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11.57 am

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South): It is a privilege to speak in the debate, and to follow so many hon. Members with a distinguished record in the House on, among other things, concern about middle east security. I welcome the debate, and congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks).

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I taught in a school operated by the United Nations. It was one of the few places where, throughout the 1960s, children of Jewish-American origin, one or two children from Israel and students from a number of Arab countries showed that, if they were not subject to the prejudices that affect many who are much closer to the situation, they could work and learn together in harmony. However, I want to make a couple of observations not because of that experience, but because my limited parliamentary experience has involved two visits to the Lebanon, one of which happened to coincide with the kidnapping of Durani by Israeli forces. That created a period of tension. The second visit was only last April when we saw the start of the attack on Lebanon and witnessed the beginning of shelling in the middle eastern mini-war.

Mr. John Marshall: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the problem of Lebanon and Israel is a two-way problem? I remember standing on the border between Lebanon and Israel and hearing on the news 10 days later that where I had stood had been the subject of an attack from within Lebanon and that people had died. Some of my friends said that the people had got their timing wrong. Does he accept that, if the kibbutzim are being attacked day after day by mortars and missiles, the Israeli Government have to react?

Mr. Gunnell: Wherever there is conflict, there are always two sides to the issue. When we talk about the peace process, we are talking about a process in which, although we hope that parties will come together and recognise the larger good that is secured by peace, there are elements of provocation on both sides. Were that not the case, we would not have such difficult conflicts to resolve. I certainly want to follow through the views of hon. Members who have expressed the wish that the peace process continues in a firm way, and of those who recognise that the Har Homa settlement development is a block in the peace process. I certainly join those hon. Members who have said to Mr. Netanyahu in the debate that they wish that he would feel able to call a halt to that settlement, because we see it doing lasting damage to the peace process. Indeed, we think that it will prove very difficult to get the momentum back into the peace process if the development goes ahead.

I am perhaps more influenced by my role as an observer in a European Union team that witnessed the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly. Through being present at the elections, one got the sense, particularly perhaps because I was in the rural area of Qalqilya, of the joy of the ordinary people who were taking part in the election--the joy that they were free to vote. I met very elderly people who explained to me that it was the first time that they had had the opportunity to vote and who gave me some sense of what that meant to them.

Four generations of one family were all able to vote for the first time. It was clearly an occasion that gave them not a sense of bitterness about the experiences of their life, but the same sense of hope and forward-looking attitude as we have seen in other areas where elections have been held, almost unexpectedly in terms of the slow progress in the development of moves towards peace.

It is important that we get the peace process back on track. Those people took the election seriously, but, above all, they wanted recognition of a Palestinian state. They looked forward to that, because they seemed to be in

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a period of promise. The area in which I was observing the election was very rural, so there were no hotels in which, it was thought, members of an EU observation team could stay. Therefore, we stayed in a settlement. I think that we were the only observation team to do so.

It was interesting to talk to people at the settlement and to see the different attitudes. One of our two election teams, a team of Swedes, had gone out perhaps 200 or 300 yards on election morning before the flat tyre on their vehicle became evident. The British consulate made it clear that it believed that that flat tyre was no coincidence. Indeed, an object had obviously been knocked into the tyre because some people did not wish the process to go ahead at that stage. That demonstrated that there were those who violently opposed the agreement.

The turn of events has shown that those people have had considerable influence since. We understand the pressures on Mr. Netanyahu. We think that it is important to focus on the problem of Jerusalem. We know that this Government have recognised the importance of east Jerusalem, but the ringing round of Jerusalem by settlements, which is more or less completed by the Har Homa development, has been accompanied by pressures on Arabs living in east Jerusalem to leave it. Although we could not, as yet, describe that process as anything like ethnic cleansing, it has some features of that: the mood is that people who are Arabs are not welcome in east Jerusalem. That meant that the experience of election day for Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem was very different from the experience that I witnessed in rural areas.

I am anxious to join other hon. Members in hoping that the peace process is not stalled and that, whatever the result of our election, the United Kingdom Government will continue to take a stand on issues involving Jerusalem and to support United Nations resolutions. I recognise that we would have supported the recent UN resolution that was vetoed by the United States. I hope that, in continuing discussions within the Euro-Med agreement, we can ensure that pressures for the recognition of human rights are sustained. To that end, I join other hon. Members in wishing that middle east security can be underpinned by a recognition of the human rights of all the people who live there.

12.7 pm

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) on securing this debate. It is an extremely important debate in terms of its timing, but it is also an occasion that, over the next few weeks, many of us who have been able to participate will well remember, because it has shown that the House of Commons is rational and that we can conduct debate in a sensible way. Perhaps there will not be much of that atmosphere in the country in the next few weeks. Therefore, we should enjoy it and perhaps luxuriate in it this morning.

It has also been a great pleasure to be here for the valedictory speeches of the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). My path crossed that of my hon. and learned Friend before I became a Member. I was the unsuccessful Labour candidate for Bosworth in 1979. My great achievement was to turn what was then a marginal Conservative seat into a safe Conservative seat.

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My successor as Labour candidate was my hon. and learned Friend's son and he did worse than I did, so our paths crossed at that point. I am sorry that his son has not followed in his footsteps--

Sir Patrick Cormack: The son of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) has joined us now.

Mr. Fatchett: I understand what has happened in the family, but, if my hon. and learned Friend's son had come into the House, he would have had to follow the extremely fine example that had been set by his father. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West has been a great servant of the people of Leicester; I know that from my own involvement with Leicestershire over the years. He has also been a great servant to his own community, and on the issues that we are discussing.

It was a great pleasure to hear the final speech by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) to the House. I am sure that, when the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that we hoped that that would not be the right hon. Gentleman's final speech in the Houses of Parliament, his wishes were echoed on both sides of the House.

We do not have any nominating powers, so I cannot make any suggestion or offer to the right hon. Gentleman in that direction, but I am sure that I have the support of every hon. Member when I say that the right hon. Gentleman's period as a Member of the House of Commons will be well respected and fondly remembered. I am sure, too, that his contribution as leader of his party will go down in history as one that saw the party rebuilt in a modern way that gave it a very significant voice in British politics.

I agree whole-heartedly with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the arms trade. It is one of the big moral, economic and political challenges that faces us as we move into the next millennium. It is a travesty when extremely poor countries spend disproportionate amounts of their budgets on arms. There is no need or moral justification for that. We all realise that difficult decisions will be involved in reversing the process, but the task for all of us is to see what contribution we can make towards that end.

The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) rightly broadened the scope of the debate beyond the middle east peace process. I hope that they will accept my apologies for concentrating, in the few minutes left to me, on the peace process alone. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow raised, as always, some important moral and political issues that will not go away, which will have to be confronted in the next Parliament.

The mood of the House in the debate has been clear: we all want the peace process to continue. That is not surprising, because that process brings to those in the region opportunities for justice, security and prosperity, and to the rest of the world security in a sensitive region and the opportunity for expanded trade and economic development. The price of failure is great; the prize for success is immense. Therefore the peace process is important to each and every one of us.

All the contributions to the debate have made, with justification, the same point--that the peace process is at a crossroads. That is right, although we must remind

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ourselves that significant progress has been made over the past few years. The contributions of many people, as statesmen, have already been mentioned. The decision on the Hebron agreement was crucial for the Likud Government, because it endorsed the peace process and they are now part of that process. That is not to say--and nobody is saying--that the process will continue to move easily towards a final settlement. That is not how things will be, and we know about all the difficulties.

May I draw to the attention of the House, if I need to do so, the dreadful events of last Thursday, when Israeli schoolgirls were killed. We in the House find it easy to understand the grief, because of the events in Dunblane almost exactly a year ago.

Out of those tragic events of last Thursday, some important developments arose. The fact that King Hussein of Jordan felt able to visit Israel and join the grieving family is in itself a tremendously significant statement and act. We all congratulate him on the role that he has played in trying to maintain the peace process.

Naturally, hon. Members have mentioned the Har Homa settlement, and on that subject there is no difference between the two sides of the House. In our view the settlement is contrary to the United Nations resolutions and is an impediment to peace. We ask Prime Minister Netanyahu to think again.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire talked about the need for statesmanship, and the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale drew attention to the difference between politics and statesmanship. An act of statesmanship is desperately required from all the parties to the middle east peace process--an act inspired not by immediate political gain, but by the need to ensure that the long-term interests of the people of the region and of the countries directly affected are recognised and put first.

The message arising from the debate is clear. We wish to see that act of statesmanship by the key players. We want them to follow the example that King Hussein has so clearly set.

The way in which this country can make a contribution to the middle east peace process has already been described. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale talked about the role of the European Union, and it is important that that body speaks with a consistent co-ordinated voice on questions affecting the peace process. The role already played by envoy Moratinos has been especially important. The hon. Member for Southport need not worry about any embryonic European foreign policy here; what he needs to think about, in a common-sense way, is how we can co-ordinate things and make a contribution to the long-term objective that we all share.

That does not mean going around the region pitting one country against another; it means using the expertise, knowledge and experience that we have, and the friendships that Britain, almost uniquely, has on both the Israeli and the Arab side. Let us build on those to play a constructive role, not in competition with the United States but in support--with the need, occasionally, to be a candid friend to the United States and to say that things are not being done in the right way, and that we have some advice and experience to offer.

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That is an important role for this country and for the European Union. There is something on which we in this country can pride ourselves. I shall even give the Government some credit for it, although that may be the last time that I say that over the next few weeks. We can give the Government credit for the contribution that this country has made towards EU aid for the Palestinians.

It is clear enough that there must be a real financial benefit for the Palestinians from the Oslo process. Since the Oslo agreement, their standard of living has fallen by 20 per cent. There must be a relationship in which people can see not only peace and justice but economic prosperity too.

I shall finish on the thought that although we shall be divided over the next few weeks, one thing will unite the House when it returns after the election, and will unite whatever party is in government. That is our wish to make a continuing commitment to peace in the middle east--a peace to bring security to the people of Israel and justice for the long term for all the people within the region. If we can make a contribution to that, we shall have made a significant contribution to a better world.


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