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Middle East

Volume 226: debated on Wednesday 16 June 1993

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To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what progress has been made in the search for a peace settlement in the middle east.

Another round of bilateral negotiations between the parties is beginning in Washington this week. There were some encouraging signs at the end of the last round in May that the Israelis and Palestinians were beginning to discuss detail and substance. We continue to urge all parties to work for further progress.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the Arab states are holding up the search for peace by refusing to accede to his request at the Group of Seven conference in London that they stop the iniquitous Arab trade boycott? As the Government's attitude was that if there were a consensus for Community legislation, we should not oppose that and, as France, Holland and Germany have now initiated legislation against the boycott, will my right hon. Friend kindly consider taking more active steps to stop companies such as ICI cravenly obeying the boycott?

I do not think that the experience of national legislation in other countries suggests that it has a powerful effect. It is largely declaratory and is difficult to enforce, so our course is the right one. Rather than legislating in this country, we seek to urge the Arabs to wind up the boycott. There has been some progress in the Gulf countries in that respect, as my hon. Friend knows —not enough progress, but the Kuwaitis, for example, have reportedly announced the abandonment of the application of the boycott to third countries. We will pursue the matter. The boycott is not the only obstacle to peace, but it is one.

I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that the greatest obstacle to peace at the moment is the weight of the occupation on the Palestinian population now locked up in Gaza and the west bank as a result of decisions by the Israeli Government. It does not really help to talk about a trade boycott when the producers in Gaza and the west bank cannot sell what they produce in their factories or on their land. If the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) really wanted to help, he would urge that those barriers, and some of the other repressive measures currently "enjoyed" by—or rather, pressed on—the Palestinians, be lifted. That would be a significant boost to the peace talks.

I sometimes think that it would be an excellent thing if people such as the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), who favour the Palestinian cause, would occasionally condemn the boycott, and people such as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton, who usually put questions from the other point of view, would urge the Israelis to do something to ease the burdens of the occupation. If the partisans—or rather, as that is a pejorative word, the advocates—of each cause occasionally used their influence and talents to urge better action on those whom they generally support, we might make more progress. Both those steps are needed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that two of the barriers to peace in the middle east are the refusal of Arab states to recognise Israel and the refusal of the Arab captors to release Israeli hostages who have been held for many years, such as Ron Arad?

That is another fair point, but it needs to be balanced by the handling of the deportee question by the Israeli Government. The Arab countries that are still technically at war with Israel are not far off negotiating a change, but I doubt whether they will conclude peace with Israel until there is a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That is the most difficult aspect of those negotiations, but it can be helped by confidence-building measures, such as an end to the Arab boycott and the easing of the conditions of occupation.

The Foreign Secretary is right to urge people to play the role of forming a bridge in the difficult negotiations for peace in the middle east, Israel and the occupied territories. I certainly support him in that appeal. Since Britain has a somewhat peripheral role in those matters, may I urge the right hon. Gentleman to make it clear to the United States of America that it, too, should be evenhanded in the conduct of the current peace talks in Washington? Is not it rather depressing that the talks have recommenced on the basis of bilateral discussions rather than all the parties being around the table together? Has the right hon. Gentleman received any approaches from the Israeli Government or the Palestinians, either directly or through the European Community, for Europe to play a part in the economic reconstruction and rehabilitation of the occupied territories; if so, what response has been made? If the right hon. Gentleman has had such an approach, will he seek an initiative of that nature?

We take a part, through the Community, in the multilateral side of the negotiations, which is precisely concerned with matters such as water and economic development.

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, there have to be bilateral negotiations between Arab countries and Israel, between Palestine and Israel and so forth. We had a good run through the subject with the American Secretary of State in Luxembourg last week and I believe that the United States Administration are pressing ahead with the negotiations in the right way.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in his insistence on the need for evenhandedness, but does he agree that evenhandedness has not been achieved under the Arab boycott, because at the 1991 conference the issue of the boycott was linked to the issue of Israel freezing settlements? Although Israel has made progress on that, substantial equivalent progress has not been made on the Arab side.

There has been progress in ending settlements. My hon. Friend chose his word rightly—it is progress, not an end to the building of settlements, which are still going up in some places. We believe that that should be ended and the occupation eased. Equally, we shall continue to press hard for an ending of the Arab boycott.