Riva del Garda, Italy; 8 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union dispatched its security policy chief to the Middle East on 5 September to help defuse tensions which have culminated in the resignation earlier that day of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
Speaking at the close of an informal EU foreign ministers' meeting in the north Italian spa town of Riva del Garda, Solana said the situation in the region was "critical."
"In the Middle East peace process, we are at the most critical moment lately. Therefore, whatever we can do should be done. The situation -- from the contacts we have had [so far] -- is still very confusing. It is clear that the prime minister has presented his letter of resignation, but we still do not know what the consequences of that will be vis-a-vis the Palestinian [parliament] and President [Yasser] Arafat. Im taking a plane as soon we finish lunch here and [will go to] the region to see if we can help."
Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, speaking for the EU presidency, said the EU and candidate foreign ministers gathered in Italy last weekend had agreed that the bloc must assume "the political initiative" in the whole of the region.
He said that to this end, the EU has called an emergency meeting of the international "Quartet" guiding the peace process in the Middle East, comprising the United States, the EU, the United Nations, and Russia. The meeting will take place in the coming weeks.
Addressing the immediate crisis in the Palestinian leadership, Solana indicated the EU continues to support policies pursued by Mahmoud Abbas. Solana noted Arafat has not yet accepted Abbas's resignation [ed: he has sinced nominated a new prime minister], and supported Abbas's call earlier this week that control over the Palestinian security forces be concentrated in the hands of the prime minister. "We want [from] President Arafat -- and this is well known [to] him because we have been talking to him lately and made this point very clear -- two things. One, that we are for the reunification of the police forces under one person, [and] we would like that person to be a member of the government; and that we have supported in a very clear manner the work of prime minister 'Abu Mazen' [Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas] in the period of time that he has been prime minister -- which has been a little bit over 100 days."
Frattini said the EU will also ask Israel to continue complying with the road map to peace endorsed earlier this year by the Quartet. He said Solana will tell the Israeli government to continue withdrawing and dismantling illegal settlements in Palestinian areas. EU foreign ministers today also repeated their concern about a "security wall" Israel is in the process of building between its territory and the Palestinian areas.
However, judging from past experience, Solana may have difficulty securing an audience with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon has vowed not to meet EU representatives as long as they meet with Arafat, and last week called off a meeting with Solana citing "health reasons."
However, in a gesture of reconciliation, EU foreign ministers today said they had reached a consensus to start considering sanctions against the political wing of the radical Islamic group Hamas. The military wing of Hamas was outlawed by the EU earlier this year.
Frattini said now, in the wake of last months deadly suicide bombing in Jerusalem, claimed by Hamas, all EU and candidate ministers agree Hamas should be considered a "terrorist organization."
The extent and the nature of the sanctions being considered remain unclear at this stage. Some EU countries, led by France and Belgium, have in the recent past opposed extending the ban to the political wing of Hamas, saying that it performs an important social role in providing health care and education. However, diplomats now say France has dropped its main objections, ostensibly to gain concessions in other aspects of the EU's policy towards what is called the "wider Middle East." This expression is gaining increasing currency within the EU and also covers Iraq and Iran.
Italian Foreign Minister Frattini said a special EU body -- called a clearinghouse -- dealing with terrorist organizations will convene in Brussels on 8 September to discuss what he termed the "technical details" of the possible sanctions. He said one likely option was the inclusion of six Hamas top leaders, together with a number of individual organizations under the Hamas umbrella, in an EU "blacklist." This would mean their financial assets within the EU will be frozen.
The EU ministers also discussed a U.S.-sponsored draft UN resolution on Iraq. Both France and Germany appeared to stand firm on their earlier assessment that the U.S. proposal to hand some control of Iraq over to the UN does not go far enough.
Frattini said on 6 September that all EU current and future member states agree the Iraqi people should be handed political control of the country as soon as possible. In parallel, he said the UN and the international community must ensure Iraqs territorial integrity is not violated.
Frattini also said the EU continues demanding a strong role in Iraq for the UN, which he said must work closely together with the interim Iraq authorities.
He said a UN mandate for a multinational force for Iraq may be an appropriate option.