Cook wins friends in Syria and Lebanon

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The Independent Online
A BELLOW of thunder heralded the approach of Robin Cook, Middle East peace-maker extraordinary, hero of Har Homa and political descendant of Lord Arthur James Balfour. In the Lebanese foreign ministry, a hush fell as the Briton who lost his dinner invitation with Benjamin Netanyahu took his diminutive place before the microphones alongside the very tall Lebanese foreign minister, Faris Boueiz.

Having stood up to the might of the Israeli settlers, Mr Cook had just come from the halls of power in Syria where the Lion of Damascus - President Hafez el-Assad - congratulated him on the stand taken by the European Union in the Middle East. They had discussed Israel's offer (or threat, depending on your view) to stage a unilateral withdrawal from its occupation zone in southern Lebanon.

Mr Cook and his crocodile of dark-suited FO experts, of course, understand all too well how the Syrians feel. If Israel withdraws from southern Lebanon but stays in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, it might be able to persuade the world that it wants peace while keeping Golan - and without a war in southern Lebanon, the Syrians would not be able to encourage the Hizbollah to kill more Israeli soldiers and thus put further pressure on Israel to leave Golan. But that was not what Mr Cook said.

So what did Mr Assad tell Mr Cook? Our Foreign Secretary told The Independent:

"I think it is fair to say that they [the Syrians] do not themselves see a realistic prospect of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. Were such a unilateral withdrawal to take place, that is a matter for the Israeli government. I think that if there were to be any discussion about the terms of that withdrawal, they [the Syrians] would, of course, expect the Syrian track to be part of that discussion, and we all want to see progress on that same track."

It was not difficult to see how the Middle East must tremble when Mr Cook speaks. Lord Balfour would have been proud.

Blair to risk wrath

Tony Blair may visit some of the disputed territories in Israel next month in spite of the anger caused on Tuesday by the visit by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, writes Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Mr Cook of breaching an agreement about not meeting any Palestinian official when he visited the Israeli settlement of Har Homa, known to Palestinians as Jebel Abu Ghneim.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said Mr Blair would not be visiting the same settlement as Mr Cook. Mr Blair will be visiting Israel around 21 April.