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Tuesday, March 24, 1998 Published at 00:01 GMT

Cook's Middle East tour

Robin Cook faced stormy weather throughout his Middle East tour

The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, emerged buffeted but defiant from a tour of the Middle East, which was marked by a furious diplomatic row with Israel. The focus of the trouble was a visit he made to the site of a controversial Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem, Har Homa - or as the Arabs call it, Jebel Abu Ghneim. Mr Cook was mobbed by Israeli demonstrators and accused of breaking agreed arrangements for the visit; the Israeli government cancelled his dinner with the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. Back in Britain, amid cries of fiasco and disaster, his opponents said he wasn't up to the job. Our diplomatic correspondent, Barnaby Mason, travelled with Mr Cook, and reports on what went on behind the scenes:

If the weather was an omen for this particular Cook's tour, it could have hardly have been worse.

A sandstorm delayed our arrival in Cairo, the first stop; the ageing, Romanian-built chartered aircraft was thrown around the sky at every touch-down.

There was hail in Jerusalem, snow in Damascus and torrential rain in Beirut. We hung on grimly to seat backs for stand up briefings with Robin Cook, struggling to keep microphones steady.

The political storm clouds were gathering too.

Israel fights settlement visit

On the eve of Mr Cook's arrival the Israelis were threatening to exclude the European Union from the peace process if the visit to Har Homa went ahead.

But for Mr Cook, it was crucial: the start of building work at Har Homa was largely responsible for bringing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to a standstill.

Going there with the backing of his EU colleagues was a highly symbolic way of getting Binyamin Netanyahu to face the fact of solid international opposition to settlement building in occupied Arab territory, especially around Jerusalem.

However, there was room for flexibility about the arrangements. The original idea was for Mr Cook to have a meeting at Har Homa with the senior Palestinian official in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini. That was now dropped as a concession to Israel.

It then emerged that the British had agreed to Mr Cook being accompanied by two Israeli officials. Beware of thinking this is an insignificant detail: the whole dispute revolves around which side should control the area.

So amid reports of Palestinian outrage and Israeli satisfaction, Mr Cook had to defend himself against accusations of caving in and appeasing Israel. Visiting Har Homa under these conditions, he insisted, was not a recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the site.

It is worth remembering this, because the charge against the Foreign Secretary the very next day was that he had provoked an unnecessary confrontation with Mr Netanyahu and shown a complete lack of diplomatic skill.

However, I'm getting ahead of myself. On Monday evening, the Foreign Office spokesman told us he thought the situation would now calm down.

Trouble in store

The only clue to the trouble in store was the remark that after meeting Israeli officials at Har Homa, Mr Cook would walk across the road to see some Palestinians.

"And who would they be?" we asked. "Not sure," he said vaguely, "local political representatives, I think."

Tuesday dawned, briefly bright and sunny in Gaza.

Then the motorcade was off to Jerusalem, minus its Israeli police escort, apparently withdrawn in a further sign of annoyance.

We climbed into the stony hills of the Holy Land, some of them transformed by gleaming new Jewish settlements.

"Robin Go Home!"

At Har Homa, a crowd of Israeli demonstrators waited, some in ape-like masks banging saucepans.

"Robin Go Home!" they shouted. One banner read: The British Mandate is Long Over; another: Jerusalem was a City when London was a Swamp.

Down the road, Mr Cook got out of his car, a signal for a torrential storm to break. Hailstones as big as shekels fell.

Quickly soaked, he disappeared beneath a heaving crowd of angry settlers and frenzied cameramen. The rival Israeli demonstration in support of peace went almost unnoticed.

But Mr Cook's short meeting with one significant Palestinian figure did not.

This was Salah Ta'amri, a former PLO guerrilla commander, now Chairman of the Land Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

The fragile compromise agreed beforehand had said Mr Cook would have a briefing on Har Homa only from Israeli officials.

So was the exchange with Mr Ta'amri a meeting, a briefing, or just a brief encounter? Of such hair-splitting are crises made.

Cook takes a stand

Hence the Israeli protest, the cancellation of the dinner, British complaints of fantastic over-reaction and their description of the Israelis as being in ugly and insensitive mood.

Some of the criticism of Robin Cook seems to assume that simply being the undignified target of a hostile demonstration constitutes failure, hardly a tenable argument.

His officials may have under-estimated the strength of Israeli reaction, but a row was probably unavoidable.

Mr Cook has acquired the reputation of being accident-prone, largely because of indiscreet private remarks about Kashmir when the Queen visited India last year.

By proclaiming an ethical foreign policy he laid himself open to criticism when, inevitably, it fell short.

At home, an affair with his secretary and widespread sympathy for his now divorced wife have undermined public support.

But in taking a stand at Har Homa it's at least possible to argue, unfashionably, that he was right.

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