HC Deb 07 June 1967 vol 747 cc1065-79
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Brown)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the situation in the Middle East.

The House will have heard with satisfaction that the Security Council of the United Nations has now adopted unanimously a resolution calling for a cease- fire. In this, the House can rightly take pride in the outstanding contribution which has been made by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Caradon in bringing this result about.

The Council's most urgent task will now be to get this resolution implemented. I was glad to see that the Israel Foreign Minister, in his speech to the Council yesterday evening, welcomed the appeal for the cease-fire, while pointing out that its implementation requires an absolute and sincere acceptance and co-operation of all other parties. It is now for those other parties to make equally clear their acceptance of the call for the cease-fire so that this can come into force without any delay.

I have seen reports that the United Arab Republic and Iraq have rejected the appeal. I hope that they will think better of this very quickly. It seems to be much in their own interest to do so.

Once the cease-fire has been implemented the Security Council will need to turn its most urgent attention to the further steps that are needed to secure a lasting peace in the area. It is too early to speculate in detail about the form that this might take, but I am convinced that there will have to be now a thorough re-examination of all aspects of the root causes of the conflict.

Prior to the implementation of the cease-fire, it is now very clear that the military struggle has been going in favour of Israel. It is evident that in the first 24 hours of the fighting the Israel Air Force established complete air superiority over the Air Force of the United Arab Republic and of its allies.

On the ground, Israel forces defeated United Arab Republic forces in the Gaza strip, and are engaging Egyptian units deep in the Sinai Desert. There has been fierce fighting on the Israel/Jordan front and Israel forces captured a substantial area of Jordan territory on the west bank of the River Jordan.

I am sorry to report that fighting has been particularly bitter in Jerusalem and still continues there. I have no reports of any serious damage to the Holy Places.

The United Arab Republic, through Cairo Radio, has continued to broadcast the downright lie that British and American air forces have taken part in the fighting on the side of Israel. I repeat that this is a lie. It not only did not happen, but it could not have happened, as it well knows. In the light of the military situation which I have described the reason for this lie is quite clear. The United Arab Republic is trying to give itself an alibi for its own military failures and the extent to which its failures have let down its allies.

The Government have taken every step open to them to deny this action. We have made statements in this House and have issued statements to the Press. We have made both oral and written communications in Arab capitals and to Arab Heads of Mission in London. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Caradon has spoken in the Security Council and has circulated a written denial to all members of the Council. The United States delegate to the United Nations yesterday offered facilities for United Nations observers to visit ships of the American Sixth Fleet to check the falsity of the story.

I am equally ready to make a similar offer for United Nations observers to visit any of our ships in the area, any of our Royal Air Force stations, including those at Cyprus and our installations at the airfields of Malta. We wish to nail this lie once and for all.

I am sorry to report that the broadcasting of this lie has misled certain Arab countries into taking a series of measures against Britain. My right hon. Friend informed the House of some of these yesterday. The list is now as follows. British embassies, consulates and British Council premises have been attacked and damaged in many Arab cities. The United Arab Republic Government have closed the Suez Canal to all traffic. The Governments of Iraq, Kuwait, Algeria, Syria and the Lebanon have taken steps to interfere with oil supplies, either to the United Kingdom and the United States of America only, or, in some cases, on a wider basis than that.

The Governments of Iraq, Syria and the Sudan have notified us that they are breaking off diplomatic relations: relations, of course, were already broken with the United Arab Republic and Algeria. It is my sincere hope these Governments will reverse their attitude now that it is clear not only that the allegation was a lie, but it is also clear what the motives of the Egyptians have been in propagating it.

Nevertheless, the Government are having to make suitable arrangements for the protection of British interests if the countries concerned persist in breaches of diplomatic relations. We are in touch with appropriate Governments to act as protecting Powers.

I think that to break off diplomatic relations with us, and for this reason, is the most foolish possible action that these Governments could take. This has been put to them as forcefully as possible. If they insist, they will, of course, have to face the consequences.

Arrangements are also going ahead to evacuate further numbers of British subjects from countries involved in the fighting and from countries which have broken off diplomatic relations. However, in some of these cases a breach of diplomatic relations will presumably not extend to commercial relations and I would expect that, where there is no immediate danger to life and property, many British subjects will still wish to remain.

Urgent steps are being taken to readjust the pattern of oil supplies to this country. While there may well be temporary inconveniences for us, there should be no insuperable problem. The action taken against us has come at a time of oil surplus in the world and the countries which have taken it may find that they have done their own economic interests much greater harm than they have done to ours.

On the question of arms shipments, we are continuing our efforts to achieve a suspension of the export of all arms supplies to this area, and the call for a ceasefire, in my view, reinforces the position we have taken up on this.

However, I am bound to warn the House that the situation at the moment is that we have had no positive response from the Russians and we understand that the Americans are not placing an embargo. In this situation, it makes it very difficult for Britain to maintain the suspension of supplies which we have already unilaterally imposed.

In any long-term agreement which is negotiated, limitation and control over arms exports into this area will clearly be a very important factor.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for keeping us informed each day and for the tone in which he has made his statement. We welcome the fact that the Security Council has achieved unanimity on a cease-fire—a very modest beginning, but, nevertheless, a beginning on which we can perhaps build.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether Jordan has accepted the ceasefire? There are rumours that she has. If so, it is a very welcome fact.

we shall give the right hon. Gentleman all the help we can to obtain a comprehensive settlement of all the problems in the Middle East. This seems to be the most important thing ahead of us.

The most serious part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement was that which dealt with the reaction of the Arab countries to this country. Is every device of broadcasting being used—particularly the B.B.C.'s Arabic Service, which has a very wide and effective coverage in that area?

We have noted what the right hon. Gentleman has said about an arms embargo. I will not press him further today. It would not be reasonable. He has to have conversations with the United States and the Soviet Union and may hope to get some arrangements. But does he realise the seriousness of the United Kingdom's withholding arms if everybody else is sending them?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has said what he had to say. On the question of Jordan and the cease-fire, the situation is exceedingly confused as to what was originally the Jordanian response and what was the Israeli response to that. I would rather not go into that at the moment, if the right hon. Gentleman would not mind.

I agree that we will have to have discussions, and we are now giving careful thought to the kind of items that ought to figure in a comprehensive settlement. There will, no doubt, be an opportunity for the House to discuss this, but the immediate thing is to get the cease-fire in order to move from there to the discussions.

About the B.B.C. and all other forms of communication being used, I think that they are, although I have heard suggestions that the B.B.C. services were not being as fully used as perhaps they should have been. I do not know this at first hand, but I am having inquiries made to see whether we can improve what has been done.

On arms, I take complete note of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I worded that passage in my speech very carefully.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the success of obtaining a cease-fire will not only be welcome for its own sake, but will help to restore the authority of the United Nations?

May I ask him, first, whether he is satisfied that this can be transmitted to the combatants in the field, as opposed to those in control of the Governments? Secondly, is Colonel Nasser still in effective control of the Government of Egypt, and, thirdly, can he say a word about the sterling balances held in London by the Arab States—particularly Kuwait, who, it has been suggested, is trying to transfer them to Switzerland?

Mr. Brown

As far as the United Nations authority is concerned, I deplore the tendency to giggle when it is mentioned. When this Middle Eastern situation has become just one more event in history the creating and building of United Nations authority will still be an outstanding aim of any intelligent, rational Government anywhere in the world. I agree entirely with what the Leader of the Libera] Party has said. Getting the resolution passed is important for its own sake, but it is also important as being a step back from the miserable period—so far as the United Nations is concerned— which has marked the last few weeks.

The right hon. Gentleman asks whether it is being transmitted. Certainly, it is being transmitted to all those in authority and who can make the decisions, and I have no reason to think that they do not know about it.

As to whether President Nasser is in command, all that I can say is that I have no evidence to the contrary. I have seen a statement by a journalist in a mid-day newspaper, but that journalist's past record of accuracy is not such as leads me to give it all that much credence.

On sterling balances, I have nothing to say.

Mr. Shinwell

Can the Government now depart, at least to some extent, from their attitude of neutrality by congratulating the State of Israel and the Israeli forces—[An HON. MEMBER: "Really."] —on having successfully—

Mr. Faulds

Conducted a pre-emptive strike.

Mr. Shinwell

—on having successfully resisted the threat of annihilation? Can the Government not go that far?

If my right hon. Friend is relying on the United Nations in the future to ensure a satisfactory and permanent settlement, can we have an assurance that, so far as our own Government's representations are concerned, there will be guarantees to protect the economy of the State of Israel against economic boycott, and free passage through international waters, including the Suez Canal? Can we have assurances of that kind?

Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that the noises behind me have no effect on my mind whatever? I am not afraid of this crowd. I am not afraid of the Arabs and Nasserites. I am not afraid of anyone. I take sides, and I am on the side of the State of Israel—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Brown

Unlike me, my right hon. Friend does not carry responsibility and is in the happy position of being able to take sides. Were I to make any of the statements which he invites me to make, it is clear that I should make the situation worse in hampering the working out of a settlement and do the cause which he has at heart as much harm as I should do any other cause. Therefore, I do not answer my right hon. Friend on the merits, but that does not mean that I agree with him on the merits, either.

As to the aspects of a long-term settlement, all the points which he mentioned must be taken into account. However, there are other matters to be taken into account as well. I repeat that this is not a situation in which one can say that all the rights and merits are on one side and in one people's hands only. Before we make partisan statements in this House on behalf of one side—in this case, Israel—let us recognise that the Arabs also have cases and issues to deploy which they are entitled to expect to be heard and treated with respect.

All of these will be taken into account, and that is why I said in my statement that, in the settlement, I believe that we must take a good look at the fundamental and root causes of the conflict. We have had this twice in a decade. I believe that it will be the business of those of us who carry responsibility and, I hope, those who support us, to try to work out this time a settlement which will ensure that we do not have it a third time.

Mr. Sandys

Will the Foreign Secretary begin now to initiate action to secure the setting up of some kind of international force which could police the cease-fire when it takes effect? Secondly, is he now in a position to tell us what is being done to secure the reopening of the Suez Canal?

Mr. Brown

The establishment of anything in the nature of a permanent U.N. force must be one of the aspects of a long-term settlement. However, I believe that getting a cease-fire is the important matter. I do not think that complicating that with arguments about a United Nations force and where it should go at this stage in the battle will help us very much. But it may well be that if we can assure the cease-fire the Secretary General, or a very prominent representative of his, might help the situation by proceeding immediately to the area to ensure that what is said to be going on is, in fact, going on. Thereafter, we can discuss what kind of continuing force there should be.

The right hon. Gentleman has a passionate desire about opening the Suez Canal. I am never very clear how he envisages doing it. I can only say that I envisage doing it by getting a ceasefire and proceeding to negotiate a settlement for the whole area.

Mr. Lawson

Will my right hon. Friend recognise that perhaps the worst thing which can happen to any people is the feeling of national humiliation? Will he be most generous and sympathetic in this case and do his utmost to show that we are genuinely neutral and wish to be friendly with the Arab people as well as others?

Mr. Shinwell rose

Mr. Lawson

Will he also recognise that the Arab people have a genuine grievance against the Israeli nation—

Mr. Shinwell rose

Mr. Lawson

—and, on the basis which all of us recognise, try his utmost to heal the sores in this part of the world?

Mr. Brown

This is exactly what I am afraid of. One over-stated, emotional, partisan statement invites the contrary— [Interruption.]

Mr. Rankin

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for your guidance? Are you aware that war has broken out in my immediate neighbourhood? I am not taking sides, either, but may I ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to tell us what he proposes to do to stop the war in this House before he goes on to deal with the Middle East?

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are discussing a very serious issue. There are widely differing points of view inside what is probably a fundamental unity. Noise and heat do not help the day at all.

Mr. Brown

I was about to say this when I was interrupted by that point of order. May I remind everyone in the House, if anyone needs reminding, that not only are there vast issues at stake, but that people's lives are at stake. If statements which may satisfy our emotions in the House tend to prolong the conflict outside, they are much to be deplored and denounced.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) spoke of the feeling of national humiliation. I understand this very well. As a matter of fact, the sense of humiliation since 1956 no doubt has been a factor in what has now happened. I put it no higher than that. I have it very much in mind. My hon. Friend asks the Government to be friendly to the Arab people and to Arab statesmen. On that, I have as good a record as anyone, and they well know it. I ask them to respond to it.

Mr. St. John Stevas

Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that the Government will do nothing to deprive Israel of the legitimate fruits of her victory, and that much less will they do anything to prevent the fate overtaking President Nasser which seems likely to reach him in the near future?

Mr. Brown

I am sorry, but I shall not say anything of the kind, and I think that, on reflection, even the hon. Gentleman will think it would have been better if he had not said it.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

When my right hon. Friend looks at the root causes, as he calls them, will he look at the sale early last year of £107 million worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, and consider whether this was not a cause of the intensification of the arms race in the Middle East?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend look at the whole matter not in the context of one side having a case against the other, but of the determination expressed by one country completely to annihilate the other?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend made the latter point the other day, and there is no more that I can say about it. It is my hon. Friend's point of view.

On the question of arms, as I said the other day, we have a better record than most in ensuring that by any supplies which we have sold we have kept the balance of power very much in mind. I think that the balance of power, and maybe this conflict, owes a good deal more to the lack of concern which some other nations have shown in their supplies to the area.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman how many ships are held up in transit through the Canal, and what practical steps are being taken by the U.A.R. authorities to stop other ships transiting?

Mr. Brown

I cannot say without notice. The last information I had this morning was that some ships were still held up, but I do not recall the number, and that efforts were being made to try to ensure that they were allowed to proceed. As I told the House the other day, we have in the meantime advised our shipping to stay away from the entrances to the Canal.

Mr. Mayhew

Would my right hon. Friend agree that one result of the war may well be—

Mr. Shinwell

Go back to Nasser.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Mayhew

—to remove the political objections on both sides to a solution of the bitter problem of the Arab refugees? Is my right hon. Friend aware that this country has had a good record in this matter in the past, and will he now make a special study of this problem with a view to taking advantage of the new situation which could soon exist?

Mr. Brown

For a long time I have been concerned—before I ever came to office—with the position of the Palestine refugees. I have visited them many times, and I have often made proposals, both to Israeli and Arab statesmen now in office, about the ways in which I thought this problem might either be completely dealt with, or certainly removed as a festering irritating sore. I agree with my hon. Friend that we have a good record about this, and that one of the root causes of the conflict which will have to be dealt with in a settlement must be the future of these wretched people.

Mr. Woodnutt

May I follow the point touched on by the Leader of the Liberal Party and raised by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) yesterday? While agreeing with the Government's policy of restraint and not wishing to take sides, there is no doubt that hostile acts have been taken against this country in the stopping of the oil flow and the breaking off of diplomatic relations. As there is a risk of a run on sterling, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that if this takes place he will have no hesitation in freezing the balances of these countries in this country because of the danger to sterling?

Mr. Brown

I am sure that that was well meant, but it could hardly be more damaging. May I make it plain that the£ today is running very strongly indeed. There is, therefore, no need for anybody to get into that kind of panic situation or to make suggestions of that kind. We do not need that kind of support.

On the question of acts against us which are hostile, such as breaking off diplomatic relations, and suspending oil shipments, I take a very strong view of them, and I have explained this very strongly both personally and in writing to the Governments and their representatives. On the other hand, I ask the House to recognise that in a situation as deeply charged as this has been in the last week it is possible to understand the pressures on some of these countries, and that probably the less we attack in public the more likely we are very soon to rehabilitate the situation.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker

While expressing warm support for my right hon. Friend's general approach, may I ask one specific and one more general question? Among the major root causes of the conflict in the Middle East are not the war in Vietnam and bad relations between the Soviet Union and the United States very important factors?

My specific question is this. Is it not unrealistic to expect the victorious Israeli forces to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines unless there are very substantial guarantees, and that there will have to be substantial frontier rectifications if the security of Israel and stability in the Middle East are to be preserved in the future in addition to firm treaties with Israel's Arab neighbours recognising her existence and guaranteeing her frontier?

Mr. Brown

On the first point, what my hon. Friend called the general one, as I said when I returned from Moscow I did not have the impression that any differences about Vietnam were being allowed to cloud the Russians' minds about the undesirability of having a conflagration in the Middle East in addition to one in South-East Asia. I see no reason to believe that Vietnam has had anything to do with this conflagration arising, though I am bound to say it may have had something to do with the passing of the cease-fire resolution in the United Nations.

On the point about Israel's forces and positions reached by Israel, I repeat that I take note of what my hon. Friend has said. All these things will have to be considered when it comes to trying to work out an equitable and lasting settlement.

Sir J. Eden

Although the position is still somewhat uncertain, would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that a more lasting settlement in future is likely to be achieved only if there are direct negotiations between the principal combatants? Therefore, as soon as he thinks the time is ripe, will the right hon. Gentleman initiate four-Power proposals to try to bring this about?

Mr. Brown

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that we are running ahead of ourselves here. If the House would accept a piece of advice, I think that canvassing these ideas at this stage may well be counter-productive. I will take these things into account. I agree that the four Powers have a rôle to play, but whether we handle it that way, or whether we handle it at the United Nations, is a matter which we have to work out very carefully, and I would rather not be pressed on it.

Sir B. Janner

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the battle which is being fought is the battle of Israel, similar to the lone battle that was fought in the Battle of Britain? Is not my right hon. Friend aware that some assurance must be given, in whatever terms are arranged, that the diabolical kind of propaganda which went on before will not emanate against the little State of Israel?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend look into the question of the facilities for broadcasting which we gave to the Arabs who were attacking us as well as Israel, and the very little help that was given to Israel in the form of broadcasting facilities?

Mr. Brown

I am sure that this country's capacity to help bring about a lasting and equitable settlement, and thereby help the cause which my hon. Friend has at heart, will not be enhanced by any statement by me at this moment which could suggest to the Arabs that I was endorsing claims made by those who speak for Israel. Equally, may I remind my hon. Friend that one of the difficulties in this is that other people do not distinguish as easily as we do between Government statements and responsibility in this House, and statements made by others in this House. We want to get at a settlement. We have to get at it if my hon. Friend's ambitions are to be satisfied. We have to get at it if our own interests are to be satisfied. We have to get at it if the Arabs are to be satisfied. I urge on the House that restraint in what we have to say at this moment may be of the utmost possible value.

Sir B. Janner

On a point of order. My right hon. Friend did not answer the second part of my question.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is for the Minister to answer questions in the way he wishes to answer. The hon. Gentleman knows that.

Mr. G. Campbell

Would the right hon. Gentleman say through what agencies on the ground this cease-fire, when accepted, is to be supervised and policed? Is this not a task which U.N.T.S.O. could carry out?

Mr. Brown

As I said when I made my statement on Monday, that is obviously a possibility. U.N.T.S.O. still exists, although it had a fairly rough time in Jerusalem. That is obviously a possibility, but I suggest that we remember the phrase, "First catch your hare." The first thing is to get the ceasefire, and then decide how to supervise and enforce it.

Mr. Michael Foot

Will my right hon. Friend accept that, whatever may be the inevitable differences of opinion which are bound to arise on this subject, many of us believe that his single-minded aim is to stop the bloodshed and get an honourable and lasting settlement? Is he aware that we wish him the very best of success in this endeavour?

Mr. Brown

I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Will the right hon. Gentleman be assured that, while agreeing with his hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), the whole House will, I think, agree with him when he said that we cannot accept a situation which returns to the conditions which gave birth to the struggle which is going on?

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Jay. Statement.