Is being Foreign Secretary still the best job in the Cabinet?

Rupert Cornwell on Robin Cook at har homa
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The Independent Online
AH, the chauffeured limousines and government aircraft, and the round of international conferences. And what can match the exhilarating sense of escape from narrow domestic politics to the great stage beyond, helping Britain "punch above its weight" in world affairs? No wonder the Foreign Office is reckoned the best job in the Cabinet, short of being Prime Minister. But do not be deceived. Day in and day out, it is also the most punishing job in government, barring perhaps that of Prime Minister. The schedule is crammed, the paperwork is monstrous, and the travelling constant. And all the while, a Foreign Secretary becomes aware that his work is mostly conveyer belt stuff. He will leave no monument behind, no testament to those exhausting years of service.

Except for moments like Tuesday, and what will surely be contender for the news picture of 1998: Robin Cook, in the middle of a three-day, six- country swing through the Middle East clinging to his dignity by his fingernails as the rain lashed down on the heights of Har Homa, the hecklers heckled, and hard-faced Israeli security men twice his size helped him to the safety of his car. And to cap everything, cancellation of dinner with Benjamin Netanyahu (though whether Mr Netanyahu is a man you'd want as a dinner companion must be debatable - the things one has to do for Britain).

For all of this Mr Cook is being roasted. He is said to have single-handedly destroyed Europe's chances of mediating in the Middle East. He stands accused of that capital offence for a diplomat of "offending all sides at once". The words "fiasco" and "diplomatic disaster" are much bandied about. Once more we are reminded of Mr Cook's clumsy foray into the Kashmir dispute which half-wrecked the Queen's visit to the India and Pakistan last year. Then there was the brusque dismissal of his wife of 28 years, and the bizarre and demeaning trashing of his former diary secretary during a press conference in Brussels.. And, last but not least, the contrast between between words and deeds in the conduct of New Labour's "ethical foreign policy", in Asia above all.

This time moreover, the Americans are huffing and puffing. State Department spokesmen murmur how Mr Cook's performance has "not helped" what is still referred to in polite circles as the "Middle East peace process". So much for Britain and the EU as honest broker. The day after Har Homa, his speech to the Anglo-Arab Association on 5 March has an almost comical ring. "Europe has an important part in the Middle East peace process ... Tonight I start an intensive European effort to stimulate progress

In fact, Tuesday's collision has been on the diplomatic railway tracks for weeks - certainly since Mr Cook' speech in London a fortnight ago setting out a new and expanded role for Europe in the search for peace in the Middle East. Last weekend, as Mr Netanyahu warned darkly of Europe not understanding the Middle East, his EU colleagues endorsed his idea and Mr Cook insisted he would go to Har Homa. As we all know, he did.

But the Foreign Secretary and the influential pro-Arab lobby in the Foreign Office, the so-called "Camel Corps", are the lesser villains of the piece. Ultimately, blame for the mess lies with the Israelis: not so much the bigots who daub "Anti-Semite" on the walls of the British Consulate, but a right-wing government that insists on its right to build settlements as and when it pleases, and its spokesmen who liken Mr Cook's greeting of a Palestinian official in East Jerusalem to a foreign dignitary on a visit to Britain, travelling specially to Belfast to shake the hand of Gerry Adams. Except that the most powerful foreign dignitary of all, President Bill Clinton, did precisely that in November 1995.

No, the plain truth is that as long as Mr Netanyahu remains prime minister of Israel and pursues his current policies, neither Britain nor the European Union - regarded as incorrigibly pro-Palestinian - nor even the United States, have a hope of brokering a deal acceptable to both sides. Indeed, the Netanyahu snub may be taken as warning to the US of what might happen, should Washington press too hard on the settlements. If Mr Cook's "diplomatic disaster" has illuminated to the world just how inflexible Israel is, then so much the better.

The most serious consequence of the affair could be its impact on Mr Cook's political relationship with the Prime Minister. Next month Tony Blair visits Israel. Like Mr Cook he will be wearing a European as well as a British hat. Inevitably he will face the repercussions of this week's fracas. The word from Downing Street yesterday - and it could not be otherwise - was that the visit would be going ahead, and that Prime Minister backed his Foreign Secretary "totally". In fact, after its lonely support of American threats to use force against Israel's great foe Saddam Hussein, Britain is in a stronger diplomatic position than might first appear.

But let us for a moment suppose differently. Suppose Mr Blair, who in foreign affairs seems happiest when dispensing inoffensive and feel-good platitudes, has been thrown out of his stride by the unseemly episodes of the last 24 hours. Suppose too, as happened with Margaret Thatcher and Francis Pym and later on Geoffrey Howe, the Prime Minister starts to lose confidence in his Foreign Secretary. That is the moment at which the most punishing job in the Cabinet starts to become impossible. We have not reached that point yet. Despite much informed whispering to the contrary, Mr Cook swears he loves his job. But sometimes you sense his heart may not truly lie amid the splendours of King Charles Street. This week's scenes in Jerusalem might hasten the moment of his leaving them.