17 April 2004 -- There's been a mixed European response to Israel's unilateral peace plan that received U.S. support this week.
In a statement issued today after a meeting of foreign ministers, the European Union said the Israeli plan could be a "significant step" on the road to peace in the Middle East.
But EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten said newfound U.S. support for the plan risked inflaming Arab opinion.
In a policy reversal, U.S. President George W. Bush this week endorsed Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral plans.
They envisage pulling Israelis out of Gaza but keeping parts of the occupied West Bank, as well as dismissing the right of Palestinian refugees to return to what is now Israel.
There was support, too, yesterday from Bush's biggest European ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"We welcome the Israeli proposal to disengage from the Gaza and parts of the West Bank. We want the Quartet [of Mideast peace brokers] to meet as soon as possible to discuss how it can support the Palestinian Authority in particular, economically, politically, and in respective security to respond to that offer," Bush said during a U.S. visit.
The endorsement from Washington drew outrage in the Arab world -- as did Bush's statement that it is unrealistic to expect Israel to pull out from all land captured in the 1967 war.
Today the EU said a pullout from Gaza "could represent a significant step towards the implementation of the 'road map,'" the peace plan endorsed by the United States, the EU, the UN, and Russia.
The ministers said the road map is the only way to end the conflict and achieve a settlement to create a Palestinian state living in peace beside Israel.
Today saw demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The protests were to mark Palestinian prisoner day, an annual event for an estimated 6,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. But they were fueled by anger of Bush's endorsement of Sharon's plan.
EU Commissioner Patten said U.S. support for the plan had created a lot of damage. He said many Palestinians will believe their aspirations for a two-state solution have suffered a serious setback.
"That's not very good," Patten said, "if you want to encourage moderation in the Palestinian community."