HL Deb 16 October 1973 vol 345 cc176-91

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, by leave of the House, to repeat a Statement on the Middle East which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"The Whole House will share the Government's profound anxiety and disquiet that the long dispute between the Arab countries and Israel should once more have flared into a further round of bitter warfare. The fighting which began on Saturday afternoon, October 6, is still continuing and there have been many hard battles and a high rate of casualties. The Government especially deplore the loss of innocent civilian life which has occurred and we call upon all the Governments engaged in the war to do everything within their power to avoid civilian casualties.

"I regret to have to inform the House that one British citizen, Mrs. Burak, is believed to have died in the bombing of Damascus. We know of no other British casualties. Her Majesty's Ambassador at Damascus advised members of the small British community there to leave on October 12. Our Ambassadors in the other countries involved in the conflict are in close touch with the British communities. We have not so far thought it necessary to advise further evacuation. But we have advised all British subjects to keep clear of the war zone.

"When the hostilities broke out, Her Majesty's Government called for an immediate cease-fire, and suspended all shipments of arms to the battlefield. We did this because we considered it inconsistent to call for an immediate end to the fighting and yet to continue to send out arms to the conflict. This seems to me to be the best posture from which to make an effective contribution to a constructive settlement. As regards the embargo, we have supplied a limited number of arms to both sides in recent years. Whereas in 1967 an embargo would have discriminated against Israel, it is now even-handed. I should like to add here that British military facilities overseas have not been and are not being used for the transit of military supplies to the battlefield.

"We also sought to bring the Security Council into action at once but neither side was willing to contemplate a cease-fire, except on terms totally unacceptable to the other. The Security Council has met several times but has been unable to find a consensus on any action.

"Her Majesty's Government have therefore been engaged in consultation with other Governments with the twin objectives of bringing about an end to the fighting and ensuring that urgent steps are at last taken to implement in full Security Council Resolution 242. The nine countries of the European Community joined in issuing an appeal to this effect on October 13. Resolution 242 still offers the best chance of a settlement because to it, and it alone, both Arabs and Israelis subscribe.

"Three years ago at Harrogate I put forward our suggestions about how Resolution 242 might be put into effect. I outlined how a permanent settlement of the boundary question might be reached which could satisfy both the demand of the Arab States for Israeli withdrawal and the equally legitimate demand of Israel, which we all support, for recognition within secure boundaries.

"Clearly no settlement can be imposed. But unless the future is merely to be a repetition of the futile and dangerous confrontation of the past a new effort at conciliation must be made.

"I feel that the ingredients of a settlement will have to include actions by the Secretary General of the United Nations and the introduction of an international force, first to police a cease-fire and then to guarantee the terms of a settlement. It will be necessary too, I believe, to establish demilitarised zones.

"The success of any initiative must depend on the state of the battle. Timing will therefore be all important. We are ready to play our part in the making of the peace and the keeping of it, so vital is it to the whole world that peace should be re-established in the area.

"We will do our best to turn what appears to be a disaster now into an opportunity for securing a permanent settlement in the Midle East. I will, of course, keep the House regularly informed of developments."

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

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating this grave Statement, which reflects the increasing gravity of the war in the Middle East—the gravity as a consequence of the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union are pouring in arms supplies to both sides. Now we have the report that has come from Cairo of the long-range missiles which are becoming available to the Egyptian authorities and which now could well be within striking distance of the cities of Israel and dire consequences could arise from this. We on this side of the House will give the fullest possible support to Her Majesty's Government in pursuing the implementation of United Nations Resolution 242, and we share with the Government the hope that out of this tragedy may come a permanent solution to the Middle East problem. We on this side feel, as we did in 1967, that the only solution to the Middle East problem that can come about will be by direct talks between all the parties concerned in the Middle East, together with the achievement of recognised and secure boundaries for all the nations concerned. There must also be a solution to the refugee problem, which has been a blot on all our consciences.

We would agree with the noble Baroness that timing is important, but it does mean continual pressure and continual probing to find out whether a peace move is possible. It may be, from the reading of to-day's reports in the Press, that there is perhaps some glimmer of light from both sides that an initiative might be received. Without any possible criticism of Sir Donald Maitland, the British representative at the United Nations, I wonder whether this is not the moment when a senior British Minister ought to be at the United Nations, because one knows from experience that Resolution 242 is one that requires a particular type of negotiation—which permanent officials often find hard to indulge in. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to convey this view to her right honourable friend.

With regard to arms supply, we accept that if you are to be a mediator you should not to be too closely involved. But the Statement says that an embargo would have discriminated against Israel in 1967 but to-day it is even handed. I severely question that statement. I do not believe that an arms embargo by Britain on the Arab countries is of any consequence at all, but it is a different matter in terms of Israel, particularly as its main tank force—and those who fought in the desert know the importance of tanks—are British Centurion tanks. It is not possible to obtain ammunition or spare parts from any other country but the United Kingdom. I believe that there is a special case for the Government to consider supporting Israel in their tank requirements.

Could the noble Baroness confirm that the Israeli Government had placed an order; that a contract had been entered into by the Israeli authorities with either the British Government or the suppliers for Centurion tank ammunition and spare parts; that part of that contract was ready to be fulfilled before the embargo was imposed; that its shipment was not made because it was felt advisable to bring the entire consignment together; and since the embargo fell before this could be completed the Israeli authorities did not receive the first portion of their contract? Would not the noble Baroness think, in these circumstances at least, that part of the contract that was ready prior to the embargo could well have been made available to the Israeli authorities, particularly as the noble Baroness felt yesterday that the agreement entered into by the training of Egyptian pilots should continue to be fulfilled?

I understand the position of the Government that they wish to be in a position to negotiate, particularly as the two big Powers are so deeply involved; but Israel is in great danger and tanks are of considerable importance. If there is to be an embargo, I do not believe that it should be an embargo that is unfair to one of the parties. If it is, it reduces one's ability and opportunity to be a negotiator between the parties concerned. I hope that the noble Baroness will keep the House informed of the situation. I am sure that the whole House will be with the Government, whatever may be our views on a number of matters here, in their pursuit for Resolution 242, and we wish them God's speed in bringing that about.


My Lords, I shall keep my remarks mostly for the debate which I understand we shall have later in the week; but I cannot let this Statement pass without telling the Government, with a great deal of sadness, that their refusal to honour their contracts to Israel is both commercially dishonest and politically reprehensible. Why do they suppose that Israel ordered these tanks from Britain in the first place? They were not for decorative purposes; they were for defence: they were intended to be used. I cannot understand a Government which refuses to service them with spare pants and ammunition at the very moment when Israel require it.

I should like the noble Baroness to explain the mathematics of even-handedness. This is a new Foreign Office phrase which ought to be explained in detail. How can they say that this is "evenhanded" when spare parts are denied to Israel to defend herself against Arab attacks? What is going to happen is not going to help the cease fire but cause more and more casualties and deny Israel the very reply that it will need against these long-range missiles which are going to be used. There has been a newsflash which says that Israel has already gone into Egypt in order to try to destroy the bases from which the missiles will be used. In these circumstances, to deny them the ammunition and spare parts which they need for British tanks is totally unethical and completely illogical.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I should like first of all to reply to the noble Lords, Lord Shepherd and Lord Byers. First, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for saying that his Party will support Her Majesty's Government at this time in doing their utmost to bring about a cease-fire allied to the full implementation of Resolution 242. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, I am happy to say, referred in generous terms to Sir Donald Maitland; but lie asked whether a senior British Minister should attend the Security Council at this time. I will convey this to my right honourable friend. We think at the moment, in view of the fact that the Security Council have been unable to reach a consensus—and, as he said himself, time is all important—that it is not yet possible to get agreement, but we shall of course persevere. Then he turned to the question of arms supply, and it was this in particular to which the noble Lord, Lord Byers, addressed his attention. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, asked if it is really "even-handed" when the Israelis have Centurion tanks and no other country can supply the ammunition which is required. I should like to inform the House that in fact there is another major Power which manufactures this ammunition under licence from this country and therefore Israel is able to secure it not only from this country.

I think I heard the noble Lord, Lord Byers, say in a kind of protest: "Well then, why have an arms embargo at all"—that is if I heard him aright. We do not supply a large amount of arms to either Arabs or Israelis, but we do supply them. As my right honourable friend has said, if we are to be in a strong position to try to initiate a cease-fire and to follow up on that, we are in a better position if we do not supply arms to either side. The noble Lord, Lord Byers, said: surely, these are contracts. It is perfectly true, they are contracts, whether they are contracts with the Egyptians or Israelis, and in both cases they have been paid for. These are not cancelled contracts; they are suspended contracts. We supplied arms because at that time we wanted to increase the feeling of security on both sides so that they would have a deterrent. We did not sign contracts with the intention that the other parties should go to war. It is for this reason that we feel we are wiser to withhold arms from both sides. I will certainly keep the House informed.


My Lords, may I elucidate one point from the Baroness's reply? Could she say which country has the licence for building Centurion tanks, and whether that licence permits that country to sell the ammunition and parts to any other country?


My Lords, I do not know the exact internal arrangements of the contract with the country concerned, but it is the United States of America.


My Lords, arising out of the Minister's reply, in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has said, and in particular to what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has said, does the noble Baroness not feel that a large number on this side of the House agree with the sentiments expressed by both sides opposite? Is the noble Baroness aware that not all on this side of the House are in sympathy—and some indeed are in conflict—with some assumptions she voiced yesterday? May I ask the noble Baroness whether she does not herself feel that to withhold supplies ordered before aggression started is commercial dishonesty, which is not in accordance with normal practice in this country? Further, may I ask her, on the grounds of the crudest self-interest, whether it seems sensible that when we deploy service attaches all over the world to sell armaments to the extent of some hundreds of millions of pounds a year, we should then let it be known to the buyers that in the event of their becoming involved in hostilities, with which we may, without being involved, be in disagreement, we should withhold spare parts? That is a gross obloquy on British salesmanship.

While thanking the noble Baroness for her longer range of outline of what is to be expected, and her hopes of ultimate peace, which we all share, let us turn to the immediate present, when blood is being shed and men's lives are endangered. I feel that the posture adopted by the Foreign Secretary may be in accord with traditional "ivory tower" diplomacy, but there is no doubt who is the aggressor. In my view, in that case the posture is hypocritical and unrealistic. It is not in tradition with British honesty. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to make some comment on that.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether it would be convenient to the House if I were to answer each question in turn? I think perhaps it might. My noble friend Lord Barnby speaks with very great feeling, as I think does the whole House on this issue, but if I may, I would remind the House that in 1967 had an embargo been kept on, British supplies would have gone to only one of the two major combatants. In recent years we have always decided to look at the requests for arms on their merits, provided that they did not seem likely to stop or hamper the search for a settlement, or indeed to encourage exactly what is happening at the moment. Therefore I suggest to my noble friend—I have dealt in detail with the contracts before—that on the main question we consider that we are in a better position now to try to work towards a cease-fire and a settlement if we do not continue to supply arms to both sides, because we could not supply arms to one side and not the other.


My Lords, may I ask to what extent—




My Lords, I know that a number of noble Lords wish to intervene and to question my noble friend and if noble Lords could confine themselves to one intervention each it would be a fairer arrangement.


My Lords, with what amounts to an embargo on the spare parts from Britain are we not in the process of emulating France and following in the footsteps of General de Gaulle in 1967 when he put an embargo on 50 Mirages which he had sold to Israel and for which they had paid, and which he later sold to the Libyans? I have no doubt that they have found their way back to the Egyptian front at this moment in this war. Is this not a cautionary tale when it comes to standing on neutrality in this kind of conflict?


My Lords, I have of course seen reports that French Mirages sold to Libya have been involved in the fighting but we have not ourselves had confirmation of those reports. It is just because we want to try to do everything within our power to lessen the possibility of conflict that we are taking this stand.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether she is aware that however this business of the Centurion tanks and the spare parts is dressed up, in the minds of most people in this House and outside it constitutes a breach of faith? And is she not further aware that if there is one danger that Her Majesty's Government must avoid at all costs it is the danger of giving the impression that they are giving way to Arab blackmail over oil supplies? Is she not further aware that the business of the Centurion tanks only encourages that belief, and nothing can bring us closer to the third world war than a persistence in the belief that we are open to blackmail of that kind?


My Lords, I entirely refute my noble friend's suggestion that Her Majesty's Government are open to blackmail because of the oil situation. Had we been open to blackmail we would have continued to supply arms to the Arab countries on the battlefield, because in fact both Israel and Egypt receive British arms. As I said earlier, it was in order to keep the balance that we decided to suspend both.


My Lords, can the noble Baroness give this House an assurance that the Government will not supply any arms or ammunition to any Arab country whatsoever?


No, my Lords, I cannot give that assurance. In fact we are not supplying arms to the battlefield countries, which are Egypt, Israel, Syria and Libya because of her procurement, Iraq and Jordan.

A NOBLE LORD: My Lords, what about Saudi Arabia?


My Lords, my noble friend referred to the appeal made by the nine E.E.C. countries on October 17. May we be told what progress has been made by the European Powers in having a unified policy and really making progress in this matter? For example, what is taking place in regard to the French? Are they still sending spares to Libya for the Mirage fighters? And will my noble friend say what use a suspended contract can be if a nation is defeated?


My Lords, we must hope —and this is what we are working for—that far from having a defeat on either side we shall be able to work for a cease-fire together with a settlement based on Resolution 242. The E.E.C. countries have asked that this is just what all nations concerned should try to do. I am afraid that as yet they have not made much progress, nor have we ourselves; but at any rate it is, as we think, the only possibility of any kind of permanent solution.


My Lords, is it not true that Jordan relies far more heavily on British arms imports than does Israel? Is it not true that there is no fighting going on within the internal borders of Israel at all? Is it not true that the Americans and the Russians ought to be leant on very heavily indeed to stop them supplying arms and ammunition to both sides? And is it not true that for the first time the Arabs did the Israeli trick of catching the other side by surprise?


My Lords, as I am speaking here I understand it is true that there has not yet been any fighting within the borders of Israel. It is also true that Jordan does rely on British supplies, and if we are to have an even-handed embargo then those who are engaged, or about to be engaged, in the war, should also be subject to the embargo. So far as the Americans and Russians are concerned our views are very well-known.


My Lords, may I join with others in thanking the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement which was made in another House. I am in the unusual position of endorsing every statement which has been made by the Secretary of State. I am in favour of our refusing arms to either side. On the other hand, I endorse the protest which has been made against the supply of arms to any country in the Middle East or the training of pilots. But I want to raise the much larger issue of the war itself, which we have been overlooking a little in the questions which have been put. We are now in a terribly ominous situation, with both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. supplying massive arms, and even with some of their personnel involved in their delivery. This situation may destroy all the hopes of a détente between the two great Powers which we are hoping will bring peace.

Her Majesty's Government now have a unique opportunity; but a very short time—I think it very possible indeed the end of this week—will decide whether there are negotiations for an armistice, for a cease-fire, or the escalation of the war. I want to ask Her Majesty's Government to use their unique position of neutrality to bring pressure both on the U.S.S.R. and on the U.S.A. to agree to stop their arms and to facilitate a ceasefire. I would ask Her Majesty's Government to raise this matter again in the Security Council, and, if there is a veto there, to take it to the General Assembly and to propose that there should be a cease-fire; that there should be discussions with United Nations' representatives led by the General Secretary; that there should be an implementation of Resolution 242, and that there should be an international peace-keeping force, to which we should contribute, to maintain the security of the State of Israel.


My Lords, I would thank the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, for saying that he endorsed the actions of my right honourable friend and I will certainly convey his support, because it will be a great encouragement in what is an extremely difficult position. I would agree with him that the long struggle over the years to get détente is in danger. We hope indeed that we shall be able to see very soon the end of what the noble Lord calls this "ominous situation". He asks us whether we cannot get the Security Council to meet to bring the matter to the General Assembly. As he recognised, and indeed as the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, recognised, timing is all important. We do not feel that at this moment there is the atmosphere (shall I put it this way?) in which to get acceptance of a cease-fire and negotiations for a settlement. So far as the United States and the Soviet Union are concerned, they know our position very well, and I think that the most we can do is to go on quietly working to try to achieve what my right honourable friend has described.


My Lords, there is a well-known phrase: "They made a desert and they called it peace". Does not the noble Baroness realise that we are looking upon the potentiality of the destruction of the State of Israel, in the creation of which we had a great deal to do; and if we take this impartial attitude, which was mirrored two thousand years ago in Jerusalem by Pontius Pilot, and wash our hands we shall not preside over conciliation but over an autopsy? Is it in the interests of the British nation that we should see the destruction of this State, which we helped to create, and does not the whole House think we ought to express ourselves most forcibly in telling Her Majesty's Government that we will not go along with this attitude?


My Lords, I am afraid I could not have made myself clear in repeating the Statement or in replies to questions. There is no question of our supporting the destruction of the State of Israel. We are unswerving in our support for Israel's right not only to exist but to live in peace with her neighbours, and to do so within secure and recognised boundaries. Our only difference with her concerns the means to that end.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness first of all, in view of the timing of the matter, whether she does not consider that the one-sided action—because it is one-sided action—, relating to the supply of armaments is something to be deplored; that the commitment in respect of the accessories, the ammunition required for the Centurion tanks, is essential to the preservation of Israel; that the balance has been upset; that Russia, in conjunction with the Egyptians, to whom armaments are being supplied, has been in the main the cause of this conflagration, and that the aggressors are to-day not condemned either by us or by many others? May I ask one further question? The noble Baroness said in the course of her Statement that Resolution 242 was a basis for a settlement. Why on earth did the Foreign Secretary in the Harrogate speech try to interpret that as being a return to the old borders, which is absolutely impossible for Israel? Where would Israel have been today if the attack had been made on borders which the Foreign Secretary himself suggested? Thirdly, can she possibly rely on the United Nations, on an international force, when blackmail—and I call it "black-moil"—is being used against the nations of the world?


My Lords, the noble Lord asked again about the Centurions and the spare parts. I said to him (and perhaps I should have said it more explicitly) that we do in fact supply more arms to Egypt than we do to Israel; and it is indeed an endeavour to have an even-handed embargo. The noble Lord asked about Resolution 242. If he will read the Statement again he will realise that it said that we hope that with a cease-fire there will be negotiation towards achieving Resolution 242 in full. That means not only that part of it which he mentioned, but also the recognition of Israel, the security and guaranteed frontiers and much else, which I do not think it would be suitable to discuss in question and answer. As to the third question about the United Nations, he seemed to think that perhaps it was not the United Nations but it was the fear of a stoppage of oil which was causing an embargo on all arms. We have not as yet, as I speak at this moment, had any representations made to us on oil, but the fact remains that we think it was fair to impose the embargo on both sides.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those who sympathise with Israel may not necessarily see their aims best achieved by supplying further arms to Israel? Is it not obvious that, with the supply of arms coming from the United States and from Soviet Russia, such enormous quantities could come into both sides that the spread of this conflagration would be something which would immeasurably damage Israel and all the surrounding countries? Ts it not obvious, therefore, that the unique role our country can play now is to act as a mediator, and that in doing this we shall be serving the interests of Israel and everybody else far better than by supplying them with further arms?


My Lords, I should like entirely to endorse what was said by my noble friend Lord Nugent. The whole point of trying to be even-handed in this matter is to bring about a solution which is fair and which will put us in a better position as a mediator.


My Lords, while hesitating to continue this debate, because that is what it is coming to, I should like to ask my noble friend Lady Tweedsmuir whether she does not realise that the supply of arms by this country is critical at this particular moment, and that the general impression given to the world by our continuing to supply arms to Saudi Arabia and by our refusal to supply spare parts and ammunition for the Centurion tanks which we sold under contract to Israel is an indication that we are at this critical moment discriminating very strongly against the State of Israel which we did so much to create and build up? Would she not reconsider, and give an undertaking that the Government would reconsider, this policy, especially with regard to the Centurion tanks? We are not trying to arm either side. We should cut off supplies of arms of every kind to all Arab countries, and we should continue to give to the Israelis the spare parts and the ammunition for the Centurion tanks. Otherwise, the world will think, as they think today, and as the Daily Telegraph said this morning, that our policy is discriminatory against Israel at a critical moment, that it is misguided and wrong, and that we leave this all to the United States.


My Lords, I cannot accept what the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, says—I really cannot. He suggests we should suspend all arms shipments to the Arab countries and that we should, on the other hand, continue to supply Israel. If I may, I would just repeat what was said in the Statement. We have suspended all shipments of arms to the battlefield because we consider it inconsistent to call for an immediate end to the fighting and yet to continue to send out arms to the conflict.


My Lords, are we to understand that the spare parts and other equipment which Israel ordered and has paid for will be provided and that the contract will be fulfilled when the war is over? Could we have that assurance—when it is all over? Do the Government wish that every honourable Member will take credit for having fulfilled a contract which, apart from any diplomatic connotation, is immoral commercially and is perhaps one of the worst actions ever taken by a Foreign Secretary advised by a pro-Arab Foreign Office?


My Lords, I must defend the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not just the Foreign Office—


Defend what you like!


—for their excellent advice, and it is my right honourable friend who makes up his mind on any advice tendered to him. As I said to your Lordships' House, these are suspended contracts, and perhaps it would have been wiser if the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, had carefully thought over the point put to the House by my noble friend Lord Nugent, when he pointed out that enormous supplies of arms are pouring into these countries supplied by the Soviet Union and the United States, whereas our supplies would be insignificant by comparison. We think we are in the best position in order to work for very fair settlement.


My Lords, the proceedings in your Lordships' House are a matter for the House as a whole, not for me as Leader, but we have been interpreting the Companion to the Standing Orders very widely. It is quite understandable that we should do so because of the importance of the subject matter referred to in the Statement, but the points that are being made now are, in the main, ones that have already been put in the last 42 minutes. The noble Baroness has given a very full account of the Foreign Secretary's policies as of now, and we will have an opportunity, as I said yesterday, to discuss this crucially important subject again on Thursday; so if your Lordships are willing to await the fuller debate, I think that would be more in accordance with the Rules of Order of the House.