HC Deb 15 February 2000 vol 344 cc753-5
4. Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

If he will make a statement on the status of the middle east peace process. [108533]

16. Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester)

If he will make a statement on the current status of the middle east peace process. [108546]

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

I visited the region again last month. I found deep concern at the delay on a framework agreement on the Palestinian track and at the suspension of talks on the Syrian track, but I also found optimism that procedural problems could be overcome.

Clearly, the situation in Lebanon is grave; we are worried and saddened by the violence. I spoke on Friday to the Foreign Minister of Syria and conveyed our view that all parties in Lebanon must exercise restraint. We have delivered the same message to the Israeli and Lebanese Governments. The crisis underlines the importance of efforts to find comprehensive peace for the region, which can be achieved only by the parties returning to the negotiating table.

Mr. Savidge

I thank my right hon. Friend for appealing to all sides to show restraint in Lebanon. Does he recognise that a lasting solution for Lebanon can be found only within the framework of a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and Syria? Will he urge both those countries to return to the negotiating table?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that welcome. I agree that the only way forward is via the negotiating table. It will be difficult to resolve the problems in Lebanon without a resumption of the Syrian track, on which I hope we can make progress on the basis of land for peace.

Ms Russell

Will my right hon. Friend comment on reports that appear to indicate that the recent talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, broke down when it was revealed that the Israelis planned to leave 17,000 of their people living on Syrian soil? Will he reaffirm that our Government's position is that those settlements in the occupied territories and east Jerusalem are illegal?

Mr. Robin Cook

It has been the long-standing view of Governments of both complexions that the settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law and are a block to the peace process. I am not sure that my hon. Friend is right about the current hiatus in the peace talks. It was undoubtedly unfortunate that one of the negotiating documents was published, it will be difficult to take such a sensitive and delicate matter forward if the negotiating documents get into the press.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Has the Foreign Secretary visited the middle east since March 1998? If not, is it because that visit was such a disaster for this country?

Mr. Cook

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been during Question Time for the past six months. I visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority in October last year. I was well received and had useful discussions with the Israeli Government. [Interruption.] I do not understand why Tory Members find it hilarious that one is greeted well by the Israeli Government. Last month, I visited Jordan and Egypt where I carried forward discussions. We have been actively involved there; the hon. Gentleman should turn the record over.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

We share the Foreign Secretary's hope that the talks, especially between Israel and Syria, will resume and prove fruitful. We understand Israel's desire to ensure the security of its borders against terrorist attack, but we hope that talks will resume quickly. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to assist the resumption of those talks? My hon. Friend the Member for Mid"Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) recalled that, when the Foreign Secretary visited the area in March 1998, he managed to annoy everybody. Is not staying away the best that he can do?

Mr. Cook

The Opposition should reflect on recent history and realise that there has been a change of Government in Israel. The Israeli Government are working closely with us; we have had frequent exchanges with Prime Minister Barak.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

What about Lord Levy's involvement?

Mr. Cook

Lord Levy has played a positive role in bringing the parties together. His visit to Damascus before the start of the Syrian talks was helpful in finding a formula to enable those talks to begin.

In the European Union, Britain is regarded as one of the leading advocates of the peace process. We shall continue to ensure that the European Union offers the necessary peace dividend if peace is to be permanent. The Government have fully supported the peace process; we are in contact with all the parties, and we shall continue to provide full support.

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of recent anti-semitic propaganda in the state-sponsored Syrian Daily Tishreen, which suggests that the holocaust is a myth and condemns the Stockholm conference on the holocaust, which he attended? Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that propaganda, and will he make it clear to the Syrian authorities that the appearance of such articles poses a major threat to the peace process?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that we have already made such representations. We understand from the Syrian Government that they regret the publication of those views, and that it is unlikely to happen again.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the Government's possible support for the Ilisu dam in Turkey and the water wars that might ensue will have a serious effect on peace in the middle east?

Mr. Cook

The Department of Trade and Industry has set out four major conditions for providing export credit to the dam. They include considerations about the welfare of the people in the valley, provision for proper environmental impact assessments, treatment of any water that would be used or collected in the valley and consideration of the provision of a regular supply of water to countries such as Syria, which are further downstream.

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