Subtlety on matters of extreme diplomatic sensitivity has not proved Robin Cook's strongest point as Foreign Secretary.
Six months ago his position on the thorny question of Kashmir set the scene for the Queen's exceptionally difficult tour of India. His handling of the Har Homa site in east Jerusalem has now precipitated a major international incident that will severely embarrass Tony Blair as he prepares to visit Israel next month. The Prime Minister has secured a solid relationship with Binyamin Netanyahu so far. He will need to deploy all his undoubted charm to undo the damage that Mr Cook appears to have done.
The exact details of what Mr Cook had said he would do at Har Homa and whom he would see remain a matter of dispute. The Israeli Government is convinced that he abandoned a promise not to meet Palestinian officials in the immediate area of the site and then met Salah al-Tamari regardless. Mr Cook strongly asserts that he had only agreed that his initial inspection would be in the company of Danny Naveh, the Israeli Cabinet Secretary, and that he had retained the option of consulting Palestinians after that. As the details of Mr Cook's trip appear to have been rewritten several times in the course of the last 48 hours it is possible that a mutual misunderstanding has occurred. It was perhaps inevitable that it would.
This is precisely why the Foreign Secretary should not have made the Har Homa site the centrepiece of his visit. Mr Netanyahu was bound to react sharply to what would always be seen as an act of deliberate provocation. The stated purpose of Mr Cook's Middle East tour was the promotion of the European Union's role in the peace process. It is difficult to see how this could ever have been advanced by raising the profile of the most contentious and explosive issue in the region. A concentration on Jerusalem serves only to polarise local opinion and make compromise elsewhere more complicated.
Mr Netanyahu came to the opinion that Mr Cook's central objectives were his own credibility as an ambassador for European Union foreign policy and a desire to court favourable reviews in the Arab world. Israeli Prime Ministers of all parties have long suspected that the European Union's bias towards Palestinian interests renders it an incredible mediator on Middle East matters. Mr Netanyahu saw no reason to invest his time in the Foreign Secretary in this scenario. If the situation were reversed - on, for example, Northern Ireland - the public here would expect a British Prime Minister to be equally forceful.
This trip has been an unequivocal disaster. Mr Cook has offered the distinct impression that British policy towards the Middle East is made in Brussels, not London. The European Union's prospects of becoming a substantial player in the peace process have been retarded. The Americans, who remain the sole external actors who can move the delicate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward, have been left to deal with a poisoned atmosphere. Their displeasure was evident from the tone of the State Department yesterday. A curtailed discussion and a cancelled dinner will not, unfortunately, be the only consequences of Mr Cook's diplomacy.
There are signs of the "White Paper" in the new British initiative.
"I want to remind you that the British High Commissioner left the country on 14 May, 1948", replied Gideon Rafael, the Foreign Ministry Director-General, to British Ambassador John Barnes, when, in August 1970, he brought a message in the following language: "I was ordered by the prime minister to demand that your government immediately release several Arab prisoners". The British asked Israel to pay the price for their surrender to terrorists who hijacked a number of planes and flew them to Zarqa in Jordan. The hijackers conditioned the release of the British, American and German citizens in their hands, on Israel's release of convicted terrorists serving in Israeli jails.
I was reminded of the story, described in Rafael's memoirs, when I read the report of British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's speech to the British-Arab Friendship Association in London. He has a plan to revitalize the peace process: Israel will comply with all Arab demands regarding the extend of the second redeployment in Judea and Samaria, halt construction in eastern Jerusalem and even prevent the thickening of settlements. In exchange, the Palestinian Authority will announce its opposition to terrorism. Even if the plan is presented as a plan of the European Union, it does not lack resemblances to the British "White Paper" of 1939.
The London Times published last Thursday a large front page headline in which a Chinese dissident accuses Robin Cook of hypocrisy. But he cannot be accused of hypocrisy regarding Israel. He unambiguously supports the Arab position. His predecessors, Lord Carrington and Owen, tried their hands at peacemaking in Yugoslavia, and their intervention unintentionally caused rivers of blood to flow among the Yugoslav people. Those British ministers attempted to at least to play the role of honest broker. Not so Cook. His mind is made up even before his arrival in Jerusalem this week.
No accusation can be made against Cook for his promises, in the name of the European Union, to increase financial aid to the Palestinians. That is his right. But the mandate that the British had to interfere in the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel ended 50 years ago. With all due respect to the glorious history of Britain, today it has no privileges to intervene in the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel does not intervene in the negotiations that the British government is holding with the Irish Sinn Fein. Cook has not been authorized by Israel to decide the argument with the Palestinians regarding the extent of the IDF pull-back in Judea and Samaria. The British minister certainly was not asked by Israel to decide the questions regarding construction in Jerusalem. Cook did not ask to visit Yad Vashem, as is accepted practice by official visitors.Instead, he arranged for himself, through Faisal Husseini, a visit to Har Homa. He did not ask to meet Ehud Barak, the head of the opposition, but included in his schedule a meeting with Peace Now, assuming that maybe they will give him the stamp of approval to plot against Jewish construction in Jerusalem.
Britain and France, whose status in the Middle East was eliminated when they conspired with Israel during the Suez affair, are now looking for ways to rebuild their lost status, by pressuring Israel. France attempts to worm its way in again through initiatives for an IDF pullout of Lebanon, and Britain through plans for an IDF withdrawal from Judea and Samaria.
Britain received compensation from the US for its support of the American policy while the crisis with Saddam Hussein was on the verge of exploding. The Americans avoided expressing their opposition to the British initiative to unfreeze the Israeli- Palestinian negotiations. They allowed the British to lead the European Union's move in the Middle East, which adds prestige to their British ally, while the US, because of internal considerations, avoids presenting a plan of its own. The impression cannot be avoided that Washington expects that after Israel frustrates the British initiative, it will accept the American bridge as the least bad alternative.