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7.8 pm

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): The last two speakers from the Government Benches have done something to redress the balance of this debate. I concur with much of what they said. Indeed, I am surprised at how overwhelmingly the balance of the debate has been tipped the other way.

Since I have been involved in politics, my sympathies have been largely with the Palestinians—60:40 or 70:30. As many of us have done, I have tried to balance the right of Israel to exist as a state against the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians and the indignity of having their land occupied, and the continued building of settlements, for which the current Israeli Prime Minister is largely responsible.

My attitude to that changed about 18 months ago when negotiations started at Camp David and culminated at Taba, in which President Clinton invested an enormous amount of time and the prestige of his office, and in which Prime Minister Barak of Israel went to extraordinary lengths to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. As the Foreign Secretary said, Barak offered them, in the words of a Palestinian negotiator, 95 per cent. of what they wanted. That was not just turned down flat; it was not even used by Arafat as a basis for continuing negotiations. In the middle of those negotiations, Arafat restarted the intifada for some trumped-up reason. Perhaps it was because Sharon went to the Temple Mount. [Interruption.] At that time Sharon was not even a member of the Knesset, let alone a member of the Israeli Government. If the leader of the Palestinians is not more mature, there is not an awful lot of hope.

It is not surprising that Israel and, perhaps more important, the United States have given up on Chairman Arafat as a negotiator for peace. We want a compromise, and that fact has been laid out by both Front-Bench spokesmen and by many speakers in the debate. A great many people in Israel want a compromise, but a good deal of Arab and Palestinian opinion does not want one. It wants the destruction of the state of Israel, and that might explain why Arafat cannot or will not reach a deal.

It seems from the events of the past few months that Arafat is really a terrorist at heart. The Al Aqsa brigade is not a child of Hamas; it is a child of Fatah. We have to ask what kind of regime encourages teenage schoolgirls to become suicide bombers. What kind of sick mentality or sick thinking encourages people to do that? It may be understandable that the occasional adult decides to become a suicide bomber, but it is obscene for a regime that claims to be a Government to encourage children to carry out such acts.

I hold no brief for Sharon. He has made the situation much more difficult, and the chances of reaching a peace with him are very limited indeed. The reaction of Israel

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may have been brutal, but it cannot have been unexpected. I wonder whether the aim of the Palestinian Government was to provoke an overreaction from Israel so that they could gain world sympathy. Arafat has created a Sharon Government. He had much better options than that. He could have reached a peace deal with Barak, and he could probably have reached one with Rabin and Peres. He created the Netanyahu Government and he created the Sharon Government, and we are all reaping the results of that.

I am afraid that I am a pessimist—perhaps that is why I am a Conservative. I do not believe in the perfectibility of human nature or that it is as good as people like to pretend it is. I think that things will get worse in the Arab-Israeli conflict before they get better. I suspect that we will need new leaders on both sides before a peace deal is struck.

On 11 September, four sets of suicide bombers in the United States of America killed 5,000 Americans. The reaction of the western world was united, and we carried a good deal of the rest of the world with us. We started the war against terrorism and we saw the attacks—rightly in my opinion—as a fundamental assault on our interests and as something to which we had to respond.

Since September 2000, just after the Camp David talks, there have been 67 suicide bombings in Israel and 29 of them have taken place since 11 September. However, when Israel reacts to eliminate that threat, we call for their withdrawal and United Nations resolutions are passed to condemn them. This debate has demonstrated the one-sided nature of the arguments.

The Israeli reaction has been brutal, but it remains to be seen whether what happened in the refugee camp in Jenin was a war crime. However, the reaction has been over the top and we must acknowledge that, if there were no suicide bombers, there would be no Israeli defence force incursions on the scale that there have been. The suicide bombings came first.

What is the difference between the Israeli reaction to the Palestinian suicide bombings and our reaction to the suicide bombers in the United States? Terrorism is terrorism. I do not see a moral distinction. There is a practical distinction and that is what the issue comes down to. Our Government and the American Government are driven by the fact that we are engaged in a war against terrorism in which our Arab allies are an important ingredient. The United States is thinking about and perhaps even planning an attack on Iraq to replace the regime there, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) will forgive me if I do not pursue that point. However, it will be difficult to replace that regime if the situation in the middle east has been inflamed by the Arab-Israeli conflict re-emerging in the way that it has done. That is why there is a difference and that is why it is in our interests to cool the situation down. However, we should be very careful about pretending that there is a moral difference between one kind of terrorism and another.

If Israel withdraws, which United Nations resolutions and many speakers in the debate have called for, what guarantee is there that the suicide bombings will stop? They will almost certainly continue. No one has answered the question and I do not pretend to have an answer myself, but reasonable Israelis are entitled to an answer.

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The middle east is the source of most of the world's instability, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the only cause of that. The threats are not just regional and nor do they affect only our oil supplies. Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are a serious threat to the west and to our fundamental interests.

In the attacks on 11 September, 14 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The leader of the hijackers was an Egyptian. Mullahs in Saudi Arabia have developed and exported their peculiarly toxic brand of Islamic fundamentalism, which is a perversion of a great worldwide religion that almost all of us—perhaps all of us—thoroughly respect. It certainly deserves our respect, but what has emerged in al-Qaeda and its associated organisations is a toxic and poisonous brand of that religion that seeks to justify murder on a mass scale. The mullahs have succeeded in exporting that toxic brand of their religion to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Chechnya, the Philippines and even to the United Kingdom.

The problem is not created just by the mullahs; it is financed by Saudi money in one form or another. A recent article in a Saudi newspaper accused Jews of drinking the blood of Christians and Muslims in religious ceremonies. Saudi Arabia has a Government-controlled press. As someone said earlier, one of the advantages of an autocracy is that one can at least get what one wants in the newspapers. We have all met extremely well-educated and urbane Saudis, Egyptians and other Arabs, and can any of them seriously believe that that accusation is true? The Egyptian newspapers constantly carry diatribes against America and they fuel anti-western feeling. When combined with a fundamentalist brand of Islam, it creates many of the problems that we face.

The Saudi ambassador to Britain has recently taken to writing light-hearted and amusing letters to The Spectator. Last week he put pen to paper and wrote a poem that was published in a Saudi newspaper. It lauded one of the Palestinian teenage suicide bombers. It praised her and said that the gates of heaven were open to her. We are dealing with a serious problem in Saudi Arabia. It is our ally and we rescued it from a potential Iraqi invasion during the Gulf war. The stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia, who are there to protect it from Iraq, is Osama bin Laden's casus belli. He constantly says that his actions are designed to get American troops out of Saudi Arabia, but the country refused to allow our Prime Minister to land there and to talk to its Government in the aftermath of the events of 11 September.

We must face the fact that we have some not terribly attractive allies in the war against terrorism. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are at the heart of opinion in the Arab world. One has most of the money and the oil; the other has the intellectual influence. However, both of them are running failed economies. Egypt is a failed state and Saudi Arabia's GDP is half what it was 10 years ago. Saudi Arabia will find it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to provide jobs for young, relatively well-educated Arabs. There are no political outlets for dissent, which is focused in the mosque. That is stoking up the problem. I hope that our foreign policy in handling the war against terrorism will address the issues affecting some of our allies.

7.18 pm

David Winnick (Walsall, North): I believe that everyone will agree with the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) when he attacked

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anti-Semitism. Any form of racism is totally unacceptable. He referred to the disgraceful article in a Saudi Arabian journal and the blood-libel allegations against Jews. The columnist has since been sacked, but only after pressure from the United States.

I am highly critical, and have been for some time, of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and I shall turn to that issue in a moment. However, I want to make it clear that I am totally opposed to suicide bombing. Such atrocities cannot be justified in any way. In the main, they are targeted at civilians in Israel and they cause death and destruction to people who are not involved with Israeli policy in the occupied territories.

It is also important to recognise that suicide bombings play into the hands of those in Israel on the right wing and the ultra-nationalist right wing who use them as a justification for what is happening now. We should bear it in mind that the suicide bombers and those who organise them have one thing in common with the right wing in Israel: both are totally opposed to a negotiated settlement leading to a viable Palestinian state, co-existing with an Israel without its post-1967 occupied lands.

We have heard from some of my hon. Friends about the atrocities that have undoubtedly occurred in the past two weeks as a result of the Israeli action. The essence of the tragedy is the Israeli occupation since 1967 of the west bank and Gaza. Understandably, Palestinians see Israel as a colonial power that rules a people against their wishes. Even if the current Israeli policy were somewhat different, the situation would not change. We must try to understand that Palestinians feel humiliated and deprived of respect and statehood, living in wretched refugee camps for years on end, often jobless and denied adequate basic facilities—even such as sufficient water supply. To believe, as Israeli propaganda would occasionally have us believe, that Palestinians live like that deliberately to gain world sympathy is simply a refusal to face up to the facts. If a breeding ground for terrorism exists, it is what is happening—and has been happening for the past 35 years—in the refugee camps.

I have always argued—indeed, it has been my position since 1948—that Israel has a right to exist. I am not usually reluctant to state my views, and if I were a Zionist, I would say so, but I am not. Like most people—Jews and non-Jews alike, and certainly people in European countries, the United States and many other countries outside the Arab world—I believe that, as a result of what happened to the Jews, not only the holocaust but the 2,000 years of acute anti-Semitism that led to what occurred between 1939 and 1945, there is justification for a Jewish state.

In 1967, I was one of those Members of the House of Commons who argued that Israel had a right to defend itself, and I have not changed my views about that in any way, but I am totally opposed to Israeli occupation of the west bank and Gaza. If it is argued that, because of the events of 1967, Israel had no alternative, I would argue—indeed, I did so when that war ended—that Israel should use that land as a negotiating point in bringing about a settlement with the Palestinians. Instead, of course, the Israelis have adopted the very opposite approach. It is all very well talking about the Oslo agreement, which I support, and further negotiations, but what has Israel actually done in the occupied territories in the past 35 years? We know the answer: it has built its settlements—in defiance of international law. Tens of

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thousands of Israeli settlers are living on land that belongs to the Palestinians, yet we ask ourselves why the Palestinians feel such resentment and bitterness. Would not we feel that way if we were them? Would not the Israelis feel the same if they were in that position? Why should we be surprised?

It must be recognised that Sharon does not want a Palestinian state. Virtually everyone who has contributed to today's debate, however much they may disagree, has argued in favour of a viable Palestinian state. That is the policy of the British Government, and even President Bush has used such words. However, does anyone believe for one moment that Sharon, the party that he represents and, as I said, those even on the right of Sharon—if such a thing is possible—want a viable Palestinian state? We must realise that the whole of Sharon's political career has been concerned with building a settlement, holding on to the occupied territories and denying the Palestinian people a state. We are dealing not with an Israeli Prime Minister who wants a proper negotiated settlement, leading to the type of solution that we want, but with a very different type of politician.

We are right to refer back to what happened in Lebanon. Is current Israeli policy and the crimes—indeed, the atrocities—that have been committed in the past fortnight very different from what happened 20 years ago in Lebanon? As hon. Members have pointed out, was not Sharon himself instrumental in Israel's going into Lebanon? What a fiasco that was. How many innocent lives were lost? When Sharon was elected last year, I said to the Prime Minister that we should remember those refugees who were butchered in Lebanon in 1982. Should we not do so? It is perfectly true that Israel was not responsible for the killings as such, but Sharon was indirectly responsible. As minister for defence, he was brought before a court of inquiry in Israel. It found that he was not the sort of person who should hold such a position, and rightly so, but now he is Prime Minister.

This issue cannot be resolved until Israel withdraws totally from the occupied territories. As I have said, Israel's right to exist is not in question. Arab states may not like that—understandably, they wish that the events of 1948 had not occurred—but an increasing number accept the reality of the situation. The way to resolve the issue is to bring about not a "statelet", but a viable Palestinian state that is no less sovereign and independent than Israel itself. That state should be responsible for matters such as security, and for combating terrorism.

I am glad that this debate has taken place. The United States is the one country that can put pressure on Israel, and I hope that it recognises that responsibility. It is all very well its considering Iraq, and so on, but its immediate responsibility is to put economic and financial pressure on Sharon, so that, at long last, there can be justice for the Palestinians. They deserve it, and they should get it.

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