HC Deb 20 July 1999 vol 335 cc959-62
11. Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Rothwell)

When he next expects to meet representatives of the Israeli Government to discuss the middle east peace process. [90465]

12. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

If he will make a statement on the UK's relations with the Palestine National Authority. [90467]

13. Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

If he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's relations with the state of Israel. [90468]

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

The new Prime Minister of Israel, Mr. Ehud Barak, will call on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tomorrow. We warmly welcome his bold inaugural speech in which he committed himself to achieve a peace of the brave". His early meeting with President Arafat and his commitment to implementing the Wye agreement provide earnest of his good intent.

The people of Israel voted overwhelmingly for peace. Britain will help in any way that we can to support the search for a stable and secure peace for all the peoples of the region.

Mr. Gunnell

I join my right hon. Friend in warmly welcoming the change of atmosphere since Mr. Barak took control. However, for the past few years, under Mr. Netanyahu's direction, there was continued settlement building in the west bank and east Jerusalem. In his discussions with Israel, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that it is important to reverse that position to assist the peace process?

Mr. Cook

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the essential basis for any progress on the peace agreement is the principle of land for peace. For that reason, we have continued to criticise unilateral breaches of the peace agreement by the expansion of settlements on the occupied territories, which we consider illegal. We shall certainly explore that as part of the peace process. Any final settlement will need to be a package, and one acceptable to both sides—Palestinian and Israelis alike.

Dr. Iddon

The announcements from Washington yesterday were particularly encouraging. The Palestine National Authority's economy is badly damaged by severe restrictions on movement of goods and people, especially between Gaza and the north and south of the west bank. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as a further boost to the peace process, it is important to press for implementation of the parts of the Wye agreement that address that very problem?

Mr. Cook

Yes. We warmly welcome Mr. Barak's commitment to proceed with the Wye agreement and to implement it. That must be one of the best steps towards confidence-building before we can start on the final stages of talks. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the inconvenience, irritation and very deep economic impact of the restrictions on movement in the Gaza strip and the west bank. If we are to ensure that the peace process can continue in a stable and lasting way, we must be able to show the people of Palestine its benefits to them individually and its economic gains to their society.

Mr. Colman

I am sure that the whole House will welcome Prime Minister Barak on his visit tomorrow. It shows the very high standing of my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. I am obviously concerned about ensuring that the peace process moves forward at great speed. The Wye plantation agreement was accompanied by a memorandum of understanding on arrangements, should the agreement go forward, between British armed forces and Israeli defence forces. Prime Minister Barak has famously called the middle east a tough neighbourhood to live in". As we go forward on the bitter choices of return of land, should not the security vacuum that may arise from it be filled by ensuring the full implementation of the memorandum of understanding between the two Governments?

Mr. Cook

We did sign a memorandum of understanding separately from the Wye agreement, to which we would certainly be committed. We have worked very hard with the Palestine National Authority to assist it with technology and capacity to ensure security, and have provided British advice and support in that effort. It is very important that, although we cannot provide a 100 per cent. guarantee of security, there must be a 100 per cent. effort to achieve security—without which neither side can trust the peace process.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Foreign Secretary welcome signs—according to reports in today's press—that in response to Israeli peace initiatives, the Syrian Government appear to be instructing Hezbollah to lay down its arms and stop waging its proxy war against Israel in the Lebanon? Is he concerned by reports that Hezbollah is apparently resisting those demands? In the context of any peace settlement between Israel and Syria, does he agree that in order to lay many of the ghosts of the past, it is important that the Syrian Government cease their decades of sheltering Aloïs Brunner, who, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, was Adolf Eichmann's henchman in charge of implementing the holocaust in France?

Mr. Cook

I am not in a position to confirm the reports in the press over the past 24 hours about Syria's calling on radical groups to refrain from armed resistance to Israel or to the peace process, but if they can be confirmed, they are very welcome. For today, that is perhaps the appropriate response. Plainly, as we enter into dialogue with Syria, and as Israel carries that forward, there may be other matters to be addressed. If Syria's response is confirmed, it underlines Mr. Barak's courage and wisdom in making a commitment to seek the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon in one year. The peace process must be comprehensive; it must proceed on all tracks, not just the Palestinian track. There is now hope that we may be able to take that process forward in the next 12 months.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

May I, like the Foreign Secretary, welcome any progress that is made on the peace settlement in the middle east and offer the Opposition's support to Prime Minister Barak on the occasion of his visit tomorrow?

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, in the complex and sensitive discussions on the peace process, the Foreign Office should always use Ministers and highly trained professional diplomats? Will he therefore explain why, earlier this year, he used, as an envoy to King Abdullah of Jordan and President Assad of Syria, the Prime Minister's chief crony and Labour party fund raiser, Lord Levy? Will he explain how Lord Levy earned the privilege to represent the United Kingdom in that sensitive area, instead of elected Ministers and trained diplomats?

Mr. Cook

I can give the House and the hon. Lady absolutely no assurance that we shall use only Ministers or official diplomats in areas of sensitivity. If the hon. Lady ever occupies this side of the Chamber, she will discover that it is quite normal, where there are sensitive issues to be taken forward, for Prime Ministers to use special envoys.

Moreover, if the hon. Lady had seen—as I have seen—the telegrams from our posts in Jordan and Syria, she would know that both paint a glowing portrait of the success of those visits, the strength of relations that Lord Levy established and the way in which he was able to take forward dialogue on the peace process with Syria, which may partly have influenced yesterday's statement. I believe that those visits did a good job for Britain and a good job for our relations and the peace process. I wish that Conservative Members would stop carping when we establish good high-level contacts with leaders in the region.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Mr. Barak has been quoted as saying that although he wishes to stop the illegal settlement on Ras al-Amud, it is too late to stop the development on Har Homa. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that Har Homa's development would be in defiance of international law and the fourth Geneva convention, and that if the Israeli Government wish to stop that development, they can?

Mr. Cook

My views on Har Homa are well known in Israel and here. Any unilateral breach of the peace process is unhelpful to the peace process as a whole. In fairness to Mr. Barak, he can no more put back the clock to the start of the Netanyahu Government than this Government could put back the clock to 1979. He has to start from the point at which he inherits. We very much welcome the commitment that he has shown to the peace process. We shall be happy to discuss with him tomorrow how he takes it forward.

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