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Palestine Liberation Organisation

Volume 84: debated on Monday 21 October 1985

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3.31 pm

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement about the cancellation of the meeting between himself and representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Following my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's announcement in Aqaba on 20 September, it was agreed that my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary would receive a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation led by the Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and including two Palestinian delegates whose names had been put forward on the understanding that they personally supported a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israel dispute on the basis of the relevant United Nations resolutions and were opposed to terrorism and violence. Our ambassador at Amman negotiated with the Jordanian Prime Minister the text of the statement which it was agreed would be issued by the delegation after their talks in London.

Unfortunately, after their arrival in London, one of the Palestinian members of the delegation said that he could not accept a specific reference in the agreed statement to Israel's right to exist. We concluded that in these circumstances the meetings with the joint delegation could not take place.

We are deeply disappointed by this setback but remain convinced that the international community must be ready to encourage those who are working for a peaceful settlement in the middle east.

Since many people doubted whether it was realistic to expect the PLO representatives formally to denounce violence and to accept Israel's rights at such an early stage in the peace process, should not the Government have insisted on publicising any agreement that they made at the time that they made it rather than relying on unpublicised and later deals made through the Jordanians? Do such statements not, in any case, look meaningless while a substantial section of the PLO is clearly trying to overturn the peace process with such acts of violence as the Cyprus murders and the murder of Mr. Klinghoffer? Do the Government believe that those Palestinian leaders who genuinely want peace had much freedom to renounce violence after the Israeli bombing of Tunis? Will the Government now devote their efforts to persuading the Soviet and American leaderships to devote their attention to the middle east crisis which clearly represents a threat to both of them as well as to the rest of the world?

We have received an unequivocal assurance from Amman that all the members of the delegation were prepared to sign the text of the statement. We concluded that it was better to continue our negotiations through one channel only to Amman rather than through a multitude of channels. I take the hon. Member's point about the terrorist incidents and about the extremist elements in the PLO, but we took the view that moderates, be they Palestinian, Israeli or Jordanian, should be encouraged, in the hope of moving forward the peace process. That remains our position.

Obviously, we must now take stock as to how this process can be carried further forward. The main influence lies not with us but with the United States, Jordan and Israel. Nevertheless, anything that we can do in due course to help the process forward we shall do.

Is my hon. Friend aware that I was severely critical of the Government when they put forward the Venice declaration, which, in my view, was flawed because it gave unconditional recognition to the PLO as a necessary negotiating partner? May I congratulate them on this occasion, in that they made the degree of recognition that a meeting with the Foreign Secretary would have involved strictly conditional on the renunciation of violence and the acceptance of the appropriate United Nations declarations? Am I not right in thinking that in no way were the PLO representatives prepared to subscribe to those declarations? Indeed, have we not been put absolutely in the clear by King Hussein? Am I not right in thinking that it is the PLO which has lost credibility as well as the military power and political unity that it once had, and that in this matter Her Majesty's Government have behaved themselves absolutely correctly?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. I should like to correct him on one point. Bishop Khoury and Mr. Milhem came here not as representatives of the PLO but as members of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. That is an important distinction to continue to make. The only people who can take comfort from the failure of the talks last Monday are extremists on both sides. It is against that background that I support my right hon. Friend's remarks. I hope that moderates will think further as to how the process can be carried forward.

Whatever possessed the Foreign Secretary to believe that members of the PLO would ever renounce violence and grant Israel the right to live freely within firm frontiers? If he ever believed that, he must believe that pigs will fly?

I think that. on reflection, the hon. Gentleman might regret some of those remarks. The fact is that we were supporting an initiative that King Hussein had started in February, which was an attempt to break the log jam in the current middle east process. We believed strongly that that was a risk for peace that was worth taking. I assure the hon. Gentleman again that the specific words that I have used — we were assured by the Jordanians — had been accepted by the Palestinian delegates before they came here. Against that background, I have no regrets that we entered into that process, accepting always that there is a risk in trying to obtain peace, not least in the middle east.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary's decision to refuse to meet the PLO representatives, who have clearly shown that they could not deliver a deal even if they wanted to. Will my hon. Friend ensure that when the Prime Minister meets Mr. Peres in New York this week she will advocate that there should be immediate direct negotiations between King Hussein and the Israelis?

I note what my hon. Friend says. I respect and understand his close interest in this matter. We of course look forward to the visit of Mr. Peres. the Israeli Prime Minister, here in January. However, with regard to direct talks between the Israelis and Jordan, we cannot be oblivious of the position of King Hussein. We have to think of the practicalities for that king, who is in many ways the leader of the moderates in the Arab world, of entering into such direct talks.

If the renunciation of violence is to be the overriding criterion determining whether those meetings take place, what advice will the Minister give to his own Back Benchers, Conservative Members of Parliament who regularly visit the middle east. and who meet PLO people, as I did with them four years ago? If it is good enough for them to meet representatives of the PLO in all-party delegations, why is it not good enough for the Government?

I thought that I had explained to the hon. Member who asked the question the precise reasons why we could not meet the joint Jordanian-Palestian delegation —a decision that has been welcomed by hon. Members. On the further point raised by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) I should make it clear that renunciation of violence and terrorism was not the only point in the statement that had been agreed. In it also was the balance of recognition between Israel's right to exist within secure and recognised borders and the Palestinians' right to self-determination. Those were the twin pillars of the statement and both were very important.

I support the Government in their action, but I ask whether the Minister is aware that the people of Northern Ireland find it extremely strange that the Government take that action when the Government are currently compelling elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to sit down with the terrorists in the councils of Northern Ireland?

I see absolutely no analogy whatever between the position of the IRA, for example, and that of the PLO. I understand that Sinn Fein, which is the political arm of the IRA, holds some 10 per cent. of votes in Northern Ireland elections. I should point out that the Palestinians in the occupied territories have no right to vote in Israel at present and have no seats in the Knesset.

Will the Minister forgive us for being a little puzzled about his statement? Are we to understand that an agreement was made some months ago in Amman to the effect that there would be a specific communiqué after the London talks regardless of what had happened at those talks? Is it normal Foreign Office practice to agree a statement to be made after talks some months before the talks take place, and will the Minister clarify exactly who agreed to what? With whom was the agreement reached that there should be that particular form of words?

I should dearly like some day to make a statement with which the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) could find himself in full accord and harmony. I hope that that will one day be my pleasure. I will give him the answer. I made it quite clear in my statement, and a study of the facts will certainly make it clear, that what the Prime Minister agreed in her announcement in Aqaba on 20 September was the willingness of the Foreign Secretary to meet the joint delegation and the broad principles of what that delegation would say. Subsequently there was much discussion between ourselves and the Jordanian Government, including the Jordanian Prime Minister, as to precisely what the agreed text should be. I think that the date on which the agreed text was agreed——

The agreed text was agreed between ourselves and the Jordanian Government on the understanding, as I have already told the House, that all members of the delegation were willing to go along with it.

Notwithstanding the negative carping of some Opposition Members and notwithstanding the initial setback, having taken stock of the present position will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will do everything in their power to move towards another peace initiative in the middle east which will be acceptable both to the Israeli people and to moderate Arab and Palestinian opinion?

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for those words. When I met King Hussein in London last Wednesday it was precisely to discuss the next steps forward. That was one of the main purposes of our meeting. It is clearly right that we should all take stock at the present time, but we would certainly be willing to give further help that we usefully can to the middle east peace process.

What began as a courageous initiative by the Prime Minister—a risk for peace—has ended in total diplomatic shambles. Is the Minister seriously claiming that no blame whatever attaches to the Government in this? Is it not true that Mr. Mohammed Milhem was never directly or personally asked about the document and, if so, was there not an unrealistic assumption on the part of the Government that the Jordanians could speak on his behalf — in effect, very poor preparation on the part of the Government—with the effect that the Government have managed to annoy both pro and anti-Arafat elements in the PLO and damage the Mubarak-Hussein peace process possibly beyond repair? How much of that was due to intense American pressure to cancel the meetings?

I disagree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. I do not accept that the Foreign Office has any blame in this regard. I remind the hon. Gentleman that both the Jordanian delegation and the Jordanian king made it plain that not only was our version of the facts correct, but that, in the words of the Jordanian king, we had acted very honourably.

I know that Mr. Milhem, to pick out one of the hon. Gentleman's points, has subsequently said that he never saw the text of the statement. We cannot know whether he did, because we were relying on one source of negotiation — the Jordanian Government. The Prime Minister agreed to this meeting on their initiative. Any one who knows the complexities of the middle east will know that for us to accept negotiations through many diverse channels would have confounded the matter, or at least made it very confused indeed.

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I can assure him and the House that no pressure whatsoever was put on us by the Americans. Far from it. Mr. Shultz, the Secretary of State, welcomed the Prime Minister's decision to receive the Jordanian-Palestinian mission.

Order. Private notice questions are an extension of Question Time. We have had 15 minutes on this one, and, in view of the other business before us, we must move on.