News Analysis: British officials Har Homa visit reignites anger among Israelis

JERUSALEM — Fifty years after Great Britain relinquished the Palestine Mandate, the British are back — and once again, Israel wants them to go away.

Israeli officials likened this week's visit by the British foreign secretary to someone throwing a match on a tinderbox.

So angry were Israeli officials over Robin Cook's visit Tuesday to the controversial Har Homa construction site in southeastern Jerusalem that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a scheduled dinner with him.

Israeli officials said the foreign secretary had reneged on earlier promises not to meet with a Palestinian official at Har Homa. But British officials said Israel had blown the incident out of proportion.

Cook's controversial visit came amid an atmosphere of escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions. With the peace process stalled, the United States considering going public with its own plan to move the process forward and renewed violence in the West Bank, Britain dispatched Cook to the region in an effort to jump-start the peace talks.

During the past three months, Britain, which currently holds the presidency of the 15-nation European Union, has repeatedly expressed its determination to secure a more influential role in Middle East diplomacy. The effort is in part to protect the $2 billion investment in economic aid that E.U. donor countries have made to the Palestinian Authority over the past four years.

But Israeli officials have been strongly resisting the Europeans, whom they perceive as tilting toward the Arab side. They prefer to see the United States serve as mediator.

However, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright voiced support for Cook's visit to the region. She "has great confidence" in Cook's "intentions that he is pursuing at the request of the European Union to visit Israel and to try to promote peace in the region," State Department spokesman James Rubin said Tuesday.

Even before he left London for the Middle East this week, Cook riled Israelis when he appeared to undercut the Jewish state's long-standing insistence on direct, bilateral negotiations with its Arab neighbors.

Pressing the case for Europe's inclusion in peace talks, Cook declared that the process would not succeed "if the parties are left to work out arrangements on their own."

After meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat on Tuesday in the Gaza Strip, Cook criticized Israel's expansion of settlements, which, in his view, includes Har Homa.

At a joint news conference, Arafat praised Cook's visit to Har Homa, saying it was a message to Israel that "Europe cannot accept expansion or building of new settlements."

It was a year ago that Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down after Israel announced plans to construct a Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa and a Palestinian suicide bomber struck in Tel Aviv.

To signal Europe's displeasure with the Har Homa plans, Cook visited the disputed area on Tuesday, though in apparent deference to his Israeli hosts the original plans for the visit were modified even before he left England.

Cook originally had planned to visit the site with a senior Palestinian official, Faisal Husseini. But after Israel objected — Netanyahu threatened to cancel his meeting with the British minister — Cook backed off, and in the end he was accompanied by Israeli Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh.

But after meeting with Naveh, Cook traveled to another location abutting the building site to meet briefly with a Palestinian legislator, Salah al Ta'amri.

Cook denied he had given in to Israeli pressures, saying Israel had pressed him "not to see Jamal Abu Ghenaim," pointedly using the Arabic name for the controversial site. "I am the first European foreign minister to visit the site," he said.

The encounter with Ta'amri outraged Israel, which had insisted that if Cook visited Har Homa, he could only be accompanied by an Israeli representative.

It was in response to the Cook-Ta'amri meeting that Netanyahu canceled a planned dinner with Cook to demonstrate Israel's anger.

"We had a clear understanding with British government officials regarding the visit," Netanyahu told reporters after he cut short a meeting with Cook.

The diplomatic row over Cook's visit came after Netanyahu held a cool meeting earlier this month in London with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who reportedly pressed the Israeli leader to halt settlement activity and withdraw Israeli troops from more West Bank territory.

Cook's arrival coincided with a break in several days of violent clashes in Hebron, that left a 13-year-old Palestinian boy dead and scores of Palestinians and several Israeli soldiers injured.

Samir Kamareh, who was critically wounded in the head by a rubber bullet fired by Israeli soldiers in Hebron, was buried Tuesday.

The youth's death was the first fatality in the unrest triggered by last week's killing of three Palestinian workers by Israeli solders at a roadblock.

Hours after the incident, Netanyahu telephoned Arafat to express condolences over the shootings, and Israeli and Palestinian security forces moved to cooperate in quelling any further disturbances.

A few days later, a group of Jewish settlers entered the Palestinian-ruled part of Hebron and began throwing rocks at buildings and cars. Settlers said they were protesting what they described as the army's failure to protect them from Palestinians who were firing into the town's Jewish enclaves.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces beefed up security in urban centers and on the highways after two weekend bomb blasts that police blamed on Arab terrorists.

A 53-year-old Israeli man lost his hands and was blinded in one eye when a suspicious-looking package he was inspecting blew up in a park near Afula's central bus station.

Five Palestinians were wounded by a bomb blast in eastern Jerusalem that Palestinian officials said was the work of Jewish settlers.