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Middle East: Hamas Killing Threatens EU's Regional Plans

Yesterday's killing by Israeli security forces of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Hamas organization, has thrown into turmoil ambitious EU plans to promote peace and stability in the Greater Middle East. The plans depend crucially on progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and positive feedback from the governments in the region. Both ambitions now appear very difficult to achieve.

Brussels, 23 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The EU has for months considered ways to develop a common partnership with countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

The ambitious initiative is intended as a response to similar plans being developed separately by Washington. It is also a key element in the renewed EU drive to counter terrorism hailing from the region.

An internal EU document, released yesterday, says the initiative will build on two main pillars.

Its central focus is on fighting unemployment and economic underdevelopment in the Muslim world.
The first is consultation with the countries involved, to create what the text calls a "sense of ownership" among them for the EU plan.

The second is the centrality of continued efforts to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict. EU officials have repeatedly said this is essential for the credibility of any Middle Eastern initiative in the eyes of the governments concerned.

Yesterday's killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is a blow for both plans. Officials say the assassination overshadowed yesterday's EU foreign ministers' meeting.

Britain's Foreign Minister Jack Straw last night urged the Arab world to display restraint in its response, while acknowledging the killing may affect the Arab response to EU plans.

"This killing was unjustified, and I also -- and so do my colleagues inside the foreign ministers' council -- believed it was impolitic. What we have to try to ensure is that there is nonetheless as calm a response as is possible in the Arab world, because there is an important agenda for the Arab world and the Arab League at its summit at the end of the month."

The EU document specifically says the next three months were meant to be spent in close consultations with the countries of the region before the bloc formally adopts the initiative at its June summit.

The plans cover the area stretching from Mauritania to the Gulf, taking in both Iraq and Iran. They leave out Afghanistan and Pakistan, which both feature in similar U.S. plans.

The document released yesterday says the EU intends to work closely with the United States, NATO, and the United Nations. However, it rules out a merger with a similar U.S. initiative known to be in preparation. Instead, the EU will continue to pursue its own individual strategy, while working together with the United States wherever possible.

The EU plans also put a strong emphasis on building on existing EU cooperation with the region. EU officials in the past have complained that the United States has failed to adequately acknowledge ongoing EU work in the region.

The plan reflects the widely shared belief within the EU that the fight against terrorism must be accompanied by measures to relieve poverty and isolation. Accordingly, its central focus is on fighting unemployment and economic underdevelopment in the Muslim world.

The document says thorough political, economic and social reforms are needed. However, it says, the reforms must be generated from within the societies in question. It also notes that more than half of the region's population is below the age of 18, adding that "political stability requires that these young people can achieve a stake in their society."

Progress toward democracy and respect for human rights, together with a willingness to engage in action against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are said to be key conditions for ties.

The document says the plans will also take what it calls "due account" of the question of Iraq.