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9.31 pm

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): If the hon. Gentleman is at the fag end of debate, I do not know where that puts me.

The debate has been a high point for this Parliament. In the 10 years in which I have been a Member, I have not heard a better one. The six hours of discussion have brought credit to all the participants, of whom there were many—I counted the contributions and I am the 32nd to speak. There were respectable differences, passionately and genuinely put, and division and argument that did not follow traditional party lines. Every contribution was infected by a sense of moral judgment—not to say outrage at times—and by a genuine search for peace, decency and civility in this highly complex issue.

For some, the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is just a local skirmish on which they can turn their back, but they are wrong. They are very wrong on mere grounds of justice and humanitarian decency, but they are doubly wrong because the continuing conflict in the middle east has the potential to spark global conflagration on a massive scale. We, as politicians with opinions and influence, have a duty to grapple with the issue in all its complexity.

I want to echo the good sense spoken by the Foreign Secretary. He gave us three guiding principles that he and I hope all of us believe should govern our approach to the issue. First, there is no monopoly of right and wrong. Secondly, Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to live side by side. Thirdly, no solution can be reached by force. In all those three, the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right and we share them in every respect.

In fact, on this issue perhaps more than any other, it is easy to champion one side. Anyone can easily take up the cudgels for one side against the other, but they soon find

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that for every argument there is a counter-argument and for every claim there is a counter-claim. They simply get into a tit-for-tat debating battle. We need understanding rather than grandstanding and to appreciate that there is a limited purpose to any antiphony of blame. There is no point being simplistically partisan. We all have to struggle to be even-handed and to bring the sides together. We need to take steps that allow us to see an end to the polarisation that has bedevilled the argument for decades.

It is not necessary to be anti-Israel to be pro-Arab; nor is it necessary to be anti-Arab to be pro-Israel. It is not nonsensical to be pro-both. Indeed, I would contend that if one is to be pro-peace, one has to be pro-both. In the 20 years in which I have travelled the Gulf, and in which I think I have been to every country in the wider middle east, I have been pro-both, and I would do anything to steer the two sides down the path towards peace.

We have to understand history to understand the intensity of opinion which governs this debate, and it is so easy to be selective about history. Perhaps "understand" is not quite the right word. I saw on a wall in Jerusalem the telling sentence, which explains to the beginner in the middle east debate the simple truth:


That confusion arises from the complexity of the issue, because it is complex in its history, in its geography and in the interaction of political powers. There is also the unfathomable complexity of some of the personalities involved.

Looking at the history, and perhaps at the risk of being slightly selective myself, I point out that the Foreign Secretary skirted slightly over the events of 1948, and so much stems from the war of Palestine between April and September that year. [Interruption.] I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for admitting that—I am obviously not being over-selective.

Of course, one can go back to the Balfour declaration, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) did. In 1948, however, in the aftermath of a war in which Jews had been heinously herded and hounded towards intentional annihilation, their right to a homeland was widely recognised in principle, but the first steps to its inception also caused its subsequent problems. In 1948, the minority population of 600,000 Jews displaced about 1.4 million Palestinians. Perhaps above all it is that expulsion that has festered for over half a century. So now we have two sides, and we have heard the shades of debate today, as we have heard them in many comments on television and elsewhere.

Mrs. Ellman: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although undoubtedly there were expulsions, it has also been accepted on both sides that many Palestinians fled, believing that they would return as successful invading forces?

Mr. Duncan: That question perfectly illustrates the complexities that we have to unravel. I have to give credit to the Israeli Government, as a democracy, for releasing documents that add to a better understanding of history as academics try to look back to the events that unfolded 50 years ago.

We have two classic, distinctive polar points of view. The Arabs feel that they are second-class citizens; they feel dispossessed and permanently humiliated. They feel

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that 4 million Palestinian refugees are condemned to a life in camps. They feel—this is simple but true—that America is Satan. They feel that much of their land is occupied and that the world looks to them with double standards. At the same time, across the divide, the Israelis feel threatened too. They feel insecure, and they think that people want to drive them to the sea. They feel compelled to protect themselves because nobody else will, and they feel that some Arabs do not believe that they have the right to exist as a state.

We have seen all shades of that opinion in today's debate. I want to pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), so I am sorry that she is not here. All of us, while munching our cornflakes, have listened to her broadcasts on Radio 4 from Jenin. I think that they have been remarkable and I look upon what she has done over the past few days with supreme admiration. It takes a lot of courage to tread the rubble of a refugee camp such as Jenin in the middle of a conflict such as the one that we have seen, and it takes courage to look down the barrel of a tank. Perhaps in her absence, I can pay proper tribute by saying that she knocks the spots off Kate Adie.

We have had many contributions, and it is invidious to mention any of them, but I will mention some. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said that Israel must behave like a legitimate state. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), speaking as the president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, said that Israel should withdraw, but urged us to remember the Israeli state of mind, which governs so many of its actions. I also draw attention to a remarkable speech by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I cannot mention all the contributions, but what emerged from them is an acknowledgement of the need for a two-state solution in which there is mutual recognition and mutual security for both Israel and a Palestinian state.

What could have emerged more strongly is that there are in this vicious debate ingredients that give glimmers of hope. The essential ingredients of a deal and a settlement are present. In a way, the boundaries between the two states are almost the easiest bit, and recognition that the two states have to live side by side is growing. By and large, there remain only three main elements of a potential settlement: the large, concrete settlements in the west bank, the right of return demanded by the Arabs, and the vexed question of Jerusalem in whatever form is chosen. None the less, the ingredients are present, in a scattered jigsaw that needs to be assembled. The initiative of Crown Prince Abdullah is admirable—the first top-level collective Arab endeavour working towards peace and prepared to establish normal relations with Israel.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin asks the right question: how do we get there? Although one or two voices have been heard today dissenting from this view, much points to the Americans as the people who have to take the initiative if steps towards a ceasefire and further negotiations are to be taken. The USA is the key: it must keep up and prosecute its pressure on Ariel Sharon to withdraw from the west bank. It is American pressure and influence evenly applied on both sides that matters most.

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In the minutes remaining to me, I shall focus on a further dimension to this intense debate. From the burning of one small match, an enormous fire can result, and the danger we now face is of a huge conflagration flowing from the Israel-Palestine conflict. The conflict has the capacity to inflame the wider Arab world, and far more besides. It is for understandable reasons that that has only been touched on in today's debate.

Already—without the regional turmoil that an invasion of Iraq might provoke—the entire region is a tinderbox. With 70 per cent. of its population restless Palestinians, Jordan is living on a knife edge. The Hashemite hold on the country is far from firm, and Jordan depends wholly on Iraq for its annual economic bloodstream of £850 million worth of oil. Saudi Arabia is a sort of Faustian pact between the al-Sauds and the clerics. Well in excess of half its population is under 30 and it faces a perilous period of unrest which is barely contained below the surface. Iran is in a state of transition, and critics provoke and offend it into enmity instead of choosing to draw it into bonds of friendship. Egypt—barely a democracy—is finding itself increasingly incapable of controlling the street. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain—for all its recent reforms—and Qatar are far from safe. Even Oman—perhaps the most stable and progressive of all the Gulf states—is wary of the growing mood of resentment.

If the regimes in those countries fall, an explosion of popular fury will push them rapidly into the hands of maniacal clerics whose intolerance and aggression will make the current activities of PLO militarists seem as nothing. It is not an exaggeration to say that the world would be pushed towards massive conflict if that were to happen. A series of regimes in the Gulf thrust into different hands would be far more perilous for the state of Israel. Currently, those regimes feel impotent, and their populations are on the edge of revolt.

The question of Israel and Palestine is crucial to the management of all that danger. For their sake and for the sake of the wider world we must now do all we can to walk down the path to peace.


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