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EU: Palestinian Prime Minister In Brussels To Rally Support For Mideast Peace Process

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei wrapped up a two-day visit to Brussels today intended to rally European Union support for the road map to peace in the Middle East. However, EU officials appeared wary to offer concrete suggestions as to how precisely the stalled peace process can be revived.

Brussels, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Appearing at a news conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei today, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, avoided detailed comments on how the Middle East peace process can be restarted.

Noting that the future looks "pretty dark," Solana merely said the EU would like to "contribute to hope." Qurei said he was in Brussels looking for a "breakthrough." He lobbied for a more active role for the EU in the "Quartet" -- also comprising the United States, the United Nations, and Russia -- which is tasked with overseeing the peace process.

Solana today cautioned against hopes of an immediate breakthrough: "I know the frustration that we have about the implementation of the road map. Everybody has to make an effort to see it put on the rails. Now, we have talked about some measures, immediate measures, that could be taken rapidly, implemented rapidly, to see if with smaller steps we can arrive at a big jump."

Solana said he will attend an Arab League summit in early March, and promised EU support to the initiatives -- as yet unidentified -- that may come.

An EU official, speaking privately, indicated to RFE/RL that a renewed U.S. effort to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority remains "vital" to revive the peace process.

Joint EU efforts are also seen as being hampered by recent uncoordinated initiatives launched by member states such as Germany. Qurei today said the international community must begin applying greater pressure on Israel: "We are ready to implement all our commitments as stated in the road map. I believe [to implement] the road map, as Mr. Solana said, it [takes] immediate measures, first to alleviate the suffering of the people, the Palestinian people, to alleviate the suffering of all of those who are under siege, to give free movement to the people in the West Bank and Gaza and to stop all kinds of [actions] that will touch the dignity of the Palestinian territory."

Qurei particularly stressed long-standing Palestinian criticism of the Israeli security barrier under construction, which in parts encroaches on Palestinian territory: "I'm sure that everybody knows about the wall, which they call a security fence, and I can -- in front of you, I can say -- it is not for security. If it is for security, it can be built, constructed, on the Israeli territory, and then we are not against it. We cannot do anything. This is their territory. They can build it."

He also said Israel must refrain from moving settlers withdrawn from the Gaza sector to other occupied areas.

Solana today said the EU supports this Palestinian demand. He said any Israeli withdrawal from Gaza must take place in coordination and dialogue with the Palestinian Authority. He also warned that the Gaza settlements, if dismantled, must not be rebuilt in the occupied West Bank, as this would violate the road map.

Responding to a question from a reporter, Solana indicated the EU is ready to contemplate Qurei's request for an international-peacekeeping force to monitor the Gaza sector after an Israeli withdrawal: "We would like to have, whatever happens in this line of action that we're talking about -- the withdrawal from Gaza -- to be in the direction of the road map. That means that it is not something which is separated from something which is more global, which is, I think, taken in the spirit of the road map. In that context, we will be open to discuss any possibility that is necessary, including the one that you mentioned."

The anonymous EU official quoted above said the bloc's role in the region remains limited. He said that whereas each of the EU's rotating presidencies has organized high-level visits to the Middle East in the past, this practice has been discontinued for a while now.

The official indicated this is because the Israeli side refuses to meet EU officials who have previously met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He said any EU mission must have access to both sides.

The EU's special envoy to the Middle East, Belgian diplomat Marc Otte, has yet to meet any Israeli ministers since his appointment last summer.

The EU source also said the bloc's generous financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority is in "trouble." He said the Palestinian side has been unable to comply with the strict EU reform benchmarks tied to aid, and that the backlog currently extends to 40 million euros.

An internal EU inquiry into the alleged abuse of earlier aid is expected to issue its report in the next few weeks. However, EU officials say no evidence has been found so far of the bloc's funds being passed on to terrorists.