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10.25 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) on raising these issues and on the way in which he introduced the topic. Anyone who had the benefit of hearing him knows that he raised it in a way that reflected his deep, long-standing personal commitment.

My hon. Friend raised three issues. The first is technical and I shall deal with it straight away. Secondly, he raised the international legal position. Thirdly, and much more importantly, he mentioned the peace process, and development and rights within that.

On the more technical matter, my hon. Friend referred to the EU-Israel trade agreement, labels of origin and enforcement of the procedures in relation to Israel. That is a matter for the Commission. During the UK presidency, we have supported its actions so far. When it comes to enforce the European law in that respect, we will continue to support it. It is important that countries of origin are clearly labelled and marked so that the consumer can have faith in that labelling. We expect the Commission to enforce that against any country that has a trade arrangement with the European Union.

My hon. Friend clearly set out his views on the international legal position on settlements. Until a final settlement is agreed, we will base our position on the United Nations Security Council resolutions. International humanitarian law will remain the basis for our policy on the occupied territories. The key to that, as my hon. Friend said, is the fourth Geneva convention of 1949. Again, we have consistently called upon Israel to comply fully with its provisions. Israel ratified it in 1951, so we are asking Israel to do no more than what it has committed itself to for the past 47 years. Successive UK Governments have never accepted the Israeli argument that the convention does not apply to occupied territories. That has been the UK position for many years--many people would say too many years in relation to progress on the issue.

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Article 49 of the fourth Geneva convention clearly states:

It appears difficult not to agree that the purpose of the Israeli settlers, and perhaps of the present Government of Israel, is to change demographically the population and structure throughout the occupied territories. Following that through logically, as my hon. Friend did, it appears to be inconsistent with article 49.

My hon. Friend also asked what action the UK had taken in relation to the fourth Geneva convention. We have constantly reminded Israel of its obligations under the convention. More recently, the United Kingdom, in its EU presidency, supported the UN resolution in March calling for a full conference of the high contracting parties to the fourth Geneva convention to discuss the Israeli violations.

We welcome in particular the efforts of the Swiss Government in making progress on the resolution. This month, President Cotti of Switzerland hosted a meeting of representatives of Israel, Palestine and the International Red Cross to discuss how to improve the situation. It was good to see both parties engaged in the process. We want that process to go further, and to relate to the international law and the spirit behind it.

My hon. Friend asked me about the Israeli Cabinet decision of this weekend and the United Kingdom Government's response to it. We took the opportunity yesterday to make clear our position, on behalf not only of the United Kingdom, but of the European Union presidency. We expressed our concern

The statement continued:

    "The European Union has repeatedly called for a halt to unilateral activity in Jerusalem. The plans currently under discussion would complicate the peace process at a very sensitive time.

    The EU's position on Jerusalem is well known. We believe that the final status of Jerusalem should be determined in final status talks. Neither side should pre-empt this."

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the statement that we issued yesterday on behalf of the EU presidency in response to the Israeli Government's decision clearly stated the EU's position. That position was reinforced at the Cardiff summit a few days ago, and has been consistent from the Luxembourg statement through to the Cardiff statement.

The key point that my hon. Friend wanted to make was that without progress on the peace process, the sense of frustration and despair will increase significantly. He has drawn that from his experiences in his recent visits to the west bank. I was in the area in January at the beginning of the UK presidency, and I had exactly the same experiences. I sensed the same lack of hope, and the frustration and despair felt by the Palestinians.

The Palestinians do not have a monopoly on frustration and despair. There are many in Israel who want progress to be made on the peace process. Recent opinion polls in Israel show that 70 per cent. are in favour of peace and the principles of the Oslo peace accord. The obvious act of diplomacy is to bring together those on both sides who want to make peace--the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians and the Israelis. Our task is to ensure that we can achieve that objective.

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My hon. Friend rightly talked about his visit to Har Homa. I also went to Har Homa and saw what my hon. Friend referred to. That development is significant, not only because of the land that is covered, but because of the trust between the two parties. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Har Homa, he was subjected to some criticism. He was absolutely right to go there because, in doing so, he made a strong and cogent point that if there is action that pre-empts the final status negotiations, it will be impossible to make progress--and it is progress to which we all aspire. It is crucial that no action is taken to pre-empt the final status negotiations. The settlements do that, and we have always said that the status of Jerusalem is a crucial part of those final status talks.

At the start of the United Kingdom presidency, we set out our own objectives in terms of the middle east peace process. We have always agreed with the policy position taken by the European Union that the real way forward is on the basis of Oslo and on the basis of land for peace, and that, meanwhile, there should be action to build, not undermine, confidence.

However, we wanted to make a more active commitment to those policy objectives, and we wanted to see what we could do to push the process forward. We were told whenever we visited the middle east--and in the United Kingdom, by those supporting the Palestinian case--that it was important for the European Union to aspire to and achieve a greater role and higher profile in the peace process. I believe that, at the end of the United Kingdom presidency, we have achieved that objective, and that we have shown that the European Union has a complementary role to play in developing the United- States-led peace initiative.

It is always clear that the peace initiative will be led by the United States, but the European Union role has been to complement that leadership, and I say to my hon. Friend that I believe that, through the activity of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, we have taken a lead to ensure that the European voice is heard throughout that process.

It is crucial that we recognise the frustration that exists--that we recognise the fact that, without a peace agreement, we shall not see the middle east to which all of us, whichever way we approach these issues, aspire. One of the things that have pleased me in the past few months in the House of Commons is that no one now argues that to be pro-Israel is to be anti-Palestine, or that to be anti-Palestine is to be pro-Israel. Hon. Members now recognise that we are all committed to the peace process; we recognise the importance of the peace process for Israelis and Palestinians. That is why we took action to try to build up Israeli confidence. For that reason, too, during our presidency, we have tried to help the Palestinians to fulfil their security commitments as part of the Oslo process. That is important to win Israeli confidence--to ensure that the ordinary Israeli believes in, and has faith in, the peace process.

For that reason also, in a complementary way, we took action to try to build up Palestinian confidence--action to encourage progress on some interim economic measures,

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such as the industrial estate and Gaza airport. Above all, we continued to make clear our commitment that land for peace is the basic requirement for progress in the middle east.

My hon. Friend, talking eloquently about the feeling of frustration, reflects the point, which is well taken by every hon. Member, that, because we have been unable to resolve this crucial question, the middle east has suffered economically--it has under-performed. My hon. Friend mentioned the gross injustice of there being some affluence alongside poverty. That injustice can be dealt with only by making progress in the peace process.

We are determined, when we hand over the EU presidency, to continue to play a complementary and supportive role in the process, and to ensure that there is a continued European commitment. My hon. Friend is right to say that we are at a crossroads. The issue is not just about the settlements and it is not just about international law. It is much more about whether there is any belief that progress will be made.

I would say to the Israelis that 70 per cent. or more of the people of Israel are committed to peace; I welcome and support that, and I believe that we should all work in that direction. However, we must not miss opportunities when they are available. My plea to the Israeli Government is to recognise that an opportunity for peace exists; we must take such opportunities when they become available.

The Palestinians are now willing to sign up to the offer that the Americans are trying to broker. That initiative was accepted by the Palestinians in an act of statesmanship which will stand them in good stead. It is crucial that the Israeli people--and the Israeli Government in particular--see the opportunity to make progress, recognise the commitments that the state of Israel has already made towards land for peace and try to move that process forward.

The negatives are apparent. The negative view that says we shall not make progress will lead to a build-up of frustration and despair on both sides of the divide. My simple view is that that is in the interests of neither Israeli nor Palestinian, and it is an outcome which we must avoid.

My other advice to the Israeli Government--for what it is worth--is to remember that if the negotiations are to make progress, they must involve two parties with self-confidence and self-esteem. It is important to recognise that President Arafat has made significant concessions and has made every effort to keep the peace process going. The Israeli Government, of whatever political persuasion, need a partner in the negotiating process. I urge the Israeli Prime Minister to take the opportunity of negotiating with a partner who is keen to negotiate. The risk involved in that exercise is considerably less than the risk of no negotiations and no progress.

I recognise the deep feelings that exist in the House and throughout Europe regarding the middle east question. We must make progress, and we shall continue to work to try to achieve that progress. However, if we do not succeed, I share my hon. Friend's concerns that the situation will become more and more difficult to manage. Good people--those who want peace, and who act and vote for peace--will find it very difficult to control others whose

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wishes may be different. That is why this process involves not just a legal position--which my hon. Friend set out clearly in his speech--but politics, diplomacy and, above all, statesmanship. We need political leaders who will look beyond the present and recognise that the true interests of their people lie in a long-term settlement that

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will benefit both the Israelis and the Palestinians. I commend my hon. Friend for raising the issue, and he was right to do so--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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