§ 2. Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
If he will make a statement about the situation in the middle east. 
§ The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)
The rate of violence in the occupied territories has reduced substantially in recent weeks, but it is still at an unacceptable level. I spoke on Sunday to the Israeli Foreign Minister on the eve of his departure to the talks in Taba. I expressed our hope that it would prove possible for agreement to be reached on a text recording the area of common ground established in the talks with former President Clinton.
At yesterday's meeting of European Foreign Ministers, we agreed to release a further tranche of funds to compensate the Palestinian budget for the withholding of tax receipts by the Israeli Government. We regretted the continuing blockade of the occupied territories, the lifting of which could rekindle confidence in the peace process.
§ Mr. Miller
I am sure that the whole House will welcome my right hon. Friend's reply. Does he agree that peace is about compromise and that the Clinton plan, which was supported by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, offered such a compromise? It was about a painful and difficult series of choices.
Does my right hon. Friend also agree that Barak offered unprecedented concessions at that point and that it takes both sides to create peace? The rhetoric of Likud might set the process back as would those Palestinians who have lived up to Abba Eban's old doctrine that they are a people who have never missed an opportunity of missing an opportunity?
§ Mr. Cook
All the House would want to salute former President Clinton on the immense effort and creativity that he put into trying to find progress on the middle east peace process. I agree with my hon. Friend that the parameters set out by the former President did not offer both sides everything that they wanted. Such a settlement is impossible: a settlement will require the compromise on both sides to which my hon. Friend referred. However, 783 I hope both sides will not lose sight of the fact that the security of a peace agreement is far more important than any compromise that is necessary to achieve it.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the middle east continues to be one of the most dangerous and difficult political problems? As there has been a change of President in the United States, will he ensure that he and his Department get in touch with the new Administration so that we work closely with them to bring about a solution, difficult as that may be?
§ Mr. Cook
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the gravity of the situation. We have always been very concerned that the difficulties within the occupied territories might give rise to greater instability within the region. I am pleased to tell the House that I am going to accept an invitation from Secretary of State Colin Powell to visit him between 5 and 7 February, and that problem will be high on my agenda.
§ Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) and I returned just today from the occupied territories in Palestine. While there, we met President Arafat, who spoke strongly of his hopes that the 10 days of talks, which he called the intensive marathon, that are under way will bring about a settlement that is acceptable to both sides. Will my right hon. Friend do everything in his power, with the help of the United States Government, to encourage the parties to reach a just solution? Will he undertake to meet me and my hon. Friend to hear at first hand some of the atrocities that we learned about in the occupied territories, including the disproportionate use of force and questionable terms of engagement for Israel's troops, which led to the killing of a boy from Hussan school in Beit Sahour? Will he also discuses with us how we can raise the matter of the imprisonment of 53 young people who would not be in prison if Israel implemented the UN convention on the rights of the child?
§ Mr. Cook
I am aware that my hon. Friend has just returned from the occupied territories and I shall be pleased to hear his first-hand impressions. The United Kingdom supported the Security Council resolution that reflected our grave concern at the excessive use of force in the occupied territories. I am very glad and relieved that the violence on both sides has declined in recent weeks.
As for supporting the talks, this is the last opportunity for them to succeed in terms of the parameters set out by President Clinton. I hope that that opportunity will be seized. I know that people on both sides of the conflict have an earnest intention to try to reach an agreement. I assured Israel's Foreign Minister that we would do all that we could to support such an outcome, which is why, on Monday, we secured language at the European meeting to give Europe's backing for a settlement.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)
It may not be strictly necessary to mention this, but I have a registerable interest in relation to such matters, which is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests.
The Secretary of State will, of course, have the support of all hon. Members for the efforts that are being made to cause the talks to be successful, and he is right to applaud the efforts of President Clinton. However, does he agree 784 that unless there is recognition of the right of return, as contained in United Nations Security Council resolution 194, then the prospects for a lasting peace will be severely diminished? Is it not time that the old people who hold in their hands the crumbling deeds of their houses and the receipts that they paid for property tax, should have a hope of returning to the homes from which they were driven or expelled all those years ago?
§ Mr. Cook
I fully agree with the sentiment that the right hon. and learned Gentleman expresses. The right to return to a Palestinian state was set out by former President Clinton in his attempt to renew the peace process in December. I well understand the strength of feeling on that matter especially in Jordan where nearly half the population are of Palestinian origin. However, at the end of the day, the peace settlement will be a package. It is important that it offers gains to both sides, but I do not know whether it would be wise at an early stage of the talks to identify one single red line among the many elements that will need to be considered.
§ Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)
My right hon. Friend is aware of the concern in all parts of the House about the plight of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah on the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanon border. Will he put pressure on the authorities in Iran, Syria and Lebanon so that at least some information may come to light about the plight of the soldiers, for their families, for the success of the peace process, and particularly for security on Israel's northern border?
§ Mr. Cook
I fully understand the importance of the issue to Israel generally, and specifically to the relatives of the three men. When I was in Israel on an earlier visit, I met the relatives of Ron Arad, who has been missing for well over a decade. It is impossible to overstate the distress caused to relatives by the uncertainty about what may have happened to their loved ones. I raised the matter of the three Israel Defence Force soldiers when I was on my recent tour. We continue to pursue it and to take the opportunity of every contact and every channel to try to obtain a resolution of the issue.
§ Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)
Does the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that Britain, with its record of support for Israel and its long history of involvement with many Arab states, is uniquely well placed to exert influence in the middle east? Why does he think that people on all sides in the region believe that Britain is failing to live up to its historic role? Surely Britain's foreign policy should be neither a pale reflection of America's, nor simply one voice in a European Union of 15. If the right hon. Gentleman understood a little better what Britain has been, would he not understand a little better what Britain can be, and what role Britain can play in the world as a confident and independent country?
§ Mr. Cook
I congratulate the House on the fact that, until now, we have had a sober, non-partisan discussion of a serious issue. It is deplorable that that should be rounded off by a right hon. Member on the Opposition Front Bench seeking to reduce it to a party political issue. It is far larger than any party political issue, and I do not propose to respond in the tone or the style of the 785 Opposition spokesman. All that he has done is to prove that the is unfit ever to hold the office of Foreign Secretary.