US to echo Cook's tough talk on Israel

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL heard it this week from Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and reacted in fury. Now it may be about to hear very much the same thing, though perhaps a mite more diplomatically, from its closest ally, the United States.

Within the next fortnight, and perhaps sooner, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is expected to launch Washington's latest initiative to revive the search for a Middle East peace settlement. And just as Mr Cook did amid such tumult on his trip to Israel, it is likely to urge a freeze on new Israeli settlements and more troop withdrawals - "redeployment" is the technical phrase - from the West Bank.

For all the point-scoring Tory talk of "diplomatic disaster" after Mr Cook was heckled at Har Homa, and brusquely omitted from Benjamin Netanyahu's dinner arrangements, neither the US nor a single country from the European Union on whose behalf Mr Cook went to the Middle East this week has voiced criticism.

Tory foreign secretaries before him have deemed the settlements "illegal". The French say Israel's reaction was "so exaggerated" it could only reflect some snarl-up in internal Israeli politics.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, who pays his own visit to Israel next month, again expressed his "absolute support" for the Foreign Secretary, and through his spokesman insisted that "notwithstanding the complication which arose", Europe still had a role to play in the search for peace.

Indeed, Mr Cook may have deliberately done Washington's dirty work for it. Nothing has yet emerged about Mrs Albright's new proposals, nor whether they will first be canvassed privately with the Israelis and Palestinians. But every sign is they will resemble those of Mr Cook, when he sketched out Europe's role earlier this month. London and Washington consulted beforehand then, and are poised to do so again now, and before Mr Blair goes to the Middle East.

Their ultimate goal is a bargain: a fair deal for the Palestinians in return for security for Israel. First, confidence building measures, and then a start on the most difficult problems, the so-called "final status" issues which include Jerusalem.

The US has already signalled its displeasure at the continuing settlements and the snail's pace at which Mr Netanyahu is implementing troop withdrawals - to the point where President Bill Clinton refused even to meet the Israeli Prime Minister when the latter was last in the US. Yesterday, the State Department indicated its own broad agreement with Mr Cook's goals, underlining its "great confidence in him personally and his intentions".

The crucial question now, as always, is whether Mr Clinton is willing, or able, to face down his domestic Jewish lobby and exert real pressure. Mr Netanyahu's calculation is that he cannot, especially amid the controversy swirling around the President's private life. EU and British officials recognise that unless he does, there is no hope of moving the process forward.