Inside File: Why Hurd at last took road to Damascus

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The Independent Online
JERUSALEM - 'The in-joke in our Foreign Ministry at the moment,' said a top Israeli diplomat, 'is that if Syria seriously were to to set out conditions for peace, we wouldn't have any negotiators to deal with their proposal because our people are all tied up with the Palestinians.'

Yet Douglas Hurd paid his first visit to Damascus as Foreign Secretary 10 days ago, saying he wanted to help jolly along the Syrian track of the peace process. But as the joke in Shimon Peres's office illustrates, the parties involved are quite content to keep that one on the back burner.

So what was Mr Hurd up to? For two years Andrew Green, the British ambassador to Damascus, had pleaded for Mr Hurd to visit. Nearly all Her Majesty's ambassadors in the region had had the Foreign Secretary over. But Mr Green always had to make to with Mr Hurd's junior colleague, Douglas Hogg.

It is, after all, only three years since Britain resumed relations with Damascus following the breach over the Syrian plot to blow up an El Al airliner leaving London.

But now Britain - having been deprived of any role while the Norwegians were pulling off their coup on the Israel- PLO track - had to make a visible gesture somewhere. Mr Hurd was anyway going to be only half an hour from Syria, in Cyprus for the Commonwealth summit. Off he went, saying he wanted to 'help' rather than mediate.

Could there be an equivalent of a Norwegian-style mediation between the Syrians and the Israelis? 'Assad doesn't want it,' said one Israeli diplomat. 'It is clear that only the Americans can make him do this.'

One of the prices the Syrian President will extract for a deal is a summit with President Bill Clinton, and an end to Syria's place on the US blacklist of terrorist states.

'Peres actually has very high regard for both Douglas Hurd and John Major,' said an Israeli diplomat. 'But what I think the British could really usefully do in this process is put some real pressure on their Saudi friends to end the trade boycott against Israel. But I don't suppose it's likely they will.' With some pounds 15bn riding on Britain's al-Yamama arms contracts with Riyadh, it seems unlikely indeed.

Across the border in Jericho, time is also suspended. Before yesterday's hiccups on the way to the altar of peace, the plan was for Yasser Arafat to take up residence here in mid-January. The interim headquarters of the future president of Palestine is the run-down Hisham Palace Hotel.

The Spanish government has pledged funds to refurbish the hotel. The gesture is an attempt to remind the world that Spain hosted the Middle East peace conference two years ago - which process was sidelined by the canny Norwegians.

Spain is not the only European nation building a profile for itself in Jericho; true to form, the French are first in on the cultural front, with plans to set up an outpost of the Alliance Francaise.

Two teams of Spanish engineers have visited the hotel in the past two weeks to draw up plans for the renovation, which is expected to take three months. By last week, no visible work was in progress. Given the setbacks at Taba yesterday, there is no hurry. 'If everything were running smoothly, Arafat would have arrived in January,' a PLO official said yesterday. 'Now, after these terrible events, things are not running as smoothly as you might have expected.'

The man who offered the Hisham Palace to Mr Arafat is Rajai Abdo, a businessman formerly based in Georgetown, Washington. Mr Abdo thrust aside his career as a car accessories salesman seven months ago to take up Islam and permanent residence in Jericho.

'I've cleaned this place up,' said Mr Abdo with a sweeping gesture towards the Christmas garlands bedecking the main hall in October. 'Before, it was a place of prostitution, drugs, all things evil. The Israeli police turned a blind eye, because it suited them to give the Palestinians a bad name.' Mr Abdo says that after his hotel has been rendered famous by having been Mr Arafat's first residence in Palestine, he will charge dollars 500 ( pounds 340) a night for the presidential suite.