HL Deb 08 June 1967 vol 283 cc531-8

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"I have endeavoured to keep the House very fully informed about developments in the Middle East, but there is little I can add to-day. The situation is very fluid and it is simply not possible at this moment to amplify the general picture I gave yesterday.

"The immediate necessity is to obtain an effective cease-fire. The position on this is that the Israel Foreign Minister said in the Security Council yesterday that his Government was ready to accept the Security Council Resolution calling for a cease-fire at 8 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time yesterday provided that the Arab Governments did the same. So far the Arab Governments have refused to do the same, with the exception of Jordan, who have announced their Government's acceptance. But I must tell the House frankly that there are very conflicting and disturbing stories about what is actually happening on the Israeli/Jordan front.

"Even though the United Arab Republic Government have not yet accepted the cease-fire, the Israel Government have announced that they are halting the advance of their forces in the Sinai Desert short of the Suez Canal. But I also have reports of resumed fighting on this front.

"We still have no positive response from the Soviet Government about arms supplies and it is clear that for the time being there is no immediate prospect of a general embargo. We are therefore reverting to our normal practice of scrutinising applications for arms in each particular case, and we are naturally doing so particularly carefully in the present circumstances.

"The only material change in the oil situation since yesterday is that the Libyan Government have suspended all oil exports. It is not entirely clear whether this is a temporary suspension due to strikes by oil workers. And here let me say that I understand the pressures that are operating on these Governments in this highly charged atmosphere. The Arab Foreign Ministers were due to meet to-day in Kuwait to discuss the implementation of the resolution on oil supplies recently passed at the Baghdad Conference, but I have just learned that the meeting has been postponed. Now that it has become so patently clear to everybody that we were not involved in the conflict, I trust that they will decide to withdraw the actions which they were misled into taking against us.

"We have examined the dangers in each of the territories where the safety of British subjects arises. We have made plans, some of which are already being operated, to ensure the safe evacuation of British subjects from these areas. In a situation where airfields have been closed and others have been damaged this is clearly not an easy operation, but it is proceeding.

"My greatest concern is with the British subjects in Jordan. Evacuation by road would be too dangerous; and evacuation by air involves the difficulty I have mentioned. However these problems will be overcome.

"I will of course continue to report developments to the House when anything of significance occurs. Meanwhile we are in close contact with all parties concerned.

"Our immediate objective must be of course to make the cease-fire effective. The House should be under no illusions that this may still take some time. Once this has been achieved we must move on to consider how a more permanent settlement in the Middle East, on an equitable basis, can be reached."

That, my Lords, is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for repeating that Statement. May I ask him whether he could amplify some words that he used? I think he said that there were: conflicting and disturbing stories about what is actually happening on the Israeli/Jordan front". I wonder whether the noble Lord could explain exactly what he means. Does this concern what is happening internally in Jordan in regard to the King, or is it renewed fighting between Israel and Jordan?

Secondly, I am rather surprised that no mention has been made of the closure of the Suez Canal. I asked the noble Lord yesterday what was being done about it. It may be, of course, that at this particular moment it would be impossible to use the canal, but I should have thought it extremely important, from the point of view of this country, and the fact that it is an international waterway, that the United Nations should reiterate the importance of keeping the Suez Canal open.


My Lords, the situation in Jordan is obscure in a number of ways, not only in the sense of the rumours about internal differences in Jordan and the movements of King Hussein. All I can say is that our Embassy in Amman informed us last night that there is absolutely no truth in the rumours that King Hussein has left Jordan. In addition to that, the operational position in Jordan is still obscure. It is by no means certain that fighting has stopped, although the Jordanian Government has accepted the United Nations call for a cease-fire.

As to the Suez Canal, it is not possible to say at the moment whether traffic through the canal has been, or is being, stopped. According to our best estimates, there are between 17 and 20 ships of different nationalities in the Suez Canal. Five of these ships are British. A North-bound convoy of tankers came out of the canal yesterday. None of these tankers was in fact British, but your Lordships will appreciate from that that the situation in the Suez Canal is not clear. Of course I take the noble Lord's point that the Suez Canal—as I said in your Lordships' House yesterday, in a comment on the legal situation—is an international waterway. And we shall bear this in mind in the sort of negotiations which will go on continuously, but especially after the cease-fire has been made effective.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for keeping the House informed. There are two questions which I should like to ask. First, is there any information as to what is happening on the Syrian front? Secondly, is it possible that the non-acceptance of the cease-fire on the Israeli/Jordan border is due to the fact that the Jordanian Army is commanded by an Egyptian? Would it be possible to get more direct communication between King Hussein of Jordan and Israel to see that this fighting stops?


My Lords, to deal with the noble Lord's first question, there is no clear information about that. We know that the Syrian Government has not accepted the United Nations call for a cease-fire, and there are reports of operations taking place between Syrian and Israeli forces in that sector. I take the point about the situation in Jordan, and it may well be that some of the confusion still existing there derives from the fact that the Jordan forces are under supreme United Arab Republic command. We shall certainly bear that fact in mind in our future dealings in this area.


My Lords, the noble Lord has said in the Statement: Now that it has become so patently clear to everybody that we were not involved in the conflict, I trust that they"— that is the Arab States— will decide to withdraw the actions which they were misled into taking against us. Of course I hope that that will be so. But has the noble Lord seen in this morning's papers, since the denials which were discussed yesterday, that new allegations have been made by the Egyptian Government that British Canberra bombers took part yesterday in the action over Suez? I am not asking the Government to react too shrilly or indignantly to these further lies. But do the Government appreciate that this may be not only a question of stopping oil supplies for a few months: it may be the beginning of a very serious propaganda campaign to be built up, based on falsehood, in order to cover the defeat of the Arab armies and to rebuild similar sinister forces for the future?


My Lords, this possibility is very much in the Government's mind. I think it is inevitable that a lie of this sort should gain some circulation in Arab countries. The latest allegation, of which I have seen reports, that Canberra bombers have been in action in the theatre of operations, is as false and as outrageous a lie as any previous allegations that British forces are taking part in this battle. They are not, they have not, and they will not. It would not be in my nature to be shrill or indignant about this, but I hope that I can at least be firm and unequivocal in denying this story. I realise that it is not enough to deny it in your Lordships' House. We shall deny it throughout the world, through the normal diplomatic channels and the available communications channels. Your Lordships will have seen that the B.B.C. has recently increased the hours of broadcasting to the Arab countries, and we shall of course take advantage of this to give the lie constantly to these allegations.


My Lords, would the Government consider any positive United Nations investigation?


My Lords, we have this very much in mind—indeed, my noble friend referred to it in your Lordships' House yesterday. We certainly have these possibilities in mind.


My Lords, should we be right in assuming that, in view of the fact that Israel has accepted the ceasefire, there will now be no likelihood of increased Soviet pressure on Israel, and notably no suggestion that there would be a rupture of diplomatic relations?


My Lords, it is, of course, difficult to speculate on the Soviet reaction to any set of circumstances in a situation like this. I can only point out that the latest Security Council demand for a cease-fire was sponsored by the Soviet Government. The next action, as my right honourable friend said in another place, is to make the cease-fire effective; and the next action in the Council will be to consider a Canadian draft resolution which asks the President of the Security Council, Mr. Tabor, with the assistance of the Secretary-General, to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure compliance with the two resolutions of the Security Council.


My Lords, can the Minister say what kind of reception there is in the Arab coun- tries for the B.B.C. broadcasts? Are the people really able to receive these broadcasts, and would he consider that it might be appropriate to augment these broadcasts by broadcasts from ships, either in the Mediterranean or in the Persian Gulf, to ensure that people in the Arab countries in fact do hear what is being put over to them?


My Lords, our information has always been that our broadcasts to the Arab countries have what the technicians call a "high degree of audibility"; in other words, people can hear them quite well. We will bear in mind other ways of improving this service, but we believe that at the moment the reception of our broadcasts in the Arab countries is satisfactory.


My Lords, can my noble friend give an indication to the House as to whether the British Consulate General in Alexandria is still able to function normally, and also as to the safety of the personnel in that Consulate General, since Alexandria may form a very useful outlet in case British subjects in the U.A.R. are endangered?


My Lords, I am afraid I cannot answer in any detail my noble friend's question. We have no specific information about the Consulate General in Alexandria to suggest that it is not functioning as it normally has in the past. If we receive any information indicating a change in that situation I will, of course, inform your Lordships' House.


My Lords, as Syria has not accepted the Security Council resolution, and in view of the fact that the Syrian troops have not been involved to any great extent in this conflict, is there not a grave danger that the main front may be moved to that part of the world in the very near future?


My Lords, I think it would be unprofitable to speculate about the future course of operations in this area. Certainly there is information that fighting is going on in the Syrian sector. I very much hope we shall be able to take care of this by a universal cease-fire, but I agree there is a considerable danger that if fighting is stopped in one part of the area, without an effective cease-fire troops might move to another front.


My Lords, would not my noble friend confirm that the Government of Israel would not be in breach of their undertaking to the Security Council to observe the cease-fire if there are areas in which their troops are being opposed by forces belonging to Governments who are refusing to respond to the demand of the Security Council for a cease-fire?


My Lords, it is implicit in the statement of the Israeli Government that if the Arab forces will observe the cease-fire they will themselves observe the cease-fire. Of course, this is a conditional response to the United Nations demand, and I should hardly expect that the Israeli Government would completely observe the ceasefire in an area if their troops were under fire. I think this is implicit in the Israeli reaction to the Security Council resolution.


My Lords, can the noble Lord inform us whether the inhabitants of Arab countries are free to listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation's broadcasts, or are they subject to any prohibition?


My Lords, so far as we are aware, there is no prohibition imposed upon listening to broadcasts from the B.B.C. There has been in the past a degree of jamming of B.B.C. broadcasts, and this is something about which we can do nothing. But our information at the moment is that a good deal of what we broadcast to the Arab countries gets through to the populations in that area.


My Lords, have the Government contemplated any action if the Arab States stop our oil supplies? Have Her Majesty's Government considered temporarily freezing Arab assets in this country? Are we going to allow the Arab countries to withdraw their sterling holdings?


My Lords, I think it would be going too far to go into the various measures that the Government might take if the supplies of oil were seriously interrupted and it began to have a serious effect on this country. Perhaps we may return to that subject if this unfortunate circumstance arises.