HC Deb 07 November 2000 vol 356 cc146-9
6. Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North)

If he will make a statement on the situation in Israel and the occupied territories. [135165]

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

I visited the countries of the middle east peace process last month. In the course of three days, I twice visited Prime Minister Barak and twice visited President Arafat. In all my meetings and in every public statement, I appealed for an end to the bloodshed and a return to the negotiating table.

Britain continues to press these two urgent priorities on all parties to the peace process. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister received the Foreign Minister of Israel. This afternoon, after Question Time, I shall meet Nabil Sha'ath, the foreign spokesman for the Palestinian National Authority.

No one should underestimate the challenge to the peace process from the bitterness and hostility created by the recent bloodshed. Both Prime Minister Barak and President Arafat have agreed to visit Washington over the next week. We hope that this can pave the way for substantive talks on a peace settlement, without which there will be no secure peace for the peoples of the middle east.

Mr. Laxton

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that what has happened over the past five weeks clearly demonstrates that the Palestinian, people want the removal of 33 years of military rule over the occupied territories? Does he agree also that the Camp David agreement appears not to be working? Will he join with me in calling for a peace negotiation that is based upon UN resolutions 242 and 338, and following from that the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the west bank and Gaza?

Mr. Cook

The peace process, which was launched at Oslo, is built upon those resolutions. Britain played a key part in the drafting of resolution 242, and is cognisant of its terms. Unfortunately, no agreement was reached at Camp David. However, we came much closer to it at Camp David than we have ever been during the other eight years of the peace process. The area of territory that was still in dispute at the end of the Camp David talks was down to 2 or 3 per cent. I hope that the bloodshed of the past two months will not prevent us from returning to where we were after Camp David and completing the task. If we do not, it is difficult to see an outcome in which there can be any permanent guarantee against future bloodshed.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Gentleman, acknowledging the great difficulties that exist, nevertheless, with all his support and authority, impress upon the Israelis the essential nature of a more proportionate response to these difficulties? Will he agree that all of us who understand the awful history, difficulties and tragedies of the Israelis over the years, find it impossible to understand how they can use heavy guns, machine guns and heavy weapons on children?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the sensitive way in which he has approached a difficult issue. I can assure him that we have already raised in our high level meetings with leaders of the Israeli Government our concern about the need for a proportional response to crowd control. We will continue to do that.

Many people throughout the world, whatever their view may be of the peace process, have been moved by the death of, and injury to, young children, often those who may not have been taking part in the throwing of rocks. It is important that we find a way forward in which we do not escalate the violence. Every fresh funeral breeds another crowd and breeds also further bitterness, which prevents us from securing a peace settlement.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for the current situation has been the failure to increase the living standards of the Palestinian people? How much of the blame for that does he attribute to the Palestinian National Authority, and Yasser Arafat in particular, for diverting aid intended for education and economic development to other activities, including training terrorists?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend correctly draws attention to the fact that, during the peace process, the living standards of residents of Gaza and many west bank towns went down, not up. There are many reasons for that.

Israel has to accept its role in the development of Gaza and the west bank. An immediate problem involves the closure of access to the Israeli labour market—more than 100,000 residents of Gaza have been put out of work. If the residents of Gaza and the west bank are to move away from violence and street demonstrations, it is important for them to find a way back to employment and to give them the opportunity to have an occupation.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Although the security of the state of Israel is of paramount importance, does the Foreign Secretary agree that equality of treatment between the Palestinian state—the Palestinian authority—and the state of Israel is critical? In my view, the Palestinians believe that they do not get a fair deal.

Whatever the outcome of today's United States elections, will the United Kingdom Government contact the new President with a view to steering peace back on to the real agenda in the middle east?

Mr. Cook

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall of course make early contact with the new Administration, who will not take over until the end of January. President Clinton will remain in office until then, and I am sure that any incoming President will support his work in the middle east peace process. His knowledge of and commitment to the peace process is wide and deep. During his remaining two or three months in office, I hope that both sides will use his commitment and expertise to find a way forward.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

I support all my right hon. Friend's efforts in the peace process. Does he agree that Israel's determination to dominate, control and set out the future of the Palestinians is the biggest obstacle to peace in the region? Does he also agree that if there are to be future negotiations, the Israelis should treat their partner in those negotiations—the Palestinians—as equals? That failure to do so made it clear to Palestinians—young and old, and angry and moderate—that what was achieved at Sharm el-Sheikh, Camp David and Oslo was not good enough. A successful future must be based on the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) and, in particular, on Israel's acceptance in the peace process that Palestinian refugees have the right of return. If not, there can be no peace.

Mr. Cook

I have already discussed with the Israeli Foreign Minister the importance of including refugee return in any overall package. I stress that good progress was made at Camp David. I strongly suggest to the House that we return to first principles in the peace process—we should pick up from the progress that was made and appreciate how far we got at Camp David. In the immediate future, we must try to secure an absence of bloodshed, which will enable the negotiations to recommence. That is why it is important for both sides—not simply Israel—to honour the commitments that they made at Sharm el-Sheikh to put an end to violence.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

The whole House will share a common concern about the recent, tragic turn of events in Israel and the occupied territories, and the Foreign Secretary's hope that the agreements made at Sharm el-Sheikh will be implemented. We of course recognise Israel's right to live in peace and security and the right of Palestinians to self-government.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that one lesson of the past few weeks may be that it might be unhelpful to press impracticable issues—I refer in particular to the final status of Jerusalem—further and faster than the parties feel able to move? With hindsight, the situation may have moved too far, too fast, with the result that events have moved decisively backwards and the peace process has taken a turn for the worse.

Mr. Cook

In reality, the peace process has reached the stage of final status talks, to which all the difficult issues were reserved, including that of Jerusalem. It is important for Israel that any peace settlement should include a statement of an end of the conflict by the Palestinian side, but it is difficult to see a Palestinian leadership making such a statement without a resolution to the division of Jerusalem. That is why we may now be in a position in which those difficult issues have to be resolved as part of a package, and both sides will have to recognise that they will not necessarily obtain everything that they want on every element of the package, but that the package itself offers them security, stability and peace for their people, which is the greatest prize of all.

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