Cook begins Israel visit keen to show he can be well-trained house guest

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The Independent Online

With the air of a man on his very best behaviour, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday began a three-day visit to Israel in which he is determined to expunge the memory of his last disastrous foray to this divided land.

With the air of a man on his very best behaviour, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday began a three-day visit to Israel in which he is determined to expunge the memory of his last disastrous foray to this divided land.

Gone is the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and, with it, Mr Cook's entourage hopes, any risk of a repetition of last year's embarrassing events that led to the Israelis withdrawing the Foreign Secretary's dinner invitation to the premier's high table, and left them simmering with indignation for months afterwards.

This time, keen to be seen as making an encouraging show of support to the new government of Ehud Barak, Foreign Office officials were yesterday emphasising the change in atmosphere. The contrast with last time was "too strong for words", said one British official.

Although Mr Cook responded sharply to suggestions that his visit was coloured by the events of last year - Israel accused him of breaking an agreement by staging a high-profile meeting with a Palestinian official in Jerusalem - the Foreign Secretary was certainly making all the right moves yesterday from Israel's viewpoint. He paid a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, made a courtesy call on President Ezer Weizman, held talks with his counterpart, David Levy, and was due to attend a private dinner with Mr Barak.

He also paid a visit to the tomb of Yitzhak Rabin, in the week after the fourth anniversary (by the Jewish calender) of the prime minister's assassination, and symbolically placed a pebble on his memorial. Diplomatic showbiz it may be, but the Israelis will have taken note.

The behind-the-scenes spin from this trip is that Britain is keen to support the peace process. This is deemed to have revived under Mr Barak, who appears to have convinced much of the international community that he shares little of Mr Netanyahu's hardline and uncompromising nature.

The truth is, of course, much subtler. Even a cursory glance at the region reveals that Mr Barak has far to go if he is to satisfy Palestinian aspirations. In recent weeks, he has, in effect, endorsed the building of 30 new settlements on the West Bank since the Wye Accord. And his orders to remove a dozen other hilltop outposts has a decidedly symbolic flavour.

Elsewhere, Israel has gone on building apace in more permanent Jewish towns within the occupied territories, establishing "facts on the ground" ahead of the permanent status talks. And Mr Barak remains determined that Jerusalem will be Israel's eternal and undivided capital.

Today Mr Cook will travel to Gaza to meet Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, brandishing suggestions that Britain and the European Union offer the Palestinians a "peace dividend" in the form of investment and trade opportunities. But he will not only need to be on his best behaviour; he will also need a large dose of optimism.

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