Cook welcomed in Syria and Lebanon after snub


The British Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, was warmly welcomed in Syria and Lebanon yesterday, as the first western leader to have publicly demonstrated international exasperation with the Israeli Prime Minister and his settlement-building policies.

But in Jerusalem, where Mr Cook was deprived of a formal dinner and a photo opportunity with Mr Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday night for having had the temerity to shake hands with a Palestinian politician on disputed territory, the official Israel attitude to Mr Cook remained as cold as the unexpected snow storm that buffeted the city.

Completing a Middle East tour in which he has signally failed to revive peace efforts, but drawn global attention to the Israeli settlement policies which he blames for killing those efforts, Mr Cook held talks first in Damascus and then in Beirut.

At the top of the agenda was the Israeli military presence in the so-called "security zone" in south Lebanon, and the ways to end it. Israel says it will withdraw its troops if the Lebanese army stops Hizbullah gunmen attacking towns in northern Israel. But Syria wants to link any Israeli pull-out from Lebanon with a similar withdrawal from the Golan.

Mr Netanyahu had actually asked the EU during a European visit earlier this month, to try to help broker a solution. But that was before Mr Cook came to Israel. In the wake of Mr Cook's brief stay here, and especially his short walkabout at Har Homah - the planned new Israeli neighbourhood in disputed territory on the southern edge of Jerusalem - an aide to the prime minister said yesterday the EU could not now serve as a peace mediator. Mr Cook's "provocative" actions, Mr Netanyahu's adviser said, proved the EU was not an honest broker.

Palestinian officials, unsurprisingly, were full of praise for Mr Cook's settlement-bashing words and deeds. If the foreign secretary had infuriated Israel and the US, said the Palestinian Construction Minister, Mr Nabil Sha'ath, "then there's room for optimism".

Mr Cook's determination to visit Har Homah seemed designed not merely to hammer home EU anger at Mr Netanyahu's settlement policies, but also to signal to the US that it has been too soft on Israel. For weeks, the Clinton administration has been talking of unveiling a new peace initiative; Mr Netanyahu yesterday dispatched a delegation to Washington to try to head this off.

According to Israeli accounts, Mr Cook did not raise the EU's new, much-hyped, six-point plan for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during his Tuesday meetings with Mr Netanyahu and the Israeli Defence Minister, Mr Yitzhak Mordechai.

Rather than seeking to rebuild their relations with Mr Cook, Israeli officials seem happy to prolong the crisis. Israel's Ambassador to Britain, Mr Dror Ziegerman, for instance, asserted, quite astoundingly, that Mr Cook had been lying when he claimed to have submitted the itinerary for his Israel visit to the embassy in London two weeks ago.

Other government sources said Mr Cook was lying, too, when he claimed to have "happened" to bump into Palestinian notables at Har Homah, and that the encounter had in fact been prearranged. Crucially, far from being embarrassed by the row, Mr Netanyahu has been able to reassert his credentials as the great defender of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem - and thus pick up popular Israeli support.

The British Prime Minister, Mr Blair, yesterday backed Mr Cook's handling of a visit to Har Homah and said his own planned trip to the Middle East would go ahead next month.