HC Deb 18 May 1999 vol 331 cc856-8
2. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

If he will make a statement on the steps being taken to promote the middle east peace process. [83500]

8. Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester)

If he will make a statement on the steps being taken to make progress with the middle east peace process. [83507]

12. Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

If he will make a statement on the outcome of the Israeli general election. [R] [83511]

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

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have sent messages of congratulation to Mr. Barak, the Labour leader, on his convincing victory. We hope that the search for peace can now be resumed.

I warmly welcome the commitment made by Mr. Barak on the night of his victory that he wants Israeli troops to be withdrawn from southern Lebanon within a year. The people of Israel have demonstrated their desire to break the stalemate on the peace process, and we look forward to working with their new Government for a just and lasting peace.

Dr. Starkey

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a recent report by World Vision, which documented the effects on the Palestinians of Israeli policy since Oslo. When he congratulates Mr. Barak on the election results, will he make it clear to the new Israeli Government that there must be an immediate cessation of illegal settlement building, including Har Homa; an immediate end to the confiscation of identity documents from Jerusalem residents; an immediate end to the demolition of Arab homes; and that those actions are necessary to engender the sort of atmosphere in which constructive negotiations can start between the Israeli Government and the Palestinians, leading to final status negotiations?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the message of congratulation from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister includes a recommendation for a freeze on settlement activity. It has long been this Government's position that both sides should refrain from unilateral acts that complicate the peace process. We view settlements in the occupied territories as illegal in international law and, more immediately, an obstacle to the progress of peace. I hope that we can now resume on the path of peace.

Ms Russell

I, too, join my right hon. Friend in congratulating Mr. Barak and the Israeli Labour party on yesterday's landslide election victory, and in applauding Mr. Barak's pre-election pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon within 12 months and to renew and reopen negotiations with Syria. In his dialogue and negotiations with the new Israeli Administration, will my right hon. Friend press on them that as great a priority should be given to peace and justice for the Palestinians as to the wider regional context?

Mr. Cook

It is our view that there has to be a comprehensive peace settlement embracing all the tracks of the peace process, including the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. My hon. Friend ends with an important point: we should not regard the peace process as some kind of zero sum game in which somebody wins at somebody else's expense. The Israeli and the Palestinian peoples have everything to gain from a just and lasting peace, and we would urge both to work towards that in good faith.

Gillian Merron

Will my right hon. Friend join me, also, in welcoming the results of the Israeli general election as a victory for democracy in the middle east? Will he comment on the instrumental role played by Yasser Arafat in cracking down on terrorism, which so marked the previous general election, in a way that allowed voters in Israel—Arab and Jew alike—to choose a new Prime Minister who is committed to the road to peace and willing to take the kind of risks that are necessary to get along that road?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to congratulate the new Government of Israel as often as I am invited to do so. The contribution of the Palestinian National Authority to improved security should be recognised—and we have played a part through our advice on dealing with terrorists and improving security. We should firmly keep in mind the same principle that we ourselves have applied in Northern Ireland: we should not let the terrorists, on either side, who wish to impede the peace process to derail us from making sure that the great majority who want peace have their interests served first.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

May I press the Foreign Secretary on the question of Har Homa, the sensitivity of which he is personally aware of as a result of his visit there 18 months or two years ago? He knows that those settlements are contrary to international law. Will he give the House an assurance that the Government will press that view on the Israeli Government, not least because, elsewhere in the middle east, we take certain actions based on international law? If we are to enjoy any acceptance for those actions elsewhere, we must surely show that we are even-handed.

Mr. Cook

I think that, famously, I have done more than anybody else to press that view on the Israeli Government in connection with Har Homa. In the Israeli mind, the issue of Har Homa concerns not only the question of settlements, on which we are entirely at one, but touches on the future status of Jerusalem. It is very important that the issue of Jerusalem is addressed in the final status talks, and Britain played a leading part in achieving the Berlin declaration of the European Union countries which called for final status talks to be concluded within a year of commencement. I hope that we are now on the verge of those talks commencing.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in simply welcoming the latest in a long string of democratic elections in Israel? Does he agree that it represents a clear example to other middle east states of the basis on which such elections should be conducted? Can he confirm that he will be pressing to ensure that the next elections to the Palestinian National Authority will be conducted with the same due regard for probity and fairness?

Mr. Cook

In fairness, I should say to the hon. Gentleman that the previous elections were observed, and the broad conclusion was that they were free and fair, but I of course agree that we should congratulate Israel on its vibrant democracy. We should also take note of the fact that one of the issues in the election on which the Israeli people have spoken is that they want a Government who are willing to work with their neighbours and promote peace throughout the region.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I assume that my right hon. Friend will also be putting pressure on Syria and Iraq and making it clear that support for Hezbollah is not the way to help the peace process forward. Will he also make it clear that, as a nation, we welcome and support the amazing result in Israel because it is possible in a democracy for a whole people to express their desire for peace through the ballot box? That should be the way forward that we, of all people, should support most strongly.

Mr. Cook

I agree absolutely with every word that my hon. Friend has said. I assure her that we have raised the issue of the security of southern Lebanon with Syria. I hope very much that Mr. Barak's proposals to withdraw from southern Lebanon will create an environment in which both sides can respond, and security can be achieved on the track of both Syria and Lebanon.

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