Cook fights a war of words over Har Homa

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The Independent Online
IN THE sharpest exchanges for years between Israeli and British leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, yesterday accused Robin Cook of breaching an agreement on not meeting any Palestinian officials at the Israeli settlement of Har Homa, known to Palestinians as Jebel Abu Ghneim.

Mr Cook said that he had made every concession to Israel, first dropping a plan to meet Mr Feisal Husseini, the Palestinian official responsible for Jerusalem at Har Homa, and later agreeing to have a briefing from Danny Naveh, the Israeli Cabinet Secretary, at the site of the settlement where 6,000 homes for Jews are under construction. He said that during his visit, which took place in driving rain, he had shaken the hand of Salah al-Tama'ari, a Palestinian leader from Bethlehem.

It was this which enraged Mr Netanyahu. He later cancelled dinner with Mr Cook, saying that the Foreign Secretary had breached a clear understanding. The Israeli Prime Minister said British officials had assured Israel "there would be no contact with the Palestinians in relation to that place. To my regret, they didn't honour it."

In a barbed reference to Mr Netanyahu's withdrawal of the dinner invitation, Mr Cook said he had already eaten more than he needed at four-course dinners during his visit to the Middle East. He added that on reflection he expected the Israeli leader would regret his actions.

Mr Cook's visit precedes an expected American initiative to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu may be launching a preventive strike by reacting so strongly to Mr Cook's visit to Har Homa and criticism of the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank in order to influence US policy.

British officials were adamant last night that they had kept their word.

David Manning, the British Ambassador to Israel, said he had negotiated the visit with Israeli officials. Mr Cook and his party had been stopped at first from going to Har Homa at the time and place they wanted because of an Israeli demonstration. They were then told to go ahead by an Israeli security officer.

After a briefing by Mr Naveh about Har Homa, the settlement under construction in mainly Arab East Jerusalem, Mr Cook had shaken hands but had not been briefed by Mr Tama'ari, a well known and popular Palestinian leader. Mr Cook said: "I shook hands with people who were there."

At a press conference in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Mr Cook was gently derisive over the Israeli reaction. Asked about sanctions on Israel, he said: "The only sanctions tonight are by Bibi Netanyahu."

It was the construction of Har Homa last year which led to the suspension of the peace process. The site is on land conquered from the Arabs in 1967, and drives a wedge between Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian villages around Bethlehem.