The Foreign Office Minister Douglas Hogg will not accompany the Prime Minister, John Major, to Israel on Sunday, defusing a row with Israel over plans to visit Orient House, the PLO headquarters in Jerusalem. The Foreign Office said the change of plan was for other reasons, but the decision to keep Mr Hogg in London is bound to be seen by Palestinians as caving in to Israeli objections.
Earlier this week, Rami Tahboub, head of protocol at Orient House, said Mr Hogg's visit had been decided in talks with the British consulate in East Jerusalem. Yesterday he said that instead they were to receive a courtesy visit from an Assistant Under-Secretary, Andrew Green, who has responsibility for Middle East affairs.
The surprise announcement was made at a briefing by Yehuda Millo, deputy director-general at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, with responsibility for Western Europe. He said Israel's policy was that under the 1993 agreement with the PLO, the foreign affairs of the Palestinian Authority should be conducted from the autonomous areas of Jericho and Gaza.
The Foreign Office says the decision not to send Mr Hogg was taken before the dispute over his visit to Orient House was publicised.
Orient House , a pretty but largely empty building a hundred yards from the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem, has become sensitive in Israeli politics. Right-wing members of the Knesset portray it as a centre of PLO activity and one group claimed that Islamic Jihad used the office fax machine.
Mr Major arrives in Jerusalem leading a team of top businessmen. He will be only the second head of state to see the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, in Gaza. Britain is Israel's third largest export market.
The Israeli ambassador to the UK, Moshe Raviv, said: "The big impetus, I would say, was in the last three years. This was a special growth after the Oslo agreement and the beginning of the peace process."
Few diplomatic results are expected from Mr Major's visit or from that of the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who arrived in Israel from Cairo yesterday on the second leg of a Middle East tour. He met the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, but is said to lack new proposals to bridge the gap between Israel and Syria.
Earlier, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, caused a stir at a meeting at the Erez crossing point between Israel and Gaza, when he called Mr Arafat "Ra'ees", Arabic for president. Israeli officials usually address the PLO leader as "Mr Chairman," emphasising there is no Palestinian state, so no Palestinian president.
"I want to thank Mr Peres. This is the first time he calls me President," Mr Arafat said in English with a broad smile.
Mr Peres said the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel will be increased from 15,000 to 22,000.