HL Deb 25 April 1996 vol 571 cc1250-2

3.23 p.m.

The Earl of Glasgow asked Her Majesty's Government:

What were the reasons for the recent visit to Israel of the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Michael Portillo; and what have been the results.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, my right honourable friend's visit to Israel was made in response to a long-standing invitation. The visit provided the opportunity for discussions on a range of issues, including bilateral defence relations. My right honourable friend was also able to stress the Government's determination to see a diplomatic solution to the current crisis in Lebanon and a speedy return to the peace process.

The Earl of Glasgow

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness very much for that explanation. I have just returned from a visit to the Lebanon as a member of a parliamentary delegation. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government appreciate how desperately the Lebanese Government want peace at the moment; how much the people there have suffered, more so than any other Arab country, from the Arab-Israeli conflict; and also how very aware that government are of their helplessness against Israeli fire power? Yet they are invited by the Israelis, supported by the Americans, to do something that is impossible; namely, rid their country of Hizbollah while at the same time the Israelis occupy one-tenth of their country. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government still believe that the Israeli action against Lebanon is appropriate?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I understand the noble Earl's horror at what he saw in Lebanon. That is why I authorised the spending of a quarter of a million pounds to try to ameliorate the situation in the Lebanese camps that were attacked only last week. Lebanon has a desperately difficult situation to face. Hizbollah has been at the root of all that. There is absolutely no doubt that the Israelis faced a substantial terrorist threat from Hizbollah, with a very large number of Katyusha rockets being fired into Israel. While we understand the problem and have discussed the situation with the Lebanese Prime Minister—it was discussed again at the Moscow summit on Friday and Saturday last week—we have to help Mr. Harm and others to find a way towards a diplomatic end to the fighting and a cessation of attacks from both sides of the border.

Lord Eden of Winton

My Lords, would not Mr. Portillo have been better advised, even at that time, to have urged an immediate end to the bombardment of civilians and the removal of occupying forces from southern Lebanon? Will my noble friend now assure the House that the British Government will use their undoubted influence in the area not only to secure peace but to see that, whatever guarantees are to be put in place, Lebanon is quickly re-established as a fully independent sovereign state?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as I believe my noble friend knows, not only has the United Kingdom called for an immediate ceasefire. We have also been actively engaged throughout in diplomatic efforts to end the fighting. We remain in close touch with the Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli governments, with the Americans, and with our European partners. We were co-sponsors of Security Council Resolution 1052 last week. We will continue our efforts and use all our influence to bring about an end to the horrific war that is going on in southern Lebanon.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the Minister was perhaps a little reticent in regard to the second part of the noble Earl's Question. What have been the results? Is it not the case that Mr. Portillo—on an official visit, paid for, I assume, by the taxpayer—made certain pronouncements about the Lebanese situation which were perhaps different from those made by the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Rifkind? Will the noble Baroness, and the Government generally, ensure that when Cabinet Ministers make pronouncements on the same issue, they sing from the same songsheet?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it is always very easy to be wise after the event. The remarks to which the noble Earl refers were made on 15th April, before the new, and much worse, phase in the fighting. Therefore, I understand why the spokesman for the Labour Party seeks to make fun out of the issue. For me, it is far too serious. The Government have worked, and will continue to work, under the leadership of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to make sure that all is done to bring this issue to a peaceful end through diplomatic efforts as soon as possible.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that by the time Mr. Portillo made the statement supporting the operation and calling it proportionate retaliation, civilians in Lebanon were being killed as a result of the operation? Would the Minister not have done better, if he had to be in Israel—the visit was not well timed—to warn the Israelis that the operation was unlikely to succeed; that it would be widely condemned in the world and that the British Government opposed it?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it would be useful for the House to look at what the Defence Secretary said. He said that the United Kingdom looked to the Israelis to make their response measured and proportionate. But he also said that the problems of the area could not be solved militarily. He made that absolutely clear. He said that the United Kingdom was looking for a diplomatic solution and a return to the peace process and would take whatever steps necessary to achieve that. There is no getting away from the fact that the Israelis were facing a substantial terrorist threat from Hizbollah. I know that two wrongs do not make a right, but Israel does have a right to self-defence. We should not forget that.

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I know that this matter is of enormous interest to your Lordships' House. I have no doubt that there will he an opportunity to return to it. There is another equally important Question on the Order Paper and we have only six minutes in which to deal with it. I wonder whether your Lordships feel it right to continue.