to provide practical assistance to remove the obstacles in the path of progress. Under the UK presidency, the EU has agreed to renew financial assistance to the peace process which would otherwise expire this year. We shall now work for a joint effort by Europe, the United States, Israel and the Palestine National Authority on how that aid can best boost the peace process.

Thirdly, we shall undertake intensive diplomatic action to break the current deadlock. On Sunday I leave for a tour of Israel, the Palestine National Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. I shall be pressing, in all six places, the urgent importance of restoring progress towards an agreement that provides peace with security for Israelis and peace with justice for the Palestinians.

Mr. Hamilton

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I hope that he will accept my congratulations on his attempt to restart the Oslo peace process with his speech of 5 March. Does he agree with Ziad Abu Ziad, one of Yasser Arafat's deputies, who has said that to be a true friend of Israel one must also be a friend of the Palestinian people? Will my right hon. Friend pass on our congratulations to President Ezer Weizman—a man very much involved in the peace process—on his re-election as President of Israel?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to associate myself with my hon. Friend's congratulations to President Weizman, who has always been a friend of the peace process. My hon. Friend also highlights an important part of the whole issue. At the election, the Israeli people voted for a Government who promised to deliver peace with security. The great majority of Israeli people know very well that there can be no security for them if there is no peace. That is why, in working for a resumption of the peace process, we are working with the overwhelming majority of Israelis.

Mr. Gapes

When my right hon. Friend goes to Syria, will he emphasise to the Syrian Government the importance of Syria's being engaged in the process? Does he agree that if there is to be a comprehensive settlement in the middle east it is not just a question of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians? All the states neighbouring Israel must also recognise Israel and come to a peace settlement with Israel if there is to be lasting peace in the region.

Mr. Cook

I shall be taking to Damascus the very message that my hon. Friend suggests. It is important that Syria play its part too. The Syrian Government's negotiating position is that they want to start again from where they allege the negotiations broke off under Yitzhak Rabin—an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan heights. It is, however, difficult to make progress from that starting point in present circumstances.

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the importance of other dimensions of the peace process. I very much hope that it will be possible to persuade Prime Minister Netanyahu to make concrete his verbal assurances of interest in an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I welcome Israel's proposal to withdraw troops from southern Lebanon. The Foreign Secretary said in his speech last Thursday that no peace plan would be complete in the middle east if it neglected the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. When he goes to Syria, will he put it to the Syrian Government that since Israel is prepared to get out of southern Lebanon, Syria ought to get out of Lebanon?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point—one of the keys to solving the Lebanese situation and tragedy is to be found in Damascus. I shall certainly raise that issue while I am there. My progress in Damascus will probably be greater if Israel will act on its promises and complete the withdrawal, which the hon. Gentleman seemed to imply had already taken place.

Mr. Quinn

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is much frustration among hon. Members at the lack of progress in the peace process in the middle east? Why is there no opportunity for him to visit the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, so that it may help to bring about a rapid and successful harmonisation in the middle east?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I visited Saudi Arabia last month. The focus of that visit was to discuss the then confrontation with Iraq, but we did, of course, touch on the peace process. My hon. Friend will be aware that across much of the middle east an unfair comparison was made between our robust approach to Iraq and our alleged weakness towards Israel. I very much hope that the clear, resolute approach that I took in my speech and the comprehensive visits that I am making to the region next week will make it abundantly clear to all that Britain takes fully its responsibility under the resolutions on the middle east—as we do under the resolutions on Iraq.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

I, too, commend the Secretary of State on the terms of his speech last week, in particular his recognition of the importance of Syria and Lebanon and his call for an immediate halt to the settlements. As he knows, the settlements are in breach of resolution 242, which sought to provide a homeland for the Palestinian people. Does he accept that not only are the settlements wrong in international law, but they are a continuing and damaging source of provocation to Palestinians?

Mr. Cook

The hon. and learned Gentleman makes a fair point and one that is central to the peace process. Mr. Netanyahu has sought an early resumption of final status talks. I would welcome the possibility of proceeding to final status talks, but it will be extremely difficult to engage the Palestine National Authority in final status talks unless some concrete progress can be seen on the ground, in particular an end to provocations such as the expansion of the settlements. We have continually condemned such provocation and I hope during my visit next week to visit Har Homa and to express that view there in person.

Mr. Wilkinson

When the Foreign Secretary goes to Israel on behalf of the EU presidency to try to bring about peace, will he bear in mind the extent to which the Israeli people have grievously suffered from terrorism? Does he believe that the standing and authority of the European Union and Her Majesty's Government will have been enhanced in the eyes of the Israeli Government by the Government's decision not to accede to the extradition request of the German authorities in respect of Miss McAliskey, who was arraigned under terrorism charges in the federal republic? Will he bear it in mind that the European Union should be seen to encourage the rule of law and to be resolute in cross-border co-operation against terrorism?

Mr. Cook

My general impression is that the middle east peace process already suffers from too many linkages being made. To make a linkage to peace in Northern Ireland is to ensure that no progress is made. On that case, it has been made perfectly clear that the release was on humanitarian and medical grounds. It in no way diminishes the long-standing position of Britain in resolute opposition to terrorism. While I am in the Palestine National Authority I will make it clear that progress on the peace process must be matched by tough progress on security as well.

Dr. Palmer

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity of his visit to encourage progress towards the construction of a Palestinian airport in Gaza? We have seen press reports suggesting that the Israeli Government are ready to move on that. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a substantial step forward, which would encourage Palestinians to feel that the process was working in their favour too?

Mr. Cook

There are four interim agreements on which progress could be made, which would help immensely to boost the political process. One is the airport; another would be the industrial estate on the border; the third would be the sea port; and the fourth would be the southern free passage. Europe currently puts a great deal of financial assistance into the peace process. We put in twice as much as the United States. I would like to see our money targeted more on helping projects that would break through the obstacles to the peace process. I shall explore in particular how Europe's commitment to continuing aid can be used to unblock the obstacles to the airport and the sea port. My hon. Friend is quite right: if we could achieve that, not only would it be a visible help to the Palestinian economy, but it would go a long way towards building confidence between the parties to the peace process.

Mr. Faber

I, too, return the Foreign Secretary to his speech of last week, particularly to the six key steps that he rightly identified as marking the start to unblocking the peace process—five of which I believe require joint or unilateral action by Israel. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that, during his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu at the weekend, the Prime Minister forcefully pressed all five of those issues? Did he seek, and indeed receive, any commitments from the Israeli Prime Minister? If he did not receive any assurances, what action do the Government propose to take to bring further pressure to bear on the Israeli Government to see that the demands are met, and within what time scale?

Mr. Cook

I thank the hon. Gentleman for saying that they are the right six steps: I am glad that the approach has bipartisan support. I am glad also that the hon. Gentleman asked that question as it gives me the opportunity to rebut some of the claims that I understand have appeared in the Israeli press in the past 24 hours to the effect that the Prime Minister took a different position from me in my speech last week. I am pleased to tell the House that there is absolutely no difference between the Foreign Office and No. 10 on this issue: every word in my speech was cleared and discussed with No. 10 before the speech was made.

The whole Government stand behind the speech and the points that I spelled out in it. As to what further pressure is now required, I discussed with my opposite number, Madeleine Albright, on Monday where we go from here. We shall jointly increase pressure for a positive response from Israel.

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