Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Middle East Peace Negotiations

8.24 p.m.

Lord Hylton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how they view the current state of peace negotiations in the Middle East.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have deliberately framed the Question widely so as to cover the whole region, but I shall confine my remarks to the Palestinian National Authority and to Israel.

I have lived through the occupation of the entire West Bank and Gaza, the unilateral annexation of the Old City and East Jerusalem and the agonies of the long-drawn out intifada. When I last visited those parts, the uprising and the Gulf War had ceased. The prospects for peace seemed good. When, in 1993, the Oslo agreements appeared, I and many others rejoiced, but what has happened since then? Do Her Majesty's Government agree that there has been a terrible waste of time, causing stagnation and frustration, especially among the weakest and those who suffer most from poor education, unemployment and poverty? The result of such conditions is that today more than one-third of Palestinian children show signs of malnutrition. Is it surprising, therefore, that over this period those who believe in violence have gained in strength?

I should like to examine in some detail the situation as it exists. We find that 91 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza are under Israeli military control, including the large "closed military areas". Only 9 per cent of the territory is under the full jurisdiction of the Palestinian National Authority. Some 75 per cent of the West Bank and 42 per cent of the Gaza Strip have been expropriated from their owners by the Israeli military administration. Thus, the Palestinians have been deprived of most of their land and only administer a tiny fraction of it. Under the Wye River and a subsequent agreement, a further 5 per cent will be returned to Palestinian administration, but even this will not necessarily be adjacent to those areas already under Palestinian control.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 98

I warmly welcome the recent opening of a road route between the West Bank and Gaza, together with the removal of the 12 newest illegal settlements. I also welcome Mr Barak's statement, reported on 8th December, that 1,800 new houses in existing settlements would not be authorised. Regrettably, the confidence-building effect of those actions was undermined when Israeli officials immediately said that this was not a total freeze on all new construction in settlements, as they would need,

    "to be expanded to cope with natural increase".

That was said despite the fact that a significant proportion of settlement houses are now standing vacant.

The credibility of the Prime Minister and the Government of Israel is not improved by the expropriations and demolitions of Palestinian homes that have continued since they came to office. The same is true for the restrictions placed on movements to and from Gaza airport and of the failure to achieve duty-free access for Palestinian exports and imports from the European Union. I have personal experience of excessive charges levied on a container of humanitarian goods shipped from England to Bethlehem.

Confidence would also be increased if conditions were improved for the Palestinian Bedouin, both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, and also for the 120,000 or so Palestinians living in "unrecognised" villages within Israel.

The single factor that most affects hopes for satisfactory and sustainable results from the "final status" negotiations now beginning lies in the Israeli settlements. If one includes, as is proper, those encircling East Jerusalem and those in the Golan, the population illegally placed in occupied lands easily exceeds 300,000. What is more, the settlements are linked to each other and to Israel by roads by-passing Palestinian villages and towns. The land that will constitute a future Palestinian state is thus divided into hundreds of slices. What is more, even those roads on which Palestinian traffic is allowed are subjected to many check-points. These humiliate drivers and provoke stone-throwing by Palestinian youths, while contributing little to real security.

I have deliberately gone into some details affecting the assets and the daily lives of all classes of Palestinians. I am not surprised that many are in despair and that many of those who can emigrate in fact do so. They know the daily realities of occupation, settlement and martial law. They have relatives in detention or exile. They can see perfectly clearly the vast disparity and asymmetry in negotiating strength between the State of Israel and the so-called Palestinian Entity, an entity composed, as I have suggested, of salami slices of land and people. It is high time that the civilised nations of the world woke up to this Goliath and David situation--with the difference in this case that David has no sling and no stone. Will Her Majesty's Government give a lead within the European Union, the Commonwealth and the rest of the world to the recognition of this difference and take appropriate consequential action?

13 Dec 1999 : Column 99

Of course, I recognise Israeli insecurities and fears. Many adults recall their nakedness before Hitler or their sufferings under Soviet rule. There were times when West Jerusalem might have been lost or when the Army of Israel might have been defeated. And yet, look at Israel now--a nuclear power, with armed forces superior to any likely combination of Arab states; a country with military agreements with Turkey and, above all, with an unwritten alliance with the United States. What will Her Majesty's Government and the European Union do to help redress the vast disparity between Israel and the Palestinians?

I doubt that I can do much as a Back-Bencher to assist the people of Israel to see that their real security lies in having contented Palestinians, both as citizens of Israel and as immediate neighbours. Can our Government act in a helpful way? I look forward to the Government's reply on that point.

I question whether Israel, with its fragmented public and political opinions, fully wants to be accepted as a friendly neighbour in the Middle East. The peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan do point in that direction. Full acceptance, however, cannot be won while the Palestinians remain impoverished and dispossessed and while huge numbers of their refugees can neither return homewards nor receive compensation for what they have lost. The question of refugees, like the question of entitlement to and sharing of water resources, can probably only be resolved by co-operation between Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Will Her Majesty's Government do everything possible to help establish a mechanism for co-operation, whether formal or informal?

An opportunity now exists for building peace. Already the agreed timetable is pressing--a framework for final status by next February and full agreement by the end of September 2000. The Palestinians need their own unencumbered state. The Israelis need contented neighbours and acceptance as a regional partner. The region itself needs a format for co-operation. The obstacles are fears and frustrations, together with unattainable and self-defeating aspirations. Will Her Majesty's Government and their European allies, as the main trading partners of the whole region, use every effort in the search for a sustainable solution? Will they intervene on behalf of the poorest and the voiceless? That would be particularly appropriate in this season of Ramadan and Hanukkah and as we approach the jubilee year of 2000.

I take this opportunity to thank all noble Lords who are to contribute to the debate and I look forward to a positive reply from the noble Baroness the Minister.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for raising this matter, particularly at the moment because of three factors: Syria, Barak in charge in Israel, and a visit which my noble friend Lord Ahmed and I recently made to the Middle East together. It is good that the debate takes place when the Syrian track is reopening.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 100

I suspect that Prime Minister Tony Blair and my noble friend Lord Levy had something to do with that. I am sure that we should all be congratulating both of them on any part that they have played in what we hope will be a most important step forward.

Prime Minister Barak was in Britain recently. He said not once but several times that he is committed to ensuring that we move as fast as possible towards peace in the Middle East. We know that the situation has totally changed from the situation which existed when Netanyahu was Israel's Prime Minister. I know that my noble friend Lord Ahmed will join me in saying what an extraordinary visit it was paid by the first Muslim Peer with a Jewish Peer, each of us active in our own communities and leaders in them. We were received in Israel by the Foreign Minister, by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, by the heads of the Foreign Office and others. We then moved to Ramallah to see Arafat and many of his team and we went on to be received by King Abdullah, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the head of the Parliament in Jordan.

That could not have happened a few years ago. It is symbolic and it is real. Throughout we found that people wanted peace. So I was terribly disappointed to hear the very negative speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. I hoped that he would look for the common ground and not for problems; that he would feel that it is rather better not to preach from here to people over there as to how they should carry on their negotiations--least of all when those negotiations are going well and all concerned want them to succeed.

The discussion with King Abdullah was a private one but it is fair to say--I am sure he will not mind if I say this--that he expressed his hope and his belief that Barak would go as far as he could and as quickly as he could in the search for peace. I learnt a long time ago that when you have leaders of countries who are sensitive to each other and like each other, that is a vast movement. I was very privileged to spend most of a morning with President Sadat shortly before he was murdered. I remember two outstanding things that he said. First, he had just attacked Begin for something Begin had said. I said to him, "Look, you are trying to negotiate peace with this man. Why do you attack?" He said, "You must understand that Menachem and I are friends. We know what we are trying to do. We are each going for peace. But we each have our own constituencies. He understands that I must satisfy my people or I cannot bring them towards peace and I recognise that Prime Minister Begin, in the democracy which he heads, has to bring his people with him".

I was thinking about that when the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was speaking. It is all very well to talk about the dreadful horrors of the past of many of Israel's people, but the reality of today is that it is a very vibrant democracy, that Barak has to bring his people with him, that if they feel that he is simply giving away territory without receiving safety and security in return they will not back him, that they will have a referendum which he has to win, that they will have elections which he has to win, and that unless they feel that he is dealing with their sensitivities and their security in a way which they

13 Dec 1999 : Column 101

would like, he is out, because that is a democracy. It is good, is it not, that King Abdullah and Barak understand and like each other? I have the feeling that President Arafat, too, was anxious to achieve peace and that he understood the way the negotiations had to go. They will be tough; they will go up and down; they will have a momentum. But the leaders know and understand each other, and now President Assad is also in the team. So it is a good time.

I discussed with President Assad the second set of major issues. Refugees and water are huge issues; Jerusalem is an even greater one. I remember him saying that we should achieve all the common ground that we could at the beginning and begin the moves towards peace, then deal with water and refugees, and leave Jerusalem until last. He said that if Jerusalem was dealt with beforehand, we should not succeed; the issue was too sensitive. But if everything else is decided and the parties see their way to peace, then they will be prepared to hang flags in the appropriate places and to understand each other's sensitivities on the central place of the three great religions of the world.

The leaders today, all of whom I know, are anxious to achieve peace for their people. Yes, they understand that if the parties have life and food and the needs of decent living together side by side, peace will live. Yes, they understand that they have to satisfy their own electorates or they will not succeed, or the people who are waiting in the wings will not succeed them in the way that they would want.

So what can we do? Her Majesty's Government are right to encourage the path towards peace and to smooth it out in any way they can. It is right to encourage the parties to come together, hold discussions and move towards a settlement, and to attempt to smooth the common ground so that the parties will walk on it together. The Government are right not to spend their time attacking one party or the other--for example, on the one side to put the Palestinian case with the great emphasis which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has placed on it, and on the other emphasise the differences with the Israelis and their case. I do not propose to do that. I believe that we in this House can help by contributing towards bringing the parties on to common ground. When there is peace in that area, we shall all rejoice in the spirit in which the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, a Muslim leader, and myself, a Jewish leader, were so warmly received on that extraordinarily memorable visit.

8.42 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I, too, extend thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for sharing with us his wisdom and his realism. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, is no longer in this House. The debate that he introduced in May followed the election victory of Ehud Barak. At that time, we expressed some optimism about the outcome of the negotiations. It is good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Janner, speak on this subject, and in particular to be told about his visit with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 102

I sense that, this time, there is rather more caution. The Israeli Prime Minister is a skilful politician who can give the impression of much more progress than is in fact taking place. However, having read his Labour Party address a few days ago in Tel Aviv, in spite of his hesitations in relation to SCR242, which seemed to me peculiar, I am sure he is sincere in his belief that at last the peace process is really taking place.

In our previous debate, I referred to the continuing illegal and discriminatory policies of the Israeli Government, especially with regard to basic human rights such as land, water and agriculture. Little of that has changed. I referred to land confiscation and the tolerance of the Palestinians, especially in the face of the pre-election wave of illegal settlements. It is true that the new government have finally ended that particular bout of oppression and, as my noble friend said, that is welcome. But it does not make the earlier settlements any more legal. Those, and the ring-roads, remain another albatross around Palestinian necks while they are forced to make concession after concession to peace.

I want to concentrate on one group of refugees who are in danger of being left out of the peace settlement. I refer to the Palestinians in Lebanon, who number about 350,000 out of the 3½ million who are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, plus many more, perhaps a further 1 million, who are unregistered. It should be remembered that the vast majority of Palestinians are refugees--some 70 per cent of the total.

Most noble Lords will remember the horrors of Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982, whose very names recall the vicious massacre of innocent refugees. I have a personal memory of that crisis, having helped to recruit medical teams who flew out to work alongside the staff of the Middle East Council of Churches. If it was unforgettable for us, it was far more so for the persecuted families in those camps, especially the children, who will now be in their thirties. Those third generation refugees are among the poorest and most neglected groups anywhere in the world. They still live in the same squalid and overcrowded conditions and have endured years of ill-treatment by the Lebanese authorities as third-class citizens.

The Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Peter Hain, expressed the Government's routine concern for Palestinian refugees in the debate in another place two weeks ago. Whatever our suspicion of governments, we can take that to be genuine, knowing his record in the human rights field. He said that they were victims of "an appalling historic injustice". He repeated Britain's support for Resolution 194, which for over 50 years has theoretically guaranteed the Palestinian right to return. It was of course a Labour government which originally signed that resolution in 1948.

But there was no recognition in Peter Hain's speech of the special plight of refugees in Lebanon. As Dr Phyllis Starkey, who led the debate, pointed out, refugees in Lebanon have suffered especially badly because of the civil war and the attitude of the Lebanese, who have both resented them and pleaded

13 Dec 1999 : Column 103

problems of their own. They are more severely restricted than Palestinians elsewhere, having no passports and rarely being allowed work permits outside the camps. Armed soldiers, tanks and checkpoints surround the camps, some of which are virtually besieged. Two-thirds of the refugees are unemployed. I understand that in some camps 90 per cent are unemployed. The result is that their families depend almost entirely on the services provided by UNRWA. That situation remains unchanged despite the articles of various refugee conventions piously repeated by our government since 1948.

Palestinians in Lebanon are suffering not just from poverty but from a form of collective depression. They are not like other refugees. Along with other 1948 refugees in other countries, they have little or no expectation of becoming recognised. Not only are they stateless now; they have no prospects of belonging to the Palestinian state. It seems that they may be left out altogether. The Palestinian authority, although it may claim hypothetical sovereignty, does not directly represent them and is unlikely to argue on their behalf during the final status talks. The only country which may be able to speak up for them is Jordan, but only if it can be sure of material support from countries such as Britain.

Even the United Nations, which has provided for these refugees since 1948, may be in some sense about to abandon them. Ironically, since the establishment of the Palestinian authority, the status of UNRWA has been in decline, and funding has steadily decreased. In the absence of any other support for these refugees, this is no time for donors to withdraw. I hope that the noble Baroness will confirm that the UK will keep up its present commitments to UNRWA and reaffirm the Government's undertaking to refugees in Lebanon under Resolution 194--which remains a legal guarantee given by the whole international community of their right to return and to compensation. If the Minister can do so, that would certainly be heard in the camps in Lebanon.

The noble Baroness may be able to comment also on the proposed international compensation fund, which will have to be generous enough to support all refugees, not just those displaced in 1967. Israel has agreed, although I understand that it does not wish to contribute to the fund.

It sometimes helps in these debates to hear voices from those close to the situation. A few days ago, an organised assembly of young Palestinians took place in Lebanon at a youth centre at Ain al-Hilweh in Sidon, sponsored by Save the Children. They came together from refugee camps all over Lebanon with the aim of informing the world of their predicament. They called for protection against violence, for the right to live in peace, and for protection from poverty and exploitation. They want the right to express their views, the right to food and places to play. Many are even denied access to a playground. Above all, they argued for the right to a nationality, the lifting of the siege around their camps and the right to return to their homeland.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 104

Most poignantly, those children asked that the word "refugee" be removed from their identity cards because it makes them a target for discrimination. It gives none of the rights or protection that refugees have been granted under the 1953 convention. To those children, to be a refugee demotes the status of a human being. Is it surprising that in desperation at the lack of any solution, some refugees have tried to find refuge in countries outside the Middle East?

I ask the Minister to comment on a report from human rights groups in France that 37 refugees from South Lebanon who had sought asylum in France via Syria have been returned by France to Damascus, where some of them have been put in prison. They are not political militants but ordinary people with families, many personally known to the NGOs in Lebanon, who are trying to join their relatives in Europe. Sadly, we are learning at Christmas not only that there is no room at the inn but that police are barring the stable door. The peace process is flawed because, as the children in Sidon demonstrate, the parties to that process are ignoring a human crisis that may yet have dangerous consequences for the whole region.

8.52 p.m.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for providing the opportunity to seek the views of the Government on the current state of peace negotiations in the Middle East. I am confident that every member of the House is pleased that meaningful dialogue is taking place in a number of areas that have given concern for a long time. Real progress has been made and will continue to be made, due in no small measure to the leadership of Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak. Since becoming prime minister of the only democracy in the Middle East, Mr. Barak has shown real vision as he strives to attain peace with security for his people. His bravery comes as no surprise to those who recall his gallantry as his country's most decorated soldier.

We welcome the recent breakthrough in talks with the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad. Both Prime Minister Barak and President Assad have signalled positive messages that can only help future discussions to the benefit of both countries.

Similarly there are hopeful signs in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian talks. No one can pretend that there are not problems yet to be resolved. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, drew attention to some of them this evening. Those problems will no doubt exercise greater minds than mine in the next few months, but I am sure that most people are heartened by a comment made by Prime Minister Barak on his recent visit to London. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to the final status question and the timetable framework. Prime Minister Barak was asked if he thought it was realistic to talk about a framework for final status by next February and agreement by the end of next year. He replied:

    "If there is a will, there's a way.

"I thought that it was an historic comment when he said:

13 Dec 1999 : Column 105

    "As my partner, Chairman Arafat, used to say, we have a major responsibility and we have to live up to the challenge. It is up to us. If we fail to do it, the alternative is being dragged into a new round of violence."

I want to say how much I welcome the Government's pledge of a further £50 million in financial aid for the next three years. Another £50 million is expected to be contributed by European Union aid programmes to the Palestinians over the next five years. The debate also gives me the opportunity to advise your Lordships of a significant initiative last month. Under the auspices of the Trades Union Congress, representatives of Palestinian and Israeli trade unions met for a week-long joint seminar in the UK. The seminar-- which was hosted by Sir Ken Jackson and his union, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union--considered how inward investment to the region could be assisted to the mutual benefit of Israelis and Palestinians. The seminar also spent time teaching British experiences through partnerships with employers and employees and trade unions with governments.

The TUC-Labour Friends of Israel initiative was considered a great success by all the participants. Although it was a pilot, I have no doubt that the scheme will be repeated in years to come. The TUC has acknowledged with grateful thanks the assistance of the British Ambassador to Israel, whose active participation--in terms of transportation, visas and entry permits--made the venture possible. I echo the thanks of the TUC to our ambassador in Israel for his work.

It is essential that the international community gives every possible assistance to all the parties involved in the peace process. I respectfully suggest that some of the rich oil states in the region could provide more economic aid to assist the Palestinians as they face up to the challenges of economic development, protecting the environment and the resettlement of refugees in their own countries.

A real threat to the future of the region is the continuing situation in Iran. Relations between Muslims and Jews are not being helped by the regime in Iran, which has locked up a number of citizens on charges of alleged espionage. Among them are 13 Jews. Those unfortunate people, together with a number of Christians and Muslims, are not able--so as far as can be ascertained--to communicate with their friends. Is my noble friend the Minister able to say something about those particular people?

Iran still supports terrorism and is capable of producing weapons of mass destruction. Any hopes of a lasting peace in the region must take account of the constant threat to that peace by regimes that are not democratic and which abuse human rights. There is a real and proper role for the international community, which has to work as hard as it can to build democracies. In a region of 100 million people, only 5 million in Israel enjoy democratic systems and structures. Any help that our Government can give to extending democracy to the rest of the region should be encouraged and welcomed by all who are working for lasting peace in that troubled part of the world.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 106

8.58 p.m.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, I was not intending to refer to the provocative road network and settlements policy. I do so only in the hope that they are eventually recognised as an impediment.

The peace process has nevertheless entered a new phase: President Barak's election; the testing final status issues--including that of Jerusalem--are upon us; and Syria shows tentative signs of dialogue and with it a greater degree of success, together with the Lebanon track. Beyond that and arguably the most important, there is the establishment of conditions to make the process work--taking the hearts and minds of the people of the region, not just those of the leaders. Arabs and Jews must integrate, tearing down apartheid barriers, while mutually respecting the principles and culture of the other.

Britain recently played its part, which augurs well. The importance of inward investment, not just as a peace dividend but as a key ingredient in ensuring fair distribution of regional assets and an equitable economic rebalance, is fundamental and it is the best guarantee of Israel's future security. For example, I introduced and oversaw negotiations at arm's length between BG plc and the Palestinian Authority which resulted in a gas concession being offered by Chairman Arafat. I was delighted, and it was absolutely right, that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham, who I note is not in his place this evening, officiated at the signing ceremony in London. That was a recognition of unselfish partnership on all sides. I understand, however, that the Americans, and by extension the World Bank, expressed some concern that their interests were not involved in the negotiations. Nobody doubts that American investment is fundamental and that many opportunities will exist for its participation. The United States has worked tirelessly over the years, but it is essential that Israel's principal trading partner, the European Union, is active and successful in regional development.

The Palestinians have in the Palestinian Commercial Services Corporation (PCSC), headed by Mohammed Rashid, a vehicle to attract investment. The PCSC is a public body, run along the lines of our Crown Agents but with private sector objectivity. It releases no profits or dividends but retains them for re-investment. The criteria for this body have the task of jump-starting the Palestinian economy and encouraging and managing Palestinian opportunities. The body is a one-stop-shop model, involving risk-taking and job creation. Some put its endeavours as the creation of 50 per cent of all new jobs.

Nobody should be in any doubt about the role that cheap power creation can play in any economy, with the additional benefit that it is controlled by the beneficiaries and there is no need to import. Thus, the Palestinians will never be held hostage by the need for a key ingredient. Cheap power creates competitive industry and so will transform the economy. It is a win-win-win situation, in which the Palestinians are sensitive to American concerns by way of the supply of American-owned power station interests (the Enron

13 Dec 1999 : Column 107

Corporation). I anticipate that there will be further equitable involvement by the Americans. They need not be concerned.

Fast investment is undeniably required by the Palestinians. Although the world-class input by BG plc was negotiated in short order, I can vouch that the negotiations were transparent, inasmuch as any negotiations of this importance can realistically be, in round-the-clock discussions. BG mercifully stepped in where the Italians had failed to perform after a full year. Speed was of the essence. I pay a personal tribute to the Prime Minister and to the Foreign Office Minister, Mr Peter Hain, for their pivotal support.

9.2 p.m.

Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for initiating this debate. My contribution this evening will be very brief. My noble friend Lord Janner has spoken of our visit last month with the help of the Maimonides Foundation. For the first time leaders of the Muslim and Jewish communities visited the Middle East. I am very proud and honoured to have been with my noble friend when we met the Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli leaders. We talked in both private and public about issues of concern to the people of the Middle East. I should like to share with your Lordships a few of the achievements, concerns and expectations in relation to the peace process.

Like many other noble Lords, I begin by expressing my delight at the news that in a few days Mr Barak will meet the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Shara, in Washington for crucial talks on the Israeli-Syrian peace deal. I believe that the role of the Syrians is important to the achievement of a lasting peace in the Middle East. I welcome Mr Barak's promise to withdraw from the Israeli self-declared security zone in South Lebanon by July 2000 and the new peace deal with Syria based on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. We sensed while in Israel that over 70 per cent of the Israeli population supported a peace process based on land for peace. Generally, people are very optimistic and positive and we should support them.

I believe that there are three major issues of importance to be resolved in the peace process involving the status of refugees, new settlements and Jerusalem. As to refugees, we had some interesting meetings with the leaders. King Abdullah was optimistic and expressed complete confidence in the good faith of Prime Minister Barak. He said that there were about 1.3 million refugees in Jordan but that in reality only about 50,000 would want to return to Palestine. One is not talking about millions of refugees who want to return. However, the question of refugees will give rise to compensation. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, referred to the refugees in Lebanon. I do not believe that all of the refugees will want to return. However, that is a real concern. When one refers to large numbers it frightens people in democracies, as my noble friend Lord Janner said. The leadership must sell the idea to the public before the peace plans can become a reality.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 108

As to new settlements, Chairman Arafat has expressed concern. We were assured by the Israeli leadership that the intentions of Mr Barak and his Government were clear and that they would be able to achieve a framework agreement on final status issues with the Palestinians by early next year. Again, I am quite confident that that could be achieved by the goodwill shown so far.

I turn to the status of Jerusalem. I do not have to remind your Lordships of the importance of that great city to the great Ibrahamic religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. For that reason I believe that it is the most difficult and sensitive issue for us all. I wish everyone well in trying to achieve a lasting peace agreement in all those areas. I believe that Muslims, Christians and Jews can work together to achieve that and that we should do all we can in our power to do so.

Finally, I too congratulate Her Majesty's Government on the important and positive role that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has played in securing the agreements so far and working with all parties in the Middle East.

9.8 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, although this has been a short debate, it has also in many ways been an optimistic one. It is difficult to divorce the particular developments that we are now seeing at the strategic level in the Middle East from the internal developments within Israel itself and in its relationship to the Palestinian National Authority. I shall return to that point, but perhaps I may also add my voice to the many that have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for taking the initiative in making sure that the debate took place.

I was delighted also to hear the story of the visit of the noble Lords, Lord Ahmed and Lord Janner, to Israel, Jordan and Palestine a short while ago. It is extremely encouraging, and an example to many, that reconciliation is not only possible but can actually be followed by other people. I congratulate them both on taking that initiative. I hope that they will keep it up and that they will be followed by others. I should like to put on record the thanks that many of us feel towards them for taking such an imaginative idea further and developing Judaic, Muslim and Christian relations in the whole of the Middle East, which is crucial, where once a good relationship is established, a great deal may be achieved.

I turn to the strategic relationship, adding my voice to the many in this debate, but also uttering a word of warning. It is an astonishing breakthrough that, after four years in which no talks occurred at all between Syria and Israel, at this stage there should not only be talks beginning within the next few days, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said, but a great deal of the groundwork for establishing a peace settlement between Syria and Israel already under way. Indeed, it is partly because that groundwork has been quietly undertaken behind the scenes that the ambitious timetable to which the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, referred, is already becoming a possible reality.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 109

However, I want to give a word of warning, because in the relationship between Syria and Israel, where undoubtedly Syria is at least in part driven by the ill health of the President of Syria and his desire to reach some kind of stable relationship with Israel while he is still in command, there are two difficult issues. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, referred to one, which is the difficult issue of water. The Golan is of strategic significance not only to the whole of that part of Syria, but also to the Galilee region of Israel. The second is the difficult issue of where the new border should actually be. Israel understandably believes that the Golan Heights should be what they say they are, while Syria is pressing for a border that would run along the coastline of the Sea of Galilee. That is going to be quite a difficult one to resolve, but not impossible, provided that agreement can be reached on the division of the crucial waters of that part of the Middle East.

It is exciting that there is a direct link between what will happen in Syria and the Golan Heights on the one side, and what may well happen in Lebanon. Lebanon is a country which has been effectively destroyed; once one of the most prosperous and successful countries in the Middle East, it has had nothing but a kind of half existence for at least 25 years, although recently there have been real attempts to rebuild Lebanon and to make it once again a prosperous country. It is an example of the way in which the prospects for the Middle East have allowed themselves to be destroyed by the battle over who has the major authority in Lebanon. It is crucial to bring Lebanon into whatever settlement is finally reached.

I find it moving that the Prime Minister of Israel said that he did not wish to preside over a future in which young Israeli boys found themselves in the miserable no-man's land of South Lebanon, continually defending their country against the possibility of terrorist attacks upon it, and that there must be some better way to resolve the problem. I wish them well because I believe that agreement about the border will imply an understanding that Syria and Lebanon will do their best to restrain terrorist attacks. In that context, the Republic of Ireland is not a bad example of how gradually to reduce and control terrorist attacks. Perhaps Lebanon will again resume its role as an important part of the economic recovery of the Middle East.

However, I do not want to suggest total disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. There is no question but that the Palestinian Authority has something far from a viable state to control. Some aspects of its control are autocratic and not attractive, as indicated by the recent declaration protesting against some aspects of the Palestinian Authority. Yet there is no doubt that it is an extraordinarily difficult state let to try to administer.

In conclusion, once Israel feels safe and does not continually have to defend itself against external enemies, the possibility of greater reconciliation and of give and take becomes real. It is on the agreement with Syria that, paradoxically, an agreement with Palestine, which allows some of the divisions so eloquently

13 Dec 1999 : Column 110

described by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, could be changed and the desert could again bloom like a rose. The two are interdependent and it is only by helping and seeking peace on the strategic level that we shall gain peace at the local level.

My final comment concerns the roles of the United Kingdom and the European Union. We understand that the Foreign Secretary is in Berlin attending the discussions between the European Union and Israel. There is a tendency for the EU to be viewed as the body which, ultimately, silently pays the bills. I hope that it will go a little further, not only paying the bills but agreeing to bring its weight to bear in achieving greater reconciliation. Those of us who studied the process recognise that many in Israel and the Arab states would welcome more often the presence of the EU in the negotiating structures as opposed to a process that is sometimes largely dominated by the United States. Europe has a serious role to play both economically and politically. I hope that we shall see Europe willing to play that role in the next few crucial months to help Mr Assad and Mr Barak finally to achieve a lasting peace settlement.

9.17 p.m.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on securing this debate. It is timely indeed in the light of the US Secretary of State's visit to the region last week and the recent positive announcements on the Israeli-Syrian peace track.

I find it difficult to share some of the pessimism expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, although I understand where it came from. Thanks to the recent implementation of a number of initiatives, we should not underestimate the signing of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. In their different ways, the Israeli-Palestinian interim agreements, the Hebron protocol, the Wye River memorandum and now the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement have marked milestones in the quest for peace. The PLO has revised its charter and President Arafat has pledged that there will be no return to violence. Now the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, dormant for so long, have been revived. Many of those are optimistic signs.

I want to take up some of the points raised tonight and I shall begin by alluding to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on the role of Britain and the international community. When she said she had reached her penultimate point, I was slightly surprised that she did not intend to mention the importance of the European Union in this context, but I was delighted that finally she did. I share many of her comments. There has been consensus in UK Government policy on the route to the goal of peace. That route is based on respect for the principles of international law and the tenets of land for peace.

The principles enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions held the key to unlocking peace, first, between Egypt and Israel and then between Jordan and Israel. In my view, they will ultimately unlock

13 Dec 1999 : Column 111

peace between Israel and the Palestinians so that the historic goal of a comprehensive just and lasting Arab-Israeli peace on the basis of security for the Israelis and prosperity, justice and self-determination for the Palestinian people, with statehood as an option, can be realised.

The breakdown of the talks, restarted only by the visit of the US Secretary of State, underlines the importance of the role that international mediation, particularly American, can and has played in the peace process.

Your Lordships will remember that the Foreign Secretary launched a tripartite plan for the European Union to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process in March 1998, which included a strengthening of the European role in the peace process. The Minister will be aware of suggestions that, following the Israeli elections this year, there was a real opportunity to promote a European initiative.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Janner, on the role that this House and indeed the Government can play. I agree that there is a very important role for a European initiative. That is separate but complementary to the American process, to ensure that the deadlock which has dogged the peace process for two years was broken. In the light of criticisms that the Government's previous initiative did not succeed in securing a stronger role for Europe in the peace process, what efforts have the Government taken to secure a fresh European initiative and to make use of our many contacts and our long historical ties with the countries of the region?

Further, I think the Minister will be aware that recently Shimon Peres said there was no room in the peace process for a European mediator as well as an American mediator. To what extent does the Minister consider that this reflects on European efforts, including the Foreign Secretary's initiative and the recent visit by the Prime Minister's personal representative, the noble Lord, Lord Levy? A number of noble Lords have referred to obstacles in the path of peace. We are all only too well aware that there are still many obstacles in the path of peace and that these obstacles are formidable, ranging from hurdles which are placed in the way of peace by those implacably opposed to this process, to the simple truth that without prosperity peace cannot take root and without peace prosperity cannot grow.

However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, when he highlighted one important inextricable link between peace, security and economic prosperity. It is clear that the pace of economic growth in the Middle East cannot far outstrip the pace of the peace process. Economic prosperity and peace must be mutually reinforcing. If peace is to best able and secure then it must be seen to promote and provide a dividend in terms of economic progress. It is a well known fact that the Palestinian standard of living has fallen by some 40 per cent since the signing of the Oslo accords, while high unemployment rates undercut the support for the peace process in the West Bank, in Gaza and in Jordan.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 112

Instead of enjoying the tangible benefits of peace, the Palestinian economy has suffered a severe downturn. In addition to the long-running programme of British aid to the Palestinians, what action are the Government taking to help create an environment where economies can flourish, in order to nurture and sustain peace, so that the people in the back streets of Gaza and the West Bank see real improvement in their economic position, enabling them to discover both their faith in the peace process and their hope for the future?

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, raised the role of Prime Minister Barak and President Assad. Here I am in close agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. She happens to be my only political colleague this evening on this side of the House showing, as we do, an interest in this important subject. Certainly I regret that there are not more of your Lordships present to hear what I believe has been an excellent debate. The noble Baroness alluded to the importance of the negotiations which are under way at the moment and to the vital importance given by the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, to the Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

In my view, it is absolutely requisite for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace for the Middle East that the twin track of the Syrian-Israeli negotiations and the Israeli-Lebanese negotiations is also embraced. This is an absolutely integral part of the peace process, without which the promise of a new era of hope and prosperity for the entire region cannot be realised.

We all welcome the optimism expressed by Israel and Syria following the announcement of the resumption of peace negotiations after a hiatus of almost four years. This new effort is a breakthrough indeed, and we wish the meeting in Washington on Wednesday every success as the Syrians and Israelis return to the negotiating table to take the next courageous steps on the journey towards a peace of justice and a peace of security. An Israeli-Syrian peace agreement would have key regional benefits, covering a secure Israeli-Lebanese border, an ending of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the isolation of those parties who continue to reject peace and reconciliation and the gradual normalisation of relations between the Arab world and Israel. Therefore, heavy responsibility lies on the shoulders of Prime Minister Barak and President Assad to bring peace to the Israeli and Syrian people and to ensure that once again they are not disappointed. This is a historic endeavour, but I heeded the words of warning of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. There should be no illusions. The issue of water rights, demilitarised zones, the possible presence of international troops and Israel's desire to maintain a listening post on Mount Hernan will all be the subject of intense, exhausting and arduous negotiation.

If there is one point which I should like to emphasise in my remarks this evening, it is this. It is critical that the prospect of a comprehensive settlement acts as an impetus and an incentive to both the Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian tracks, and that progress on one

13 Dec 1999 : Column 113

track is not achieved at the expense of the other. The process must remain inclusive, focused and expeditious or it will not succeed. There will be no winners from an approach of rivalry and competition between the two tracks.

I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, that the new spirit of optimism in the region allows us to hope that the peace process, so many times derailed, is now back on track. Bold and courageous measures which broaden and deepen the progress already made will still be needed to end decades of conflict and to create a future of permanent peace. With those words, the Government can be assured of our full support while they demonstrate that Britain is a partner and a friend to the peace process, playing a constructive and supportive role, and working to the common objective of a peace settlement that brings security to all the countries of the region and, above all, justice to all the people of the region.

9.26 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for tabling this Question. This is a good moment to debate the Government's policy towards the Middle East. Both hope and tensions are increasing on the Palestinian track as the parties grapple with the difficult problems that have to be resolved if they are to reach agreement by February on a framework agreement for a permanent settlement. The United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has just returned from a trip to the region, with a breakthrough on the Syrian track.

I have listened carefully to your Lordships' comments. I should like to start by welcoming the progress on the Syrian track. I understand the concern voiced by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, in relation to the Lebanese refugees. But the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and the Syrian President, Al-Assad, have shown the necessary statesmanship to open a door that can lead to peace. I believe that their public messages to one another have been unprecedented in their warmth. Bilaterally and through the European Union we have encouraged both sides to restart talks. The Americans have, of course, done the same. The result of those efforts is an agreement to meet in Washington this week to resume the negotiations which came to a halt in 1996. That is a courageous decision. The Prime Minister has welcomed the agreement to resume negotiations and is writing to Prime Minister Barak and President Assad to congratulate them.

Progress in negotiations will have an immediate effect in the region. We look forward to the implementation of UNSCR 425 and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon. All sides have a real responsibility to ensure that withdrawal, which we all want, is orderly and does not result in chaos in Lebanon. Much the best way of preventing unrest is for withdrawal to be part of a broader peace agreement with Syria and Lebanon. Last week's breakthrough means that that is a real possibility and offers much the best prospect of peace in Lebanon and security for northern Israel.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 114

The United Kingdom enjoys good relations with both Israel and Syria. The Government offer our full support to both parties to achieve rapid progress.

On the Palestinian track, we welcome the real progress that has been made since the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement in September. The release of Palestinian prisoners, the further redeployment of Israeli troops and the restart of permanent status negotiations have all started to rebuild the relationship between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian authority.

The opening of the southern safe passage, along which the Foreign Secretary travelled on the day after its opening, has had an immediate effect on the well-being of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as have the increased number of work permits for Palestinians and the reduction in housing demolitions and ID card confiscation in Jerusalem.

However, there are undoubted difficulties. The redeployment of troops scheduled for 15th November is delayed. The release of a third group of Palestinian prisoners before the holy month of Ramadan has not yet taken place. At the heart of those problems is how, and with how much consultation, decisions on those steps are to be taken. It is for the Israelis and Palestinians to find a way forward and we encourage them to do so as soon as possible to allow the process to continue towards the main goal of a permanent status agreement.

The parties, as many noble Lords will know, are committed to using their best efforts to reach a framework agreement on permanent status by February 2000 and a permanent agreement by September 2000. Both sides have already started to address the key issues which will define how Israelis and Palestinians will live together in the new millennium.

It is not for us to provide solutions on the permanent status issues: borders between Israel and a Palestinian entity, the status of Jerusalem, arrangements for the refugees' rights over fresh water in the region and settlements in the Occupied Territories. However, we have a responsibility to put forward ideas and provide support to enable a just, comprehensive and durable settlement to be reached.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, in particular, together with others raised the issue of the Palestinian and Lebanese refugees. I am pleased that favourable comment has already been made about the statement by my honourable friend the Minister of State at the first sitting of the new parallel Chamber in the other place. I can reassure the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that we are firmly committed to helping to improve the lives of refugees and to resolving the refugee issue based on the UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

Palestinians in Lebanon are a special case. There is no intention that they should be left out of the arrangement for Palestinian refugees elsewhere. We shall continue to support the UNRWA. Our bilateral contributions have increased by 33 per cent since 1997 and my honourable friend the Foreign Secretary witnessed the excellent work in October. The

13 Dec 1999 : Column 115

international donor community has a responsibility and detailed arrangements will be made as the parameters for the final settlement are agreed.

The noble Lord, Lord Clarke, raised the issue of the 13 Jews together with other Christians and Muslims who have been detained in Iran on spying charges. I can assure the noble Lord that Her Majesty's Government have raised our concerns about that case at a high level with the Government of Iran and are keeping the situation under active consideration.

We welcome Prime Minister Barak's action over settlement outposts and his statement that there will be no new construction permits issued during negotiations. However, we remain concerned about Israeli settlement activity and expansion. Settlements are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. We understand the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, in that regard.

A further threat to the Middle East peace process is the multilateral track. I say that in response to a number of comments made by a number of noble Lords about the issue of water. The multilateral track is often overlooked, but it is important because it offers an opportunity for regional states and the international community to support the peace process and increase co-operation on water, refugees and disarmament. It provides a forum for such issues to be discussed and a practical conduit for practical co-operation between neighbours. I hope that with negotiations on the Syrian track about to resume, the multilateral track can also restart early in the new year.

We are committed to supporting progress on all tracks of the peace process. That commitment is based on the implementation of UN Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace. Britain and the European Union have an important role to play in the peace process. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that the European Union special envoy for the Middle East process, Mr Moratinos, plays an important role in emphasising the complementary role that Europe can play in the region.

The key requirements of a lasting agreement on the Palestinian track are that it should give real hope and opportunity to the Palestinian people, including enabling them to exercise their right to self-determination, and provide real security for Israel. That requires vision on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians. It requires each side to move towards the other. Neither will get all it wants. Compromise will be essential. But peace will be the prize for everyone in the region.

We shall encourage the parties towards a visionary settlement, creating a viable Palestinian entity and providing security for Israel. We are also providing substantial practical assistance, both bilaterally and through the European Union. We have pledged £50 million in bilateral aid for the next three years and expect to contribute another £50 million to European Union aid programmes over the next five years. The European Union and individual member states have collectively been the largest donor to the Palestinians.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 116

Our bilateral aid focuses on developing primary healthcare projects and a strategic capacity for health planning and management; increasing access to water for isolated communities; improving teaching methods and skills management; and strengthening Palestinian institutions by developing a unified, modernised legal system, an effective public administration and a democratic, professional and accountable legislative body. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said in relation to his analogy with David and Goliath, but I am sure he knows his Bible well and will remember what happened during that confrontation. We understand that analogy and are providing technical advice and legal expertise to the Palestinian Negotiation Affairs Department as part of our programme of bilateral assistance. The aim of this aid is to facilitate the smooth and efficient conduct of negotiations. Such support is necessary if Palestinian negotiators are to have the confidence to reach difficult agreements with Israel.

We want to see a democratic, transparent and accountable Palestinian machinery of government. This includes respect for basic freedoms, including the freedom of speech. The Palestinian people deserve no less. It also offers the greatest possible reassurance to Israel.

The Government remain closely engaged in the peace process. Prime Minister Barak has been in London twice since his election and spent an additional night in Manchester when a baggage handler's truck hit his aircraft as it stopped for refuelling. President Arafat met the Prime Minister last month. King Abdullah of Jordan was here last week and met the Defence Secretary. Egyptian Foreign Minister Moussa was here the week before that and we are in close contact with the Syrians and Lebanese too.

We welcome the trade union initiative which the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, mentioned, as an example of co-operation which can support the political process. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, this has been an optimistic debate and we welcome the support that has echoed from all sides of the House. We very much welcome the supportive comments made by all noble Lords. We are grateful for the way in which all those who have participated in the debate contributed to it.

However, I should particularly like to join those noble Lords who have praised the efforts made by my noble friends Lord Ahmed and Lord Janner in their innovative initiative, which has been so successful. It demonstrates the contribution that has been made by so many from different religions and cultures. I should also like to pay tribute to the work done by my noble friend Lord Levy and many others who have participated in this enterprise.

The Government are making every effort to encourage comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the region and are providing substantial financial and practical assistance to help promote it. We shall be doing all that we can to achieve peace in the course of next year.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page