HL Deb 01 December 1997 vol 583 cc1178-80

2.57 p.m.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they have taken since 1st May to promote the Middle East peace process.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have worked hard with the US and our EU partners to keep the peace process on track. We have taken strong positions on terrorism, Israeli settlements, and the need for all sides to fulfil their commitments.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Will she assure the House that, following Mr. Netanyahu's visit to London, everything possible will be done to promote final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Israeli Prime Minister was in London on 13th and 14th November, when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary made clear to him the extent of international concern at the current difficulties in the Middle East peace process and our commitment to the negotiating framework. They also urged Israel to implement full commitments under existing agreements, including further redeployments. Her Majesty's Government have supported Mrs. Albright's insistence on full security co-operation and a freeze on unilateral action such as settlement building and the confiscation of Palestinian identity cards in Jerusalem.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a former Minister at the Israeli Foreign Office said yesterday that the bottom line was that the present Israeli Government were not implementing the signed peace agreement? Since that is the view of one of the authors of the peace agreement, can the Minister give the House an assurance that, especially during the UK's presidency of the EU, Her Majesty's Government will take a robust attitude to the failure of the Israeli Government to implement that signed peace agreement?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I give the noble Lord the assurance that, together with their EU partners, Her Majesty's Government will work assiduously for the implementation and furtherance of the peace process. We all recognise that serious negotiations must proceed urgently without overlooking the equally important issue of a freeze on settlements and other outstanding elements of the interim agreement.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the Government will continue to make clear to the Israeli Government that their claim that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of that country is not accepted by either the British Government or the United Nations, and that Her Majesty's Government will continue to resist any proposal that embassies should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the status of Jerusalem is to be determined in the final status talks. Neither side should pre-empt those talks. Her Majesty's Government have condemned Israeli policies aimed at altering the demographic balance in East Jerusalem, including settlement building, the confiscation of Palestinian ID cards and house demolition. Pending the agreement, we recognise de facto Israeli control of West Jerusalem but consider East Jerusalem to be illegally occupied. We recognise no de jure sovereignty over the city as a whole.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this matter is one of peoples as well as of governments? Can one seriously expect a rational policy on the part of the Government of Israel while the Israeli people live under the daily threat of chemical and biological warfare? Does the Minister agree that the best contribution that Her Majesty's Government can make to the peace process is to act with other members of the international community to ensure that Saddam Hussein is deprived of these weapons of mass destruction as soon as possible?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have made clear from this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions that Her Majesty's Government attach the highest priority to ensuring that Saddam Hussein does not have weapons of mass destruction at his disposal. The question of the Middle East peace process, like so many other peace processes around the world, involves the human element. It is always important to ensure the security of both parties when negotiating any peace settlement.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, with regard to the attacks made on the Government of Israel from time to time in this House, does the Minister agree that, while democracies sometimes elect absolutely splendid governments, there are occasions when they elect governments for whom none of us would ever vote? In those circumstances, does the Minster agree that, Israel having elected a Government, we must deal with that Government and help in any way we can to ensure that both they and the Palestinians reach an agreement which is permanent, fair, and one with which both sides can live?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in your Lordships' House I do sometimes reflect on the governments that people from time to time elect. On this occasion one is dealing with a government who have got into difficulty in terms of international opinion. It is important that the rights of both the Palestinian and the Israeli communities are fully recognised in the peace process. That is what Her Majesty's Government are striving for in concert with our friends in the United States and our European partners.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that friendly Arab countries are distancing themselves from US foreign policy in line with popular opinion? If she accepts that, is she concerned that the United Kingdom is losing its friendship with those Arab states that closely identify this country with that same foreign policy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have seen reports in newspapers which reflect the position that the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, puts forward. I believe that those reports have in large part reflected what some people perceive as double standards. For example, some perceive the United States Government as having failed to bear down sufficiently forcefully on the Israeli Government on the question of settlements. I do not believe that that perception is a fair one. We and like-minded countries have repeatedly pressed Israel about the need to implement the agreement into which it entered under the Middle East peace process. I hope that our allies and friends elsewhere in the region recognise the efforts that we have made to persuade the Israeli Government that what they have been doing in relation to those settlements is wrong.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the Minister recall the moving occasion when, five hours before he died, Sir Isaiah Berlin dictated a very short memorandum about the situation in the Middle East in which he said that Israel must be prepared to give up territory on the West Bank but that Jerusalem must inevitably, as a quid pro quo, become the capital of Israel, with very strict safeguards for the Moslem holy places and population of that city?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that a number of noble Lords in this House wish to put forward ways in which the Middle East peace process may be taken forward. But we all recognise, following so many press reports over the weekend about what is happening over the Middle East peace process, that the best course is to wait for the final status talks so that all these issues can be considered together, rather than that one particular strand of the peace process should be singled out and lit upon. All of them need to be considered.