HL Deb 29 July 1998 vol 592 cc1504-7

2.58 p.m.

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider it to be in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 487 and 687 that the United States should transfer to Israel 25 strike aircraft capable of reaching Iran.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Security Council Resolution No. 487 condemned the Israeli air strike against Iraq in 1981. Security Council Resolution No. 687 upholds current sanctions against Iraq. I reply on the basis that my noble friend's question refers to his concern that Israel might use those US aircraft to attack Iran's weapon development programme.

Article 51 of the UN Charter enshrines each member state's right to self-defence. Therefore, it is a matter for Israel to decide what equipment it needs to exercise that legitimate right. Defence sales between the US and Israel are a matter for those countries. The way to address concerns about the development of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is through international diplomatic efforts, including through relevant multilateral fora. The United Kingdom will continue to play an active part in those efforts.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, given that Israel disposes of 200 or more nuclear warheads and has publicly threatened to take out the Iranian civil nuclear facility, is it wise, in the opinion of HMG, of the United States to make available to it this large number of extremely advanced aircraft? If it is not, can my noble friend say whether the Government will be able to say anything outside the framework of international treaty or convention rules?

Baron Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I said, it is a matter for the United States and for Israel. Indeed, it is a matter for the US provided that the sales do not contravene the international obligations and commitments of the United States to enforce UN embargoes or internationally agreed non-proliferation treaties or conventions. However, I should remind my noble friend that the F15-I aircraft is a conventional weapon.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a clear contradiction between the continued readiness of the United States to provide military assistance of this sort to Israel and its apparent unwillingness, as evidenced by a statement by Mrs. Madeleine Albright this week, to put any pressure at all on Mr. Netanyahu to get him to return to the peace process, to stop and reverse his illegal settlement policies and to agree to American proposals for the withdrawal from 13 per cent. of the West Bank?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the US—I hope that the noble Lord will agree with this—has worked hard in recent months to produce the package of proposals which are under discussion. It is still our position that we believe that these represent the best way of breaking the current deadlock in the peace process. We have indeed welcomed President Arafat's acceptance of the proposals, and the UK Government continue to urge the Americans to use all their influence to persuade both parties, including Mr. Netanyahu, to agree.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although these matters about the peace process are very important, the major threat to peace in the Middle East comes from the acquisition, or likely acquisition, by the Government of Iran of weapons of mass destruction—rockets that pose a great threat even beyond the Middle East? Therefore, ought we not to concentrate on how to prevent this happening?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are of course concerned about weapons of mass destruction wherever they may appear. That is certainly so, as the noble Lord indicates, as regards the extremely volatile situation that pertains in the Middle East. As the noble Lord pointed out, there are concerns about what is happening in Iran and we should not forget the continuing concerns that exist about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We should also remember UNSCOM' s effort to try to establish the nature of those weapons of mass destruction. We must look at all the countries in the Middle East where such weapons of mass destruction exist.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend specifically share the concern expressed last week by President Clinton at the testing and development of long-range equipment for the delivery of ballistic missiles? Further, should we not welcome the increase in the ability of democratic Israel to defend itself, as opposed to Iran, which people have accused of many things but never of being a democracy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I indicated, such problems exist in all the countries in a very volatile part of the Middle East. Any escalation in an arms race, whether we are talking about an escalation in conventional arms or in weapons of mass destruction, is an escalation which other countries like the United Kingdom and the US must keep under firm review. Of course I agree with my noble friend that at this difficult juncture in the Middle East peace process, which I believe all noble Lords acknowledge, anything that escalates the amount of available weaponry is a matter of concern to all.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister recall the Foreign Secretary's visit to Israel some months ago and the clear demonstration that British and European policies in that region are not identical to those of the US? Further, does the Minister share the concern of some of us that American policy appears to have been captured by the Israeli lobby and that, therefore, it requires the British Government, in concert with their European partners, to begin to spell out rather more clearly how our interests across the Middle East, not only in regard to the Israeli/Arab conflict but also as far as concerns the Gulf, differ from those of the United States?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course I recall my right honourable friend's visit. I hope that the noble Lord also recalls that there was a full discussion of the Middle East peace process at the recent Cardiff Summit. EU partners shared the very brave concern of Her Majesty's Government at the continuing deadlock in the Middle East peace process and the threat that that poses to the stability of the region. However, we reiterated our strong support—as, indeed, did all EU countries—for the efforts of the US to gain the agreement of the parties to the package of proposals which, if accepted, would open the way to relaunching the final status talks. As I said, we have already welcomed the Palestinian acceptance of those proposals, and the UK Government continue to call on the Government of Israel to give now a clear and positive response to them.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is really no such thing as a conventional bomber aircraft? Indeed, bombers are bombers and may be conventional or nuclear, according to what is put in them.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, what may be a perfectly innocent vehicle in one respect can become a vehicle for a weapon of mass destruction in another. Indeed, I imagine that even a rucksack full of canisters of anthrax could be considered in some circumstances to be a highly lethal vehicle for delivering a weapon of mass destruction. I take my noble friend's point. However, in relation to the specific question that he raised, the aircraft under discussion that the US is committed to selling to Israel are conventional weapons.