Leading article: A short round of applause

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHAT shall we do about Robin Cook?

Last week our Foreign Secretary gave such offence to Israel's prime minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, that he cancelled his dinner with Mr Cook. Not every visitor to Israel would think that a punishment, but it was clearly a diplomatic incident. It let his predecessor, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, sneer that Mr Cook did not have the character to be Foreign Secretary, and the more patrician kind of commentator deliver lessons in elementary diplomacy to New Labour's new man at the Foreign Office.

Mr Cook's alleged offence was to have broken the agreed terms of his visit to the Jewish settlement under construction at Har Homa, and before assessing what the episode tells us about Mr Cook's fitness for a great office of state, we ought to recall what actually happened. The British government, along with its EU counterparts, has long opposed the policy of settlement on land expropriated from the Palestinians as a cruel provocation. Mr Cook, in choosing to visit the controversial site in East Jerusalem, on territory annexed by Israel in 1967, agreed that he would be accompanied, not by Palestinian officials as he originally intended, but by a high- ranking Israeli delegation. It appears to be common ground that Mr Cook agreed not to hold any official briefing meetings with Palestinians while he was there. Nevertheless, during the visit Cook shared a few moments' conversation with Salah Ta' amari, a Palestinian legislative council member, from Bethlehem. This was judged by the Israeli authorities to be unacceptably provocative and, while he probably did not go hungry, it cost Mr Cook his dinner.

But his opposition to the settlements conforms not only to opinion in the European Union - of which, given Britain's presidency, Mr Cook was also a representative - but also to that of the US. Israel's policy towards settlements has also been condemned by successive Conservative Foreign Secretaries. The objection therefore to Mr Cook is not that he is wrong to pursue the policy, but that he was undiplomatic or bad-mannered, or both. This judgement is based on a misunderstanding of geopolitics, and, perhaps, of what Foreign Secretaries are for. One of the most frequent criticisms made of Britain's recent unequivocal support for the US stance against Iraq - not least from some of her EU partners - was that the States and allies had one rule for Iraq and another for Israel. So they did, and rightly so. There is an inescapable moral distinction between Iraq and Israel. For Israelis, Israel is a proper democracy.

One powerful reason why the West ought to be critical of Mr Netanyahu's government is the deep admiration that exists for Israel. We criticise it fiercely because we believe it shares our basic values. This feeling is especially strong in the Labour Party. If ever there was a time for Britain to make it clear to her European partners, to the Arab world and to Israel, that she feels the settlements policy betrays the values we have come to admire, it is now. The policy remains an obstacle to peace.

In the media age, it is sometimes necessary to make points of this kind by using means that are rather more public than the secure telegram or the private audience. Diplomacy may be a fine art, but it has consistently failed to influence Mr Netanyahu, and it is not dishonourable to try something a little noisier. Nor are elected foreign ministers the same as diplomats. Mr Cook's cheeky - and probably premeditated - conversation with a Palestinian at Har Homa did not conform to the stuffy diplomatic rules, but it probably did more to publicise Israel's deeply objectionable policy than speeches in the Commons or pious EU resolutions can ever do. It was realpolitik.

There is also a whiff of snobbery about some of the criticism of Robin Cook's conduct, a reflection of the particularly English resentment reserved for clever people who do not bother with public school graces. It is striking, therefore, that after all the huffing and puffing, the most patrician and High Tory of recent Foreign Secretaries did not join the chorus of criticism. Douglas Hurd voiced his sympathy for Mr Cook for confronting a policy which is clearly wrong. Our judgement is that when the fuss has died down, Mr Cook's visit to Har Homa may prove to have helped rather than hindered the long, frustrating search for compromise and harmony in the Middle East.

So what do we do about Mr Cook? Why not a short round of applause?