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Middle East Peace Process

Volume 305: debated on Wednesday 4 February 1998

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10.59 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important matter—a debate that takes place at a time and against a backdrop about as sombre as it would be possible to imagine. It is clear that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction remain a quantifiable and lethal threat to the stability and security of the region, and it is essential that Saddam Hussein be made to meet the obligations of unconditional and unrestricted access demanded by the United Nations resolutions. Her Majesty's Government are rightly determined, as were their predecessors, to secure his full compliance—it is to be hoped, by diplomatic rather than by military means.

However, it seems to many of us that the virtual stalling of the middle east peace process represents a thoroughly unhappy and potentially dangerous state of affairs, which also has profound consequences for British strategic and other interests.

The Foreign Secretary is leaving today for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He, like the American Secretary of State, will find his dialogue with both the Saudis and the Kuwaitis to be courteous and correct, but wholly unenthusiastic. It is a matter for shame and regret that the Foreign Secretary, now eight months into his office, should be so late in visiting our Arab friends. That shows, again, his remarkable lack of judgment about priorities, as Britain's interests in the middle east should, without question, remain at the forefront of any Foreign Secretary's business.

As we approach, in May, the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel, I welcome the chance at such an opportune moment—as the middle east approaches what could possibly be a profound climacteric—to re-focus on the outstanding and unresolved questions of Palestinian self-determination and Israeli-occupied Arab land, which are at the heart of the middle east conflict.

I hope that during the debate, we shall remind ourselves of the original principles and aims of the middle east peace process started in Madrid in 1991, and that we shall examine both why so many people in the middle east, both Arabs and Israelis, have lost faith in it, and what must be done to restore confidence and progress.

In this anniversary year of the state of Israel, it is right and proper that we in the British Parliament should remember what the events of 1948 meant to the 700,000 Palestinians who fled, who were forced into permanent exile from their homes in the newly established Jewish state and who, to this day, are unable to return to the places of their birth. The Arabic word for what happened in 1948 is "al-Nakba"—the catastrophe.

The results of that today are that three quarters of the Palestinian population is forced to live outside the country, with no right of return, and the Palestinian people who live in the west bank and Gaza are deprived of many of their most fundamental civil and political rights. They still have not achieved their goal of self-determination, which is enshrined in the United Nations charter of 1945. We should remember that the events of 1948 meant that the Palestinian people became the largest refugee population in the world, with the most horrendous and tragic consequences for them.

I should remind the House of the principles on which the peace process in Madrid in 1991, and then the agreement in Oslo in 1993, were based. In the lengthy and complicated diplomatic negotiations that led to the convening of the Madrid conference, the more reluctant Arab countries were persuaded to participate only when they had received cast-iron assurances from the co-sponsors that the negotiations would be based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338—that is to say, land for peace.

In the letter of assurance from the United States Administration to the Palestinian deputation in October 1991, it was set down that
"the US continues to believe firmly that a comprehensive peace must be grounded in UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of territory for peace. Such an outcome must also provide security and recognition for all states in the region, including Israel, and for the legitimate political rights of the Palestinian people."
The same is true of the Oslo agreement of 1993, which despite widespread concern about the way in which the settlement was to be reached, was broadly accepted in the middle east because it was based on the relevant Security Council resolutions. The preamble to the declaration of principles of September 1993 reads:
"The aim of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations within the current Middle East peace process is … to establish a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority … Leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338."
In other words, people were willing to be patient in the belief that trust could, incrementally over a period, be built up—so long as the process worked towards the return of occupied Arab land, including southern Lebanon and the Golan heights, an end to military occupation of the west bank and Gaza, and the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people.

The result of that process, and the reality at the beginning of 1998, is very different. Five years on from the 1993 Oslo agreement, Israeli troops have fully redeployed from only 3 to 4 per cent. of the west bank and from 60 per cent. of the Gaza strip. East Jerusalem has been fully encircled by wholly illegal settlements, and movement within the occupied territories is more restricted than it ever was before the peace process began. Palestinian living standards have plummeted, and plans to increase the settler population in the west bank continue to flow from the Israeli Ministry of Housing.

Since the election of the Likud Government and the adoption of anti-Oslo policies, relations with neighbouring states have again soured, to the great detriment of peace and stability in the middle east. War continues in southern Lebanon, and the Israeli Prime Minister shows no interest in pursuing negotiations with Syria—and, if the truth were told, no interest in seriously pursuing the middle east peace process at all.

According to the Oslo timetable, full redeployment of Israeli troops from the occupied territories was supposed to have been completed by mid-1998. Yet in meetings with Netanyahu last week, the Administration seemed unable—indeed, unwilling—to try to persuade the Israeli Prime Minister away from his hard-line refusal even to contemplate a second redeployment plan on a scale that might restore some confidence in the peace process. In truth, the Americans simply bottled out yet again.

When we remember that the Palestine National Authority had envisaged a second redeployment which would leave it with 60 per cent. control of the west bank and Gaza, the 9.5 per cent. offered by Israel is seen, rightly, as derisory. President Clinton seemed to water down the Oslo formula still further by suggesting that a way out of the impasse would be to break down the 9.5 per cent. into three separate phases of redeployment, and even then only after the PNA had taken unspecified security measures as a prerequisite.

Through sheer fecklessness—and, in the case of America, a total lack of will to take on the Zionist lobby—the middle east peace process has been allowed to drift away from its firm moorings in international law and from the principles of the Oslo agreement. That situation is once again being thrown into sharp relief as the Secretary of State rallies support for the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 687, on Iraq.

It is not lost on Arab public opinion—our friends in the middle east—that, under the same United States Administration, the Americans have vetoed three of the eight resolutions that have come before the Security Council criticising Israeli breaches of international humanitarian law.

The comparisons that are being drawn between the response of powerful western members of the Security Council to Iraq's flouting of the UN authority and UNSCOM, and to Israel's long-standing occupation of the occupied territories and gross breach of UN resolutions, have, not surprisingly, gravely damaged the credibility of United States and European policy both towards the peace process and in the middle east more generally.

The hon. Gentleman is implying that there is some equivalence between the Israeli and Iraqi Governments. Can he tell me when Saddam Hussein was last elected?

I am drawing no such comparison. The Israeli Government are democratically elected, whereas Saddam Hussein is the 1998 equivalent of Hitler. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that UN Security Council resolutions, passed in good faith, signed up to by world opinion and valid under international law, are treated totally differently in the two countries.

It is clear from Prime Minister Netanyahu's defiant resistance to calls for the fulfilment of commitments made under the Oslo accords that the only strong message coming through is that Israel will not incur any penalties for acting outside the law. This selective application of the standards of international law continues to provoke considerable anti-western feeling in the Arab world, and has done a very great deal to devalue the authority of the UN in the middle east.

One of the most glaring examples in respect of the middle east peace process is Israel's persistent, wilful and illegal defiance of international humanitarian law in respect of settlement building. The basis of the Oslo accord was land for peace yet, in a complete negation of the peace process, the Netanyahu Government continue to steal more Palestinian land. Their behaviour is monstrous and amounts to a high political crime. No other country would have been allowed to behave in such a manner. Israel needs to be far more vigorously and robustly reminded of its legal and, as yet, unfulfilled obligations.

Immediately after his election in 1996, Netanyahu published his Government guidelines, which made it clear that the new Government would continue—and, indeed, accelerate—settlement building in all parts of the occupied territories, and particularly east Jerusalem. Despite repeated US calls for a time out on settlement building, it has continued.

In recent weeks, there have been reports that the Israeli Ministry of Housing plans to sell 138,000 housing units to the occupied territories in 1998–99, 11,000 of which are to be built in east Jerusalem. The reports suggest that all the infrastructure work has been completed at the settlement at Har Homa which, it will be remembered, was the project that provoked the crisis that led to the past 12 months of stagnation in the peace negotiations.

There has, in truth, never been a settlement freeze or slow-down. It is to be assumed, not just by local Palestinians, that at some point—in the interests of the peace process—settlement building will have to stop. There is no sign of that happening. That is a catastrophic and wholly unacceptable state of affairs.

I was one of the official observers of the Palestinian elections two years ago—a period of great hope—and I saw some of the settlements. Does the hon. Gentleman agree not only that they are illegal and provocative, but that they are being built on the tops of hills, destroying some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in a long time? They are also awful architecturally.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The settlements represent not only a moral and political crime, but a high aesthetic crime, and are therefore trebly to be condemned.

It seems that the middle east peace process is in grave danger of losing its way. Certainly, those who are working for a genuine and just peace in the region are not being given the support they deserve by the international community. What better time for us to re-evaluate the European role in the middle east peace process than now, when Britain holds the presidency?

In 1980, the Venice declaration settled the basis for a European approach to a settlement in the middle east by recognising the Palestinian right to self-determination, and the right to existence and security of the state of Israel. The Venice declaration based itself on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and EU policy on the middle east has remained consistent—but wholly ineffective—on those positions of high principle.

During the years of the middle east peace process, it has been argued that the situation where the United States is seen to represent Israeli interests and the EU is seen to be overly sympathetic to Arab concerns will provide yet another obstacle to the achievement of a peace settlement. I believe that the problem lies elsewhere. In the year since the signing of the Oslo peace accord, the prevailing notion has been that peace must be negotiated between the parties.

Israel, supported by the US, has sought to move any peace formula away from the restrictions of international law. The argument goes that the restraints placed on the negotiating parties by the standards of international law on issues such as the status of the city of Jerusalem would put unacceptable limits on negotiations in the final status talks. It seems, rather, that the factor currently preventing negotiations at all is the relentless Israeli colonisation of east Jerusalem, and the systematic depopulation of the eastern part of the city of its Arab inhabitants. This role of international law in conflict resolution is to apply legitimate restraints on the power of the occupying nation and to protect the rights of the occupied civilian population, pending a full settlement.

In a recent excellent interview with the Arab newspaper Al Hayat, the Prime Minister reaffirmed the British and European position on settlement building. He said:
"The continued building of new settlements is illegal, and in direct conflict with the principle of land for peace on which the whole peace process is built. It damages the confidence of ordinary Palestinians in the process and undermines Israel's credibility as a negotiating partner."
He went on to confirm the British belief in the principle of land for peace. He said:
"We support a negotiating process based on the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions and the principles laid down at Madrid and Oslo. We believe this process offers the best chance of delivering a just exchange of land for peace and the secure and prosperous future for which the peoples of the region have waited for so long."
I unreservedly welcome those remarks, and I regard them as extremely helpful at a time when the central concept of land for peace and the respect for the rule of law seem to have become lost in a climate of mutual recrimination and political instability.

I also welcome the Prime Minister's remarks later in the interview, when he drew a distinction between the views of the United States and those of Europe on the middle east. One of the central criticisms levelled against European Governments by Arab commentators, rightly, is that European policies in the middle east seem to be so strongly identified with what are—thoroughly correctly—seen as flawed US objectives. I believe that a much more distinct role for the EU in the peace process is what should concern us today.

In recent years—in line with its new and ambitious policy in the Mediterranean region—Europe has looked again at how it might become more actively involved in the politics of the peace settlement. Since the signing of the Oslo agreement, the EU has been the single largest investor in the peace process, pledging a total of 1.68 billion ecu. Europe has also played a leading role in the regional economic development working group in the multilateral negotiations. Disappointingly and worryingly, however, Europe has, yet again, been unable—through a lack of will and leadership—to find a political role commensurate with the financial investment it is making in the peace process. It is therefore in a losing position.

In a report entitled "The role of the European Union in the peace process and its future assistance to the Middle East"—compiled in mid-January by Commissioner Marin, who is responsible for the Mediterranean region—the Commission set out to review EU policy towards the peace process. It states, for instance, that Israeli policies in the occupied territories are responsible for the serious decline in Palestinian living standards.

Between 1993 and 1996, the west bank and Gaza were under military closures for one fifth of all working days. Clearly, this is an issue of grave concern to European Governments, whose aim of boosting the economy to give the Palestinians some stake in the peace process is being thwarted again by these illegal military closures. During the periods of protracted crisis that hit the peace process, the PNA turned to the EU to give emergency assistance to alleviate the budgetary deficit caused by the economic stagnation in the west bank and Gaza. That effectively means that Europe has been subsidising Israeli policies that it regards as illegal and which are clearly preventing any economic progress. That is clearly nonsense.

The report concludes:
"if this situation continues, the European Union should still not evade its responsibilities to keep the peace process alive through its political and economic efforts.
"The EU has reaffirmed its readiness to put all its political weight to the service of safeguarding the security of Israel. The security of the State of Israel and of its citizens is a central piece in the solution of the Middle East conflict. This is one of the reasons for the European support to Palestinian economic development. Contrary to claims that Israel's security demands stiff restrictions on the Palestinian economy, Palestinian economic development will be Israel's best security guarantee, both in the short and the long term.
"The Palestinians must be allowed to exercise their right to economic development. Obstacles to trade and economic activity must be removed."
The EU's current aid programme to the peace process is due to end in 1998. That seems to be an appropriate time to consider a more politically active role for Europe in the peace process, and I welcome the comments in the report confirming the EU's responsibility toward the peace process. However, I believe that the report does not go far enough, because there is no reference to the role of international law, or to the protection of human rights that is an essential element of EU policy toward the middle east.

It was reported last week that, just before Prime Minister Netanyahu's departure for Washington, the Israel Cabinet endorsed maps that identified vital Israeli interests in the west bank, ahead of final status negotiations. It was said that those interests amounted to claims to more than 60 per cent. of the land on the west bank. If that is what is being envisaged by Israel as a formula for a permanent settlement, it is clear that there will be nothing left for us to negotiate. Despair, danger and political and military instability will, once again, overwhelm and drown all the vital efforts for peace.

The right of Israel and its citizens to live within secure borders is a principle that is accepted by all who are genuinely working to promote the peace process. However, all the issues that are proving so damaging to the peace process—settlements, military closures, discriminatory policies against Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem, the repeated closures of the west bank and Gaza and the siege of the Palestinian economy—are fundamental issues of human rights, which are protected under international humanitarian law. The highly regrettable instances of political violence, aimed at derailing the peace negotiations, are, in large part, the result of the despair and loss of hope generated by the lack of political progress. The European Union cannot afford to formulate policy toward the peace process that does not include the essential element—the profound and fundamental element—of respect for human rights.

When he replies, the Minister will have an elegant and beautifully written Foreign Office brief, which will tell us that the Government continue to make robust approaches to Israel in respect of settlements and all other matters. They are not robust enough and, in the period when we hold the EU presidency, we look to the Government to try to reinvigorate the middle east peace process by galvanising support in Europe for a more proactive, energetic, realistic and honourable policy. Quite apart from the terrible events that may be about to unfold in Iraq, there will be no peace in the middle east without a proper, decent and honourable resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The current Government must do what the previous Government should have done but failed to do: they must stop hiding behind the Americans' coat tails and produce a more vigorous and robust European policy. I urge the Government to stop wringing their hands, and to do something about this appalling and wholly unacceptable situation.

11.23 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on securing this debate. I did not fully recognise his description at the beginning of his speech of the actions of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in respect of the middle east; but, that said, he made some telling and timely comments about a tragedy that has gone on too long and needs to be dealt with.

This year sees the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel, which was the realisation of a dream held by the Zionist movement since the latter years of the 19th century—indeed, its spiritual significance goes back much further. Set against the appalling suffering during the Nazi holocaust, the quest for a Jewish national home acquired far greater significance, but, although 1948 saw the birth of a state looking to the future, it also witnessed the start of yet another tragedy—the tragedy of the Palestinian people, which was rightly emphasised by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. As one people gained a homeland, another people lost one. That tragedy has not been adequately addressed to this day.

In a real sense, those 50th anniversary celebrations could be made far more celebratory if they marked the bringing to an end of the middle east, conflict and the tackling of issues that have been left unattended for so long. It is not long—only two or three years—since that seemed possible. The Oslo framework and the declaration of principles in 1993 were a breakthrough in terms of the political situation in the middle east, and they were founded on the principle of land for peace. Israel was offered the opportunity to have security and to live within secure and recognised borders and the Palestinians were offered recognition, at long last, of their right to nationhood. Both sides were to engage in confidence-building measures that would allow progress towards addressing the more difficult issues, such as Jerusalem.

We could be optimistic in 1993, but we have to be more pessimistic today. As the Prime Minister of Israel constantly reminds us, terrorism has not been removed from the agenda. Israel is right to seek security, but we have to address to it the question it will have to face up to sooner or later: where does security come from? In a speech in Washington on 28 November, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) quoted words that say far more than any of us in this Chamber can say. The words were spoken by the mother of an Israeli teenager who was killed by a terrorist bomb last July. She said:
"When you put people under a border closure, when you humiliate, starve and suppress them, when you raze their villages and demolish houses, when they grow up in garbage and holding pens, that's what happens."
Those words were spoken not by a politician, but by someone who has experienced the reality of violence and terrorism in the middle east. It is by removing those causes of violence that we will find real peace in the middle east.

Instead, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex graphically described, illegal settlement building continues and Palestinians who have lived all their lives in east Jerusalem have to prove, on the most spurious of grounds, their right to remain in the city of their birth. Despite the aid given to the Palestine National Authority—including nearly 2 billion ecu of European aid—the living standards of Palestinians in Gaza have dropped by 30 per cent.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Marin memorandum, because that memorandum, which was published in January, points out significant ways in which European policy in the middle east can go forward. It also makes telling comments about the limits to what can be achieved by European aid and international aid in general to Palestine and the National Authority unless the crucial questions surrounding the peace process and issues of human rights are tackled.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex referred to the effect of closures in the west bank and the Gaza strip. The Marin memorandum has the following to say on the subject:
"Each terrorist attack has automatically been followed by tight and prolonged closures of the West Bank and Gaza Strip which are described by Israel as security measures but perceived as collective punishment by the Palestinian population. For the period 1993–1996, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been under closure over one fifth (21 per cent.) of the effective working days: 233 effective closure days of the 1,108 potential working days. The situation has caused a severe Palestinian economic decline. So severe that it has far more than invalidated the international donors' efforts."
That puts the point well: we must remove the causes of the problems and break through the impasse in the peace process. International aid cannot be a substitute for the peace process; it can only complement it.

The Marin memorandum illustrates that, while the United States' policy will inevitably remain pivotal in brokering a settlement in the middle east, the European Union can and should play a much more dynamic role than it has in the past. We discussed in the House last year the association agreement between Israel and the EU; that agreement and various other relevant documents contain human rights clauses. We have a right to ask how far they are being monitored and being put into effect.

I welcome the clear statement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that settlement building is illegal. Many statements have been made, both by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, to the effect that the interim agreements need to be implemented. The Oslo framework, although vague in many areas, was not vague on timetables or on the interim talks and interim agreements. Those timetables have not been followed.

It is right that the international community should make it fairly clear to the Netanyahu Government that we expect the interim agreements to be followed, we expect the redeployment of Israeli troops to take place and we expect that redeployment to be meaningful, real and substantial. Talking about the figure of 9 per cent. does nothing to advance the peace process. Those redeployments have to be substantial if they are to contribute to peace.

This is the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. It is a time when people will inevitably look back, but it is important that when we look back, and when the Israelis and Palestinians look back, it is not in a spirit of blame, but in a spirit of understanding—understanding that can guide us where we go from here. As Israel does that, it should understand the need for Palestinian national rights to be recognised today. It should understand the importance of bringing an end to settlement building and collective punishment.

Israel must understand that, for Palestinians, whether they live in the occupied territories or outside, the memories and realities of Deir Yassin, Tel-al'Zataar, Sabra and Shatilla are as graphic and as strongly felt as Israeli memories of Mahalot, Kiriat Shimona and the Jerusalem bombings. When Israel and the Israeli Government understand that, the inevitable conclusion will be that the Oslo process, which was started so bravely not so many years ago, needs to be given added emphasis. The ball is firmly in the court of the Israeli Government. They could implement the interim agreements, move to final status talks as soon as they can and tackle the problem that has been, and will remain, the cornerstone of the middle east problem until it is sorted out: Palestinian rights.

11.33 am

I join in the congratulations of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on securing this timely debate on an important subject. I congratulate him on taking us on an authoritative gallop through the relevant parts of international law and international history.

I know that my hon. Friend, who is a fair-minded person, knows that I could equally well select other aspects of international law or international history. Those aspects could include the hostility of the Arab states to Israel, the acts of terrorism against Israel and the attempts to partition Palestine and divide it between the Palestinians and the Israelis, going back not just to the beginning of the founding of the state of Israel, but to the inter-war period and the Balfour declaration. However, there is not much point in doing that.

Although my hon. Friend's sympathies have a different starting point from mine, I think that we arrive at the same conclusion: the need for firm, robust and unflinching support for the peace process. In today's world, that is the only way forward and the only way that peace will be achieved. I accept that these are difficult times for the peace process, for a number of reasons.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned Israel's democratic credentials. We would all do well to remember—including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), when he speaks about the Israeli Government and what they should do—that Israel is a democracy. However controversial its leadership or its policies may be, we must face the fact that its leadership is elected by the people of Israel. We must keep that fact at the forefront of our minds as we consider this subject.

In his opening speech, my hon. Friend dwelt extensively on one aspect of the peace process formula: justice for the Palestinian people. It was entirely fair of him to do so, and that issue must also be kept at the forefront of our minds. It is understandable that my hon. Friend did not touch as much on the other part of the peace formula, which is supported by this Government as it was by the previous Government: security for the people of Israel. We must address that subject.

I am under no illusions: there is huge support for peace in Israel, but there is also an understandable demand for security. When the security considerations have been properly addressed, the prospects for peace will be that much better, but the people of Israel want security. It would be deeply unrealistic of us not to expect Israeli public opinion to be affected by bombs on buses, bombs in crowded shopping centres and incidents such as that at Kiriat Shemona, which the hon. Member for Northfield mentioned. When Israel embarks on a peace process, extends the hand of friendship and shows a willingness to make concessions, it would be deeply unrealistic not to expect Israeli public opinion to be affected when the bombs continue.

I respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex when he says that the political violence, as he described it, was born out of frustration at the lack of progress. I do not think that it was born out of frustration at the lack of progress; I think that the intention was to derail the progress that was being made. The violence was carried out by deluded people with wicked masters and their objective was to derail the peace process. The purpose of our diplomacy and of the European Union and the United States is to seek to overcome the obstacles that those people are putting in the way of the peace process through their violence.

My hon. Friend made certain requests of the Minister of State; I shall make some others. I want the Government to consider the security component of the peace process formula. When the Minister of State speaks to the Palestinians and other Arab leaders—I know that he already has—will he emphasise the need to address the subject of Israel's legitimate security concerns? Will he ensure that a firm and consistent message of support for peace and the right of Israel to exist comes from the Palestinian leadership—Chairman Arafat and the Palestine National Authority?

I know that the Minister of State has been discussing certain articles of the Palestinian national covenant with the Palestinian leadership and has sought clarification about what has been repealed. I know that the Minister has been asking for a list; it would be helpful if he could tell us a bit about it and give us definite information that certain articles have been repealed.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are limitations, as the Government have found in Northern Ireland, to any state's ability to stop the determined terrorist? Does he further accept that to some extent the Israeli Government are demanding of the Palestine National Authority that they follow what has been called the Algerian route? The route that the Algerian Government have taken to try to deal with terrorism has proved counter-productive, yet the Israeli Government are suggesting that the Palestine National Authority take precisely such extreme measures, although they have proved ineffective in other places and have simply stoked up a violent situation. The Israeli Government must recognise that security comes from—

Order. This is a very brief debate and that is a very long intervention.

I am not sure that I would recommend anyone to go down the Algerian route, but credit where credit is due—the Palestine National Authority have taken some actions recently that are consistent with taking on the forces of terrorism. I should like them to do far more, and to do it conspicuously, with a background of a consistent message in favour of peace, in favour of the right of Israel to exist and against terrorism. The overall answer to the hon. Lady is that we need to build up the confidence of the Israeli people about their security and the good faith of those with whom they are negotiating.

May I ask the Minister to take up one other small point, which I know he has taken up—to his credit? He knows that Israeli public opinion takes a close interest in the fate of missing Israeli service men. So do many people in this country, including some of my constituents, who have written to me. I was grateful for the reply that the Minister gave to a letter from one of my young constituents from Borehamwood, saying that he had not forgotten the Israeli service men, that he was continuing to take up their case, and that he had recently met the families of Ron Arad and Zachary Baumel. I congratulate the Minister on taking that interest and I hope that he will take it further, as it is another factor that will help to build up the confidence of the Israeli people.

What about the role of Europe, which my hon. Friend mentioned? I disagree with him slightly on that. I think that the role of Europe should complement that of the United States. Any objective observer would have to agree that the United States is making vigorous efforts to procure peace in the middle east, against a difficult background. It should be the role of Europe to support those efforts. I hope, that in our presidency of the EU, we will focus on making the efforts of Europe complement those of the US.

I strongly support European economic assistance to the region, particularly to the Palestinians. My hon. Friend made an entirely fair point about the need to improve the standard of living of the Palestinians and to give them a greater interest in the success of the peace process. That is a legitimate objective, and I am happy with Europe pursuing it. I am slightly less happy with a more advanced foreign policy on the part of Europe, given current European political structures. I have reservations on various grounds about Europe pursuing that role. Notwithstanding those hesitations, I urge the Minister to give consideration to what Europe can do to get the multilateral track of the peace process going. I know that that is a difficult issue.

These are difficult times. We have different sympathies and different interpretations of the history of the region. Everyone present in the Chamber may have a different interpretation of recent middle eastern history, but perhaps we can all join in giving support on a bipartisan basis to the peace process, being realistic about it, not expecting dramatic progress—far from it—but maintaining consistent and unflinching support for that process, however difficult it may be, and trying to understand the problems and concerns of both sides and to build their confidence in the peace process. It is well worth making European support for the peace process at this difficult time one of the main objectives of our EU presidency.

11.43 am

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). His comments will be warmly welcomed by many people in this country and abroad.

The middle east is, of course, much wider than the focus of our debate. It is important to put the issue in context. There is an Israel-Syria track to the negotiations and there are the unresolved problems of the internal politics of Lebanon. Recent events there could signify the beginnings of a resumption of the tragic civil war that caused so many problems to the people of Lebanon.

Apart from Israel and the Palestine National Authority, no states in the region conduct democratic elections in the sense that they would be understood in western Europe, the United States or many other parts of the world. There are swathes of the middle east where women have virtually no rights, where they are not allowed to drive cars and where they are not allowed to vote.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) referred to the baleful influence of the Zionist lobby. Perhaps we should also point out the baleful influence of what might be called an Arab lobby among those who do not comment on those issues and simply dismiss them. If we have universal standards of human rights and support for democracy, they should apply also in Saudi Arabia and throughout the middle east.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is proper for us to expect even higher standards of democracies and particularly for us to expect democracies not to flout international law?

I am grateful for that intervention, as it brings me to my next point. The loudest, most vocal and strongest critics of the Netanyahu Government are Israelis. If one speaks to people in Peace Now, in Meretz and throughout Israeli society, one hears what high hopes they had when Yitzhak Rabin took that brave step to meet Arafat, to engage in discussion and ultimately to sign the Oslo process agreement, culminating in the handshake in Washington. That was incredibly controversial in Israeli society and, tragically, Rabin paid for his bravery with his life, killed by a fellow Israeli.

As has been said, it is the extremists who are determined to destroy the process. There are extremists on both sides: the people responsible for the massacre in the mosque in Hebron—I have been there and seen that place—and the people responsible for the bombings in Tel Aviv. They have an agenda, which is to destroy the efforts of moderates and people with vision to go forward in the peace process. To some extent, they have been successful.

I was with my hon. Friend the Minister in Israel, Gaza, Hebron and Bethlehem in December 1995. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) was also on the trip. It was a joint Labour friends of Israel and Labour middle east council delegation. During our visit, we met Shimon Peres—one month after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. We also met Yasser Arafat. At that time there was real hope of progress. The Palestinian election was due to be held in January 1996. There was a genuine possibility that the process would go forward.

Unfortunately, Mr. Peres lost the Israeli election. That is what happens in democracies. Democracies do not always give the solution that those outside want. The Israeli people chose to elect a Government who said that they would give greater emphasis to security. Despite all the difficulties, that Government have said that they remain committed to the Oslo process. They signed agreements for the withdrawal from Hebron and there was an important meeting in January 1997 between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat at which they agreed a protocol.

Many criticisms have been made of Israel, but it is important to note for the record that the difficulties do not lie entirely on the Israeli side. The Arafat-Netanyahu document was associated with a note for the record prepared by the United States ambassador in the region, Dennis Ross. The note lists various obligations that the two leaders undertook to fulfil as part of the process. They included: Israeli compliance with the terms of the agreement for the first stage of redeployment from the west bank, the release of Palestinian women prisoners and the resumption of negotiations. Israel may be criticised for some of its actions, but the fact is that Palestinian women prisoners have been released and there has been a limited withdrawal through the Hebron process. The Oslo agreement is still supported formally by the Israeli Government.

The Palestinians also agreed to fulfil several obligations. They included: amending the covenant, taking steps to combat terrorism, reducing the size of the Palestinian police force and—a very controversial issue—agreeing what would happen to the Palestinian institutions that operate outside the Palestinian area of authority. An examination of the progress made by the Palestinians subsequent to that agreement could lead to strong criticisms of that quarter. Mr. Arafat sent letters to President Clinton and to our Prime Minister, but the Palestine National Authority have not yet amended the covenant, which comprises many clauses and phrases that I suspect would be offensive to every hon. Member—and they are certainly regarded as such by Israeli public opinion.

The problems that we face today pose very serious questions about how we can influence events in areas of conflict from outside. We know from our own experience that it is not possible to impose solutions to any conflict from outside a state. Conflict resolution necessitates an internal process—although actors from outside may assist in reaching that resolution.

The European Union already makes large financial contributions to Gaza and for other aspects of development in Palestinian areas in an attempt to facilitate further middle east dialogue. I am sure that the European Union will continue to make those constructive contributions under the British presidency. However, ultimately, Britain and the other European Union states will not be able to impose any solutions in the middle east—especially in light of the fact that the Israeli Government are elected democratically. Israeli public opinion will determine the outcome of the next Israeli elections, which we hope will lead to an acceleration of the peace process.

The conflict in the middle east has other, wider aspects. There are two synagogues, two mosques and several other places of worship, including gurdwaras and Hindu temples, in my constituency. I am concerned about attempts by extremist groups from either community to bring extremist politics into this country. All communities in the United Kingdom, regardless of religion, must live together in harmony. They must respect our laws, all aspects of which apply equally. I hope that that approach will act as a model for tolerance and understanding throughout the middle east.

11.54 am

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on his fine and instructive speech. I have no Arab or Jewish connections and I have no particular axe to grind, but I have both Arab and Israeli friends who feel very much as I do about the middle east peace process. Therefore, I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate.

My friends and I care so much about this subject that, in 1993, in France, we opened a bottle of champagne and planted an olive tree to celebrate the Oslo accord.

Did the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex provide the champagne?

No, he did not. He was not with me at the time.

The Oslo accord enshrined the principles that should have led to the creation of a Palestinian state. It acknowledged
"the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war"
and recognised that Israel's armed forces must withdraw from occupied territories.

My olive tree survives and thrives, but the Oslo accord fell on stony ground—a product of the international community's turning a blind eye to the plight of the Palestinian peoples and a ringing endorsement of Israel's capacity to mock international law and agreements. How long can we stand by and watch Israel do that? New settlements have been built in east Jerusalem and, more recently, Israel's housing ministry spokesman, Mosh Eilat, announced that a further 30,000 new homes would be built in those settlements by 2020.

As the hon. Lady is talking about experiences, will she detail the times that she has travelled to Israel—as I have—and to Palestine to explore the issues at first hand?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I said at the beginning of my speech that I have no particular axe to grind. I am not a member of friends of Israel or friends of Palestine. I have—and will always have—a totally neutral point of view, but I believe that my views are entitled to be heard.

Those initiatives are contrary to the spirit of the Oslo accord.

I shall not give way again.

The initiatives are also contrary to the principle of land for peace. They are, in essence, a reflection of an Israeli Government who are opposed to peace and who are determined to make a Palestinian state a pipe dream. We must ask how long we can allow them to continue.

The Palestinians are not the only ones to see their agreements broken. Israel recently broke its trade agreement with the European Union by exporting orange juice to Europe—it may sound quite amusing—labelled "Product of Israel" that was not an Israeli product. Israel also stands accused of exporting as products of Israel goods that are made in the settlements. Israel has violated an international agreement, the purpose of which was to strengthen economic development in order to underpin the peace process through economic growth and stability.

How long must Palestinians, Europeans, Americans, Israelis and all who are committed to the peace process endure the flagrant violation of international law by this and previous Israeli Governments? I agree with the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) who said that we expect more of a democratically elected Government than we do of a dictator such as Saddam Hussein.

The latest United-States-bolstered piecemeal agreement regarding the further redeployment of Israeli troops from the occupied territories is bound to fail because it allows Israel to withdraw troops only once the Palestine National Authority have met all their security demands. That is another open invitation to Israel to place more and more exacting conditions on the PLA and, consequently, what is left of the peace process will continue to flounder. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said, it is difficult for political organisations to keep control of all their members and terrorists.

No, I am about to finish, and then the hon. Gentleman can speak.

With the 50th anniversary of the creation of Israel and the United Kingdom's presidency of the European Union, we must ask how much longer we should tolerate Israel's violation of international law and the denial of the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland. Surely Jewish people in Israel, more than any other people in the world, can understand the Palestinian predicament.

12 noon

I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for the debate. I am sorry that this is not the longer debate that the issue justifies, but I hope that we shall be able to have such a debate before too long.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this year is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel; but for the Palestinian people it has been 50 years without human, political and civil rights, which all agree they should have.

There are huge implications if the peace process fails, not just for the region but for the relationships of the international community with the Arab world. That is true not least because of our historical involvement in the region and because of the role of the international community in relation to the Oslo accords, which were underwritten by the West. They should not be regarded as the possession of Israel, from which Netanyahu can pick and choose. They were internationally underwritten agreements in the context of UN Security Council resolutions, especially resolutions 242 and 338, but also a long list of previous resolutions which, time and again, have emphasised the need for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and for the political rights of the Palestinian people.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the parallels with Iraq. I do not want to compare the Iraqi and Israeli regimes, but it is important to recognise that people do see parallels. Sanctions against Iraq are justified on the ground that it does not comply with Security Council resolutions.

No, I only have a little time and I want to use the opportunity to say something.

Sanctions against Iraq are justified on the ground of its possession of weapons of mass destruction. Is it surprising that people draw parallels when Israel has a nuclear weapons programme and when Mordecai Vanunu, who exposed it, is entering his 12th year in solitary confinement in Ashkelon prison, and when Israel continues not to comply with Security Council resolutions?

I do not want to dwell on the question of settlements, about which the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex and others talked at some length, or on what has happened in Jerusalem, whose status was supposed to be part of the final stages of the negotiations. Not only have Palestinians in occupied territories been affected, but the southern part of Lebanon is still occupied, and I cannot remember the last time there was any reference in the House to any sort of progress in negotiations between Israel and Syria. Within Israel, 70,000 Arabs live in 176 unrecognised villages with no basic services, water, sanitation or electricity. They are supposed to be Israeli citizens, yet they are denied basic services, with the clear intention of forcing them from their lands.

Before Netanyahu's recent visit to the United States, he visited an Israeli air force base to take delivery of the first two F151 fighter bombers to arrive. Hours before he left, the US announced a $1.4 billion loan for Israel, and that was before a visit that was billed as the US putting pressure on Israel. The clear message was that President Clinton did not have the stomach for a fight with Netanyahu and his allies in the American Congress.

I perfectly understand the points made by some hon. Members about the other side of the equation and the need for security. However, at a recent meeting, Yasser Arafat gave President Clinton a letter clearly detailing the specific articles of the Palestinian covenant that have been changed. It was read by James Rubin at a press briefing, and stated:
"The Palestinian National Council's resolution … in accordance with Article 33 of the Covenant, is a comprehensive amendment of the Covenant. All of the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the PLO commitment to recognise and live in peace side by side with Israel are no longer in effect … These changes will be reflected in any official publication of the charter".
US policy is paralysed in terms of any real influence on Israeli policy, yet it is crystal clear that, without changes in Israeli policy, the peace process will fail.

At the moment, there are some extremely worrying signs. I read in a recent press report of a clash in Bethlehem when Israeli soldiers fired tear gas at Palestinian boys who were throwing stones. When the Palestinian police arrived, they aimed rifles at Israeli troops pursuing the stone throwers. The same thing had happened the day before in the same spot, and the same thing has happened in Gaza. With between 35,000 and 40,000 armed Palestinian police, we must be concerned about what is happening and the consequences of such clashes.

The peace process is clearly in serious trouble. When that process started, everyone emphasised the risks and the need for the inhabitants of the west bank and Gaza to see some change and some economic improvement in their conditions. That is not happening and mass disillusionment is setting in. We need greater pressure and a pro-active policy from the EU. As the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said, we simply cannot rely on the US having any sort of influence to bring about the changes in policy that are needed. If we do not continue to apply such pressure and to support the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people, we shall be guilty of contributing to the failure of the peace process.

12.8 pm

I do not want to dwell on the points that have been made more than adequately by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and others. I simply want to focus on Britain's historic obligation, which is keenly felt in the Arab world. In a sense, it has remained unchanged since the Balfour declaration in 1917, which included these words:

"it being understood that nothing be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".
In 1922, the mandate that we accepted from the League of Nations stated:
"The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up permanent residence in Palestine."
The White Paper presented to the House in 1922 contained His Majesty's Government's view that at no time had they contemplated
"as appears to be feared by the Arab Delegation, the disappearance or the subordination of the Arabic population, language or culture in Palestine."
In 1930, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald said that nothing should prejudice the civil rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. That was repeated in 1939 and 1947 by the then Foreign Secretary.

We have had an obligation to both communities. With the injustices that are happening now to the Palestinian community, it is time for the British Government to speak up for the underdogs, the Palestinian community, to ensure that they achieve their aims of statehood and can deal with the Israeli population in equality, and that both communities can have security.

12.10 pm

We have had an all too short but interesting and well-informed debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on securing it at such an opportune moment, and on the typically robust and eloquent manner in which he introduced it.

As was pointed out by every hon. Member who spoke, we are at a critical moment in the middle east peace process, when, sadly, the wider region faces possible further conflict. Britain has a long and deep involvement in the middle east, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) just said. We are inextricably bound with the region through history, responsibility and a shared interest in trade and, of course, security in the region.

The previous Government always made it clear that our aim was a lasting peace, accepted by all and founded on the principle of respect for international law, peace with security for Israel, and prosperity, justice and self-determination for the Palestinians. Therefore, we on the Conservative Benches warmly welcome the Government's stated continuing commitment to those principles and to the means by which the ultimate goal of a lasting peace can be achieved.

In May 1996, the former Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said:
"Britain has no blueprint for how a durable peace should be established. We are fighting no-one's corner. We are proud to call ourselves friends of all the people of the region."
That realisation and that commitment hold good today just as they did then, but we must be realistic and look at the situation that confronts us. As we heard today from hon. Members on both sides of the House, the process is in crisis and is in desperate need of impetus.

The recent visits to Washington by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat were at best disappointing and at worst retrograde, given that the Israeli Cabinet chose the eve of the Prime Minister's visit to issue their communiqué listing eight new areas of the west bank whose retention they now consider vital for their national interest.

Subsequently, Mrs. Albright, in her recent visit to the region, was rebuffed in her request for a "certificate of good progress" from the Palestinians—a document which presumably she hoped would provide helpful supporting evidence during her tour of the Gulf seeking support for action against Iraq. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex rightly referred to the detrimental effect that the lack of progress in the middle east peace process has had on Arab opinion with regard to action against Iraq.

On 17 December last year, the Minister told me in a written answer:
"Seeking to re-inject momentum into the Middle East peace process will be a high priority during our Presidency."
We welcome that commitment and his recent visit to the region.

I echo my hon. Friend's disappointment that the Foreign Secretary—some nine months after becoming Foreign Secretary—having twice cancelled a visit to the region, has still not managed to get there himself. It would have been better had he visited before the start of the presidency. He would have had an opportunity to see and to hear from people on the ground. We look forward to his anticipated visit in the spring, and to the ministerial meeting that will be held in London in April.

At a time when the United States has failed to inject further momentum into the process, there is clearly a crucial role for Britain to play during our presidency. We must recognise that expectations in the region concerning our own involvement are high. We have a well-earned reputation for even-handedness, and the quality of our contacts in the region are second to none. The period of our presidency is thus an ideal time to throw our weight behind the process, and to encourage the EU to do likewise.

Will the Minister tell us just a little about the so-called Marin memorandum, which we heard about this morning, which clearly calls for a far more active EU role throughout all levels of the process? His noble Friend has described it as "an internal working document". What is its current status? While we hold the presidency of the EU, do we support the memorandum's proposals? How is it suggested that they should be put into effect?

In 1996, the previous Government warmly welcomed the decision of the Palestinian National Council to amend the Palestinian covenant, which honoured a commitment made in the Oslo letters of recognition, and was welcomed at the time by both the United States Government and Mr. Perez. Will the Minister therefore tell us a little more about the letter, of which we heard this morning, that Mr. Arafat sent last month to the Prime Minister, and which was subsequently passed on to President Clinton? The Israeli Government consider the move to be "insufficient", but it would be helpful to have the Minister's views of its significance in the overall peace process.

In the written answer to which I referred, the Minister also said:
"We are anxious to see existing agreements implemented in full."
The House will know that, under the Oslo accords and the subsequent Hebron agreement, the territory of the west bank is, as my hon. Friend described, divided into three zones. Zone A, under complete Palestinian civilian and military control, currently represents just 3 per cent. of the territory—the urban centres. Zone B, under Palestinian civilian control but Israeli security control, now accounts for 27 per cent. The remaining 70 per cent., zone C, remains under full Israeli civilian and military control.

At Oslo, the Palestinians accepted that Jerusalem and the settlements, representing some 9 per cent. of land, would be left to final status talks, but that still leaves some 91 per cent. of land in the west bank to come under Palestinian control during the interim period. Under the Hebron agreement, there were to be three instalments of further withdrawals: the first by 7 March last year, the second by 7 September, and the third by the middle of this year, but, as the House well knows, none of those further withdrawals has taken place.

On 7 March last year, the Israeli Government made a renewed offer, which was turned down by the Palestinians, and we have heard this morning that the current Israeli proposal is for a single redeployment of some 6 to 8 per cent. to make up for the two that have been missed, prior to an immediate jump to final status talks.

The United States has now made a further suggestion that some 10 to 14 per cent. be moved from zone C to zone B, and a further 10 per cent. from zone B to zone A. However, even that proposal is still subject to renegotiation and would be phased over three to five instalments. The so-called Sharon map to which my hon. Friend referred, which now appears to be the Israeli Government's blueprint, allows for an absolute maximum of 35 per cent. of the west bank to have been redeployed, even after final status talks.

The Minister's recent visit of the region sadly coincided with the Israeli Cabinet's declaration that large sections of the west bank were vital to Israel's national interest.

That was not my fault.

It was not the Minister's fault, as he rightly says. What discussions did he have about the announcement at the time? Did he seek or receive assurances on future redeployment during his visit?

The Israeli Cabinet's declaration effectively adds large sections of the west bank to the growing list of issues that the Israeli Government claim are not open to renegotiation, even in final status talks, and all the time, as we heard this morning, the stalemate over redeployment and other issues continues to be exacerbated and soured by the current status of, and future plans for, Israeli settlements.

Israel's unrelenting programme of enlarging its settlements proceeds unabated, in spite of worldwide criticism and condemnation. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) mentioned the Israeli Housing Ministry's confirmation that it plans to double the current settler population by 2020 by building 30,000 new homes, half of them in the vicinity of Jerusalem.

As the House will know, the Conservative Government always regarded the settlements as illegal, and therefore we naturally welcome the strong words of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, and, indeed, the Minister himself in condemning settlement building. What progress, if any, has he made in talks with the Israeli Government on this matter?

Among other priorities that the Minister highlighted was
"a mechanism to institutionalise security co-operation and handle crises … and engaging Israel in a dialogue on ways of removing obstacles to Palestinian economic development."—[Official Report, 17 December 1997; Vol. 303, c. 182.]
What progress has he made in those regards?

We all recognise why Israel is so preoccupied with security. The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) quite rightly told us of the problems, and the appalling scenes that we saw on television last year serve as a reminder that the battle against terrorism is far from won.

Peace can flourish only in a climate of trust and confidence. We need to strike a balance. The closure policy has caused widespread resentment and economic suffering. It has come to be perceived as a collective punishment against 2 million Palestinians living in the west bank and Gaza, and has had an appalling effect on the Palestinian way of life. A report on 1996 by the United Nations special co-ordinator's office noted as direct results of the policy a 57.8 per cent. increase in unemployment in the west bank and Gaza; a 23 per cent. drop in aggregate income; and a fall in real wages of 20 per cent. since 1995. Most worrying of all, it highlighted an increase in child labour in the region.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimates that there has been a 40 per cent. decline in overall living standards since the Oslo accords. Access to health care has been reduced, students have been unable to get to their universities, and Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, no longer have freedom of access to their holy sites.

We have had a short but informative debate. There were other issues that I had hoped to raise. The Minister has mentioned previously his efforts in respect of the Gaza air and sea ports, transit arrangements between the west bank and Gaza and the permanent security committee he mentioned in a speech in Washington last year. We have also heard about the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. We would be interested to know about reported comments that the Israelis may accept, albeit conditionally, resolution 425. We warmly welcome the priority that the Government are giving to reinvigorating the middle east peace process during their presidency. They may be sure that, during their brief tenure, they will have our support in doing that.

12.20 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on raising this issue and thank him for the way in which he made his comments about Iraq, the nature of its regime and the need for it to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions.

One constant theme ran through the debate. Whatever the perspective—or, indeed, prejudice—of hon. Members, it is clear that they are all keen to see progress in the peace process. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex talked about the principles of land for peace, and was right to say that that is the underpinning notion that will enable us to make progress. Every hon. Member who spoke mentioned the intimate link between political, social and economic progress and security. It is self-evident that progress along all those lines is in the interests of the people of Israel, of Palestine and of the whole region. There should be no question but that there is a joint agenda and a set of common interests. Our political task is to ensure that we put some life back into the peace process and make progress.

Perhaps I can answer some of the points that were raised. We hold the view—which was held, as the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) said, by the previous Government—that to make progress, there needs to be a balance of action in terms of the land for peace principle. That means further redeployment in line with previous agreements, confidence-building measures and a commitment to security.

Let me take security first. It is axiomatic that we cannot have peace without security. Whether one is an Israeli or a Palestinian, that is self-evident. One of the encouraging aspects of my recent visit to Israel and the occupied territories was the extent to which Palestinians recognised that their political progress depends on the security of the people of Israel. We have taken action to help with security.

The hon. Member for Westbury mentioned our security proposals. We have asked special envoy Ambassador Moratinos to meet Dr. Erekat of the Palestine National Authority over the next few days to discuss what further measures we can take to help the Palestinians to deliver their security promises. I have two more points on security. First, to reinforce my earlier point, we believe that the Palestinians are making a genuine effort on security. That should be put on record. That view is currently also held by the American Administration. Secondly, if we can assist in the process, it is a meaningful contribution that Europe can make the peace process. We will do all that we can to help on security issues.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and others mentioned the Palestinian charter. I raised that in my recent meetings with President Arafat. As a result, he wrote to the Prime Minister setting out the action taken by the Palestine National Council. It is important to put it on record that we believe that that was a significant letter. He set out the clauses of the charter that had been repealed and amended and made it clear that the charter is now seen as in line with the commitments and principles of the Oslo accord. We welcome the fact that Secretary of State Albright has also welcomed those assurances and believes that the charter is no longer a stumbling block to the peace process. We see that as a significant step forward and welcome it.

On further redeployments, I heard the strong words of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex about how the map of the west bank is still distorted in a way that does not reflect the wishes that were around at the time of the Oslo accord. We have been very clear that there must be further meaningful redeployments. We are in line with the Hebron agreements. Such further meaningful redeployments must be of a size that can give the Palestinians confidence in the process and show them that progress is being made.

We have also taken every opportunity to condemn the expansion of settlements. As the hon. Member for Westbury noted, the previous Administration rightly said that the settlements were in breach of international law. We have said that not only on behalf of the UK Government but on behalf of the EU presidency. If I can personally take some credit, I think that I am still the only European Minister to have visited Har Homa and to have made the point there that the Government disagree strongly with settlement building.

As hon. Members have said, that settlement shows the extent to which the character of Jerusalem and the surrounding area are being significantly changed. That is why we have supported the notion of time out: that neither side should take steps that pre-empt the final status discussions. A strong criticism of settlements is that they distort the final status discussions and make it difficult for real negotiations to take place in line with the Oslo accords.

We are concerned about the way in which the character and nature of east Jerusalem is being changed. It should not be changed prior to the final status negotiations. It is an area in which Palestinian life and the Palestinian community are being badly affected by decisions taken by the Israeli Government.

The hon. Member for Westbury asked about economic and confidence-building measures. During my recent visit to Israel, I chaired the EU-Israel dialogue on economic matters. We gave strong priority to certain economic measures that have to be taken on Gaza airport and port, on its industrial estate and on safe passage, which is crucial for economic development. As several hon. Members said, the Palestinians must feel an economic commitment to the process of peace. Since Oslo, there has been a decline of more than 30 per cent. in Palestinian living standards. It is impossible to sell peace if people are suffering such reductions in living standards.

The key theme of the debate has been to ask us in our presidency to take an active role in the middle east peace process. The action that we have taken so far on economic measures and security, our close liaison with Washington, the messages that we have delivered and the positions that we have taken show the extent to which under our presidency the European Union will play a strong and active role. We are determined to do that during the short six months of our European Union presidency.

Our role during our presidency will not be to compete with the United States. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex knows Arab countries and their leaders extremely well. They do not want the European Union to play a competitive role. They want Europe to help the process, to play a complementary role and to support the objectives of land for peace and the Oslo accords. We are determined to play that role effectively. I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that we will be active during our six-months presidency of the European Union.

We all have an interest in peace. We shall work for peace. Peace in the middle east is in the interests of the Israelis, the Palestinians and all the people living in the region.